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Cunningham Scores Points With Attitude : Empire League: Los Alamitos senior standout is taking his role as team captain seriously.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Cunningham of Los Alamitos, Orange County’s best player not wearing Mater Dei red and not answering to the name Brandon Jessie, moves confidently, patiently around the basketball court. He has learned it’s the best way to get the most out of his 6-foot-5, 195-pound frame.

Over the years, his smooth style has become as recognizable as the No. 24 jersey hanging out over his shorts.

Beginning his third season as Los Alamitos’ starting--pick one--point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center, Cunningham has refined his play so much that he’s passing on his knowledge to teammates in hopes of lifting them to higher levels.

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That’s not to say Cunningham is content with his game. Often, he walks away from the court wondering if he could have done more--shot, passed or rebounded better.

Leadership has its demands, Cunningham has learned. In the past, he might have ranted and raved at himself or at teammates after a bad play. Now, he doesn’t. It does more harm than good, he says.

He has seen former Laker Magic Johnson get in Vlade Divac’s face about rebounding better. That’s motivation NBA-style and not liable to work on the high school level, Cunningham said.

“Pros are getting paid big money,” he said. “High school kids have feelings. That’s how it is in high school. You can’t do that with them.”

Cunningham takes his role as team captain seriously.

At this point, he could be forgiven for coasting, secure in the knowledge his 17.1-point average and selection to the All-County and All-Empire League teams have earned him numerous college scholarship offers. Instead, Cunningham talks about keeping his grades up, scoring higher than the NCAA’s required 700 on the SAT, winning a third consecutive league championship, and doing some damage in the Southern Section playoffs.

Sure, sure, but hasn’t he proved enough already?

There is a sense of urgency for Cunningham. After all, this is his senior season at Los Alamitos. Many goals have yet to be accomplished.

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Just the other day, he reminded forward John Daugherty about their days as sophomores on the varsity.

“Remember how all the seniors used to cry after their last game?” he asked. “You and I had next year.”

Back then, there always seemed to be a next year, and a year after that.

“There’s no more next years,” Cunningham said. “There’s nothing to hold back. I’ve been trying to tell the other seniors to give it their all.

“I used to get mad because I didn’t cry. I used to think, ‘Well, I’ve got two more years to play.’ But this is it. Whatever it takes to win.

“If I have four fouls and the guy I’m guarding has four fouls and he’s driving to the hole, you bet I’m going to get there and take the charge and foul him out.”

Cunningham takes pleasure in doing the little things that often get overlooked. It simply feels good to jump on a loose ball, set a solid pick, deflect a pass from an opponent, or play hard-nosed defense. And if it helps Los Alamitos win, the extra effort is worthwhile.

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“Coach (Steve) Brooks is always saying maybe that offensive or defensive rebound was the key to the game,” Cunningham. “Hustle is the key to the game.”

At this point, is there anything left for Cunningham to improve? His attitude certainly seems unbeatable. Or is it?

“You can progress a lot in a skill,” he said. “You can always get better in shooting or dribbling. Or even in your attitude toward the game.”

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