CHICAGO — Jon Primus wanted a picture.
His niece, Sophie Cunningham, was warming up for the Powerade Jam Fest — the basketball skills competition that took place Monday night as part of the McDonald’s All-American Game festivities. But Primus asked Cunningham to stop for a second and turn toward him, so he could snap a frame of her in her purple All-American uniform.
The Rock Bridge senior, Columbia’s first McDonald’s All-American, shot into a quick pose with an easy smile and slight tilt of her neck — almost as if it were automatic.
She’s been the subject of plenty of her uncle’s photos recently. He wants to document Cunningham’s whole experience.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” said Primus, who wore matching T-shirts with his sister, Paula Cunningham, Sophie’s mother. Green and gold ones with the Bruins star’s No. 3 on both sides, last name on the back, “McSoph” on the front.
Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel watched with Cunningham's family from the bleachers of the Gerald Ratner Athletic Center at the University of Chicago as Sophie competed against fellow All-Americans. They documented plenty of it on their phones, including when Cunningham finished second in the 3-point shootout.
More Sophie supporters, including her father, sister and cousins, headed to Chicago from Columbia on Monday. By the time the ball tips Wednesday for the actual game, there will be more than 30 people at the United Center cheering on Cunningham — many in the “McSoph” shirts her mother designed.
The nationally televised exhibition will be a continuation of the grand support system Cunningham has had during her athletics career.
“A lot of families might not be able to make this trip, or get there for whatever reason, and thankfully we are,” Paula Cunningham said. “We’re just trying to make the most of it.”
Sophie’s family was often the loudest of any fans at her Rock Bridge games. Even during a practice session Monday in Chicago, Primus yelled for Sophie to get back on defense during a 2-on-1 drill. When his niece assisted on a basket a bit later, he rifled a fist into the air in celebration.
The family is competitive, Paula Cunningham said. And there’s a “fine line” between cheering for Sophie and frustrating her.
“We’re not real good at knowing where that line is most of the time,” Paula Cunningham said.
So they take their cues from the star guard, who will glare in her family’s direction when they’ve gone too far. But Paula Cunningham said her family will never stop being vocal in its support of Sophie. And Sophie doesn’t want them to.
“It’s how she is,” Sophie said of her mother. “She will never change. Got to love her.”
Paula Cunningham said she thinks a large reason her daughter chose to sign with Missouri is that she didn’t want to leave the comfort of her support system — her family, her Rock Bridge coaches, her friends from adolescence. She thrives in front of people she knows.
Sophie, as a result of her immense success, is somewhat of a public figure in Columbia. Children ask her to pose for pictures with them. They occasionally want her autograph. During her time in Chicago, Cunningham is producing daily reports of her experience for ABC/KMIZ.
Paula Cunningham has received many texts, phone calls and emails recently from people telling her how proud they are of her daughter. She said Sophie’s relationship with the community is a “two-way street.” Columbia embraces Sophie, and Sophie embraces the support.
The girl who said she’s “definitely not a goodie-goodie” knows she has to be cognisant of what posts on social media and how she behaves in public. During the national broadcast of the skills competition, she gained more than 200 followers on Twitter and became a national trending topic.
A group of Missouri students sat behind one of the players’ benches, and Cunningham spent part of the night talking to them. They cheered her on.
But the biggest cheers the Columbia girl received had nothing to do with basketball.
Paula Cunningham challenged Sophie to a surprise mother vs. daughter dance-off during a commercial break. The mom said it was another example of encouraging her daughter to always put herself out there and give things a try.
“What the heck?” Sophie joked afterward.
With the whole gym watching, she popped and dropped, much to the amusement of her fellow all-Americans, some of whom bent over in laughter.
Announcers called Paula Cunningham the winner. But Sophie got something out of it, too.
A woman in the stands yelled, “I love you, Sophie!”
Another supporter for the girl who already has so many.
“I couldn’t tell you how many text messages I have, how many people are so proud of me. It really is touching," she said. "It’s kind of rewarding in a way. Knowing I’m doing something right and my family is doing something right.”
Supervising editor is Seth Boster.