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Jared Cunningham follows path of another Oregon State star

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Beavers junior hails from Oakland, the hometown of former NBA All-Star guard Gary Payton, which leads to lots of comparisons.

January 18, 2012|By Baxter Holmes
  • Jared Cunningham is arguably Oregon State's best player since Gary Payton.
Jared Cunningham is arguably Oregon State's best player since Gary… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

A guard grows in Oakland, up to 6 feet 4 with a demeanor that is as solid as the concrete on which his skills, especially for racking up steals, are honed.

He's on his way to play college basketball when a scholarship offer falls apart. Then, he finds himself in a wooden enclave of Corvallis, Ore., as a star at Oregon State. That's the story of Gary Payton, who played there more than two decades ago.

That's also the story of Jared Cunningham, who's playing there today.

The two share intertwining backgrounds, even down to each arriving on campus with fad haircuts: Payton with a champagne glass outline; Cunningham a Mohawk.

Payton became the toast of Oregon State, leading it to three NCAA tournament berths and finishing his career with loads of records and national honors.

Cunningham's basketball resume isn't nearly as stacked. Payton, after all, was a fireball of talent who played 17 seasons in the NBA.

But Cunningham, a junior, is arguably Oregon State's best player since Payton, and he's leading a team that is decent, which is a big improvement since Payton left.

"We are a better team than this place has seen in a long time," Coach Craig Robinson said of the Beavers, who are 11-7 overall and 1-5 in Pac-12 Conference play heading into Thursday's game against UCLA (10-7, 3-2). "And Jared, as well as Jared's class, has been instrumental."

Oregon State isn't far removed from its 0-18 league record during the 2007-08 season, but with Cunningham it already has matched its win total from last season. And he's leading the Pac-12 in scoring (17.6 points per game) and steals (2.9). The last Oregon State player to lead the conference in those categories? Payton.

"I like his heart a lot because he reminds me of me," Payton said.

Payton heard of Cunningham when Cunningham was in high school, just outside of Oakland, and the former NBA star watches Oregon State games. Payton has shared tips with Cunningham about working out and reaching the NBA, but is careful not to be a burden.

"I always want him to feel comfortable," Payton said.

Cunningham doesn't feel any pressure to be another Payton.

"I just try to build my own legacy," Cunningham said.

But he does study Payton's college films, calling him "a quick, ferocious player who did everything for his team on offense and defense."

Added Cunningham: "I feel if I pattern my game after him, I can make it to the next level and be another OSU legend."

No small task. Payton's legend still permeates Corvallis, where he ended up after St. John's reneged on a scholarship offer at the last minute.

"I was always glad he was on my side," said Jim Anderson, Oregon State's coach during Payton's senior season in 1989-90, the last time the Beavers reached the NCAA tournament.

But Anderson said he's reminded of Payton any time Cunningham makes a steal.

"They're very good at anticipating ahead of time what the next action is going to be on the floor," Anderson said.

But few other comparisons to Payton fit.

Cunningham plays more zone defense, Payton man to man, where he earned his nickname of "the Glove" for smothering opponents.

However, Cunningham, whose vertical leap is a whopping 42 inches, is a better dunker.

But Payton tallied far more assists, averaging 7.8 for his career. Cunningham's has had eight, his career high, only once.

"The biggest difference is … I don't see the swagger and I don't see the ferocity from Jared that I saw from Gary," said former Seattle SuperSonics play-by-play announcer Kevin Calabro, who has called a few of Cunningham's games.

Cunningham also lacks Payton's trash-talking tongue, which yakked in high gear from tipoff to the final buzzer.

"Once I get on the playground, I like to talk a little mess," Cunningham asserts.

That can be traced to Oakland, a hotbed for hard-nosed NBA guards, including Payton and Jason Kidd.

"We knew we had to have toughness because we played in rough areas," Payton said.

Corvallis, with a population of about 55,000, is one-seventh the size of Oakland.

But when Cunningham walks into Oregon State's Gill Coliseum, he's reminded of home, of what he has to live up to, because it literally hangs over his head.

And maybe when Cunningham's career is complete, they'll retire his jersey up in the rafters, too, right next to Payton's.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

twitter.com/baxterholmes

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