The Joseph Group

Basketball and Perseverance

March 22, 2024

To Inspire:

Photo by auburntigers.com


With March Madness underway, many are focused on the action on college basketball courts, but here’s an incredible story of empathy, commitment, and perseverance off the court.

Seven years ago, sixth grader Sam Cunningham was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He loved playing baseball and basketball and was a healthy, active kid. He said the news of the leukemia was a big shock.

Two weeks after his diagnosis, Sam came down with a fever and ended up in the hospital for 83 days. While hospitalized, he received a video from Bruce Pearl, the head basketball coach at Auburn University. Pearl let Sam know he was thinking about him and praying for him. He also said, “Cancer picked the wrong hombre. It picked the wrong dude to mess with. You are going to beat this!”

Sam kept that “wrong hombre” line with him throughout his cancer fight.

Sam and Pearl were connected through a cancer organization called Smile-A-Mile in 2018. The two talked, exchanged phone numbers, and kept in contact during Sam’s treatments. Pearl even told Sam he would save a spot for him as a team manager once he got into college.

In early 2020, three years after his initial diagnosis, Sam had what he thought would be his last cancer treatment. Then 17 months later got the news that the cancer had returned. While understandably upset, Sam stayed positive.

“When I was in the hospital, I noticed the people that had a bad attitude about it really didn’t do well through the cancer treatment,” he said. “I saw me getting diagnosed with cancer as a positive thing. What God has allowed to happen, it’s a good thing for me to take it, battle it and come out a better man from it.”

Two months after the relapse, Coach Pearl invited Sam to practice the week of Auburn’s annual AUTLIVE game (designed to raise awareness of cancer prevention and detection). Sam spoke to the team, telling them about his journey. He watched the game that year from the hospital and saw his name on some of the AUTLIVE signs held by players and coaches – including Coach Pearl.

Sam was declared cancer free in March 2022. And remember Pearl’s promise to hold a spot as a team manager? He kept that promise and Sam is currently a team manager. Sam is so happy to be part of the team and says Pearl’s encouragement may have saved his life. “That truly healed me,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d really get to this point from all the complications I had. So that was pretty amazing. I’m just a miracle to be here right now.”

But he doesn’t want the spotlight on him. He’s happy to be cancer free and happy to help players find success on the court.

Pearl says, “He’s doing his job. He’s a 4.0 student. He is in here all day, every day rebounding the basketball for our guys. He’s not trying to be anybody’s poster child. He’s trying to be the best Auburn basketball manager he can.”

If you are one of the millions of Americans watching basketball today, despite how you may feel about Auburn basketball generally, spare a positive thought for Coach Pearl, whose support helped Sam. And for team mananager Sam Cunningham, whose faith and positive attitude helped him persevere through cancer.





Written by Michelle O’Brien, Manager of Marketing & Communications



Sources: Ostendorf, Greg. ‘Fought to live’: Auburn manager Sam Cunningham AUTLIVES cancer. auburntigers.com. Harman, Steve. How a student’s friendship with Auburn coach Bruce Pearl gave him the strength to beat leukemia. CBSnews.com.