Almost every player in the National Basketball Association can shoot as though he has a government-issued gunsight mounted on his forehead. So the way you separate the greats from the near-greats in this league is by their rebounding skills.
Centers, because of their exceptional height and constant proximity to the basket, obviously enjoy an advantage in this department. But if you are looking for the prototype rebounder among NBA forwards, there aren't many better than 6 ft. 9 in. Terry Cummings of the San Diego Clippers.
Rebounding on defense, of course, means coming up with your opponent's missed shot. Often this means trying to gauge a crazy carom off the rim or backboard.
The theory in pro basketball is that every time a team gains possession of a defensive rebound it is worth four points - the two your opponent doesn't get and the two you are going to score at the other end of the court. And while this is far from a certainty, it happens often enough to make dependable rebounders worth their weight in computers.
Cummings, last season's NBA Rookie of the Year, is the kind of personality who comes to play hard every night. He can overpower an opponent physically or he can city-slick him with his finesse. The one thing an opponent guarding Cummings should never do is look away from his man, because by the time he looks back Terry will be laying the ball in the basket.
Asked what it takes to be a top rebounding forward, Cummings replied: ''I think the main thing is personal motivation. You have to want to do it because it takes so much out of you physically. I don't mean just the running and the jumping. I mean the number of times you exchange a hand in the face or an elbow in the ribs to gain possession of the basketball. It tends to grate on you after awhile because it happens every night. But if you are going to be a successful rebounder in this league, you have to learn to live with it.''
Offensively, Cummings has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket or beat his opponent with a pull-up jumper. Last year, playing in 70 of 82 games, Terry scored 20 or more points 52 times, hitting 30 or more on 11 of those occasions. Meanwhile, only four forwards in the league grabbed more rebounds than Cummings, who finished with 744, an average of more than 10 per game.
''Since I was an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons last year, I didn't see Terry over the full NBA schedule,'' said Don Chaney, who joined the Clippers this year in a similar capacity. ''But now that I've had a chance to observe him on a regular basis, he's even better than I thought he was.
''Even though players will tell you that rebounding is mostly hard work, there is a lot of skill that goes into it too,'' Chaney continued. ''For example , you can grab a rebound while you're still in the air and then have it stripped out of your hand on the way down if you're not careful. That's what's so great about Terry. What he gets, he keeps.''
Cummings, even as a rookie, showed enough maturity and enough court sense to perform well every night. He's looked upon by the Clippers as a multiple talent who can help them offensively three different ways.
That would be with a reliable outside shot, the skills to beat almost any rival one-on-one, and his ability to produce in the clutch. When one basket could be the difference between victory and defeat, San Diego likes to put Terry to work in the post position.
Unfortunately Cummings hasn't had many opportunities to win games this year. The Clippers, off to a slow 8-17 start, find themselves in the Pacific Division cellar. Individually, however, Cummings has done his part by leading the team in both scoring and rebounding.
Questioned about his role as the only ordained Pentecostal minister in a league where in recent years there has been a sharp increase in reported cases of alcohol and drug abuse, Cummings replied:
''I don't think there is a player in the NBA who is afraid of me or what I might say regarding drugs because they must know by now that I don't judge people. The fact is, even in instances where I know something is going on that shouldn't be going on, I won't push myself on the player. They have to come to me for help, and what happens is that we usually have a counseling or rap session together. Mostly I'm there if somebody in trouble needs me, which right now is about as far as I feel I can go.''