WATERFORD - D.J. Cunningham has realized a dream come true.
The 6-foot-10 basketball standout, who played his prep ball at Waterford High and collegiately at UNC Asheville, signed a professional contract on June 11 with the European team Limburg United of the Belgium-Ethias League.
"Since I was a kid, I've always had this dream of one day playing pro ball," said the 23-year-old Cunningham. "Well, I just kept working and working, and now it's happening. I'm going to be paid for something that I've loved doing all my life, and that's play basketball. I'm so excited and looking forward to playing overseas."
Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville
UNC Asheville’s D.J. Cunningham (33) goes up for a shot in a game last winter. The former Waterford basketball standout is headed to Europe to play pro ball for Limburg United in Belgium this upcoming season.
Cunningham, whose agents are Nick Zaccardi and Frank Catapano of Pro Partner Sports Management in Boston, Mass., is scheduled to depart the United States for Belgium next month.
"I report Aug. 15," Cunningham said. "Right now, until I go over there, I'm working at a car dealership here in Asheville (N.C.), conditioning, lifting weights, and playing in pick-up games.
"Also, in a couple of weeks (July 12), I'll be attending a five-year class reunion at Waterford. That's going to be a lot of fun."
The newly formed Limburg United team, which competes in the Belgian top division, is located in Hasselt, Limburg, Belgium. Its colors are red and white, and games are played at the Sporthal Alverberg Arena.
The season is slated to tip off in early September.
"I've been told it's a physical league, and that's fine with me," Cunningham said. "I'll be ready for it."
LU's head coach is 36-year-old Brian Lynch of Point Pleasant, N.J. The manager is 41-year-old Odell Hodge of Old Dominion University.
Along with Cunningham, Limburg United also inked veterans' 6-7 Seamus Boxley of Hoveria (Ukraine), 6-6 Scott Thomas of the Antwerp Giants, and 6-2 Nafis Ricks of Rio Claro (Brazil).
"This is a really good situation for D.J.," Zaccardi said. "He has a no-cut contract, which gives him a little bit of flexibility.
"Belgium is considered one of the highly regarded leagues in Europe. It's very competitive. And, the NBA (National Basketball Association) is very receptive to the players in the league.
"While soccer is No. 1 in the country, the people there are very passionate about their basketball."
A career 1,000 points-plus scorer in both high school and college, Cunningham is expected to be LU's center and rim protector. This past winter at UNC Asheville, he was also a defensive star, averaging 3.6 blocks a game, which was fourth best in the USA. His 98 swats set a school single-season standard.
At the conclusion of Cunningham's senior season at UNC Asheville, he was honored as the school's Male Athlete of the Year. During the winter, he averaged nearly a double-double with 11.6 points and 9.9 boards per contest.
Graduating in early May with a college degree in health and wellness and a business minor, Cunningham was also one of 64 seniors in the country to be invited to play in the 62nd edition of the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament. He had to decline, though, due to a shoulder injury, suffered during a pick-up game in Asheville.
Cunningham was in rehab for the shoulder.
He is currently at full strength., and ready to play pro ball.
"All this goes back to where I came from," Cunningham said. "It's not just my accomplishment, it's also the community's. And, I'd like to say that (Waterford boys basketball coach) Tom Simms has been a great mentor to me."
"I couldn't be happier. Not many people get this opportunity, to play professional basketball."