Dante Cunningham returned to Target Center on Friday night to play a game for the first time since April.
It might just seem like something closer to a lifetime.
Nine months after he was arrested for felony domestic assault and more than five months after charges were dropped, the former Timberwolf came back to the arena where he played the past two seasons and helped New Orleans win 92-84.
The outcome extended the Wolves’ home losing streak to 10 games, dating to a Dec. 10 victory over Portland, and it pushed the Pelicans back over .500 at 22-21.
It also served as a reminder for all that has happened in Cunningham’s life since late last season, whether he wanted it to be or not.
“Honestly, another gym, another arena,” Cunningham said. “I tried not to think about it too much, but obviously it’s in the back of your mind, being here for two years. But, you know, you’ve got to go play and get a win.”
On Friday, he provided a 14-point, five-rebound, two-steal performance that Pelicans coach Monty Williams deemed vital to his team’s triumph after it started the game trailing 11-1 and 15-5 in the opening five minutes.
Starting at small forward, Cunningham also delivered the defense that limited Andrew Wiggins to a 13-point game on 6-for-16 shooting that Wolves coach Flip Saunders called his rookie star’s worst game in at least five weeks.
“He was a man,” Williams said about Cunningham. “The second half, his energy kind of carried us.”
A mentor when Williams was an assistant coach and Cunningham an NBA rookie together in Portland five years ago, Williams has been influential in giving Cunningham the chance to clear his name and return to a league he entered when the Blazers selected him in the 2009 draft.
Years later, Williams was a believer willing to accept a player who couldn’t find an NBA job last fall, not in the aftermath of the Ray Rice domestic-assault scandal that rocked the NFL and not after Hennepin County authorities in August determined there wasn’t enough sufficient proof to prosecute after Cunningham’s then-girlfriend accused him of choking and threatening her.
“I know Dante, and none of us are prefect,” said Williams, who once attended the same Washington, D.C., high school Cunningham did. “When I heard about the things that were said about him, I trusted my relationship with him. I was saddened he was accused of something he didn’t do and it hurt his career. We thought about helping our team more than anything else. It was an unfortunate situation for all involved.”
In October, Cunningham lived in a motor home near Penn State, where he worked out while waiting for an NBA team to call. The Pelicans did, signing him as a free agent in early December to play out of position on a team that already had blossoming superstar Anthony Davis and savvy Ryan Anderson at power forward.
On Friday, he started for a team missing injured Anderson and Jrue Holiday and started for a coach he considers the right fit for another chance.
“It feels like it,” Cunningham said. “He’s a great coach, great person. He’s someone I looked up to as a rookie, who showed me how to be a professional in this league.”
Booed and heckled some during the Wolves’ final games before his contract expired last summer, Cunningham said he’s thankful for every day back in the NBA.
“Of course, every game,” he said. “I appreciate a lot of things nowadays. Every day is a blessing for me. I’m just blessed to be here.”