Although he was a physical player engaging in games that former Mountain Lion boys basketball coach John Swogger equated to combat, Pat Cummings earned a respect from his Altoona opponents that overcame the bounds of rivalry.
"He was from the area, and you got to personally play against him. You kind of like to think that some of his successes were our successes. He was probably the first one from our area who went to the pros. That just didn't happen,'' said 1974 AAHS graduate and all-state player Pat Nagle.
Cummings, who led Johnstown to a pair of District 6 Class A championships in the early 70s before going on to play 12 years in the NBA, was found dead in a New York apartment on Wednesday. He was 55.
Although Cummings maintained a low profile since his retirement and made quiet, infrequent trips home according to those who knew him, the news of his death still was felt strongly in Altoona.
"He was really a great player, and I was saddened to hear that he had passed at such a young age,'' former Mountain Lion guard Larry McAleer, who faced Cummings five times over two years, said. "I know the Altoona basketball community is saddened by the passing of Pat Cummings.''
Before going on to shoot 64.2 percent from the field and become the second-leading scorer all-time at the University of Cincinnati behind Oscar Robertson, then netting more than 6,000 points with five NBA teams, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Cummings was a first-team all-state selection at Johnstown High and played in the Dapper Dan Classic. Playing on a frontline with 6-5 Dan Maser and 6-6 Jack Buchan with Ken Horoho handling the ball, his Trojan teams were 6-2 against Altoona, snapping the Mountain Lions' string of four straight 6-A - now Class AAAA - titles in 1973.
"He just wasn't big. He had very good athletic ability,'' Swogger said. "He was just a hard-nosed player who played the game hard. With that surrounding cast, it really helped him out.
"When we played them, it was like a war.''
Among those who suited up with Nagle and McAleer to try to cut Cummings and his team down to size were players like Tom Bickel, Johnny Moore and Sammy Pierce. Altoona needed a 35-point explosion from Nagle to win the first of three meetings with the Trojans in his and Cummings' senior years in 1974, but Johnstown came back to win the second regular-season meeting and prevail in the district final.
"He just did everything well. He played within himself. He didn't go outside his range, and he just played a nice solid game,'' Nagle said. "He was just a really tough, physical player. He liked to knock you down a lot. He wasn't dirty. That was just his play. He was always moving you out.''
"If you grew up in Johnstown in those days, you had to beat Altoona, and I'm sure Altoona kids felt the same way about Johnstown,'' said Buchan, Cummings' classmate and self-professed junior high rival. "To win those back-to-back championships meant a lot to him and meant a lot to me, because Altoona was a force. It was a phenomenal program with phenomenal coaching and the [Jaffa] Mosque was an unbelievable venue.''
Buchan said Cummings could be found working on his game tirelessly every day. Their coach at Johnstown, Paul Litwalk, attributed his former star player's strength to work with Bob Stramanak, which allowed him to make tremendous strides after being a reserve as a sophomore.
Cummings finished his high school career with 1,136 points. Along with the Duquesne-bound Maser, he keyed Johnstown's run to 25 straight wins in 1973 before losing in the PIAA playoffs against Sharon; that string included victories in the prestigious War Memorial Tournament.
"You could see the difference from his sophomore to junior to senior year. He just got better each year, got stronger each year, got more confident each year. And he really had the ability to shoot the basketball, either with his back to the basket or facing the basket,'' Litwalk said.
Players and opponents alike, though, said Cummings transcended the numbers and the wins and endeared himself to everyone on both benches and the stands because of his effort.
"Pat was a unique individual. He had a phenomenal work ethic. He was the hardest-working guy I've ever seen in the sport,'' Buchan said. "He was a hard-working guy, and I think people realized he was a hard-working guy.
"He was very popular. It saddens me he's gone so early.''
No plans yet have been announced for Cummings' viewing or funeral. He is survived by his mother and a brother in Johnstown. The cause of Cummings' death is still to be determined, but foul play was not suspected according to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"He was so tough,'' McAleer said.