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What If Ben Affleck Had Stayed on the Kansas Basketball Team in ‘The Way Back’?

Jack Cunningham had a full ride to play for the Jayhawks at the same time Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, and Jacque Vaughn were there. Here’s what would’ve happened if he hadn’t quit.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first trailer for The Way Back was a Bon Iver–scored feelings fest that told us a fair amount about Ben Affleck’s lead character, Jack Cunningham—great high school basketball player, drunkard, asked to come back and coach basketball at his old high school. But every movie now has more than one trailer—there’s the teaser trailer, then the official trailer, then the second and third trailer, and on and on. These days, there are even trailers for trailers. So it’s essential that a film’s trailers work in concert with one another, that they fill out more and more of the world and the mood and give you a better sense for what you’re committing to when you sit down to watch. The second trailer for The Way Back expanded on the first, let it all hang out, and added more backstory. But most importantly—to me, at least—it leads off with a massive drop of information. One of Affleck’s players says, “You know what my dad told me last night? He said that you got a full ride to Kansas, and you just quit. Why?” Then we get a shot of some banners:

Warner Bros.

You simply cannot give me this string of information—Ben Affleck potentially hooping at Kansas—and not expect me to concoct an entirely alternate universe based on it.

I figure those back-to-back state titles in 1994 and 1995 are Cunningham’s junior and senior seasons. That would have him arriving in Lawrence, Kansas, as a freshman prior to the 1995-96 season. That’s the same year Paul Pierce arrived on campus. In this alternate history, Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is part of those mid-to-late-’90s Roy Williams Jayhawks teams with PP and Raef LaFrentz and Scot Pollard and Jacque Vaughn.

Those teams dominated the Big 8, then the Big 12, but never got the ring they wanted. Here’s what happened in the NCAA tournament during each of the four years Cunningham would’ve been in the Sunflower State. This is obviously assuming he doesn’t redshirt, which I’m doing, because that’s easier and less work.

  • 1995-96 (no. 2 seed in the West): Lost in the Elite Eight
  • 1996-97 (no. 1 seed in the Southeast): Lost in the Sweet 16
  • 1997-98 (no. 1 seed in the Midwest): Lost in the second round
  • 1998-99 (no. 6 seed in the Midwest): Lost in the second round

And look, I’m pretty stupid, but I start thinking things, you know? I start asking questions. Questions like: If Cunningham had been part of those KU teams, would he have been the spark they needed to stave off the upset in the Sweet 16 against that Bibby-Simon Arizona squad in ’97? Is it possible he outduels Cuttino Mobley in the second round of the tournament in ’98? Even in what would have been his freshman year, 1996, Kansas is the 2-seed. They get bounced in the Elite Eight by an overachieving Syracuse team, go home before anyone expects them to. Does Cunningham make enough plays? Does he give the Jayhawks enough juice to swing the game? With Cunningham rocking and chalking for four years, does Roy have a KU title or two in the trophy case to go along with his three at Carolina? Does he ever even leave for Chapel Hill in the first place?

Now, in 1999, what would have been his senior year unless it’s some kind of Wally Szczerbiak scenario—which is enormously fun to type and say—that roster’s not winning anything. It would have been cool to see him play with Jeff Boschee, though. And maybe then Cunningham’s the bridge between those great Jayhawks teams above and the arrival of Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, and Drew Gooden in 1999-2000. What a class. Interestingly, it would be two more years until Kansas would reach its pinnacle as a basketball Goliath and add the most electric player in college basketball history to its ranks—North Crowley’s finest, Keith Langford. Wore J’s like no one else. These were the types of things I thought about, the types of questions I asked myself after I watched the trailer. Then I saw the movie.

The Way Back pokes and pries at the tear ducts for its full 108-minute runtime. It plays the bongos upon the ducts. Whac-A-Mole. Slapjack. Choose the duct metaphor you like best, but this movie just keeps on punching them until they open. Affleck’s giving you the good stuff. You believe him. Sometimes his cheeks are the color of firetrucks. The movie is moving and Affleck’s moving in it. He’s working the full range of his instrument. Benny’s coming at you subdued, almost paralyzed, in a drunken haze, and then these violent bursts of sound come out of him in one way (basketball) or another (everything else). At one point, he’s watching a UCLA basketball game on a bar television and looks like the saddest man in the world. But this isn’t about any of that. This is about the month of March. This is about cutting down the nets. This is about championships.

To answer the questions above we have to first consider what kind of player Jack Cunningham was—the profile, the scouting report, the person. There’s very little of Affleck actually doing anything with a basketball in the movie. There’s one picture that’s attached to a Player of the Year plaque in the trophy case at the high school. The photo is of him at the peak of his jumper, about to take a shot. There’s a guy guarding him getting up a pretty good contest but you get the feeling that’s not going to matter. Cunningham’s release point is high. Hand to God, the first thing I thought when I saw the picture was Dirk Nowitzki. I know that’s ridiculous, but it’s what I thought. And for pretty much the rest of the movie, all we ever get from Cunningham are a few dribbles here and there. No shot attempts. I don’t remember many passes even. But we get hints at who he was as a player.

