In some respects, says Jazz forward Pat Cummings, he liked playing basketball in Italy. The money was good, and the experience of living in a foreign country rewarding. He saw the sights of a nation rich in tradition and history. He took side trips to Switzerland, Belgium and Cypress.

But in the back of his mind, he knew he wasn't happy. "I longed to be back in the NBA," he says.There were the little irritations. Like two practices a day. Like driving 45 minutes to find a two-day-old USA Today. Or driving an hour to see an English-speaking film.

"I look back on it and realize that when I was there, those would be my exciting things to do for a day," says Cummings.

He continues, "I knew things were desperate when I found myself watching old John Wayne movies on the TV in Italian."

After three months in Italy ("You want me to tell you exactly the dates?" he says rhetorically) Cummings is back in the U.S. of A. and hoping to close out his career with a legitimate contender. The Jazz acquired Cummings last Saturday after releasing rookie forward Chris Munk.

Cummings, 34, has been around the track a few times. He spent 11 years in the NBA, playing at Milwaukee, New York and Miami, averaging 9.6 points over 679 games. He was waived by the Heat last March at his request, hoping to be picked up by another NBA team. When that didn't happen, he went to Italy.

Cummings was cut about a month ago by Ranger Varese, the Italian team. Since then, he's been shopping himself to various NBA teams, hoping to get back to the big arenas and bright lights.

He's seen Rick Mahorn and Buck Williams and all the other big, physical inside people during his career. Now his job is, in part, to spend his time working against perhaps the biggest and baddest inside guy of them all in practice - Karl Malone."I look forward to practicing with them and learning the system," says Cummings. "I've played against him (Malone) for five years now and he's a great player. I hope I'll improve."

Although he is a proven player who can hold his own inside, Cummings also has had his problems. Due largely to injuries, he hasn't played in more than 63 games since the 1983-84 season. Prior to that, he started in Dallas for two years.

Cummings got his first assignment in a Jazz uniform Monday night at New Jersey, coming off the bench for eight minutes, making three of four free throws and collecting two rebounds. Wednesday he played two minutes, but didn't score.

Thursday night in The Omni, the Jazz take on the Atlanta Hawks. That game will be shown at 5:30 p.m. (MST) on Channel 13.

What can the Jazz expect from Cummings? Probably a few hard minutes a night while Malone is catching his breath. "I'm a banger," says Cummings.

Just don't expect any flying dunks or spinning fadeaway jumpers. "You're not going to see any Dr. J things," he laughs.

And, he agrees happily, you won't see him driving 45 minutes to buy old newspapers, either.

GAME NOTES: The Jazz have won 13 of their last 16 games and have an identical record after 24 games (16-8) as they had last year, when they went on to win a franchise-record 55 games . . . Atlanta has won seven of eight and five in a row, having claimed a Monday night win over Cleveland . . . The Hawks hold a 27-21 series edge . . . Dominique Wilkins leads the Hawks with a 24.7 average . . . Atlanta's Alexander Volkov is on the injured list with a fractured wrist . . . The Hawks have had strange season, winning five of their first six then losing nine in a row . . . One Hawks game was postponed against Boston due to water condensation on the Garden floor.