James Cummings' journey: playing horse across the country
A survivor. A challenger. An inspiration.
All three of these words fittingly describe James E. Cummings Jr.
Anyone who frequently visits the intramural gyms at MSU to play pick-up basketball knows Cummings, even if they think they don’t.
The 75-year-old East Lansing resident and MSU alumnus often makes trips to campus to take on challengers — who are young enough to be his grandchildren — in basketball.
Cummings isn’t picky when it comes to hoops.
Even at his advanced age, he won’t hesitate to engage in a physically-draining game of one-on-one, designed to test mental fortitude, or even to sprint up and down the hardwood with energetic youngsters in a full court game of 5-on-5.
But the game in particular Cummings enjoys playing the most is horse, a game he has mastered. The rules of the game are simple: if you make a shot, then your opponent must make the exact same type of shot. If they fail to do so, they receive a letter. Whoever collects the letters to spell out the word “horse” first loses.
While the rules of the game are simple, defeating Cummings is another story. Few have been able to top the 75-year-old this decade he’s been playing it. And along the way, Cummings has been able to touch the lives of his challengers, not only through playing the game of basketball, but through sharing his story.
A story of a man who was given a second chance at life.
On Dec. 18, 2011, Cummings almost lost his life while doing what he loves most.
Cummings was in Gym 2 at IM-Sports West when his heart abruptly stopped beating following a game of pick-up basketball.
He suffered a heart attack on the court.
While being treated at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, it was discovered through a cardiatric catheterization procedure that Cummings had a major blockage of his left anterior descending artery, or LAD. The type of heart attack Cummings suffered is commonly referred to as the “Widowmaker” because of its low survival rate.
“He had one artery that was occluded and we ended up opening it up with a stent, subsequently his heart function returned back to normal,” said cardiologist at Sparrow Hospital Dr. Carlos Fernandez, who treated Cummings and helped enter him into the hospital’s cardiovascular rehabilitation program.
Cummings’ heart wasn’t Fernandez’s only concern. While Cummings has since made a full recovery, Fernandez initially worried the cardiac arrest he had suffered could have had lingering effects on another important organ.
“We were concerned with his brain function because we didn’t know how long he was down, but apparently CPR had been started appropriately over at MSU, and that was probably the most beneficial thing to his life,” Fernandez said.
Cummings’ competitive vigor for the sport wasn’t formed at MSU, however. Instead, the passion for the game was instilled in him while he was growing up in the heart of America’s automotive industry.
Cummings said he was by no means a basketball prodigy—which might come as a surprise to those who have played him in horse during the last decade.
“I was not what you would call a proficient shooter or a very accurate shooter,” Cummings said. “I was like most youngsters at the time, I was just trying to do the best I could, trying to put the ball through the hoop with not very much success.”
“The fundamentals were very important with Coach Robinson,” Cummings said. “He drilled the fundamentals into you,.”
Robinson’s teachings stuck with Cummings even long after he took an elongated hiatus from playing basketball—a hiatus that spanned four decades. When Cummings made his way back to the hardwood at MSU in 2005, the then-62-year-old made a shocking revelation.
“I had a basketball in my hand. I started taking a few shots in the gym and then the shots started falling through the hoop,” Cummings said. “I marveled at my proficiency at making the baskets after not being a shooter in my early life.”
From that point on for Cummings, the ball continued to fall through the hoop, against any and all challengers. One of those challengers was English sophomore Cam Roulette, who received a humbling lesson from Cummings after he initially underestimated the 75-year-old.
“He started shooting this one-handed shot and I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be an easy game,’ then he beat me six games in a row,” Roulette said.
In fact, Cummings believed in his horse-playing capabilities so much he recently set out on an expedition to universities across the country to challenge the best horse players he could find.
“I wanted to play the very best horse basketball players around the country at various universities, and that’s where they would be found,” Cummings said.
Cummings visited the intramural gyms of 16 schools in total, including several blue-blood basketball institutions, like Indiana University, Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The always-motivated Cummings dominated his opposition at these historic hooping grounds. He won all 15 games of horse at Duke when he touched down at Cameron Indoor Arena in early October, and one day later and about 10 miles down the road at North Carolina, the challenger lost just one game out of 25.
Cummings’ basketball journey was made possible partially because of Rick McNeil, director of recreational sports at MSU, who wrote the Spartan alumnus a cover letter to show his intramural colleagues at the various universities Cummings would be visiting.
“Whenever he travels, I get a call and he typically brings back a letter, he writes up a letter in hand about where he played,” McNeil said. “Occasionally, he brings me souvenirs. I’ve got a coffee mug up on my mantle from Ole Miss and from Harvard.”
A school’s prestige or campus aura didn’t phase Cummings during his travels in the slightest. He was motivated to take on the best on the hardwood.
And when he stepped foot onto Harvard’s campus, he did just that.
One would think a student at the university would be the type of challenger to make Cummings sweat. But instead, Cummings met his match in the form of a middle-aged Irish man named Murphy, who carried the self-proclaimed title, “king of horse.”
“He said, ‘Don’t call me Murphy, call me Murph,”’ Cummings said. “We played a long, epic game of horse.”
Cummings said Murph was determined to send him back to MSU a loser, something not many can say they have successfully done.
Cummings, however, was determined to not let that happen.
“I was wearing my Michigan State University green and whites, and they said, ‘James E. Cummings Jr., you’re mighty brave to come in here with your Michigan State University gear on,”’ Cummings said. “I said, ‘I’m a Spartan, that’s what we’re about, because we have no fear.”’
Cummings ended up snatching Murph’s prestigious title by the time the battle had concluded. But for Cummings, the joy he felt throughout his basketball-filled field trip didn’t come solely from racking up wins on the court.
The game of horse allowed the MSU alumnus to connect with people who he shared few similarities with.
“The enjoyment is not just all in the winning games, it’s in meeting the people and sharing life experiences with them,” Cummings said.
Eastern Michigan University junior Balaal Hollings shares something in common with 75-year-old Cummings.
It’s arguably one of the reasons why they seamlessly clicked upon meeting on the basketball court.
On April 6, 2013, Hollings — once a highly-touted football recruit out of Detroit’s Northwestern High School — was shot in the head at a house party.
More than four years later on Nov. 20, 2017, at the recreational gyms of Eastern Michigan University, Hollings became the latest to challenge Cummings in a game of horse. The former football stand-out, and like many challengers before him, scoffed at Cummings at first glance. But Hollings soon realized not to judge a book by its cover.
Hollings admitted he was vastly outmatched in the one-on-one contest.
“It wasn’t close,” Hollings said. “When he shot the ball, every time it was off the glass he said, ‘Bank shot.’ I think he only missed one shot the entire game.”
Aside from competing against one another on the basketball court, Hollings and Cummings were able to spark a connection because of a common bond—they both overcame life-threatening incidents.
“I’ll go ahead and use the mission statement from the business that I own: No matter who you are or where you’re from, you can do anything you put your mind to even with a bullet in your brain,” Hollings said laughing. “On his account, it’s anything you put your mind to even if you’re over 65, he’s a bad man.”
Cummings said there’s no expiration date for his basketball playing days. For those looking for inspiration from the energetic 75-year-old, he has a simple message:
“If I can do it, you can do it.”