There’s the full ride to play at Kansas—difficult to get, as I understand it. We also hear Cunningham had 47 in one game, 55 in another. Jack’s going for a double nickel. He’s lighting it up, you understand? We hear he’s 6′4″. So, getting a full scholarship to go play at a blue blood—you figure this is pure, straight, combo guard behavior. Score-first point-guard, pulling-from-all-over-the-floor behavior.

Gyms were packed to see Bishop Hayes play. A hundred kids tried out for the team. As a coach, Cunningham takes his alma mater to play the number one team in the state. That team’s head coach says he was the best high school player he ever saw. Near the end of the film we get a description of Cunningham’s game from a play-by-play man during a radio broadcast and Basketball Batman is described as having been, quote, “tough, intense, competitive.” All the good white-guy buzzwords are there; the only thing missing is “gritty.” Finally, late in the movie, there’s a scene where we get to see Affleck getting up some shots. It’s the golden hour and he’s at a court overlooking the ocean. Palm trees are like pom-poms there and he’s shooting jumpers, handling it a little bit between shots. Affleck’s hitting them consistently enough. 18-footers. The high release point is still there.

Let’s consider the type of coach he is. Certainly, when most coaches were players, they didn’t all practice what they might now, as the head man, preach. Just because somebody played one way and valued certain things doesn’t mean that they’re going to coach to that end all the time. For instance, I was at the NBA combine this past offseason and Kendrick Perkins was there as an assistant coach for one of the scrimmage teams. Not once—and I paid close attention to this—did he punch anyone and scream, “I’m the only silverback here!” We age. We rust. We try to relax.

Cunningham’s a numbers guy. In the first practice he calls out their center for shooting too many 3s. He asks his assistant (a pristine Al Madrigal) to read off the kid’s percentage from the year before. It’s 26 percent, which is, you know, not what you want. Cunningham, to a point, desires efficient looks for his players, but he’s not a slave to the analytics. During one particular end-of-game sequence, he has to draw up a play. Initially, Cunningham calls the number of a player other than the kid who is obviously his best player. They break the huddle, Affleck looks a little concerned, then he pulls the best player aside and tells him to forget the play and shoot the ball himself. You could call this an embrace of hero ball. I choose to see it as a steadfast belief in talent and will—things all successful players need.

Some other things we know about Cunningham as a coach: When he goes to his first practice with the team, he hears that their center is 6′3″, and his first response is “You guys must get murdered on the boards.” He runs a motion offense, implores his guys to set more screens. It should probably be said that for the most part, this movie hammers the coachspeak and mind-set you would find in a small-town seventh grade basketball coach. Speaking of, during a timeout, and with his head about to explode, Affleck shrieks, “I will not coach a team that has been out-toughed!” There are backdoor actions out of some of their sets. He decides to “make our lack of size an advantage,” and the team starts running stairs and pressing and winning. There’s talk of doing “all the little stuff.” There’s a set called the Atlanta set. It’s mentioned once. We never see it. His timeout technique is unbelievably intense and suggests that he didn’t have to call a lot of them in his playing days? This timeout technique, it’s Affleck making the letter “T” with his hands, the way almost all basketball coaches have done at one time or another, only he’s holding one hand straight up and down and then, you know how a railroad crossing gate comes down? It’s like he’s doing that with his other hand but really fast and super hard and over and over again, like an automatic gate that’s broken and just keeps slamming shut and re-opening. During an especially important game, Cunningham screams, “Keep pressing, trapping, taking charges.” Later, he gets up off the bench and shrieks, “Chips on our fucking shoulders, let’s go!” My point is he’s not reinventing the wheel, but certainly having a good time.

In building this alternate universe, it’s also important to consider the rosters Kansas had back then. Were there even minutes available? How many shots is Cunningham even going to get? In the ’90s we’re still in a world of positions, and I think the movie wants to suggest that he was a point guard. Jacque Vaughn’s got that spot locked down, so is Cunningham coming off the bench? Could he play off the ball, slide over to the 2? The bonkers individual numbers and shooting would suggest yes. That’s a relatively undersized backcourt but Pierce and LaFrentz and Pollard are probably making up for that with their size.

In the loss to Syracuse in ’96, Kansas gets beat by three. Kansas’s starters that game are Vaughn, Pierce, LaFrentz, Pollard, and current Stanford men’s basketball coach Jerod Haase. Haase lays an egg that day: 0-for-9 from the field and 0-for-8 from 3; three points total. Nobody off the Kansas bench does much of consequence. I have to believe Cunningham brings more to the table. Stretches the defense some, gets the ball moving. Maybe if his jumper’s not working he can get into the lane, get other guys involved. They’re winning that game, is what I’m saying.

So let’s think about the rest of that NCAA tournament. Syracuse goes on to the Final Four and beats Erick Dampier and Mississippi State in the national semifinal. In the championship game, the Orange lose by nine to a Kentucky team (Tony Delk! ’Toine! Walter McCarty! Ron Mercer!) that only lost two games all year. Would Kansas have had enough firepower to beat Kentucky? I think Cunningham gets them over the hump. He takes advantage of all the eyes focusing elsewhere and knocks down six 3s to help Kansas win their first national title since the days of Danny Manning. Roy has some jewelry. Let’s move on.

