Let’s see now. In his two seasons with the San Diego Clippers, Terry Cummings led the team in scoring with averages of 23.7 and 22.9 points a game. He was Rookie of the Year in the National Basketball Assn. in 1982-83.
With the Milwaukee Bucks this season, Cummings is shooting better than 51%, is averaging nearly 25 points a game, leads the team in rebounds, is second in shot-blocking and is third in steals on a club that prides itself on its defense.
Think how good he will be when he finally learns the game.
Don Nelson, Cummings’ coach, thinks about that a lot, and smiles, noting that Cummings is the most talented player he has ever coached.
Nelson has every right to smile these days. In one fell swoop last September, he landed the power forward the Bucks have needed for about a dozen seasons, unloaded an increasingly burdensome salary and turned what looked like a long-range benefit into instant gratification.
The conventional wisdom on the trade that sent Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings to the L.A. Clippers for Cummings and guards Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce was that the Clippers were getting immediate help but that the Bucks, who also had lost center Bob Lanier to retirement, would have to live with rebuilding pains.
It hasn’t turned out that way.
When last seen, the Bucks, thanks in no small measure to Cummings, were cruising nicely through the season. They rang up one impressive nine-game winning streak, numbering among their victims--in road games--both the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Recently, they beat the Lakers, the best in the West. They are now working on a new seven-game winning streak, have won 16 of their last 19 and are comfortably ensconced in the Central Division lead, as usual.
The Clippers? Well, they may have changed hometowns and they may be somewhat improved, but they still have a tendency to lapse back into the kind of play that the NBA has come to know and take advantage of.
Bridgeman has been all they had hoped he would be, maybe more, but Johnson, hampered by a finger injury in training camp and a pulled hamstring later, has yet to become the force he was with the Bucks. Although Johnson has shown recent signs of a return to form, the Clippers enjoyed their greatest success while he was out of the lineup last month, and he has recently been out of action again with a sprained ankle.
Thus, the early returns give Milwaukee the edge in the swap.
Nelson wouldn’t mind saying that he had planned just such a season for the Bucks, but the fact is, he is as surprised as anyone, with both Cummings’ play and the progress of the Bucks.
“Obviously there are more parts to a team than one, two or three men, but he’s been as big as anything,” Nelson said, relating the two. “It’s hard for me to fathom anybody much better at that (power forward) position than he is.”
Even so, Nelson said, Cummings is not nearly as good now as he can be. “He’s the most gifted player I’ve ever coached, but he’s not the best. Someday, maybe. He’s just beginning to learn the game,” Nelson said.
“He’s always been able to get by on his physical skills. His first statement to me was that he wanted to be an all-around player, like Larry Bird or Dr. J. I said, ‘Great, but it’s going to be a lotta work ‘cause you’re a long way from being there.’ ”
Does that strike an off-chord? How can an established pro star not know the game he has been playing all his life?
Nelson comes back to Cummings’ physical abilities. “He’s been able to go out and play and do just about whatever he’s wanted because of his skills,” Nelson said. " . . . Usually those skills are enough in college, so you don’t spend the extra time to make that player well rounded.
“In the pro game, it’s different--at least here it is--and we strive that every player here know the game.
“Terry’s scoring and rebounding have been great, but I’ve been looking for him to concentrate more on defense and to get his passing skills down and not just rely on physical skills. The other thing with Terry was that his concentration level was very poor. We have an elaborate system here and we do have to have people who can concentrate for long periods of time. . . . We have to have thinking players.”
To that end, Nelson has been on Cummings, hard, since the day Cummings reported.
At one point early this season, Cummings joked that he would have to get a saddle on his back if Nelson were going to continue riding him so hard.
He also said, though, that he is grateful for the learning experience. “I’ve always had the talent,” he said. “This year I sort of went to school and started to learn the game.
“Inwardly, I’m exerting the same amount of energy. The difference is in being in a much more professional atmosphere. I’ve always been able to learn from people who could teach me. In San Diego, I’d just go out and play. It finally got to the point where I didn’t want to learn anything.”
Cummings, who grew up in Chicago and starred at DePaul, worked hard at escaping the Clippers. He reiterated a previous demand to be traded at the Clippers’ media day last fall and got his wish the very next day.
He has no qualms now. “I don’t really feel that bad about it because I put so much into what I’m doing,” he said. “I felt like it was being done in a desert. The Clippers are still in an early franchise situation. In my two years there, the club was just brand new in the league. Everything was pretty unsettled, and the people who seemed to run the team didn’t care. I wanted to get back to the Midwest, but I also wanted to be with an established team. This has worked out great. I’m very comfortable here.”
Cummings probably can thank the Clippers’ move to Los Angeles for his move to Milwaukee. The Clippers needed a hometown draw in Los Angeles, and Johnson, who attended Crenshaw High and UCLA, fit the bill.
