Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 24 News List

UCLA's Cummings makes grade so he can play the game

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN

In his first game as a collegian, on the famous floor of Madison Square Garden, T.J. Cummings scored 24 points in 29 minutes against Kansas. As a sophomore, he made 11 of 12 shots in a thumping of South Carolina.

Cummings also went to the Sweet 16 twice. But none of his experiences in his first three years of college was as satisfying and fulfilling as what took place earlier this month.

Needing to pass four classes on UCLA's quarter system -- many other schools operate by semesters -- Cummings ditched his basketball for his books after being declared academically ineligible the first four games.

"When I was finding out my grades, it was the most exciting feeling I've had in a long time," said UCLA's 6-foot-9, 225-pound senior power forward. "To have to sit out the first part of my last season, that made it even tougher on me. To overcome that, it's something that I will remember the rest of my life. It feels wonderful."

Everyone associated with the Bruins program said, to varying degrees, Cummings was unsuspecting and devastated upon learning he was academically ineligible after the summer session.

Cummings, who will play his third game today at Michigan, was allowed to practice with the Bruins (4-2). But because of his academic status, he admitted to feeling partially removed from the team.

During practice, Cummings split time as a backup with Josiah Johnson. Teammates continually checked up on Cummings' progress in the classroom, and Bruins director of basketball operations Chris Carlson had basically hourly check-ins to make sure Cummings remained on target to regain his eligibility.

When game-time rolled around, Cummings was either in dress clothes at the end of the bench or back at his room, studying for finals.

"I really can't make any excuses for the way the grade thing came out in the first place," Cummings said. "That really affected me because I've never really been in that situation before. It was something I never wanted to feel again. It was a really tough time for me."

And just for a final hurrah to drive home the frustration and severity of the penalty, Cummings completed his course work two days before the Bruins hosted Loyola Marymount on Dec. 13. He was confident he attained the necessary grades in all four classes, including what several UCLA students said was a difficult geology class, but couldn't play because the grade wasn't yet posted.

In fact, Cummings' wasn't cleared by the university until hours before tipoff of UCLA's one-point loss to UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 17.

"Being a basketball player, if you're not on the court, you're not able to do what you love," Cummings said. "You do the school work so you can play."

Cummings, a history major, now splits his attention between academics and basketball. He doesn't envision any more questions regarding his eligibility, and is feeling his way through coach Ben Howland's structured system.

In his first game back against UCSB, Cummings made all five of his shots and scored 14 points. He added 13 points in the victory against Michigan State.

"T.J.'s played very well considering he's been out all this time," Howland said. "The thing I'm most pleased about with T.J. is he's letting the game come to him offensively. I can't remember one bad shot he's taken in two games."

Which perhaps is why Cummings, a career 48-percent shooter from the field, has made 11 of 16 field-goal attempts in two games.

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