Meet the Real DeMarcus Cousins: Strong-Willed, Maturing, Misunderstood

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterNovember 13, 2014

Bleacher Report

It is a challenge faced by anyone who is rocketed from one social stratum to another: How do you adapt to your new environment without abandoning the principles of your old one?

For some, that isn't a problem. Either their principles translate or they don't mind adapting them.

DeMarcus Cousins is not one of those people.

If you’re an NBA fan, you may know Cousins as the fifth-year starting center for the Sacramento Kings who appears to be as emotionally combustible as he is uniquely talented.

If you’re a member of the media, you may know him as an athlete who has little patience for anyone holding a camera, microphone or pen.

If you’re a competitor of Cousins, you may think of him as the antagonist of some of the league’s most personable figures—Chris Paul, Paul Westphal, Sean Elliott, Blake Griffin—resulting in fairly swift verdicts as to who the bad guy is.

But if you didn’t grow up with him, you wouldn’t know that Cousins is the product of two generations of elementary school teachers who instilled in him a sharply defined sense of right and wrong.

You wouldn't know that for all his swagger, he is humble enough to admit he abandoned his first athletic dream—making the NFL—because "I had to accept I sucked" as a football player. And you wouldn't know that he was labeled a terror and a bully even while having his front teeth knocked out four times in high school.

You also wouldn’t know that the NBA legend with whom he has the most in common—both are from Alabama, were No. 5 picks, played for Westphal, have magnetic and volatile personalities and can handle the ball the way few big men can—is a person he does not respect. That would be Hall of Fame power forward Charles Barkley, easily the most bombastic and popular athlete-turned-analyst.

The two have spent considerable time around each other, particularly of late, but Cousins, who has been wounded by Barkley's comments about him, has been steadfast in refusing to speak to Barkley or acknowledge his presence.

A Work in Progress

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 31: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings reacts against the Portland Trail Blazers on October 31, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The Kings, nonetheless, seem secure that Cousins, for all his disparate personality traits, can lead them out of the morass of eight losing seasons, including the last six in which they've failed to win more than 28 games.

He certainly has rewarded their faith this season. Not only has Cousins led them to their best start since the 1999-2000 season, but he calmed down coach Mike Malone—rather than the other way around—when he fouled out with 35 seconds left in regulation of a game the Kings still won in double-overtime over the Phoenix Suns to go 5-1 to start the season.

Cousins is convinced that if you understood the difference between the way his current and previous worlds work, you would’ve known his early troubles were simply growing pains while he adjusted to his new environs.

"I've never been a guy who plays the political game," he said in the players' lounge before an exhibition game against Maccabi Haifa at Sleep Train Arena. "It's either right or wrong; that's how I was raised."

Yet he understands now that he no longer lives among a close-knit family of schoolteachers in Mobile and is no longer surrounded by people who know he's not a street-tough or a head case or any of the other labels he has acquired since he stepped out of that world.

He also understands that for him to accomplish what he wants—which is to lift Sacramento out of that morass—he can't waste his time and energy trying to make his new world bend to his old one.

Deserved or otherwise, he has to find a way to avoid those labels. That means not being incensed that someone would suggest he has anger issues, a subject that made him visibly upset in a predraft interview with the Washington Wizards, according to a person who spoke to both the Wizards and Cousins about the exchange. It means losing his trademark boisterous practice chatter while trying to make Team USA.

"He was eerily quiet," said one executive who attended the tryouts. "It was very noticeable. He was all business."

Cousins made it his summer goal to be part of the team, taking two weeks off after the season before beginning to prepare and saying he would've been "devastated" if he had not been selected.

"There are things I still think are B.S., but I've grown to accept them," he said. "Well, I'm growing to accept them. It's still a bit of a challenge for me."

Stung by Barkley's Criticism

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 13:  Former player Charles Barkley speaks with reporters on the court prior to the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 13, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Which leads us to Barkley. There is coming to terms with the way your new world operates, but then there's feeling undermined in it by someone who came from the exact world you did.

That is how Cousins views Barkley, and it's why, in spite of playing for him on All-Star Weekend in the Rising Stars Challenge, sharing a dais in Sacramento with him for their mutual friend, Mayor Kevin Johnson, and spending a week together in Spain this summer, he refuses to acknowledge Barkley's presence.

Mention that Barkley doesn't believe the cold shoulder is merited, and Cousins responds as if Barkley is standing directly in front of him:

"I have no respect for you and I never will. We have nothing to talk about. So, yes, every time we see each other, there will never be words."

