At 18 years old, neither Colin Borchert nor Tyson Cunningham expected to be playing basketball now, entering their final games at Mississippi State.
Cunningham wasn’t just under-recruited, he wasn’t recruited at all coming out high school. A lifelong musician, he enrolled at MSU with a scholarship to play on the drumline in the Famous Maroon Band.
Out in Arizona, Borchert’s tumultuous life and circumstances didn’t leave him with the highest of expectations as he graduated high school, despite his status as one of the top basketball prospects in the southwest. Best case, he thought he’d be working in a fast food kitchen right now. The scarily realistic worst case, Borchert admitted, was that he’d be in jail somewhere.
How the pair ended up as team captains and the lone seniors for Rick Ray’s team is a story of two very different pasts, but a strikingly similar narrative of support, dedication, love, and of course, basketball.
His freshman year of college out in Arizona, Borchert wasn’t necessarily a bad egg, but he concedes immaturity. He wasn’t living life in a productive manner and his future was growing more and more dark.
“I saw bad things coming,” he said. “I didn’t want to go down that path.”
During that first year on his own, Borchert was working at a restaurant called the Old Spaghetti Factory, waiting tables and scraping enough money to get by on, even if he wasn’t happy doing it.
It was during a shift there when he saw the proverbial fork in the road he was at in life. He decided then that something had to change.
“I couldn’t stand it,” he remembered. “That wasn’t Colin Borchert. 6’8”, 230 [pounds] walking around in a suit and tie serving people? That didn’t look good on me. I was like, I gotta change my life.”
And so he did. The Phoenix native, product of the big western city, moved across the country to Scooba, Miss., and East Mississippi Community College, home to 700 people and a gas station.
It was there the process began. Mississippi, as it has for so many of its native sons, made a man out of Borchert.
“I grew up,” he offered after a thought-filled pause. “That’s the biggest thing. I matured. I figured out what I wanted in life and how I can get it.”
He made the tough and conscious decision to right his life. His family sacrificed to get him to Mississippi, where he could play basketball away from the distractions and detriments of his Arizona home.
Trading tables for classes, Borchert managed to pass 21 hours of classes each in two semesters at EMCC so he could make it to MSU on scholarship after one year of JUCO, pushed by his coaches and the motivation inside him. Just as much as he wanted to succeed, he was terrified of the alternative.
“I couldn’t let myself down. I didn’t want to let them down,” he said. “Knowing how much my parents did for me, that they sent me out here, they took care of me, it just touched my heart. I knew that I could not fail.”
Never, Borchert said, would 18 year old him have guessed he’d be graduating college in Mississippi, about to go travel the world playing pro basketball with a degree in hand.
The journey was just as necessary as it was unexpected, particularly as it brought him under the guidance of Rick Ray, who he had more in common with than he realized.
Most of his players see the suits Ray wears to games and interviews, know the money he makes as a head coach, see the nice house he lives in and think it’s always been that way for him.
Until Ray tells them about a childhood when he had nothing – living off welfare and food stamps, growing up in the inner city and shivering through winters with no heat.
It’s the lesson Borchert learned from his head coach in Starkville.
“When you tell them your struggle,” Ray said, “and how you overcame things to be where you are, they start to understand this is something about more than just basketball … [Colin]’s had a tough upbringing. He’s had some trials and tribulations in his life. Some of the things he’s had to fight through in his past, to end up starting most games for two years and leave here with a meaningful degree, I think means a lot to him.”
Like Ray and Borchert, the awareness of life being about much more than basketball is proven in Cunningham.
The way he finds himself entering his last game at MSU could hardly be more different than the cross-country nearly-disastrous story of Borchert, but it came of the same essence of dreams and support.
Even after his high school basketball career finished, Cunningham never stopped loving the game. In addition to serving with the music ministry in his church, taking classes, performing in the band and maintaining a relationship with his girlfriend, Cunningham was able to keep playing the sport he so enjoyed by working as a practice player with MSU’s women’s basketball team.
It didn’t bring the competitive edge or the camaraderie of playing in games on a team, but it kept him on a court, at least.
Not long after his fantasy, the actual opportunity arose. He was offered a chance to tryout for the Bulldogs.
And he made it.
“I always had faith and I believed,” Cunningham said. “It was a dream come true. I was excited about the opportunity and the door God opened up for me.”
Initially, Cunningham was like most walk-ons – relegated to the bench until the final moments of games whose outcomes were no longer in question.
But, when the roster almost completely depleted before the 2012-13 season, Cunningham had his chance. With sometimes no more than six or seven scholarship players available, it no longer mattered that he wasn’t getting his school paid for or that he had never been recruited. MSU and its new coach needed him. Cunningham, in less than two years, has gone from afterthought to team leader and trusted veteran.
“He’s like a father to all of us out there,” Borchert said.
Said Ray, “The first thing that comes across when you meet with Tyson is how sincere of a person he is. It has nothing to do with basketball, just being a quality individual … But there’s no question that Tyson Cunningham spends more time in the gym working on his individual game than anybody on the team.”
That work ethic, along with his passion and positivity, are why his teammates look up to him. It’s why he was picked as a team captain and it explains how in the middle of it all he married the woman he had loved for so long, becoming not just a father to his younger teammates, but the only husband on the roster.
From single to married, unwanted recruit to SEC player and, hopefully, from college student to Gospel recording artist, his last unfulfilled dream. Fighting against odds both long and short, Cunningham credits faith and support for his successes.
His church, his family, his teammates and friends have stood behind him all the way through.
“Having support and love in the background that no one really knows is there – basketball is just a small part of everything we go through,” Cunningham said. “For me, it makes it easy. Having that love in the background keeps you going.”
Freshman point guard IJ Ready is nearing the end of an up-and-down rookie season riddled with injuries interrupting his game. The credit for his upbeat outlook despite the setbacks, Ready said, goes to Cunningham.
“Tyson has really taught us to take nothing for granted,” Ready said. “He’s been a big influence on me to make sure I stay positive. I appreciate that from him. Whenever you talk to Tsyon, he just makes you think. He told me, ‘You don’t get time back. Take nothing for granted.’”
And the hope is to get one final victory.
The two team captains find themselves here as the result of exceedingly dissimilar lives, though the ingredients bringing them together remain the same for both.
“Love of the game will never change,” Borchert said. “You only have one winner and one loser at the end of the day, and you have to be one of them.”