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Cummings Is Breaking a Big Sound Barrier : Former San Diego Prep Star Is 70% Deaf, Will Lead CSULB Against Aztecs Tonight

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Times Staff Writer

Senior Kirsten Cummings of Cal State Long Beach took the teachers’ qualifying exam last month, and the essay portion of the test asked: “From which college class did you learn the most?” Cummings, a four-year starter on the 49er women’s basketball team, said it was the basketball course she had taken every semester at Long Beach, and focused her answer on the tremendous impact that sports have made on her life. But hers was no typical response. Her essay didn’t touch upon the merits of teamwork or the benefits of competition. For Cummings, who is 70% deaf, participation in sports has been the biggest reason she has been able to enjoy what she considers a normal life. Because of athletics, Cummings has been able to expand her environment. Athletics, for example, got her a scholarship at Cal State Long Beach after a brilliant career at Patrick Henry High School. She returns to San Diego for the last time in her collegiate career when the 49ers meet San Diego State at Peterson Gym at 7:30 tonight.

As an athlete, Cummings, 22, basks in a spotlight she would never otherwise have known.

“Sports have taken me out of the deaf world and put me into the human world,” Cummings said. “If it wasn’t for sports, I don’t think I’d be the person I am. I think I’d be very secluded. I would communicate only with deaf people. I probably wouldn’t be in college. “Sports taught me to communicate with people. They’ve taught me a lot about myself and have helped me overcome my shyness.” Her coaches, teammates and friends will tell you that Cummings is deaf, but not handicapped.

Because of hearing aids and lip reading, Cummings has few problems conversing, as long as the room is well-lighted and you face her while talking. Friendly and outgoing, she seems totally at ease. Besides basketball and a number of other sports, Cummings enjoys listening to music, playing the clarinet, piano and guitar, reading, dating--the list goes on. Being deaf even has its advantages, she said. “I can go to sleep any time I want,” Cummings said. “I just turn off my hearing aid, and I have no problems. I don’t get either big-headed or depressed when people talk behind my back because I can’t hear them.” In a game during Cummings’ sophomore year, the 49ers were trailing UCLA by a point with four seconds left when Cummings went to the free-throw line to shoot a one and one. The Bruin fans got extra rowdy, hoping to throw off her concentration, so Cummings simply turned off her hearing aids and sank the free throws, giving Long Beach the victory. But then there was the time last year, when Long Beach was playing at Louisiana Tech, and Cummings went to sleep in the team’s hotel before her roommate, Missy Rand, had returned. “I was already in bed and had taken my hearing aids off, but Missy didn’t have her room key and couldn’t get back in,” Cummings said. “She was banging on the door, trying to get me to wake up, but I couldn’t hear a thing. “She had to spend the night in someone else’s room. To this day, she says she won’t be my roommate on the road.” There have been other such moments, such as the time last season when the 49ers’ starting lineup was being announced and teammate Roslind Boger instructed Cummings to run onto the floor when someone else’s name had been called. “I had no idea what was going on,” said Cummings, who added that she enjoyed the prank. Said Long Beach Coach Joan Bonvicini: “Kirsten has the ability to laugh at herself when something goes wrong. She has a great sense of humor.” But being deaf also has its more serious moments. “A lot of times they’ll be calling me and they’ll think I hear them, but I don’t,” Cummings said. “They know I’m 70% deaf, but because I’ve overcome that so well, they forget that I am. So when I don’t hear them, they think I’m ignoring them.”

