A parent’s pride can be an impossible thing to hide during a long conversation, especially when the subject matter is a son or daughter’s success in their chosen profession.
And if it’s a reporter probing that individual for hints of satisfaction, or tidbits that reveal their innermost thoughts on their offspring, dead silence is not what you would expect on the other end of the phone line.
That was certainly the case on Friday morning in Japan, when I dialed up longtime NBA forward Terry Cummings in Atlanta to talk about his son, T.J. For the elder Cummings, it was immediately evident that he’s quite proud of T.J., who has followed in his footsteps as a professional basketball player.
T.J., a UCLA alum, plays for the Sendai 89ers and is the bj-league’s second-leading scorer 22.0 points per game. He was the league’s No. 2 scorer last season (21.1 ppg) while playing for the Oita HeatDevils.
“He really makes the concerted effort to do whatever the coaches have asked him to do,” Terry Cummings told Hoop Scoop, pointing out what I’ve noticed while watching several of T.J.’s games on video or in person. And his on-court intensity level is a characteristic you notice right away when watching a game from start to finish.
A history major at UCLA, T.J. will willingly engage in conversation about any number of topics.
“T.J.’s a pretty cerebral kind of guy,” the proud father revealed. “When you sit down and talk to him, he can talk to you about a lot more than just basketball. Basketball is like anything else in life, it’s connected. The things we do in basketball we can relate to anything else in our life, and the things we do in life we can relate to basketball.”
While the elder Cummings keeps busy as an ordained Pentecostal minister and a musician (gospel, soul and jazz), Sendai’s top scorer has given his father immense pride over the past decade as he’s earned a living as a pro athlete, too.
“He is his own man,” said Terry, who’s putting the finishing touches on his new album “Black Love,” a duet project slated to be released this summer. “My fatherly message (to him): You don’t owe it to anyone else to be me. You earned it yourself to be you. You’ve done all the things you’ve done to be there by the grace of God. You did the work.
“I’m really proud of who he is as a man. He’s established his own game,” Terry added.
Describing the new album’s concept, the 52-year-old said, “It’s not in the sense of cultural love or black folk . . . but a portrait.”
For example, “Love is like a chalkboard. Whatever you put on it, it illuminates,” he added “. . .Intimate, political, spiritual, passion-drive love, whatever kind of love it is, it’s illuminated.”
The elder Cummings’ 18 seasons in the NBA was a unique odyssey. The DePaul University product scored 19,460 points and hauled in 8,630 rebounds in 1,183 regular-season games. He retired 29th on the all-time scoring list, and became one of only eight men to play 18 or more seasons. He averaged 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in his career.
Chosen No. 2 overall by the San Diego Clippers in the 1982 NBA Draft, Cummings earned Rookie of the Year honors (23.7 points and 10.6 rebounds) and then spent one more season with the franchise before it moved to Los Angeles. His career included stops in Milwaukee (1984-89), San Antonio (1989-95), Milwaukee (1995-96) Seattle (1996-97), Philadelphia (1997-98), New York (1997-98) and Golden State (1998-2000).
“The incredible numbers he accumulated on the floor over the years were surpassed only by his professionalism, longevity and desire to be the best,” then-Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean told reporters in October 2000 when Cummings announced his retirement.
Looking back on his father’s almost two-full-decade career as player, it’s clear that T.J. has fond memories of what his father accomplished.
“Well, just growing up around the game as a young boy, my dad played as many years in the league as I am old until he stopped,” he said with a laugh last Sunday in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, after Sendai’s 79-66 loss to the visiting Osaka Evessa. “He stopped when I was 18. . . .
“It was great, man. A lot of children asked me what was different about having a dad that was in the league. I was like, ‘I don’t know anything different. This is my life. But it was a great opportunity to be able to go to rebound (at the arena). I was the ball boy, and then I worked my way up to going to the health club and working with the real pros, and so it really helped me out as far as just hands-on — he was able to show me stuff in different situations.”
T.J. recalls meeting Paul Pressey, David Robinson, Dwayne Schintzius and Detlef Schrempf, all teammates of his father’s. And one longtime Spur offered advice that still resonates to this day: “I remember Sean Elliott showing me how diligent you had to be to be a good shooter.”
Before last weekend’s 89ers-Evessa contests, T.J. and Evessa coach Bill Cartwright, whose long NBA career overlapped with Terry’s, embraced and said a few words to each other. After Sunday’s game, Cartwright gave a succinct analysis of the Cummings men.
“They are different players, different positions. His dad was more of a strictly face-up guy, he would put his back to the basket,” said Cartwright, a center by trade.
Coaches may look insanely focused before a game as they prepare their charges for what lies ahead. Yet for T.J. two games in late March were a highlight of a rocky season for him that started with the Akita Northern Happinets (12 games) and continues with the 89ers, who are 16-26 through March 24.
“So it’s refreshing and it’s like, random to be able to go out there and see Bill Cartwright’s coaching the other team in Japan,” admitted T.J. “It’s just a great opportunity to just be able to meet up with him as a grown-up.”
Observing the 205-cm’s T.J.’s style, Cartwright said, “He is a good player. He’s big, he’s got good size. So I’m sure he can do whatever he wants.”
But, unlike his father, T.J.’s pro career has taken him on a different path — to China, the NBA Development League, South Korea and Japan since it began in 2004.
At first, “yes, it was disappointing,” T.J. said, “because I heard a lot of chatter of possibilities (about playing in the NBA), but none stuck so I started playing overseas and started taking care of my family.”
Nearing a full decade as a pro, though, has given him pride, too, “just knowing that I have been consistent, as well as getting better, and having been blessed with a resilient body.”
As he’s matured, T.J. cherishes the memories of his father’s NBA career and viewed him as an ideal role model “because he was first my dad and second an enforcer, a leader and team mentor.
“I always strived to be like my dad as a young boy. When I got older, I realized that I could only be myself, which made me more successful. . .
“My parents have always been very supportive of whatever I do. My dad always wanted me to find the game myself, and when I was ready he would give me all the help I needed to be the best I could.”
Nowadays, though, he also admits great admiration for the way Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant excels on the court.
Before exiting Bayside Arena last Sunday and making the journey back to Sendai, T.J. said there’s no magic formula for what ails the 89ers. Instead, he pointed out, “I think we need to keep fighting and get as many wins as possible . . . and let our play speak for itself.”
For him personally, this agenda is simple. “I just try to be aggressive, play good defense and shut my man down and grab rebounds.”
Naturally, his father would approve of those on-court tactics.
And over the years Terry Cummings instructed his three sons — Antonio and Sean are the others — that the game was much more than putting up points in a hurry.
“They knew they could score and once they knew that, I told them how to make everyone around them better,” Terry told me during our phone conversation.
T.J. regularly sought out ways to elevate his game by asking his father.
“In high school and college, he would ask me questions like, ‘How did you get yourself going in a game?’ I would always tell him by doing the little things — rebounding, taking a charge, something that gets everybody going,” Terry revealed. “Those things will get you in a game quicker than anything.”
T.J. says capturing an NBA D-League title with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds and winning his first dunk contest at age 29 in South Korea as career highlights, while in Japan he cited earning player of the month and weekly MVP accolades back to back as “some great things I cherish.”
And while both men are passionate about what they do, it all comes back to father and son enjoying one of life’s simple pleasures: communication.
“I really do miss him,” Terry Cummings said, adding he’s really looking forward to his next conversation with T.J.S