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The Best College Player Under 7'4"

Praise the Lord and pass the ball to Terry Cummings, who is DePaul's Ralph Sampson

At home the telephone rings in Apartment 211, McCabe Hall. As always, Terry Cummings answers with this greeting: "Praise the Lord." On the basketball court for the DePaul Blue Demons, Cummings, as always, sets up along the foul lane, holds his position steady as an oak, receives the pass and turns to shoot. Mark it down: two. In brief, the DePaul story this year is that Terry Cummings praises the Lord, and his teammates pass him the ammunition.

An ordained Pentecostal minister of the fundamentalist Church of God In Christ, Cummings has spread a new kind of gospel for 20-1 DePaul this winter in the form of dignity and serenity, not to mention points, rebounds and virtual domination of nearly all he has surveyed. The result is that his team has not merely endured the departure of All-America Mark Aguirre; it has rallied, prospered and, after two close, pulsating victories last week over St. Joseph's, 46-44 in overtime, and Marquette, 67-66, it seemed to be, why, born again as well.

"Now Terry's not perfect, understand; he's not an apostle or anything," says DePaul freshman Walter Downing, a Cummings basketball disciple. Yet Cummings has contrived to fashion about as perfect a season as anybody could want. A 22.2 points-per-game average and 11.7 rebounds. Team leadership in steals. A shooting percentage of 56.7. Moreover, Cummings is the absolute ruler of a team that would be undefeated and most certainly No. 1 were it not for an early California breakdown when the Blue Demons lost track of Cummings and lost a game to UCLA 87-75. It is his inopportune fortune that the path to glory and player-of-the-year honors for this 6'9", 223-pound forward/center Christian/gladiator should be overcast by the shadow of another Biblical (if in near name only) personage, Ralph Sampson of Virginia. For, verily, Cummings hath wrought a finer campaign.

It is one thing to be 7'4" or 7'8" or whatever the wondrous Sampson may be and to perform spectacularly on national TV while sometimes cruising in lesser games. It is quite another to work one's rear off, as well as everyone else's, oft-times playing out of natural position, and at the same time attempt to make over the attitude and image of an entire team. Sampson is the supreme college star; Cummings is both star and evangelist.

Who would have believed, for example, that cheeky, insolent DePaul, so long in the thrall of the loafing, whining pudge, Aguirre, would turn into a hustling, striving crew of joyful contributors? Who would have figured that the slothful, long-pampered Blue Demons would work diligently, respond to orders and get their act together? That they would be imbued with a sense of respect for the opponent? Who in his right mind would have imagined that Bernard (Dolph) Randolph—who is greeted at the Rosemont Horizon arena by the theme song from Flipper—would take off his woollen knit cap and Walkman earphones long enough to listen to Coach Ray Meyer at shooting practice?

If anyone honestly presumed that without Aguirre (now of the Dallas Mavericks) or the backcourt generalship of Clyde Bradshaw (briefly with Atlanta), DePaul would be once-beaten and ranked No. 2 in the SI poll and would have accomplished all this with grace and conscientiousness, let him take a bow. Overnight the distinguished Rev. Cummings. who is alone responsible for the change, has transformed the DePaul character from Fat Albert to Prince Albert. "I owe Terry a lot. He makes practice interesting and coaching fun," says Meyer. "Terry Cummings has made us a college team again."

DePaul may be an even better team than the previous two editions, which struggled to stay interested during 26-1 and 27-1 regular seasons only to flop in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Asked to evaluate Cummings' abilities vis-√†-vis Aguirre's, an NBA scout said last week that as terrific a player as Aguirre was and will be—he has been out of the Maverick lineup for two months, having broken the little toe on his right foot—Cummings makes a team just as good "and a lot happier."

Only recently Cummings himself suggested to Aguirre that his older friend had wasted a year, that he should have turned pro after his sophomore season. "All the players complained because Mark was dominating the ball," Cummings says, "but he was just getting shots that were his anyway because it was so easy for him. He outgrew the game, there was no competition for him. This wasn't a coachable atmosphere. I know it was a waste of my time. I was confused about my position and my place, more depressed than anything. It's hard for me to be anything but a leader."

A leader? The face is the tip-off. Cummings is stern, elegant, proud. The high cheekbones, strong jaw and slit eyes in an expressionless countenance give him the look of some magnificent Indian warrior—Tecumseh, perhaps.

Cummings is married and the father of Robert Tyrell Cummings II; his wife, Vonnie, is a receptionist in the DePaul athletic offices. Cummings teaches a Bible class at DePaul. Some Sunday nights he preaches at the Starks Temple on Chicago's South Side. In the off-season he holds revival meetings replete with charismatic healing.

