CHICAGO – Sophie Cunningham’s experience could’ve been over.
Her West team lost the McDonald’s All-American Game 89-87 Wednesday night at the United Center. But Cunningham wasn’t done.
She needed to see Bradley Godish, the 4-year-old boy with leukemia whom she met Sunday at a Ronald McDonald House visit.
Cunningham, the Rock Bridge senior and first McDonald's All-American from Columbia, had already soaked up so many moments on this temporary national stage. After she finished second in an ESPN-televised 3-point shootout Monday and gained hundreds of social media followers, she replied to many complimentary tweets.
She had already seen the boy once. At halftime Wednesday, Cunningham stopped warming up and ran from the three-point line, past the bench, under the red rope sectioning off the court from the stands and up a few rows so that she could greet Bradley, that 4-year-old boy she'd met three days prior.
“We’re playing for the kids at the Ronald McDonald House,” she said after she exited the locker room in her McDonald’s letterman jacket. “... You have to remember why you’re here and who you’re playing for because there’s a lot of kids that don’t get that great opportunity that we did.”
Before making her way to the United Center skybox, she visited with her more than 30 friends, family and coaches who were there in full force, dressed in bright green shirts with yellow lettering that read “McSoph.”
She had to stop multiple times before she got to them, though. A young girl asked Cunningham to sign her hat. Then another girl did the same. Some doting teenage boys asked Cunningham to take a selfie with them. She accepted each request.
“If you don’t make the most out of the opportunity,” she said, “it’s kind of a waste.”
After she visited with family and friends, she was back in the United Center belly. She walked briskly down the concrete hallways toward a service elevator that would take her the arena's second floor.
From there, she made her way to a suite to be with Bradley and his father, Brian Godish.
“I brought my jacket in case you wanted to wear it,” Cunningham said in a soft voice to Bradley.
Bradley smiled wide.
They watched the boys game being played on the court below. After one fancy play, Cunningham turned and grinned at Bradley. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” she asked cheerily.
Bradley said he was rooting for the white team. Cunningham said she'd do the same.
A bit later, Brian Godish handed Cunningham a gray shirt that read “bradleystrong,” with a cancer ribbon in place of the “l.” Godish said his wife had a list of people she wanted to give the shirts to.
“Sophie was No.1 on that list,” Godish said.
Cunningham, who said if she become a professional athlete she’d like to host basketball camps through Fellowship of Christian Athletes, had not been involved with the Ronald McDonald House prior to the All-American festivities. Now, she plans to get involved with the local house in Columbia.
By choosing to play at Missouri, she’ll remain in her hometown. She begins college with a status unlike any other Tiger women’s basketball player. She’s the program’s first McDonald's All-American and is marketed as such with tweets from the team's official account. She figures she might as well embrace it.
“Wow," Godish thought as Cunningham visited the Ronald McDonald House on Sunday. "She gets it.” While other All-Americans talked among themselves or watched an NBA game on TV, Cunningham made an effort to reach out to the kids.
She told Godish at the visit that she’d write Bradley’s name on the sneakers she wore throughout the week, and she did.
He thanked her for how she embraced his son.
In the suite Wednesday night, he didn’t want to keep her long, he said. But she said she didn’t want to leave.
“I’m so glad I got to meet you guys,” Cunningham told Brian Godish just before she finally made her way out of the luxury suite after 20 minutes. “It really has changed my perspective.”
There in the skybox, the trip to Chicago was made perfect.
Supervising editor is Seth Boster.