COLUMBIA — Nerves wracked Sophie Cunningham as she stepped in front of the judges.
Typically, Sophie will only sing for friends and family if they turn their backs to her, put on sunglasses and switch the lights off. But here she was in Kansas City one morning last summer. Trying out for American Idol.
Her performance of Sara Evans' "These Are the Moments" wasn’t bad, the judges said, but she didn’t choose the right song. She didn’t move on in the competition. It was over.
“Dang,” Sophie thought afterward. “Why was I nervous?”
Her? Nervous? This is the same girl who shined in front of thousands of people at Mizzou Arena while leading Rock Bridge High School to four-straight Class 5 girls basketball titles. This is the girl who, Wednesday, will become the first player from Columbia to compete in the McDonald’s All-American Game, an ESPN-televised exhibition in Chicago featuring the top prep basketball players in the country.
Once the singing audition finished, Sophie realized that it was silly to have worried. She had hardly prepared. She went on a whim.
Rejection, she learned that summer, is a part of life. And she didn’t need American Idol to make her; basketball would do that. She’d found plenty of success with it, even on whims.
Like five summers ago, at a different tryout in Kansas City.
Jim and Paula Cunningham always encouraged their daughters to give things a shot. Tae Kwon Do? Sophie earned her black belt at 6 years old. Football? Sophie lettered for Rock Bridge as a kicker this past fall.
Basketball? Although she learned it as a young kid, Sophie's true initiation to the game took place with another "See what it's like" moment.
Lindsey Cunningham, then a rising junior at Rock Bridge, was considering playing for a club basketball team. And Sophie, like she so often had before with her sister, tagged along.
When it was time to get ready for a scrimmage, Lindsey Cunningham asked the club team coach, Joe Erskine, “Do you mind if my little sister plays?” Sophie wasn’t yet standing 6-foot-1 as she does now, but about 5-10. The coach said she still had a “little girl smile on her face.”
Then the players started scrimmaging, and the youngster continued to stand out among players who were up to six years older than her.
She dominated. No nerves in sights, even as she faced off against girls as old as 17.
“I’ll never forget the day,” Erskine said.
Both sisters earned spots in the basketball program.
When Sophie was in eighth grade, she and her mother traveled last-minute to Cincinnati to play in a large tournament with a ninth-grade travel team. Sophie arrived to find she was one of six players on the team. She was also the tallest.
But she and her newfound teammates ultimately finished sixth.
Sophie says when she came to that tryout in seventh grade, she didn’t know what she wanted from basketball. It was around the time she competed in Cincinnati, during her eighth grade year, that Sophie realized she how good she could be. That’s when she fell in love with the sport.
The confidence people see in Sophie on the court now — when she drives into the lane effortlessly, looking like a cross between running back and ballerina at times with her sidesteps, jukes and spins; when she uses her length on defense to force opponents into mistakes; when she skies for rebounds and goes coast-to-coast seemingly as often as she sets up a teammate for a bucket on a pick-and-roll — that confidence began brewing then.
“My coaches believed in me, my parents believed in me and finally I started believing in me a little bit,” Sophie said.
Fast forward to the present — past Sophie and the Bruins’ four-peat of girls basketball state championships, past her 2013-2014 Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year nod and past her school-record 1,983 points for Rock Bridge — and Sophie's outlook on life seems to have paid off: “You kind of just have to put yourself out there and see what happens.”
If she seems to pass milestones ever-so-casually, that’s because the All-American game, Sophie says, is another step toward accomplishing, well, pretty much everything — including singing. American Idol judges be damned. Failures? To Sophie, those are just detours.
Sophie Cunningham wants a lot.
The girl who committed to play basketball for Missouri before she began high school has the same goals now that she did in eighth grade. Play four years at Missouri, play in the conference championship game, bring Missouri women’s basketball to prominence, move on to the WNBA, compete overseas during the American offseason, play a few seasons of professional beach volleyball, then start her music career.
“Throw in a national championship or two too,” Lindsey Cunningham said. “That’s part of her plan as well.”
Sophie sees basketball as a platform for the rest of her life. She thinks she’d like being famous. She entertains the idea of being an actress. She never participated in a theater production at Rock Bridge because basketball created scheduling conflicts, but she views herself as a Will Ferrell-type performer.
