Welcome to Interview #37.
Today we have a special interview. I am convinced a successful college athletic career can positively impact the rest of your life. I want you to look beyond the scholarship and make your decisions by also looking at the bigger picture. Sometimes when we look back it’s easier to see that big picture. So today let’s look back with Kirsten Cummings. Kirsten or Coach ‘K’ as she is known by her players has a remarkable story and remarkable ladies she is now coaching.
Coach ‘K’s story begins, not as a coach but as a recruit. You see, years ago Kirsten Cummings was a high school player being recruited by Coach Joan Bonvicini whose interview you read last week. Today, Coach Bonvicini is the women’s basketball coach at Seattle University. But back when she recruited and coached Kirsten, she was coaching at Long Beach State.
I don’t want to make you feel old, but have to ask: What years did you play women’s basketball at Long Beach State for Coach Bonvicini?
Age is just a number. Keep in mind, at 52, I still play basketball every week against women who are 40+ and all the way up to their 70’s. Ask them if they are old. . . 🙂
Can you tell us about your experience being recruited out of high school to play at a Division 1 school?
At the time, San Diego’s high schools girls’ basketball teams didn’t start their season until March – which was the peak of college recruiting season. So I hadn’t yet started my senior year when I was being recruited. The college coaches had to go by my junior year stats (25ppg, 12rpg) and honors (SD CIF Player of the Year) when they recruited me. So honestly, I didn’t have very many schools recruiting me because they never heard of me. But I did narrow it down to UNLV, Oregon, UCLA and Long Beach. All of the assistant coaches from these schools came down to watch my games. They couldn’t talk to me, but they talked to my dad a lot.
How did you make your decision to attend Long Beach State?
While I was being recruited my dad asked me a question I’ll never forget, “Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond?” He was referring to schools as a pond and playing time like a fish. I thought about it for a few seconds and replied, “I want to be a big fish in a big pond”. So I looked at the basketball programs (some were pretty good) and then the players and coaching staff.
I narrowed it down to UCLA and Long Beach (mostly because it was near San Diego), and went on campus visits. Joan Bonvicini greeted me and stayed with me for most of the visit. She was relaxed, funny, serious, and laughed a lot. I enjoyed the players.
Then I went to UCLA where I met Billie Moore in her office. Billie was all business, very serious. She asked me, “Do you think you are good enough to play here?” I didn’t know how to respond, and I don’t remember what I said, but immediately I was intimidated by her. I wasn’t comfortable.
So Long Beach it was! I went with what I felt. UCLA had a much better tradition with a winning coach. But I felt comfortable at Long Beach which had an untested but growing program and coaching staff that was good and ambitious. We would soon be ranked in the top 10 for about eight years. In my time there, we never lost to UCLA.
Your senior year you were an All American in a NCAA Division 1 top ten program. I am sure that is not how it started. What was your freshman year like?
Long Beach was in the process of building a program, originally led by Kim Maddox and then carried by LaTaunya Pollard, the best basketball player in the country at that time. When I came in the team was filled with seniors and LaTaunya who was a junior. So I got to play with players who were experienced and poised. This was huge to my development as a player.
Joan had the confidence to start me as a freshman, but it was the seniors who willingly accepted me on the team and as a starter. I focused mostly on defense and rebounding and left the offense to be run by the more experienced players. Although I tried my best at all times, I didn’t try to lead or be the best. I watched, learned and worked hard. From that experience, I was able to lead and respect the other great players who were later recruited onto the team.
When I was a junior, Joan recruited Cindy Brown who eventually became an All-American and later it was Penny Toler. The strength in that Long Beach dynasty was Joan’s recruiting ability, her fantastic eye for talent and her ability to laugh with us.
Now that some time has passed, what are your favorite memories? What stands out as most important about your time playing for Coach Bonvicini?
Joan’s belief in me was the key to my success. I had good athletic talent, good skills (thanks to good coaches), and a good focus on my game. But it takes confidence and courage to take it to the next level.
I had the physical game but Joan gave me the platform so that I could develop my emotional game with confidence and courage. But mind you, she didn’t favor me over the other players. She simply said, go out and do your job. Joan paid attention to all of her players. She doesn’t always treat them equally, but she was always fair and gave them what they needed – whether it is tough love or a simple nod. She knew what I needed and the rest is history. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Joan also never let us take for granted the scholarships we were given. She drilled in us the history before Title Nine came into effect. The shoes we were given, the uniforms that we had cleaned for us, the education we received for free were things that women before our time didn’t have the luxury of having. I have never forgotten Joan’s message – Don’t forget to respect what is given to you.
As for a fun memory, I remember Joan had the whole team over to her house for a team bonding event. She has a lot of pride of her Italian heritage and, true to her tradition, she cooked pasta. Then she took strands of pasta and flung it on the wall to test it doneness. We were so shocked and laughed so hard that it was suddenly a great team moment that we had. Needless to say, by the time we left the house, I’m sure Joan had to spend the night cleaning the walls!