Last week Cummings' powerful bass rang out through a vast conference room on campus in learned explanation of demonology (no kin to Blue Demonology). In the Bible class a circle of fellow born-again Christians joined hands. Then Cummings quoted from Acts and prayed. "Stay with those out on the deep end. Lord. They are shirking responsibility...."

If Cummings had a single resentful bone in his body, he might have felt slighted by the anonymity he endured during the Aguirre days. Instead, he found solace in prayer and preaching and, not incidentally, in the development of his rippling torso. Last summer he ravaged a Chicago playground league and refined his jump shot from 10 feet and beyond.

Before this rededication, Cummings was so frustrated as to consider leaving DePaul for full-time service in the ministry. The wrinkled Meyer, rosary clicking in his pocket, reminded Cummings that he was quite religious himself and guaranteed the player he could comfortably combine good works and good rebounding. ("Both are desire." Meyer says.) So long, of course, as God didn't go into overtime and oblige Cummings to miss daily practices.

DePaul Assistant Coach Joey Meyer says that a comparison of last year's films with this year's shows an enormous change in Cummings. "A totally different player—totally," says Meyer fils. "It's like the chains have been broken. Terry's so much better, it's scary."

After averaging 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds as a freshman, Cummings was rigid, stiff, mechanical as a sophomore. He played tentatively, wondering what Aguirre would do next, and his averages slipped to 13.3 and 9.1. Critics questioned Cummings' lateral reactions, his ability to guard people out on the floor. He never got into the rhythm of the season; once he cost DePaul a game by donating an in-bounds pass to Old Dominion, which led to the Demons' only regular-season loss. Cummings' weight dropped from 223 to 205, leaving him weak and vulnerable in the stretch run.

This time around, as co-captain and main cog, Cummings has been loose, relaxed, more fluid. He's been confidently burying that sudden, turnaround J coming from somewhere behind his collarbone, and if it happens to miss, he has been known to clear the glass and ram the ball home. Surely he is the quickest, best offensive rebounder anywhere—"I marvel at Terry on the oh-fensive boards," the elder Meyer says—and he effectively covers opponents defensively with sometimes no more than a withering glare. The best thing about his play, however, may be that the Cummings of big games—volunteering for dirty work, accomplishing important little things, bucking up his youthful confreres and contributing solid effort every solid minute—is precisely the Terry Cummings of daily practices.

"No matter what has happened, Terry always has played hard." Joey Meyer says. "Before, he couldn't take over this team because he couldn't dominate Mark. But his leadership was always just below the surface. Now he thrives on it. He's inspired by it. He's the Man."

The Blue Demons' other co-captain. Skip Dillard, best explains this in the vernacular. "When you the Man. you have the say-so about what you do and when you do it and you get no argument," Dillard says. "When you the Man, you can be in a slump and still take the 10 extra jumpers and get back on your game and nobody says nothing. It's a confidence builder, a big booster, when you the Man."

If he wasn't the Man before, with his 23 points and 19 rebounds against Purdue or his yeoman work (20 and 12) in the UCLA defeat, Cummings achieved the office against Louisville on Dec. 26. DePaul was searching for a hook to hang its confidence on when the Cardinals ran up a 33-29 halftime lead. Then Cummings took over. Majestically rising above the crowd, he kept applying in-their-facial massages to all those flapping Cardinal leapers; he made seven of eight field goals and nine of 10 free throws in the second half and finished with 37 points and 19 rebounds in a 75-68 De-Paul victory. And he played the final 7:57 with four fouls.

If Cummings is Achilles and fouling is his heel, he copes. Against Syracuse, he picked up his fourth with 1:13 left in the first half; he sat out exactly 1:06. Seven seconds remained in the half when Meyer put Cummings back in to take the last shot. "You can't do this." Joey Meyer screamed at his father. "Yes I can," said the old man, literally shoving his kid aside. Well, it was Dillard who fired, and he missed, but no matter. Cummings stayed in the game the entire second half, scored seven more baskets, finished with 22 points and DePaul won 92-87. "If we're going to finally win this thing [the NCAAs] Terry has to learn to play with four fouls," Ray Meyer says.

In a sport of shuck 'n' jive tempera-mentalists. Cummings is a placid, button-down guy. Amid a cast of enough adolescent, headphone-wearing rock 'n' boppers to stage a Sony dribbling commercial, Cummings listens to "progressive Gospel music" (The Winans, Andre Crouch) and gives the baby his bottle. Cummings knows all about family, being the fifth of 13 children born to John and Berda Cummings. His father, a city maintenance employee, moved the family from Hammond, Ind. to Chicago when Terry was an infant, and he grew up playing in what the kids called "Little City," which was an area just below what is now Skip Dillard's dormitory room.

