The Lowdown: Terry Cummings

Years Active: 1983 – 2000
Career Stats: 1183 games, 28.7 mpg
16.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.5 bpg, 48.4% FG, 70.6% FT
Postseason Stats: 110 games, 26.9 mpg
15.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.6 bpg, 50.2% FG, 70.6% FT
Accolades: 1983 Rookie of the Year, 2x All-Star (1985, 1989), All-NBA 2nd Team (1985), All-NBA 3rd Team (1989), All-Rookie 1st Team (1983)

The 1982 draft was a loaded class. Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, Fat Lever, Clark Kellogg, Ricky Pierce and Sleepy Floyd are the highlight players, but the man who walked away with the Rookie of the Year crown was Terry Cummings. T.C. was a lithe combination of power and speed that initially toiled on the moribund San Diego Clippers.

Mercifully, he would be traded into the good graces of perennial powerhouse Milwaukee and when that situation began to go south, Cummings again would be bailed out with a trade to the San Antonio Spurs, sparking the greatest turnaround in NBA history until the 2008 Celtics.

Terry’s good fortune ran out soon after that as a devastating knee injury robbed him of his explosiveness. Nevertheless he soldiered on for another decade as a reserve forward. But when he was at his best, few in the NBA could match his presence, his grace, his strength.

Raised in Chicago, Terry as a child dreamed of being a hockey star and one day playing for the Blackhawks. A sudden growth spurt ruined that dream, but when one door closes another opens. Cummings switched to basketball and would play endlessly on outdoor courts that were overrun with packed snow and sand. By the age of 16, he was also an ordained Pentecostal minister.

The good preacher T.C. was just one of several hot shot basketball stars emerging from Chicago at the time. There was Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Darnell Valentine and Doc Rivers. Cummings teamed up with Aguirre at DePaul University in the Windy City. Aguirre was a year older and was the star outshining Cummings for two seasons. Finally, he declared for the NBA Draft in 1981 leaving Terry the opportunity to showcase his skills.

Cummings scoring average went from 13 points his sophomore year to 22 his junior season following Aguirre’s departure. Even more ridiculous was his FG% going from .498 to .567. And Cummings was doing all this as a married family man . Perhaps the family obligations are what spurred Terry to follow Aguirre’s lead and declare for the NBA following his junior season.

The placid and stoic Cummings was selected 2nd overall in the 1982 Draft by the San Diego Clippers behind James Worthy. T.C. proceeded to outshine all other rookies including Worthy and 3rd overall pick Dominique Wilkins. Terry’s blend of power and speed were proving absolutely wonderful:

Cummings is a sinewy 6’9″, 220 pounds, and though there was some concern at first that he might not be able to contain smaller, more mobile forwards, he has made his size work in his favor. “When I play a small forward,” he says, “I have to keep my body on him all the time. Hit him, wear him down. But on the other end, with a small forward sticking me, I’ve got him. He’s mine…”

For all his muscle, Cummings has shown he’s more than just a power player. “He’s really surprised me with his ballhandling,” says Clipper Coach Paul Silas. “If we have problems bringing the ball up, we just clear the way and let Terry do it.”

Terry did it alright, to the tune of 23.7 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.8 spg and 0.9 bpg. He won all but one of the Rookie of the Month awards in 1982-83 and easily secured the Rookie of the Year award. Unsurprisingly, the Clippers stunk, though. They may have had a promising future with Cummings and forward Tom Chambers, but the albatross of Bill Walton was still around and the team was already owned by Donald Sterling, whose ownership was already being called into question just a year after he bought the team:

The Clippers, under the bizarre ownership of Donald Sterling, had become such a laughingstock they held their training camp at a naval base, with players doing their own laundry

Sterling making players do their own laundry? No way.

In any event the Clippers would trade the young Tom Chambers away to Seattle in 1983 and Cummings followed in 1984 being dealt along with Ricky Pierce to the Milwaukee Bucks. It was a one-sided deal that kept the Clippers in a morass and kept the Milwaukee Bucks in contention.

The Bucks were no slouches in the 80s. They had won 50 games the previous year and had lost in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Bucks forward Marques Johnson’s griping over money and wanting to play in California was obliged with Cummings trade. T.C. came in and immediately gave the locker room more stability in a way only a rock-solid preacher man could.

The Bucks surged to 59 wins and Cummings would be selected to the All-NBA 2nd Team and the All-Star Team that season. That postseason the Bucks were swept in the 2nd Round by the 76ers, but the next season (1986) the two teams again engaged and it went the full 7 games with the average margin of victory being two points.