That the Bucks would trade Johnson at all surprised some people. He has been one of the league’s premier small forwards, and the Bucks could trace much of their recent success directly to him.
His very stardom, however, made him expendable.
The Bucks are hampered by a small arena and limited television market, which keeps revenues down. In addition, the Milwaukee fan isn’t as willing to pay high ticket prices as the L.A. fan is.
At the start of the 1981-1982 season, Johnson renegotiated his contract so that it increased in value with each subsequent year. This season, for instance, Johnson’s salary is $900,000, but it will escalate to $1.5 million. Simply, he became too expensive for the Bucks.
“We knew when we renegotiated that there would be a time when we couldn’t afford Marques’ contract, and that I would have to make a move,” Nelson said. “When the time came, it all made a lot of sense.”
Indeed it did. Although Cummings’ price will zoom in the future, the Bucks have him now at bargain rates. He still is playing under the terms of his rookie contract with the Clippers, which means he is making $450,000 this season and will make $600,000 next season, the last of the contract.
By then, if Cummings is as fast a learner as Nelson figures he is, the Bucks may have trouble affording him. “The way I judge whether a player is a superstar is not just how well he plays but whether he makes the team’s other players better,” Nelson said. “Terry is doing that here already. That’s one of the big reasons we have been successful this year.”
Cummings also believes he has made a difference. “Every team that’s going to be good has to have a power forward, but I’m much more than that,” he said. “I play as well outside as inside. I have a finesse game, as well as a power game. . . . I’ve always pushed myself to be good, but now I’m pushing myself to be good in an all-around game.
“I’ve rediscovered the fun in basketball, and it’s not just the winning. I feel very happy, very relaxed.”
If there is a cloud in this apparently vast, bright sky, it is a heart problem that at one point was considered a threat to Cummings’ career, if not his life. Even that, however, appears to be under control and does not seem nearly so scary as it once was.
Cummings has arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. In his first two pro seasons he missed eight games because of it, and the Clippers kept oxygen and heart-monitoring machines close at hand during practice and games. Cummings has been taking Amiodarone, an investigational drug, for about the last 18 months, however, and his problems have decreased.
“I haven’t had any trouble recently at all,” he said. “I just have to keep up with my medication and take care of myself. It’s really just a matter of doing what I’m supposed to do.”
At training camp, the Bucks allowed Cummings to skip one of the twice-a-day workouts, but that was largely precautionary, Nelson said. Nelson is careful, however, not to overwork Cummings.
“I started out with the philosophy of playing him 36 minutes a game and making sure those minutes were broken up by rest times,” Nelson said.
“Actually, that’s pretty close to what we normally do with most starters. I play him the first eight minutes of a quarter, give him two or three minutes off, then play him the rest of the quarter and make sure he’s in there the last seven, eight minutes of the game.
“He’s been playing about 33 minutes lately, but that’s just the way it’s worked out. He should be right around 36, but he has played as many as 44-45 minutes and as little as 28. But if I take him out and things start going haywire out there, I don’t hesitate to put him right back in.”
Although Cummings said that he was comfortable with his medication, two Milwaukee doctors suggested that Amiodarone had a slight reputation in the medical world for potential side effects, particularly regarding the lungs and eyes.
Cummings’ heart specialist, Dr. Richard Kehoe of the Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, agreed, but said that only 10% to 15% of patients using the drug might develop side effects, and that Cummings was being closely monitored.
“There is a chance that Amiodarone can initiate pulmonary injury,” Dr. Kehoe said. “That’s the one we’re most scrupulous about.
“Terry has had a real good response, though. He has been able to continue his playing career without the fainting and light-headed episodes that he had in the past. We evaluate him carefully every three months.
“Amiodarone is an investigational drug, not an experimental one. It has been used in Europe for 10 or 15 years, so we know pretty well what to expect. When I say investigational, that means it has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, that its use is limited to certain investigative centers. We report our data back to the FDA.
“There are side effects with every drug. Right now, it doesn’t appear that side effects from long-term use of Amiodarone differ from those of short-term use. There’s a possible eye irritation, a possible halo effect--patients sometimes report seeing things with a ring of light around them--but that’s usually dealt with by a dose reduction. It’s more a nuisance than a danger.
“From what we’ve observed with Terry so far, there’s every reason to believe he could be on it indefinitely.”
Tom Collins, Cummings’ agent in Los Angeles, said that Cummings had been fully advised of the investigational nature of the drug and possible side effects.
“He had to sign a waiver listing about 42,000 possible side effects,” Collins said. “They said it wasn’t that serious but that they had to list everything. I guess the hardest thing is getting the dose right, but they seem to have it right in Terry’s case.”
Apparently they do. Cummings is learning fast, playing better than he ever has, and the Bucks are making the most of it. Those, apparently, are side effects that nobody had really counted on.