How has your experience playing college basketball impacted your life?
As a deaf person growing up in a hearing world, I was constantly trying to catch up and function like a hearing person would. Envisioning a future was difficult to conceive. Playing college ball helped me realize my talent and gave me the realization that I can be successful on my own. It gave me the first real blueprint of what my future was going to be like.
After graduation, what happened over the next, say, 14 years?
After college I went overseas and played professionally for 12 years (Italy, France, Japan, Israel and Germany) and two years in the American Basketball League here in the States (Richmond and Philadelphia Rage). It led me to have the experience of a lifetime – living in different cultures, learning new languages, understanding human nature worldwide – all through basketball.
Isn’t that fantastic?! In that time I was able to learn how to channel all of my experiences into my basketball game. I became a much better player as a pro than I ever was in college. I learned not only how to be a great player but to also help my teammates become better. I learned that no matter how good I was, there was always something to learn and improve on. You can always dig deeper.
I heard from Coach Bonvicini you are 80% deaf. Can you talk about the struggles and growth you have achieved throughout your career because of this additional challenge?
I’m actually about 90% deaf and have been since birth. My parents chose to lead me into a hearing world where I would get by with speech therapy and lip reading. I’m very fortunate that I do very well with hearing aids so this route ended up being a great choice.
It wasn’t easy. My deafness wasn’t discovered until I was two so my communication skills were severely delayed. It resulted in lots of frustrations and temper tantrums trying to understand everyone and to be understood.
Eventually, though my communication skills improved and I began to connect better with those around me. Sports was something I discovered when I was nine, playing Bobby Sox softball. I was immediately drawn to it. I didn’t have to speak or listen. I could watch and mimic. I developed a great sense of focus. Sports became my language and I was good at it.
Being on sports team had its challenges. Basketball is a very fast and reactive sport, dependent on excellent communication between teammates. I couldn’t hear my teammates calling out for a screen, or what Joan would be saying from the sidelines. So I had to be extra visual. I developed what some coaches call a sixth sense in basketball. I had better awareness of what was happening around me. I looked for that screen behind me and I could lip read and read her emotions when Joan coached me from the sidelines. (Yes, it is true, if I didn’t want to hear her criticism, I wouldn’t look at her!)
To put people at ease sometimes I would make fun of my deafness. One time we were playing against our major rival USC at home in Long Beach. It was a very close game and just a few seconds left on the clock. I was to shoot free throws. The USC fans were whistling and hooting, trying to distract me. I looked over at them, turned off my hearing aids, took a deep breath, and sank both free throws. The Long Beach fans went wild. They knew what I was doing. It was a pretty cool moment. Oh, yes, we won the game.
At the beginning we hinted that you were coaching a remarkable bunch of ladies. Can you tell everybody what you are doing now with Silver Swan Sport Coaching?
After I retired from pro basketball at the age of 36, I didn’t know what my next career would be. All I knew was that I grew up living my passion in sports. It took a few years to discover my new passion, but I eventually knew I wanted to work with senior athletes.
My business, Silver Swan Training, is focused on training and coaching men and women over 50 years of age. Senior athletes, like me, have certain limits but also a great sense of passion. Their limitations were either undeveloped sports skills or lack of strength and flexibility to play their sport without getting injured. Perhaps because I faced this as a child trying to speak even though I couldn’t hear, I felt these athletes could learn to play even though their skills were undeveloped.
In coaching I discovered I had a tremendous sense of patience and the ability to see the process that would best help them learn. The satisfaction I get from my work is beyond anything I could imagine. My oldest player is now 90 and she is still playing!
But I didn’t stop there. I saw what we have here in San Diego is pretty unique, so I wanted to take it to other cities across the US. So I founded and run a non-profit organization called the National Senior Women’s Basketball Association (NSWBA). The NSWBA helps women 50+ find a place to play basketball and/or help them set up a league in their city.
I also co-founded a charitable enterprise called the National Senior Athletes Association (NSAA). The NSAA is a resource center for anyone who wants to play sports and/or stay fit for the rest of their lives.
How can we see athletics as a lifelong benefit?
Sports can be played at any age. The key is to not only take care of your body but also to continually seek improvement in all areas of your life. Sports, like life, demands things from us. It demands the commitment to improve, the courage to bring out the best in us and the willingness to be honest with ourselves and others. When my 80 year olds are asked why they keep playing, the most common response is, “It gives me a purpose and connects me to my friends”.
Finally, Coach ‘K’ here is a bonus question: What advice would you give to the high school athlete who plans to take their game to the college level?
If you are given the opportunity to do what you love, then give it all and respect where you come from. The journey you have in college will be the first step of the rest of your life. It is up to you to make the best of it, no one else.
To go to any of Kirsten Cumming’s websites click on the links above or on the URL’s below.
I am always glad to see you at the end of the post. If you enjoyed the interview, please click on one of the sharing is caring buttons.