In the loss to Arizona the next year, again they get beat by three, this time by the eventual national champion. Arizona goes on to beat Providence (God Shammgod! Austin Croshere!) in the Elite Eight, North Carolina (Vince Carter! Antawn Jamison! Ed Cota!) in the Final Four, and then Kentucky (Mercer again! Scott Padgett! Jamaal Magloire!) in the national championship. Again I feel that Cunningham does enough to make up the three-point difference to get them past Arizona. It’s the same starters in this game as the year before with the Jayhawks rolling out Vaughn, LaFrentz, Pollard, Pierce, and Haase. Vaughn and Haase both struggle offensively. Pollard puts up a goose egg. Still, they only lose by three. Cunningham picks up the slack, makes some key stops against Michael Dickerson late, Jayhawks advance. I think KU is too much for Providence the next round, and I think they get past UNC (Carter and Jamison were the only two Tar Heels to show up in that national semifinal against Arizona). In the Final, though, Kentucky gets their revenge. The Wildcats fought hard to get back to the championship game after coming up short the season before, and they have their vengeance. The Judd family is stoked. Another banner goes up in Rupp Arena.

On to Cunningham’s junior year. This is Pierce’s last on campus as he declares for the NBA draft after this season. KU’s loss in the ’98 tournament was a stunner. Rhode Island sent them home, winning by five at the Cox Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Cuttino Mobley went for 27. They couldn’t stop him. Pierce and LaFrentz went out swinging with 23 and 22, respectively, but no other Jayhawk reached double figures. Rhode Island beat Bryce Drew and Valpo in the Sweet 16, then had their season end the next round in a two-point loss to Mark Madsen and the rest of the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford then got beat by—guess who—Kentucky by one in the Final Four, then Kentucky beat Andre Miller, Rick Majerus, and Utah in the national title game. If Cunningham’s in the picture, Jack and the guys take down Valpo no problem, and I have to believe they then ride the momentum (remember, at this point they’ve been there before, been through the wars, are well seasoned) and send Madsen back to the house upset. This sets up the third and final installment of Kansas vs. Kentucky for all the marbles. This time it’s Kansas getting revenge. Pierce, LaFrentz, Cunningham? They’re all too much. They bring the championship to Lawrence for the second time in three seasons and go down as three of the most decorated college basketball players in the history of the sport.

The next year Cunningham is left to lead the team on his own. He’s a finalist for the Wooden and Naismith awards and at one point has Kansas ranked number one in the country, but he doesn’t have enough help, and slowly teams start to figure out how to stop him. Box-and-ones, double him as soon as he crosses half court, face guard, full deny—he sees it all. He winds up getting injured late in the year. Eduardo Najera falls on him during a game in Norman and Cunningham messes up his back. His back starts to spasm. The team limps into the tournament. Cunningham tries to play anyway but his effectiveness is limited due to the injury. Kansas gets beat in the second round. He’s selected second-team All-American and is the Big 12 Player of the Year. The next year, he signs with the Phoenix Suns as an undrafted free agent. The back issues scared teams away from him, and his representation, in hopes to protect him, refused to share his medical with any of the teams in the league. He makes the roster and flourishes there as a fan favorite, spends nine seasons with the organization as a reliable three-and-D man off the bench, then is forced into early retirement due to a heart condition. His career averages: 9.4 PTS, 1.7 REB, 1.3 AST, 48 percent FG, 41 percent 3PT, 89 percent FT.

After his playing days are over, he spends a few years in various roles within the Suns’ front office, then transitions into a position at CBS doing studio work and announcing games as a college basketball analyst. He’s never great at the job, though, and is regularly written about as being someone you do not want to call your game. He’s too comfortable on television and despises the formality of speech that broadcasts require. He wants to talk normally, not dress up his language for the audience at home. His conversational tone and refusal to embrace the theatrics of his profession frustrate viewers. He also gets distracted and just starts talking about his dogs. It’s endearing at first, but at a certain point, you know, you’re there to watch the game, not hear about Jack Cunningham’s four cocker spaniels named Nike, Cheetos, Pizza, and Ned.

Now, his life is quiet and happy. He recently discovered Twitter and finds the format very appealing for jokes and observations about the game he’s loved so well for so long. Shortly after finding sobriety, he met the love of his life, Eileen, and they married the same month they met. They have been together for two years and their relationship is one of trust and deep affection. She’s a former Arizona Cardinal cheerleader and the current CEO of Cunningham Galleries. Presently, they have locations in Miami, New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo. They specialize in modern art and mixed media. The Cunninghams mostly split their time between homes in Phoenix and Palm Springs. They have no children; don’t want any. They also have an apartment in Lawrence. Cunningham will be seen around town, walking his dogs, enjoying a smoothie, waving at everyone. Cunningham and Eileen will show up for big home games sometimes, sit courtside, get the students going. Still now, more than two decades after playing his last game as a Jayhawk, you will see kids running around Allen Fieldhouse in no. 24 jerseys. He’s beloved, admired, a hero.

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