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As if being deaf weren’t difficult enough, life bounced another bad pass at Cummings last year. She had been sick most of December with the flu and her condition steadily declined. Long Beach was playing UCLA in January, and Cummings became so exhausted after just six minutes that Bonvicini had to take her out of the game. After several hospital visits, doctors discovered that Cummings was suffering from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. She missed four games and, although she didn’t regain complete strength, she finished the season averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds a game. “Considering all that happened to me last year, I think I managed pretty well,” Cummings said. “The ailment wiped my stamina out. I shot badly and didn’t rebound nearly as well. Joan was worried for me, but I pressured her into saying I was OK. “It was kind of a tug of war between Joan, the doctors and myself. I was anxious to play and said I was all right. I didn’t want my career to go down the tubes.” But Bonvicini was leery of allowing her star forward to return. She received several letters from people whose children, who had the disease, died. The heart ailment cost Cummings a chance at making the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. She had to drop out of the trials last April when she grew short of breath in Colorado Springs’ altitude. It kept her sidelined all summer, too, but she only remained inactive athletically. Cummings spent the summer working at her first job--counseling emotionally disabled children. “Working with those kids was very rewarding,” said Cummings, a psychology major. “I learned so much about their behavior and their ways of life. Their contact with the outside world is very minimal, and it made me appreciate all the contacts I have made.” But the experience didn’t do much for her jump shot and ball-handling skills. When Cummings returned to Long Beach for practice in the fall, she appeared to be healthy and ready to go, but her game was missing. “I had always taken pride in my athletic ability and being better than everyone else, but I began to realize that players on my team were as good as or better than me,” she said. “Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to beat them, and it would be frustrating. “I started blaming everything on the summer and not being able to play. But then, I realized that it wasn’t so much the summer that was holding me back, it was my attitude. So I changed it.”

Although Cummings, who is 6-feet 3-inches, has a malfunctioning valve in her heart and still suffers from periodic chest pains, she has not been slowed this season. Her stamina has returned, and she is helping the third-ranked 49ers to another fine season. Long Beach (10-1) has lost only to No. 1 Old Dominion, and Cummings is averaging 17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds a game. Although those are her best statistics at Long Beach, she doesn’t have to carry the bulk of the 49ers’ offensive load. Sophomore Cindy Brown has emerged as Long Beach’s leading scorer with 21.3 points a game, and Jackie White has been averaging 15.0. “Last year, I had the idea that I had to be the leading scorer,” Cummings said. “I played inside a lot more, too. But now that Cindy is there, I lean more toward the team goal.” Cummings’ all-around talents have much to do with the fact that the 49ers are at worst co-favorites with national champion USC in the Western Collegiate Athletic Assn. However, San Diego State, tonight’s opponent in the 49ers’ first conference game, is 13-3 and ranked 13th.

In her last collegiate trip home, Cummings will be a central figure in a big game.

People who remember her high school career are hardly surprised by the success she has enjoyed at Long Beach.

Cummings did it all at Patrick Henry, where she averaged 36 points and 16 rebounds as a senior and twice was named player of the year in the CIF’s San Diego Section.

The 49ers’ media guide lists Cummings as an All-American candidate, but even if she doesn’t earn that honor this season, she’ll still have had an outstanding career at Long Beach. She entered the season fourth on the 49ers’ scoring and rebounding lists, and she should move up to second in each by season’s end. But her biggest strides at school have occurred off the court. “She’s much more confident in herself, speaking in public and handling social situations,” Bonvicini said. “She used to be very shy and never went to parties. Now, she goes after every game and is the last one to leave. And she’s had a number of boyfriends. She’s not hurting for dates.” Cummings said it’s all been part of growing up. “My freshman year, I’d stay in my room all day and never came out,” she said. “But I’ve learned to open up more. I can relax with people and not feel so hindered by my handicap. That was a big challenge for me, just going out and talking to people. I was never able to do that well.” Leaving home, Cummings said, was a big factor in breaking out of her shell. “Being on my own and independent, I’ve learned to handle my own problems, instead of talking to Mom or Dad,” she said. “I also was a second child, and my sister (Romney) protected me. I was sheltered at home, but not here.” With a psychology degree and athletic background, Cummings believes she will have several choices after college. She would like to be an elementary school teacher, a counselor for deaf children or even a basketball coach. She also is hoping to play professional basketball in Italy next September. “I want to do everything,” she said. “I want to play music well, get into acting, be good in another sport, keep up with my athletics. . . . I want to be myself as much as possible with my friends, and I want to be articulate.” There’s just one thing she’s not sure about. “When I think about it,” I don’t know if I’d want my hearing perfected,” Cummings said. “After being deaf my whole life, changing would be scary. I wouldn’t know what to expect.” But you can bet she would adapt.

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