After his family crossed town to the South Side, Cummings played ball at Carver High. One day Cummings met a boy named McFadden. McFadden went around school saying, "Jesus loves you," Cummings told McFadden he knew that. But Cummings really didn't know, and it ate away within him. At 16 Cummings' life became chaotic: he skipped classes, was difficult with his family, baited referees, got kicked out of games, used profanity, and impregnated a young girl. Back in Hammond at his grandmother's house, he discovered salvation one summer morn following a dream in which God arrived on earth to collect His chosen ones. "Take me, I'm yours," Cummings shouted in his sleep. But Cummings was left behind. At dawn a ray of light shone into the room, and when Cummings awoke and saw it, he says, his life was changed forever. "I know it sounds weird, but the Lord talks to me a lot," Cummings says. "In games, in practice, class. He's why I'm here. I had decided to go to Iowa, but the Lord said DePaul."

Traditional Catholics might have a difficult time dealing with this tale, but it is to the credit of both Cummings and DePaul that new religion and old can commingle with humor and respect. In response to the story of the Lord's recruitment of Cummings, Joey Meyer says, "Terrific. I'll have to send Him a thank-you note." Cummings once inquired of the younger Meyer if he had to use bad language, yet Cummings has become conditioned to teammates' locker-room blasphemy and now he merely ignores it. Cummings did, however, put his foot down when DePaul P.A. announcer Jim Riebandt asked if he might call him "Rev." in the introductions. "Too many people play with that sort of thing." Cummings says.

Determined. Courageous. Intimidating. Cummings has been all of these in his walk away from the wild side. "This kid carried his Bible around in high school. In the ghetto" says a local Baptist minister. "A kid does that, you don't question his sincerity; you give him three days to live. At DePaul Terry was vocal and didn't back down. 'Yeah, guys, Jesus did it for me.' He sang in a black choir. But it's lonely out there. Those basketball dudes were cold!"

Cummings claims his awkward reception at DePaul was a result of the fact that he was a rookie and not because he was into religion. Surely nobody was about to test this monstrously strong choirboy over any supposed pacifistic leanings. Cummings has never squared off to fight anyone, but after Missouri's Steve Stipanovich elbowed him in the nose in their freshman season, Cummings grabbed him by the shoulders and heaved him to the floor. "He made me mad enough to drive him into the stands," says Cummings. "I deserved the foul. After the game I asked the Lord to forgive me."

"T.C. shows an arrogance even when he's turning the other cheek." says Dillard. "Can you believe anybody would mess with him? The man's got muscles popping out of his eyelashes."

It is hard to imagine that Cummings once wasn't in the DePaul plans. His astounding progress is better perceived when set against the sad story of Teddy Grubbs, a more publicized and sought-after Chicago high school flash who entered DePaul with Cummings, replaced him in the first half of their fourth varsity game and proceeded to score 28 points as the Blue Demons beat UCLA. "I don't know who's gonna sit, Teddy or somebody else," Cummings told Ray Meyer after that game, "but I'm gonna play." Three games later Cummings scored 31 points and had 20 rebounds against Loyola; Grubbs's starshine immediately faded. Moreover, as Cummings flourished, Grubbs's career has spiraled downward to the point where, plagued by personal problems, he has not appeared at practice or in a game since Feb. 2 and is reportedly receiving psychiatric treatment.

This DePaul family tragedy momentarily was put aside last week as the Blue Demons, shrugging off what appeared to be early signs of their annual NCAA tournament panic, barely beat two of their Catholic school brethren. In both cases—Cummings being Cummings—divine intervention may also have occurred.

At home against its NCAA conqueror of last season, St. Joe's, DePaul was outplayed and outfoxed again until a Big Ten referee whistled Hawk hero Brian Warrick out of the game (on two fouls 36 seconds apart) with 2:11 to go in regulation. Cummings won that one in overtime by lunging after a DePaul air-ball shot with two seconds to go and powering it in at the buzzer. On Saturday the Warriors of Marquette held Cummings scoreless from the field in the first half and rolled everything at him but the city's snowplows in the second. Cummings won this one by making five baskets and 14 of 14 free throws for 24 points as DePaul staggered to another blowout.

"All those prayers did it for you, right, Terry?" DePaul Assistant Coach Ken Sarubbi joked in the locker room. Cummings had been bruised, battered, beaten up; he had been hit with a roll of toilet paper thrown from the stands. Composed, at peace, he never batted a muscular eyelash.

"I don't react to all this petty stuff," Cummings said. "I just tell myself who I am and who I represent. I play in the name of Jesus and I want people to remember that." Terry Cummings figures he knows who the Man really is.



Cummings' 24 points helped 20-1 DePaul squeeze past tenacious Marquette 67-66.



When Cummings goes to the stained glass, he's after something more than rebounds.



An ordained minister, Cummings conducts a Bible study group with fellow students.



Cummings' wife, Vonnie, and son, Robert, are two treasures in his well-ordered life.