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From golf course volunteer to go-to Kings reporter

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Part 1 of our series on the locker room reporters who cover the Sacramento Kings features Sean Cunningham of ABC10.

Via @abc10sean on Instagram

From across the way stood a man both large in stature and reputation, a cigar in his mouth. He was frequently cursing and throwing his golf clubs. A kid with a recorder had shown interest in interviewing Charles Barkley that whole week, but was repeatedly shot down. The kid moved on to interviewing Ahmad Rashād, who was standing near Barkley. Soon after, Barkley interrupted the interview with Rashād and belted out, "What's the question man? If it's not that good, I'm going to slap you."

The kid stayed calm and proceeded with his interview. When it was over, Rashād turned to him and told him, "You will get an A in your class for that one, I guarantee it."

This is a recollection of Sean Cunningham, who is now a sports producer and reporter for ABC10. That was the first big interview that stands out to him, which is a bigger interview than many reporters could probably say they had at the age of 17.

Growing up, Cunningham always had his heart set on being a professional baseball player, but volunteering at the Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship, which later became the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, in Lake Tahoe is what opened his eyes to another profession, the one that stuck: journalism. It was at these golf tournaments where he met Barkley and observed local and national media members he grew up watching on TV rub elbows with actors and some of the biggest names in professional sports. A friend of his had shown him how volunteering at these tournaments was the best way to get autographs, but Cunningham had bigger ideas. Once he began writing for his high school's news magazine, The Antlerette, he used it and other tournaments to get exclusive interviews.

Today, Cunningham, 35, is one of the most well-respected reporters who cover the Sacramento Kings. When he isn't shopping for a new pair of sneakers (he won't say how many he owns, only that it is "under 100") or attending a concert (his other favorite pastime), the Elk Grove High School graduate rarely is not in attendance at Kings games, practices or any other basketball-related event when it comes to the franchise. He's the one who likely will ask the first question in a player scrum while his camera rolls. He's always willing to go with the tough questions. Cunningham has 15 years of experience covering the Kings and has built up trust with complex players like Chris Webber, Ron Artest and DeMarcus Cousins.

Barkley may have just set the stage for that nearly 20 years ago.

In his late teen years, Cunningham managed to land a job at the Kings radio affiliate KHTK 1140 after being noticed at the golf tournaments by Vince Mastracco, a golf talk show host at the station. Mastracco brought him in as a call screener for his Saturday morning golf show. Just after the Kings had lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in 2002, Cunningham once again was at the celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, and on this day he found himself in Chris Webber's limo. At the time, Mike Bibby had just become a free agent after hitting the big shot in Game 5 of those Western Conference Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA was buzzing about the Kings and that series. Webber hadn't done much talking since the Kings lost in Game 7, but here was Cunningham in his limo. Following the conclusion of the interview, Webber asked him what he does. Cunningham told him he works on the golf show at 1140.

"He said, ‘wait, this is going to air on the golf show?'" Cunningham recalled.

So Webber took Cunningham's minidisc recorder and recorded a message for him to play to his boss at KHTK. The recording was Webber saying there was only one guy he will talk to, and that was Sean.

"That's what really kind of ended up sealing me as the Kings full-time reporter going forward," he said.

Cunningham entered the world of covering the Kings as the locker room reporter for 1140 at a good time in Sacramento. The franchise was riding high as the league had a spotlight on the team that featured Webber, Bibby, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson and Doug Christie. To this day, the team, is regarded as one of the best teams to have never won a championship.

He remembers how great of an interview Webber and Divac were and what jokesters Bibby and Mateen Cleaves could be. He also remembers how distant Jason Williams was.

"He was always kind of icy and not the greatest interview, and didn't like to do media," said Cunningham, who admitted he only had a handful of interactions with him.

He did share one specific memory of Williams though. After the Kings lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1999 NBA Playoffs, the team came back into Sacramento and there were fans lined up to greet them. There was a long line of cars and Kings color analyst Jerry Reynolds was in one of those cars waving to the fans and soaking in the moment. Behind Reynolds was a car with a driver that had had just about enough of it all.

"The car behind him is Jason Williams who is pissed off, yelling at fans, telling them to get the hell out of the way," Cunningham said.

