Original Old School: Reverence
A Q+A with NBA journeyman Terry Cummings.
Reverence. The word implies a feeling of deep respect, which pretty much sums up the feelings of anyone who went head-to-head with Terry Cummings on the court. In SLAM 105 (March ’07), Cummings looked back on his NBA career.—Ed.
by Alan Paul
Terry Cummings was a dominant power forward for 10 seasons, averaging 21 ppg and 8.7 rpg from 1982-92. When, at age 31, he blew out his knee in the summer before his 11th season, most people figured the 6-9, 250-pounder was finished; instead, he was actually about to launch phase two of his career, a journeyman big man offering both low post acumen and oncourt coaching.
Cummings was equally good at both roles and if you think that’s simple, just consider Chris Webber. Not many All-Stars become great role players, but by doing so, Cummings became one of only eight NBA players to play 18 or more seasons. He retired in 2000 with 19,460 points and the respect of virtually anyone who ever crossed his path.
The Chicago native attended DePaul, where he and Mark Aguirre formed one of the all-time great college frontcourts. Aguirre was the first pick in the ’81 Draft, while the San Diego Clippers grabbed Cummings at No. 2 a year later. He was the ’83 Rookie of the Year after averaging 23.7 ppg and 10.6 rpg, but after one more stellar season, the Clippers announced they were moving to L.A. and Cummings asked for a trade; an ordained minister, he didn’t want to raise his kids in Los Angeles. Landing in Milwaukee, he teamed with Sidney Moncrief and Paul Pressey for a strong squad that annually but unsuccessfully battled the Celtics or Sixers. In ’89-90, Cummings joined rookie David Robinson in San Antonio, starring for three years before his injury, after which he played two more years for the Spurs and wrapped up his career with stops on five more teams.
Since retiring, Cummings has continued to preach while also launching a music career. He has released his first album, Nothing Is What It Seems, and is now working on a follow-up. For more, check out www.terrycummings.com.
SLAM: Who were your biggest personal rivals?
Terry Cummings: Charles Oakley, James Worthy, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, after he and his big mouth came in the League. We were all vying for the position of best power forward. I feel like I reestablished what a power forward was supposed to be, before any of those other guys. I could run the point, too, if need be.
SLAM: Oakley wasn’t the same type of athlete as the rest of you.
TC: No, but he was a formidable guy you couldn’t look past. He was tough, he had a jumper and he could run the floor.
SLAM: Barkley had a serious height disadvantage. Did you ever look at him and feel your eyes light up?
TC: Every time we played! [laughs] Charles was shorter than everyone else at his position, and he wasn’t
a great defender anyhow, but he was a great athlete. I always felt you had to bang him down low to take away his athleticism. On the open floor, he could do some things defensively, but if I got him on my back down in the block, I was gonna score every time.
SLAM: Malone, on the other hand, seemed so strong.
TC: I thought Karl’s strength was OK. He was strong enough to take a lot of contact; in fact, he created most of it, then demanded the calls and got them. At the end of the day it boils down to your supporting cast and how smart you are. Karl had John Stockton delivering him the ball in exactly the right places, and he had good ability. When he first came in, all he did was go right and post everything over his left shoulder. He had no jump shot, but he was able to expand his game.
SLAM: Who did the best job defending you?
TC: Kevin McHale could really make me change my shot, because of his height. Buck Williams was tough to bang with, so I tried to take him out on the floor, but he had good speed. Buck wasn’t as strong offensively as these other guys but he was really tough. Basically, I felt like no one could defend me when I got in my sweet spots. I was lethal from 15 feet in.
SLAM: How did your life change when you became an ordained minister at age 17?
TC: My energy and focus were completely altered, but I remained the same person in an essential sense. I never ran from responsibility, even when I was running the streets and getting into some trouble. If I had someone’s back, there was no doubt about it. Then I was called to Christendom and I accepted it without any questions, and that’s how it has to be.
SLAM: As a man of the cloth, did you ever see teammates behaving in a manner that you didn’t approve of?
TC: Of course, but I have always been respected, so I always tried to approach a guy in the right way. The wrong way is to act like you’re better than him. That’s the quickest way to offend anyone. I would see things happening and pull a guy aside and ask if there was anything I can do to help. Many guys and their wives, girlfriends and kids approached me over the years, needing someone to talk to because they knew I wouldn’t judge them. If you say you’re a preacher, people watch how you live. I was not a hypocrite and people knew that.
SLAM: Were there any veteran players that you looked up to yourself?
TC: Sure. In Milwaukee, seeing guys like Sidney Moncrief and Junior Bridgeman up close was the bomb. They were like big brothers, setting new boundaries, with everything—their careers, politics, business, families. They were great players who were looking beyond what they were doing, and that inspired what was in me.
SLAM: You and Mark Aguirre played together at DePaul for two years, part of some great college teams that met shocking early Tournament losses. How disappointing was that?
TC: It was a letdown, but I had only been playing organized ball for two years and my thing was to always go out and play hard, play to win every game and have fun. The real focus for me was going to college. I came from a family of 14 kids and, other than one brother who went to a JC, I was the first to go to college. Being at DePaul was big no matter how we did in the Tournament. When I think about my time at DePaul, I only think of [legendary coach] Ray Meyer. I went into his office and shot the breeze every day and he became my first great mentor, a real father figure. I may have been the first black player to have that kind of relationship with Coach. DePaul did not have a rep as a friendly place for black athletes, but they were growing.
SLAM: You missed most of the ’93 season after blowing out your knee. Did you consider retiring?
TC: No. It was a year of recommitting and understanding my life was changing. Watching that whole season on the bench, I realized I’d come back as a role player. I knew I could adjust, and I’m not sure I would have understood that without a year to sit and watch. At first it was really tragic. I was also going through a divorce, and it felt like my world was falling apart. Life has thrown me so many things, and I always considered it my job to make something great out of whatever hand I am dealt. I had a whole year to contemplate my purpose, and I decided I was going to be the best role player. Everywhere I went, I drove the second team to really raise their games. I also changed my game and became more defensively oriented and more comfortable in the post, able to play center in a style I based on Willis Reed with the great Knicks teams.
SLAM: You moved through a lot of teams those last few years—Spurs, Sonics, Bucks, Sixers, Knicks, Warriors.
TC: Over my last few years, almost everyone brought me in to mentor their guys. Basically, you have a whole bunch of white guys who work really hard in coaching and managing these organizations made up of young black inner-city kids. They have almost no offcourt communication, and that’s part of what they wanted from me. In Milwaukee, I went head to head with both Glenn Robinson and Vin Baker, and it almost came to blows—Mike Dunleavy came running off the scorer’s table to step between us. But we never had another problem because they knew I fought for them, too. These organizations need liaisons because the coaches can’t reach them beyond basketball, and sometimes not even on basketball.
SLAM: Does anyone ever ask you to fill a similar role now?
TC: From time to time I get a call to talk to a player and I do so. Honestly, I would love to work more with the NBA, but I don’t know how, or if it matters to them. The NBA is more than a game, and the players need to get on top of that reality. They don’t understand why they’re here. They don’t know the history of all the guys who set the pace, black and white alike—guys like Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit. And I’m proud to say I should be counted in that list somewhere. Before you get to Charles Barkley and Karl Malone and Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, you had Terry Cummings. They just kept getting better and quicker, but I feel I was the prototype.