Surgery to repair herniated disks allows Grizzly forward a chance to play again
Brent Cummings sees basketball from a different perspective these days.
Eight months of limited mobility can shed new light on a lot of things.
"Anything besides laying down really hurt," said Cummings, a fifth-year senior on the Montana men's basketball team. "Sitting was probably the worst and standing, I couldn't stand for more than a couple of minutes at a time without it starting to hurt."
The "it" Cummings refers to is his back. Specifically, a two-level disk herniation in the lower lumbar region. Because the herniated disks were crushing nerves, the pain wasn't limited to his back, it ran all the way down his left leg into the outside of his calf.
"I wanted to get up and do things, but I'd tire so quickly that after awhile I just didn't want to do anything," Cummings said. "It was such a process and an ordeal."
The symptoms first started to manifest following the 2002 season, Cummings' junior year. They gradually worsened to the point that it became apparent it was more than just a muscle strain.
After consulting with what Cummings refers to as his "team" of doctors, including Seattle Seahawks team physician Dr. Stanley Herring, he decided on a conservative course of treatment. Medication and physical therapy isolated and lessened the pain, but only to a point.
"You don't want to use surgery as a quick fix," said Cummings, who sat out all of last season while giving therapy a chance. "You hope your body will figure it out itself. That just wasn't the case with me."
Montana coach Pat Kennedy, who has had back problems himself, figured Cummings had played his last game.
"When I talked to the doctor in Seattle, he told me there's no way he'll play again," Kennedy said. "He said that straight up. He left one thing open and that was if (Cummings) wanted to take serious procedures it would be his only shot. That's the shot he took and it worked."
Cummings finally opted for surgery, which he had last March 24 in Seattle.
"A lot of my decision to have the surgery wasn't based on basketball," Cummings said. "It was based on just wanting to live my life as close to what is was before (the injury) as possible, to be able to do daily activities. I was just trying to be a normal kid again."
The back surgery has allowed Cummings to achieve that goal, but not before a grueling rehabilitation process. First, there was a nine-week, three-phase rehab aimed at merely restoring normal range of motion. Then came the training that has allowed Cummings to return to the court for his final season as a Grizzly.
"I was in Missoula with nothing to do, so I really enjoyed going to rehab," Cummings said. "I had been inactive for so long that it felt good to start sweating and exerting myself and being an athlete again. I was down at certain times, wishing my body would go faster, and I had some residual nerve pain that followed me around. That was kind of frustrating."
Cummings needed time to mend mentally, as well as physically.
"My Missoula physical therapist got my mind right," Cummings said. "We talked about how my body was fixed and now it was just going to be mental, overcoming the fear of pain. There's going to be pain and stuff, you just have to know your body can take it."
Cummings said he has been mostly pain free during the season, although spending 20 hours aboard a bus on a recent road trip to Portland set him back. He spends a lot of time stretching and uses a hot tub to keep loose. Once he's on the court, he feels fine, although you'll see him laying down on the sideline to keep the back from stiffening when he's not in the game.
But Cummings will be the first to admit he's not the same player he was when he averaged 10.1 points while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range as a junior. He's averaging 7.3 ppg and shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc this season, mostly off the bench.
"I'm a different player," Cummings said. "I'm trying to get back to where I was before but I just can't. I'm a smarter player in a lot of respects because I'm older. When you're younger you have more reckless abandon and you do some things I probably wouldn't do now. I'm trying to get a little of that back because it makes you a better player.
"Even when you don't get injured, your game changes a little bit from year to year. Having sat out a year it has to be different. You always like to put up better numbers. I just want to win and that's where any frustration comes from."
The Griz have tasted victory just five times in 16 games this season, although they're 2-2 in the Big Sky Conference heading into Saturday's game at Montana State. Kennedy says Cummings has played a big role in keeping the Grizzlies positive.
"It's been a tough year for us and if we didn't have Brent out there it would be tougher," Kennedy said. "He's held this team together in his own special way. He has a very kind and soft way about him and yet he can be very aggressive athletically. I think that shows there's a real competitor in there and a real fighter in there."
Cummings takes his role as a team leader seriously. He already owns a degree in history and is working toward a master's in the same subject. He's studied the great leaders through time.
"Abraham Lincoln, JFK, FDR, Gandhi, Martin Luther King - amazing people," Cummings said. "How do you become a good leader? You can read a biography, but it's a hard thing to do. There's certain people who just seem to have that charisma.
"I do take it seriously to try to be a leader for the guys since I've been around for a long time. The thing about a leader is they always think they can be a better leader. I'm just trying to find my niche as a leader."
And that may continue once Cummings finishes up his master's degree next fall. Coaching might be in his future.
"He has a very keen knowledge of the game," Kennedy said. "He'd be a terrific coach."
Spending a year off the court brought a lot of things into focus for Cummings.
"I matured a lot last year in several ways," Cummings said. "You learn a lot just observing. It's hard to be a part of the team but all you can do is talk, you can't be out there. Basically I was learning in a way how to coach a team. I was watching Coach Kennedy as much as anybody and learning a lot from a guy who's been coaching for a long time.
"I also learned how going from being very active to inactive can really affect your life in a lot of ways. You take it for granted when you're healthy and when you're not, you don't."
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or by e-mail at email@example.com.