There's not been a day that we work together that I don't value what he brings to our coverage. -Bryan May, Sports Anchor/Reporter, ABC10

While these memories stick out, there was a unique Kings roster that Cunningham enjoyed covering the most, even more so than the Webber-Divac teams. That team featured Bibby, Brad Miller, Bonzi Wells, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Kenny Thomas and Ron Artest (Metta World Peace). With Rick Adelman still at the helm, the Kings were still a formidable team even after trading Stojakovic to the Indiana Pacers for Artest, who was fresh off the Malice at the Palace melee. For Cunningham, it was the way that team wanted to prove the naysayers wrong that he liked, and the squad gave the San Antonio Spurs a scare in the first round of the 2006 NBA Playoffs -€” the last time the franchise made the playoffs.

Cunningham got to know and grew to love Artest throughout that time. At that point, he began serving in an expanded role as a producer at KHTK 1140 for several of the station's hosts, including Grant Napear, Jim Kozimor and Carmichael Dave, while working as the station's locker room reporter, far from the days of being a call screener for a golf show. Artest would frequently come into the studio for Carmichael Dave's evening sports talk show.

"I don't know if that was therapeutic for him or if he just really enjoyed it," Cunningham said. "You kind of saw a different side of an athlete and he was definitely different ... He'd be the everyday guy with his quirks and his whatever that he would bring to work with him, but he was so passionate, he was such a hard worker," said Cunningham, who remembers Artest getting a tooth knocked out during practice and not leaving, simply playing with the tooth in his hand.

"I thought he was fantastic; loved his game," Cunningham said.

The Kings franchise would begin its downward spiral into bad basketball operations and poor business moves shortly after that. The 30-wins-or-less seasons began to pile up. In 2010, not long before the story about the team possibly relocating propelled itself into the national spotlight, Cunningham got some unfortunate news himself: he was being let go at KHTK 1140.

"I would have fired me, there was really no role for me producer wise, I didn't have a show so I kind of knew that I was going to be let go," Cunningham said. "The recession was really bad; they weren't just going to pay me to just continue to cover Kings games."

Cunningham built his career putting experience first and building connections, willingly self proclaiming himself a product of community college -€” he has taken night classes here and there but never graduated from college. He tried jobs in other industries but nothing sparked his interest like media did.

It didn't take long for the phone to ring.

Bryan May and Ryan Yamamoto of News 10, now ABC10, had an online, part-time high school football position open at the station. May had known Cunningham for years through covering the Kings and wanted to get someone in the position who knew the area well with knowledge of the local high schools. Even though the pay was low, Cunningham considered it as a paid internship to learn TV and get a foot in the door, something the golf tournament gave him years ago. He took it, and he has since gone on to become in charge of all online sports content and now has a hand in crafting everything the station does online from a sports department standpoint. But beyond his role in the newsroom, he has expanded the database of sources of the ABC10 sports department.

"Everything that we did before, he has ramped up, and every contact we had, he's got two or three more," May said. "He's in so tight with agents, with some people on the inside of the organization."

He's also in pretty tight with the biggest name on the Kings roster today. Cunningham believes he and DeMarcus Cousins have a respect level for each other with an understanding that each of them has a job to do. Cousins is a guy who wants people to be upfront and typically seems at ease when communicating with Cunningham. In a crowd of people, Cunningham will sometimes be the one Cousins walks up to to offer a handshake. But they have had their share of disagreements. One time after a game, Cunningham asked Cousins how his ankle was feeling and the center responded by saying he was going to be sitting out the rest of the season and making a comeback commercial, which some took as an insult to Derrick Rose. The cameras were off at the time, but Cunningham tweeted it. He woke up to text messages from Cousins telling him he shouldn't have done that.

"I said, ‘no DeMarcus that's media availability, I disagree with you there,'" recalled Cunningham, who did send a follow-up tweet that Cousins wasn't taking a shot at Derrick Rose, it was just a moment of humor.

Cunningham saw Cousins the next day and everything was fine. Cunningham says his close relationship with Cousins is a result of being a familiar face because he is around so much and noted that he isn't misrepresenting himself, which goes back to the being upfront theme. It also takes a certain amount of journalistic acumen to build up trust with players and Cunningham has a pretty strong record there. That record certainly has benefitted ABC10.

What turned into filling a part-time position has turned into a great working relationship and friendship for May and Cunningham. Whether it is attending the annual "Men of News 10 Camping Trip" or getting covered in champagne in the locker room after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, Cunningham found a home at the station, through his passion: journalism.

"There's not been a day that we work together that I don't value what he brings to our coverage," May said.

He gets an A, indeed.