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Hoops to handballs: Tegan's big jump

Matt Burgan  March 6, 2018 4:43 PM

iSelect Series: Tegan Cunningham We chat with Tegan Cunningham about her transition from the WNBL to AFLW
I’m fortunate, because I’m 30 and learning a new sport and not many people can say that


BASKETBALL, and now football, are like peas and carrots for Tegan Cunningham.

They simply go together.

And although there is much more to the likeable 30-year-old, the two sports have played a major part in her make-up, even if football has been more recent. 

“I’m fortunate, because I’m 30 and learning a new sport and not many people can say that,” she told

“I work full-time at Basketball Australia, as its community coordinator. I’ve been in that role for just over a year, so If I’m not on the basketball court or playing footy, I’m at work.

“I also have a lot of tattoos. They’ve been a trademark throughout my basketball career. Everywhere I’ve played in the WNBL, I’ve got a tattoo. They’ve all got a bit of a story – and I tend to where my heart on my sleeve a bit.”

In describing herself, Cunningham said she was “a free spirit” and didn’t worry what people thought of her. 

“I like to try and change the stereotype – and because I have tattoos, people think I must be a rough nut, but I feel like I’m not like that,” she said.

“So, when people meet me, they’re like ‘oh, she’s really lovely’, so I like changing people’s perceptions.

“I like that challenge.”


Cunningham’s tattoos include an angel on her shoulder, which reminds her of her Mum, because “she’s always over my shoulder watching me”, along with three roses for each sibling.

She also has one representing her twin sister, who is nine minutes older then her, while she also has one of her superhero Batman.

But for the impressive first-year forward, sport has always been her passion – something that’s evident in her game today.

“Basketball was my first sport of choice. I have an older sister, Caitlin, who is very talented on the basketball court, so I naturally followed in her footsteps. I just wanted to be like her. As a kid, when your sister is doing something, you want to do what they’re doing, so that was naturally basketball,” she said.  

“My twin sister and I both played together for a number of years, and my older brother, Michael probably made me into the little brother he never had. I definitely always had a ball in my hand, whether it was football, cricket ball, golf ball or basketball, so I was pretty fortunate to have great siblings.

“I put more time into basketball than any other sport, but I could kick a footy and I handballed with Michael, but I never saw it as a pathway. I was simply more naturally talented at basketball, and focused on basketball.”

Cunningham started playing basketball at Bulleen Boomers, working her way up from under 12s, 14s, 16s and then 18s. From there, she played college basketball in the US, before returning to Australia, where she played in the WNBL. 

“I played seven years of WNBL, so, when I decided to stop playing last year, it was quite hard. But the whole footy thing picked up and I’m very, very fortunate to have a second chance to stay in this environment and try a new sport,” she said.

“Watching the first AFLW season, it was hard for any female not to be excited about the opportunities that future girls have. I sat there and watched that first game between Carlton and Collingwood and I got chills just watching the girls play.

“I thought ‘could I still do it?’ I knew I could kick … and I definitely would’ve loved to have given it a crack early on, but I’m very, very happy with it all.”


In reflecting on her path to Melbourne, Cunningham said it had come as a surprise.    

“I was playing basketball for Waverley in a final against Bulleen, against Lauren Pearce, and she did beat me, but that was a side note. Brooke and Todd Patterson were at the game and they were watching,” she said.

“Todd messaged me afterwards and said ‘have you got any interest in footy?’ I said ‘actually, I wouldn’t mind giving it a go’. Then he said ‘come and have a kick with me’. So, I had a kick with him and he liked what he saw.

“We had a meeting with [coach] Mick Stinear and now it’s in the history books – I’m here playing for Melbourne.”

Interestingly, Cunningham has a left-field footy connection, via Magpie big man, Mason Cox, having been to the same university as the ruckman/forward and his brother in the US.

“I went to college for two years at Seward University in Oklahoma. I finished there in 2010 and Mason Cox got picked up by Collingwood at the end of 2010, so we missed each other, but I was really good friends with his brother,” she said.

“Anyway, the next thing I know is that he was picked up by Collingwood. So, for him to end up in Australia playing footy – and for me to be playing footy – it’s pretty remarkable that we both chose basketball as our first sport.

“It was good for me, because he was learning a new sport too, so I’ve asked a few questions about what I should be doing. It’s a good sounding board to have. He understands being in my position.”

Cunningham played her first match of any sorts against Collingwood in a practice match at Olympic Park Oval in January. And she impressed significantly, kicking three goals, which led to her AFLW debut against GWS Giants at Casey Fields.

She has since played each game for Melbourne and has adapted strongly in her first year.

The late bloomer has certainly made the most of her opportunities and hasn’t looked back.


Tegan Cunningham snapshot:

  • Finished school at Emmaus College (2005)
  • Attended Seward County Community College, Kansas (2006-08)
  • Oklahoma State University (2008-10)
  • Played with Adelaide Lightning, WNBL (2010-11)
  • Played with Dandenong Rangers, WNBL (2011-13)
  • Won WNBL title with Dandenong Rangers (2011-12)
  • Played with Logan Thunder, WNBL (2013-14)
  • Played with Dandenong Rangers, WNBL (2014-16)
  • Played with Melbourne Boomers, WNBL (2016-17)
  • Drafted by Melbourne (2017)
  • Made AFLW debut against GWS Giants (2018)