DETROIT -- When George Lawson and Ron Cunningham, who served for a combined 52 years on Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base, spoke on the phone this week, Cunningham said it was about "the dream coming to fruition." Both men were planning to travel to the Final Four, and were understandably feeling nostalgic. Lawson, a former Tech Sergeant, had dug up a 1995 photo of the basketball team he and Cunningham, a former Chief Master Sergeant, had joined forces to coach at the base's youth center. The team was called the Andrews Magic (inspired by the Shaq-and-Penny powerhouse in Orlando at the time), and their sons were 7 years old in the picture. In the back row, wearing No. 52, is Dante Cunningham, with his eyebrows raised; kneeling at the center, wearing No. 11, is Ty Lawson, over-grinning to the point that his eyes are nearly shut. Every player's jersey is neatly tucked in.
The coaches' hope had been to give the kids a safe environment on the base -- rather than the less-structured hoops scenes in talent-rich Prince George's County -- in which to develop their skills, which in turn would help them get into good high schools and colleges. The result went above and beyond that: On Saturday night, at Detroit's Ford Field, Lawson, the starting point guard for North Carolina, and Cunningham, the starting power forward for Villanova, will square off in the nightcap of the Final Four, 14 years after they starred together for the Magic.
They aren't the only former Magic who've had an impact in the dance, either: Standing two spots to Cunningham's left in the photo, wearing giant wristbands and No. 40, is Cedric Jackson, the point guard who led 13th-seeded Cleveland State to the NCAA tournament's biggest upset, a rout of No. 4 Wake Forest. One spot to Cunningham's right is Justin Castleberry, who was a reserve on the Bucknell team that beat Arkansas in the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament, and was a senior starter for the Bison this season. Four years after that team photo was taken, Kenny Hasbrouck, the son of a disabled veteran who lived in the area, would join the roster; he went on to play a major role in Siena's 2008 tourney upset of Vanderbilt, as well as its upset of Ohio State this season.
The Andrews Magic went 80-7 over an eight-year span that began in '95, regularly "playing up" -- against local competition at least 1-2 years older than their age group. Dante Cunningham said he recently looked through an old scrapbook that the two coaches had put together, and found a sheet in which they had asked each player -- when they were just 11 -- to state what college they dreamed of playing for. Dante wrote down Michigan, or Georgetown, which had recently been the homes of Chris Webber and Allen Iverson, respectively. Ty Lawson listed just one school: North Carolina. "When I saw that," Cunningham said, "I thought, 'Wow. That's crazy, that he already knew back then.'"
Long before Lawson would become a Tar Heel, win the 2009 ACC Player of the Year award, or be named the South Region's Most Outstanding Player, he was just a 4-year-old flying up and down the court with his father, who would bring Ty along to the Andrews gym if he agreed to do two hours of drill-work on fundamentals. The most famous were what they called "commando" ballhandling drills, where George would stand at midcourt and shout out a series of commands -- such as, in-and-out, crossover and behind the back -- as Ty dribbled at him. Ty eventually learned to perform the moves instantaneously. "You have to be able to do stuff like that in games without thinking," George said. "It got to the point where I'd be able to yell out five or six in a row and he'd finish them before he got to me."
Lawson was already using his speed to his advantage at Andrews, too; according to Hasbrouck, "Ty was always the shortest guy on the court, but so quick that he was always at the head of the pack on fastbreaks." Ty's mom, Jacqueline, could be heard from the stands calling her boy "T-Bird" -- their nickname for him back then -- and he was also showing signs of becoming the "Dennis the Menace" that UNC coach Roy Williams eventually dubbed him in Chapel Hill. Hasbrouck said Lawson was fast enough to never get caught after hitting someone, and Castleberry remembers Lawson pulling chairs out from underneath people in the adjoining rec center. But he was also unflappable on the floor, just as he is at UNC, with a 3.54-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. "Big games never seemed to faze Ty," Castleberry said. "He kept everyone calm on the court."
Lawson's floor leadership and shooting ability (he's shooting 46.8 percent from long range) are major reasons why the Heels are overwhelming favorites to cut down the nets in Detroit. Meanwhile, Dante Cunningham's emergence as a senior star for Villanova (averaging 16.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game) is a big reason why the Wildcats have made such a deep tourney run. Without him they might not have even made it to the second round: The 25 points he scored against No. 14 American in the first round helped rally them back from a 14-point deficit in a game that looked to be lost.
This was not the first time he had willed a team to victory. George Lawson told the story of one of the Magic's appearances in a Prince George's County Boys & Girls Club league title game, in which they trailed by eight in the second half to a team that featured current 'Nova forward Dwayne Anderson. Cunningham, then a fiery young leader, walked into a team huddle during a timeout, and yelled for everyone in the gym to hear, "We're not losing this game!" They rallied to win the championship -- and would only lose one home game, ever, on the base.
Jackson said that Cunningham, at the time, "Couldn't shoot to save his life, but was stronger than everyone else, so we didn't mess with him." There was a reason for Dante's fitness: Ron Cunningham used to bring out what he called his "Serious Bag" for practices, and have Dante work with a weighted jump rope and often play with a weighted vest to work on core strength.
Ty Lawson remembers Ron Cunningham constantly yelling, "Bust a move!" to Dante when he would receive the ball in the post. It was considered -- by Lawson, at least -- to be Ron's signature phrase, and it was something he also used to tell his daughter, Davalyn, who played at Rutgers and then in the WNBA. (Ron said the inspiration for it was former N.C. State tourney hero Dereck Whittenburg, who occasionally worked out at Andrews when he was playing high school basketball in the area. Whittenburg said of the players on the base, "They get the ball in the post, and they don't know what to do with it." Ron wanted to make sure his son wouldn't be lumped into that category.) "Dante still gets mad when I say 'Bust a move' to him," Lawson said, "so I'm probably going to say it a few times during Saturday's game."
The Magic have kept in touch, to various degrees: Lawson was texting with Cunningham and Anderson, their old rival, once the Final Four field was set. Hasbrouck texted Lawson to congratulate him on winning ACC Player of the Year; Lawson texted him back to say "nice free throw" after Hasbrouck was clutch from the stripe in the double-overtime win over Ohio State. Jackson played with Cunningham in the DC-area Kenner League over the summer. Castleberry keeps up with them on Facebook, and said his mother, Linda, who's still friends with the Lawsons, caught the Tar Heels' game at UC-Santa Barbara in November to see Ty. "It's unbelievable," Castleberry said, "to think that we'd have five players [from the Magic] playing on Division I teams. And to have Dante and Ty both leading their teams to the Final Four, to play against each other? The odds of that are even more unbelievable."
George Lawson, who now works for a private firm that does security for the Department of State, will periodically return to the gym at Andrews, since he lives nearby the base, in Clinton, Md. Each of the past few years, he says, someone in the Air Force who hasn't been following basketball -- usually because they've been stationed overseas, or in other parts of the country -- will recognize him as the man who used to run drills with his lightning-quick, dribbling-wonder-of-a-son.
"What's he doing now?" they always ask of the boy.
And their eyes always grow wide, as George explains how the dream unfolds.