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Behind Cunane’s Winning Smile

A father's triumph over adversity inspires a Wolfpack champion.

Elissa Cunane cutting down the net after a championship game.
Elissa Cunane flashes her signature "big smile" after the ACC Championship game.

The foundation of Elissa Cunane’s Big Smile is built with the strongest bricks available, even if it is mortared with a long-ago family tragedy.

NC State’s first-team All-American women’s basketball player, recently named the Most Valuable Player at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in Greensboro and a semifinalist for the Naismith Player of the Year Award as the nation’s best player, is as known these days for her broad, broad smile as she is for her scoring ability on the basketball court.

Mostly, that’s because television analyst and former NC State player Debbie Antonelli always refers to her as “Big Smile” every time she broadcasts a Wolfpack basketball game on national television.

Sometimes, Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore would like to see her snarl a little bit more, but when Cunane flashes her teeth it’s with an upturned mouth, bright eyes and unrestrained joy.

It’s simply her nature.

“I think the No. 1 thing for me in basketball and in life is to have fun and enjoy what I’m doing,” Cunane says. “If you’re not enjoying it, you’re not going to want to put extra time into it and you’re not going to enjoy your teammates and all that.”

Sturdy, strong and active, Cunane stands 6-feet, 5-inches tall in the middle of head coach Wes Moore’s top-seeded and No. 3 ranked squad. When the NCAA Championship pairings were announced Monday night, the Wolfpack earned its highest postseason seeding in program history. The women will play familiar foe North Carolina A&T on Sunday in San Antonio, Texas, Moore’s home state.

“My teammates yell at me in practice, ‘Hey, stop smiling and beat someone up, push back on someone,’” she says. “I think you can definitely do both. For me, I can have the toughness to do those things, but also enjoy it at the same time.”

Cunane smiling on court.
A joyful Cunane on the court. “The No. 1 thing for me in basketball and in life is to have fun and enjoy what I’m doing,” she says.

The Family Story

There’s a back-story, however, to Cunane’s success and her enjoyment of the game. It began in her family’s driveway in Summerfield on her older brother’s fifth birthday.

That’s the day life changed for the entire Cunane family, when her father Dan, a sergeant in the Greensboro Police Department, tumbled over the handlebars of his bicycle while doing acrobatic tricks with his son.

The fall broke a rib and five vertebrae in his spine. He was paralyzed from the neck down. He regained some movement after moving to a therapy center in Atlanta and then spending a summer in a Raleigh rehab center. The accident didn’t stop him from enjoying his children’s childhood, teaching them outdoor skills, taking them hunting and showing them how to do rudimentary automotive repairs.

He relearned to drive, spending countless hours taking Elissa to middle school, AAU and high school basketball practices and games until she could drive herself. She relied just as much on her mother Sharon, an advertising manager, though it was more in the indoor arts. Elissa Cunane enjoys cooking.

So she remembers hers as a perfect childhood.

“There was this one day I do remember where I was filling out a college recruitment questionnaire, probably my freshman or sophomore year,” she says. “The question was ‘What is one thing you would change about your life.’ I couldn’t think of anything.”

So she asked her parents, who thought the answer was perfectly obvious: to have a father who didn’t need a wheelchair.

“I was like, but I wouldn’t change that,” she says. “There’s so many things that I’ve learned and I have knowledge of because of that, that I wouldn’t give that up.

“Yes, I would love to have this life with a healthy dad and being able to do all those things with him, but this life is also pretty great. And so I think that for me it’s just always been OK, that’s life.”

Cunane going up for a lay up.
Cunane earned the ACC Championship’s MVP Award.

Until late last season, only Cunane’s closest friends knew about her father’s paralysis. It wasn’t intentionally private, just another circumstance of her background. By the time she played high school basketball at Northern Guilford High School, Cunane was one of the top recruited players in the country, a four-star player that every school in the region wanted. She chose NC State primarily because of the personality of Moore, a gregarious worry-wart perfectionist known for his dad jokes and ability to win championships.

Late last season, as Cunane became a regular starter for the Wolfpack and developed into one of the ACC’s top players, television cameras often panned over to the man in the wheelchair cheering for his daughter. She opened up about his background.

This year, that special father-daughter relationship has been the subject of multiple national stories and video segments on ESPN, the ACC Network and other outlets. It’s the kind of attention that could affect a player’s concentration or deflect her attention from daily tasks such as schoolwork or basketball workouts.

Cunane hasn’t let it.

Retelling the story has brought her closer to her family, as they share memories long forgotten in a public forum.

“You know, it’s been really interesting because some of my closest friends, my teammates and friends outside of basketball, didn’t even know the whole story of my dad’s accident and what all happened,” Cunane says. “With it being basically told on national television, it was just crazy to see people’s reaction to that side of me and my family.

“At the same time, I think it’s cool that hopefully it inspires somebody and touches somebody’s heart to let them know that like they can keep fighting and they can be inspiring and turn the bad into good.”

Moore believes much of Cunane’s positive outlook – and her perpetual smile – comes from her family background.

Cunane with head coach Wes Moore and Athletics Director Boo Corrigan.
Cunane with head coach Wes Moore, right, and Athletics Director Boo Corrigan.

“After all he’s been through, he is always upbeat, quick to tell you a joke or a one-liner at you and just fun to be around,” Moore says. “And so I think Elissa has learned from the great example she has right there in her house.

“Her teammates love her. They appreciate what she does on the court, but also the kind of person she is off of it, because of her ability to share all those things that her dad taught her with everyone around her. She’s a special kid.”

Heading Into ‘the Fun Part’

So far, Cunane’s junior season could hardly have been better. She helped the Wolfpack defeat two No. 1 teams, South Carolina and Louisville, during the season. She missed one game after a COVID exposure in February, but rebounded quickly.

She’s averaged a career-high 16.8 points and 8.6 rebounds, with percentages for overall shooting, 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting that all rank among the best in the ACC and in the nation. In three wins in Greensboro last weekend, Cunane scored 27, 22 and 20 points, respectively, to earn the ACC Championship’s MVP Award and help this year’s team match titles won by the Wolfpack in 1978, ’85, ’87, ’93 and 2020.

All while pursuing a degree in conservation biology with an eye toward working in environmental education after her playing career is over.

Now, Cunane, Moore and the Pack head to the NCAA Championship for the next three weeks, isolating in a Texas hotel because of mandated COVID quarantine protocols. It will be unlike any tournament ever played, though, with games played at six sites in and around San Antonio.

“Now’s the fun part,” Moore says.

And that, like almost everything else, makes Cunane smile.