Melvin Cunningham, co-founder of Dirt Bowl and champion of education, dies at age 75

jmadden@herald-leader.comMay 1, 2014 

"Courageous," "wise" and "empowering" are some of the words Melony Cunningham uses to describe her father, Melvin Boyd Cunningham.

"He was so humble," she said. "He never wanted to be in the limelight."

Melvin Cunningham, 75, died unexpectedly of a heart attack April 27 in the family's home after waking up about 4 a.m.

Mr. Cunningham, who was born the day after Christmas in 1938, grew up in Lexington's housing project Charlotte Court. His name has been familiar in the community since the 1960s, and his love for athletics allowed others to seize their dreams.

Mr. Cunningham, who raised three children with his wife, Sandra, graduated from Kentucky State University with a degree in sociology in 1962. He worked several jobs at his alma mater and would later move to Charleston, S.C., where he noticed basketball players with extraordinary talent. That's where he started to help players jump from the playground to the hardwood.

In 1967, just a stone's throw away from one of Lexington's housing projects — Bluegrass Aspendale — Mr. Cunningham, Herb Washington and his cousin Marvin Washington started the Dirt Bowl at Douglas Park. The Dirt Bowl, a summer basketball league, gained national recognition in 1984 as one of four summer leagues featured in a Sports Illustrated story. The league was home to some of the city's best basketball players and served as a gateway for kids to go to college.

Frank Ross, a protégé of Mr. Cunningham's and participant in the Dirt Bowl, said Mr. Cunningham was a man whom one could trust and who wanted the best for you.

"He was very high on education," said Ross, who graduated in 1979 from Austin T. State University. "He did a lot of work in the background and was the motor that made everything work."

Over a 25-year period, Mr. Cunningham wrote numerous letters and made numerous phone calls to every Division I and Division II school in the United States to help players, he told the Herald-Leader in a 1990 interview. Melony and Ross estimate that Mr. Cunningham wrote more than 100 letters.

"He saw that there was a need for African-American kids who were not living up to their full potential," Melony Cunningham said. "His passion was basketball and helping student athletes."

Mr. Cunningham retired Sept. 1, 2005, after spending 26 years with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Division of Parks and Recreation. He loved watching University of Kentucky sports and traveling.

Funeral services for Mr. Cunningham will be Friday at Consolidated Baptist Church. Smith & Smith Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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