With her status, she’d like to host camps for children through Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“I just kind of want to, like, do everything,” she said.
Call it teenage naiveté, and perhaps it is. But consider this is the girl who talked about winning four state titles with her teammate Cierra Porter during their first high school practice and then proceeded to do just that, an accomplishment capped when Rock Bridge beat Liberty in the state final on March 21 at Mizzou Arena.
“I have this like weird confidence,” Sophie said.
Sophie doesn't excel at everything. It took Sophie four attempts to pass her driving permit test, she says. She also struggles with math. Having nailed down her college plans years ago, academics don't interest her much.
And Sophie's biggest athletic failure? That came this past summer in Colorado at the 2014 USA Basketball Women's U18 National Team Trials. She was one of 28 people to arrive at the U.S. Olympic Training Center to try out for the 12-player roster.
She didn’t make it. Coaches put her down as an alternate. They didn’t think she’d asserted herself enough.
For the first time in her basketball career, she wasn’t good enough.
Paula Cunningham, who was in Colorado with her daughter, remembers Sophie’s disappointment. Sophie cried. It didn’t help that on the plane ride back Sophie sat next to a player who did make the team.
“It sucked,” Sophie said of the trip to Colorado. “It really did suck.”
When Sophie returned to Missouri, she began working with a private coach, Brett Ledbetter. At their first meeting, he asked Sophie to write a “Thank You” letter to the tryout. He wanted her to repurpose the pain. He needed her, he said, to “process it as an opportunity, rather than a threat.”
She didn’t want to put the words on paper at first, to have them live anywhere but her head. But once she did, she felt relieved. She thanked herself for growing as a person and as a player.
She learned through that failure. Having encountered so much success in her life, she discovered how to handle things not going her way.
"When I didn't make the team I was upset and doubting my basketball abilities," Sophie wrote in the letter, "but when I stepped back and look at what I could've done better myself, I knew this was just the beginning."
Sophie’s next goal was to make the McDonald’s All-American Game. She had mentioned the game to her sister for years, and the desire to be an All-American only grew once Sophie returned from Colorado. When the USA team told her she wasn’t good enough, Chicago became a way to prove she was.
“That’s the point in her basketball life that she went from a little girl to a woman,” Erskine, the club team coach said.
When Sophie made the McDonald’s All-American Game roster in January, her motivation didn’t mellow. She told her parents that she needed to cancel her spring break trip to Mexico with her friends, a trip the Cunninghams had helped plan.
Sophie spent what she anticipates being her last spring break ever — meaning she envisions Missouri in the postseason each of the next four years — shooting jumpers with a machine that rebounds and passes the ball back.
If given the choice, Sophie said, she’d rather lie by a pool than practice. Until now.
This time, Sophie pushed herself, even if she thought her break was boring. Even if she did mention to her parents recently that she wished she could’ve gone to Mexico. Even if she did feel left out when she opened Snapchats from her friends.
“Then again,” she said, “none of my friends get this opportunity.”
Sophie is one of just 24 girls in the country to be named a 2015 McDonald’s All-American. Still, she feels the need to prove herself.
She anticipates this week’s game and festivities being fun, but also being just like the national team trials — a series of competitions in which players try to shine individually.
Yes, it’s an exhibition game. But Sophie wants to make herself known. She’ll be playing among soon-to-be college opponents and, she said, possible professional teammates.
“No matter what you’re doing,” she said, “you’re always looking ahead to your future.”
This time, Sophie Cunningham sang for a different reason.
When she was asked to sing at the February funeral of a friend’s mother, Sophie agreed without hesitation. She led the singing at the ceremony with a partner. And, at one point, she sang "Amazing Grace" by herself.
Once again, she looked nervous — entirely different from Sophie Cunningham, The Basketball Player.
Emotions ran through her, but she wanted to sing. And when she wants to do something, she does it.
Her knees swayed slightly. She raised an iPad in front of her face more and more as the song went on, as though she was trying to hide behind it.
She wiped a tear from her cheek.
“It’s very hard to sing when you’re crying,” Sophie told the priest later. But her voice barely quivered.
After the Mass, the priest thanked everyone who was involved. He turned to Sophie with a question.
“Sophie, is there anything you can’t do?”
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.