Terry Cummings: Inside Beats a Champion’s Heart, 1984

[Oh, the curse of making the cover of Sports Illustrated. Remember the curse? Or, as some preferred “the jinx”? You’re at the very top of the sportsworld today; tomorrow, you’re deep down in the valley of despair. 

Well, Terry Cummings of the San Diego Clippers made the cover of SI back on February 21, 1983. The humble, 6-feet-9 former DePaul All-American was tearing up the NBA in his first season, despite a health scare in December, and the SI editors rewarded his stellar play with a cover and, displayed above his head, read the words, “Rookie of the Year.”

A local reporter asked Cummings that week if he wasn’t a little worried about the curse? Weird stuff can happen. “Things like jinxes just don’t happen in my life,” he answered. “I’m a preacher, and I preach peace, freedom, and positive things. I don’t preach negative things.”

Well, Cummings was named the NBA’s 1983 Rookie of the Year. He deserved it. But something really weird happened with his heart again later in the year that would put his promising NBA career in jeopardy. Was it bad luck? Genetics? A wake-up call? 

Or, was it the SI curse? Depends on what you believe. 

This article, which ran in the February 1983 issue of Basketball Digest, tells the story, sans any reference to the SI curse. It also doesn’t mention that Cummings, who was an outstanding player and is an even-better person, recovered to log an extra-long NBA career, though he didn’t stay put with the Clippers. By the next season, Cummings was off to Milwaukee, part of a major trade in which the Clippers sent him and guards Craig Hodges and Rickey to the Bucks for forward Marques Johnson, swingman Junior Bridgeman, and center Harvey Catchings. 

This story, which originally ran in the L.A. Times on November 4, 1983, was filed by staff writer Marc Appleman. He went to, among other things, serve as the CEO of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).]

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It was during a forbidden midnight run through a Chicago Park that Terry Cummings, in despair because a heart condition was threatening his remarkable basketball career, began to regain the pride he thought he had lost.

The San Diego Clippers forward had several days of cardiac catheterization tests and several weeks of doctor-ordered rest at home—and he had had enough. “In life, sometimes we have to go above people and do things on our own,” Cummings said. “I jumped up one day and said I couldn’t take it anymore. I hadn’t played basketball for a month and a half, and I’d never felt out of shape before.”

Ignoring doctors’ advice that he take things easy, Cummings started jogging. During one late-night run through Chicago’s Ada Park, he realized that if he was ever going to play basketball to his full potential again, he’d have to rid himself of the negative mental outlook that had plagued him since the discovery that he had an irregular heartbeat.

“I was still feeling the symptoms that I had been feeling,” he said, “but I began to push myself. I ran half a mile. It was really exciting. I felt like I had just played an important game.”

That half-mile run may not have been what the doctor ordered, but it led him to believe that he could come back, that he could regain the pride that made him the NBA’s 1983 Rookie of the Year. He said his hospital experiences had stripped him of that pride.

Tests he had at Northwestern Memorial Hospital had left him physically and emotionally drained, he said. On one occasion, he said, “I was lying naked on that table for 4 ½ hours, and the doctors stuck tubes in me and pins in my thigh. I only had a little cloth on me. If I ever had any pride, I lost it in the hospital.

“It made me never want to go to the hospital again, and it made me realize that I’m not for science. Not my body. Whenever we [athletes] get hurt and need medical attention, we become a scientific statistic. I’m not willing to undergo that type of testing. That’s not for me.”

Cummings, after that run in the park, increased his daily workouts from jogging to sprinting quarter-miles to running up and down the court at Chicago’s Scanlan Park. Still, for the first time in his life, playing basketball didn’t feel natural. He began to wonder if he would ever regain his form.

“But I had to keep at it,” he said. “I had to be free in my heart to say that if I quit basketball today, I had given it all I had. I realized that if I can keep myself happy in my heart, it is better than any medicine.”

As the second player taken in the 1982 NBA draft, Cummings appeared the epitome of health when he joined the Clippers. Then, without warning, the 6-feet-9, 234-pounder fainted and had a momentary seizure during the third quarter of a game against the Utah Jazz on December 15, 1982. He was carried from the floor. The initial diagnosis was dizziness stemming from fatigue. But the doctors weren’t really sure.

Suddenly, the youthful focus of the Clippers’ hopes for the future found his career in jeopardy. He kept playing. Trying to diagnose the trouble, doctors monitored his heartbeat during games by attaching to his chest a radio transmitter the size of a pack of cigarettes.

During a game against Seattle on April 5, periods of a rapid heartbeat were picked up. Team physician H. C. Palmer described the symptoms as “a significant, serious arrhythmia that occurs commonly in people who have significant disease in their hearts. It’s a common cause of sudden death, and that’s what scares you.”

After the Seattle game, doctors decided that Cummings should not play the final six games of the regular season and should take cardiac catheterization tests at Northwestern Memorial to determine the precise nature of his problem.

Cummings said he was—and still is—a rather impatient patient. “For the most part, I realize that the doctors are just doing their jobs,” he said, “but there are times when you get fed up with it.”