Bucks guard Sidney Moncrief battled chronic knee problems all series and was in and out of the lineup. Meanwhile in the frontcourt, Cummings and Charles Barkley weren’t exactly sharing pie recipes for after church dinner:

With two seconds left on the shot clock and Philadelphia trailing by one point, Erving let fly with a wide-open jump shot from 15 feet. Barkley headed for the boards, but ran into Cummings. ” Cummings sent him flying,” said Sixer coach Matt Guokas, “but I wouldn’t expect to get that call in this situation.” Said Cummings: “Well, yes, I did get a body on him.” Barkley didn’t say anything.

Barkley did say something following Game 2:

Returning for Game 2, Moncrief (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) led the Bucks to a 119-107 win in which they overcame a 26-point, 15-board effort by Barkley. It was at this point that Cummings announced that he was sick and tired of Barkleymania. Barkley, in turn, told reporters to tell Cummings “to go bleep himself,” though he added, “but do it in a religious way.”

And so on it went, Barkley vs. Cummings, the Sixers vs. Bucks. Cummings averaged 24/10 for the series, Barkley 28/15, but the Bucks prevailed 113-112 in Game 7 behind 27 points and 8 rebounds from Terry. The elation soon dissipated as the Bucks went up against the Celtics in the conference finals. Some consider the ’86 Celtics the greatest team of all-time and they took care of business sweeping the Bucks.

From there it was a steady decline for Milwaukee even after acquiring center Jack Sikma. The injuries to Moncrief just couldn’t be overcome and by 1989, the Bucks were ready to revamp again and dealt Terry to the San Antonio Spurs.

The 1989-90 Spurs were perhaps the greatest single-season turnaround ever. Trades for Cummings and Maurice Cheeks brought in stellar veterans and rookies Sean Elliott and David Robinson brought in the ambitious talent. The team surged from 21 to 56 wins in one season. Cummings was selected to his 2nd and final All-Star Team that year.

But in the postseason, the Spurs fell into what would become a familiar theme. The Spurs and Blazers tangled in a 7 game semi-finals classic. In the 7th and final game, San Antonio took a 7-point lead with 2:28 left in regulation. The Spurs coughed it up, though, and lost in overtime by three points.

The next season, the Spurs won 55 games and were bounced 3-1 in the first round by Cummings’ old Milwaukee coach Don Nelson and the 7th seed Golden State Warriors. For Terry the Golden State series was probably the worst moment of his career, yet. His minutes were cut and he averaged a disappointing 14 points. By this point, Spurs coach Larry Brown was beginning to wear out his welcome (where have we heard that before). Midway through the 1991-92 season, Brown left the Spurs to coach the Los Angeles Clippers. The only time someone has coached two teams in the same season.

Cummings was surely slowing down as he entered his 30s (averaging back-to-back 17 point seasons), but he wasn’t done yet. Over the final 24 games of the 1992 season, largely with Robinson injured, T.C. averaged 23 ppg and 11.6 rpg and had one torrid 7 game stretch therein with 29 points and 15 rebounds a game (including a 24/24 game). Â He continued the hot play in the postseason against Phoenix, averaging 26 and 11 but without the Robinson, the Spurs couldn’t overcome the Suns and were swept 3-0.

Sadly, that sweep at the hands of the Suns would be Terry’s final moments as a first-rate NBA forward. That offseason he blew out his knee in a pickup game and would miss all but 8 games of the 1992-93 season and he was never the same. The numbers don’t lie:

Pre-Knee Injury (10 seasons) – 21.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.7 bpg, 49% FG

Post-Knee Injury (8 seasons) – 7.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.6 spg, 0.2 bpg, 46% FG

Terry Cummings sprang out the gate with 5th highest scoring average for a rookie (23.7) since the ABA and NBA merged in 1976. And he didn’t let up for a decade.

During his 1st 10 seasons (1983-1992), no power forward scored as many points as Terry and only Charles Barkley and Buck Williams grabbed more rebounds. Only a handful of players have put up 20 and 8 during the 1st decade of their career like Cummings. Nearly all of them are Hall of Famers and Terry may have well been on his way. He was a hearty symbol of stability and durability appearing in 94% of his team’s games until the knee injury.

After 8 more seasons, Cummings was practically relieved to retire in 2000. He had plenty to keep himself busy. Aside from the ministering, he had been working on music since 1981 and had even recorded a Christmas in 1989 with teammate David Robinson.

I’m desperately trying to find that song. In the meantime, appreciate the power of T.C.

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Posted in Legends of Hardwood Paroxysm, The Lowdown
One comment on “The Lowdown: Terry Cummings
  1. werntnotwernt says:

    He also wrote a parody song called “The Mark of Zarko” about the legendary Žarko Paspalj during that 1989 season. Of course, no sign of that one either…

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