Now, Cummings hopes the problems are behind him. Although he is still taking medication, he is back in the Clippers’ lineup and strongly resists having monitoring devices taped to his body. He was monitored during parts of the exhibition season, and Palmer said there was no recurrence of the irregular heartbeat.

“We all know what has to be done in order for him to play basketball.” Palmer said, “and we know his condition is something that we can never forget about. He hasn’t had any problems with his health during the preseason, and there hasn’t been any reason for concern.”

“Sometimes,” Terry Cummings said, “I forget that I’m only 22.”

Indeed, considering all that has happened to him, it does seem difficult to believe. Not only is he an NBA star on the rise, but he is a husband, the father of a two-year-old boy, and an ordained Pentecostal minister.

Asked recently what he remembered most about the past 12 months, Cummings provided some surprising answers:

  • Playing in 70 games for the Clippers.
  • Averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
  • Being named Rookie of the Year.

Significantly, the heart condition that shortened Cummings’ season and hospitalized him, he mentioned only fourth. Even more significantly, he mentioned his $1.7 million Clippers contract not at all.

That he rates the discovery of his heart problem so low illustrates just how determined he is to put medical matters behind him and concentrate on basketball. In 1982, Cummings went through a lengthy contract dispute, holding out past the opening of the season.

“The ministry has helped me deal with my illness and relate to people,” Cummings said. “I’ve been able to focus a lot over what I’ve read in the Scriptures, and I believe that God’s hand is on my life. If He has allowed this to happen, it’s for a reason. Sometime down the line I will see why.”

Cummings’ ministry is during the offseason in Chicago, and he occasionally preaches at NBA stops during the season. T.C., as he is known to teammates, does not drink or smoke and would rather sing in his house than go out on the town. He is particularly attracted to gospel music and spends at least an hour a day singing and learning to control his voice.

“Ballplayers are like magnets,” Cummings said, “in that everyone is drawn to you. But your lifestyle is what you make it.”

DePaul coach Ray Meyer, friend and mentor to Cummings during his college career, said that, despite the reputation pros have for carousing, he knew Cummings would make a successful transition to the pro game on and off the court.

“When Terry came to DePaul, he was a big, rawboned kid with a lot of potential,” Meyer said. “I knew he’d make a good transition to the college game and then to the pros, but I didn’t think he would become quite as great as he has.

“On the court, he’d do whatever you asked of him, but off the court, nobody ever told him what to do. Terry was always very opinionated and would do what he thought was right. I knew Terry’s strong character would enable him to overcome whatever he had to.”

Meyer said Cummings became more outgoing and very considerate of other people’s feelings while at DePaul—“he became a man and a super individual who wants to help others.”

Meyer said Cummings visited him during his holdout with the Clippers. “He came in and told me that he didn’t really care what they paid him,” Meyer said, “but that he wanted to play ball. Playing with Athletes in Action was a way to get into shape and a ploy that sounded good, but I knew he was going to sign very soon.”

He did, signing a four-year contract for $1.7 million. “The money meant that I could have things that my parents weren’t able to provide for me,” said Cummings, who drives a Mercedes and lives in a very comfortable manner. 

Cummings said he quickly disciplined himself not to buy everything in sight. “It doesn’t take much to spend money,” Cummings said, “Just a credit card. I saw how other guys went broke and was determined not to be like that.”

DePaul’s leading rebounder for three seasons was also determined to prove that his All-America status in college and his big contract were warranted. After missing the first four games last season, he scored 19 points against Milwaukee just one day after he signed. In his third NBA game, he scored 32 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in a 100-95 loss to Indiana. He scored in double figures in all 70 games in which he played.

Cummings led the Clippers in eight categories, including scoring and rebounding. “People had been telling me that I was quick,” Cummings said, “but it wasn’t until I got to the NBA that I realized how quick I really was. In college, I didn’t shoot a lot of jumpers, because I was asked to play another role, but I knew I had a good jump shot, and it didn’t surprise me when it was successful in the pros.”

It is indicative of Cummings’ personality that the thing in which he takes the greatest pride is his durability. It’s also what he is most concerned about. “I’m not good at pacing myself,” he said. “Once I get on the court, I’m ready to go. I’m like a robot, but I’m obviously not a robot and my parts are more fragile.”

Meyer recalls that Cummings told him, “I have to learn to pace myself and relax. I’m going to try and play at 70 percent.”

“I just laughed,” Meyer said, “because I don’t think Terry could ever do that.”

This year, Cummings plans to cut his playing time from 36 minutes to 28-to-30 minutes a game. “There will be days when I play 48 minutes, but I don’t want to do it as often,” Cummings said.

A summer of rehabilitation and contemplation brought Cummings to training camp in good health and good spirits. Once in camp, he started to get his rhythm on the court. He played in six of the Clippers’ eight exhibition games and averaged 26 minutes, 23.2 points, and 7.5 rebound a game.

“We had a good group of guys last year,” he said, “but I think we’ll be a real contender this year. I know we haven’t done anything to prove ourselves, but we’ve got a lot of talent.”

Cummings has taken responsibility for being a leader on the young Clippers team. “I feel comfortable being a leader,” he said. “I’ve been a leader since high school and have always preferred being a leader to being a follower.”

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