Barkley wishes he understood why Cousins holds such a grudge against him. He acknowledges that when Cousins was in high school, he went down to see him in a state playoff game. As Barkley remembers it, Cousins complained to referees incessantly, fouled out and picked up a couple of technical fouls in the process.

"I made a very conscious effort not to be too hard on him," Barkley said. "I said he had a chance to be really good; I just told the reporters afterward that I was a little disappointed. Since then, I've also said he could be the best big man in the game if he'd just grow up. He's never had a strong coach that held him accountable. I wish he'd had a Pat Riley or Gregg Popovich or George Karl or Doc Rivers that would've held his feet to the fire."

Cousins insists Barkley said much more, but what truly vexes him is that Barkley would say anything that could endanger a kid from Alabama's dream of making it big, knowing how rare that is for anyone from the Cotton State. Barkley also later stuck up for Westphal, whom he played for in his only NBA Finals appearance in '93, after he suspended Cousins for conduct detrimental to the team.

"Coming up as a kid and hearing that from one of the best players ever to come out of Alabama," Cousins said, "a guy people grow up looking up to, to hear him say, 'Well, he's not that good...' I remember it like it was yesterday. Then, coming into my rookie season, you take up for your ex-coach and say I'm the worst thing that ever happened to Sacramento on national TV. Yeah, I'm going to remember."

Not the Best Environment

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 24: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings handles the basketball during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 24, 2014 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Barkley, of course, made his NBA debut with a team full of veterans in Philadelphia and fully acknowledges those mentors were crucial to his career.

"Moses Malone kicked my ass," he said. "He made me lose 30 pounds. It's hard to look in the mirror and say, 'I'm fat.' Doctor J made me wear a suit. He said, 'Young fella, you can't walk around in a sweat suit.' They kept my feet to the fire."

The Kings, meanwhile, surrounded their 20-year-old No. 5 pick with players also in their 20s, and on mostly short-term contracts. Sam Dalembert, who has long been known as one of the league's free spirits, was the senior statesman (29), the veteran big man and the most highly paid player on the squad ($14 million). The Maloof family was at odds with the City of Sacramento, cash poor and determined to sell the team to a group of investors that planned to move it to Seattle.

"It wasn't the greatest situation," Cousins said. "We weren't really playing for the future. It wasn't about getting better. It was about saving a dollar. But whatever was negative was put on me. I had to learn everything on my own. I didn't have a veteran I could go to. I didn't have a coach I could go to. I couldn't control that we weren't making the right moves. I couldn't control that we didn't know where the hell our team was going to be. It was a rough start to my career. I fought through it, the best that I could."

It didn't help that he saw close friends, such as fellow Kentucky alum John Wall and the Pacers' Paul George, with teams doing far more to build around them.

"I'm trying to play catch-up," he said.

No Fan of the Media

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Cousins' sense of justice has been tested in basketball more than anywhere else. He and his mother, Monique, believe he has been miscast so many times by Barkley and others that she is surprised to hear that DeMarcus provided her phone number and still conducts a thorough interrogation of a reporter before agreeing to an interview.

"He believes everyone is a snake until proven otherwise," said his personal trainer, Keith Williams, who has known him since the 11th grade. "Especially the media."

While Cousins fully admits he hasn't always reacted well—"A lot of the mistakes I made were my fault"— what truly bothers him is that the reason for his reaction is often garbled.

When he prevented teammate Isaiah Thomas from shaking Chris Paul's hand after Cousins missed a last-second shot for a one-point defeat last November, he was immediately tagged as a poor sport. The real reason: He couldn't abide a teammate helping Paul, whose choir-boy image off the court belies one of the biggest trash-talkers and ruthless competitors on it, glossing that wholesome image.

It still irritates him that perception is not always reality.

"It really gets under my skin. Sometimes I feel like (the media) has so much control over what kind of person you can be, no matter what the reality is. You see guys they praise who they think are the greatest guys in the league, and they're assholes—they're the worst people ever. And then there are people they bash, for whatever reason, and you meet them and they're the coolest people ever. I just hate that fact. Some of what I get, I deserve; I do some dumb stuff sometimes. But I do not deserve the perception that I have."

Cousins felt that way long before he reached the NBA. As a newcomer to the AAU circuit, he and his mother were shocked by the negative recruiting tactics of bigger and wealthier national programs trying to lure him from his local team.

"We didn't realize what we were in for," said Monique Cousins, who raised six children in all, mostly on her own. "It was depressing."

Young and Misunderstood

DeMarcus' original dream actually had nothing to do with basketball. He had planned on making it as a football player, even though he mostly stood on the sidelines at the Pop Warner level.

"I never played," he said. "I just had a dream that I was going to the NFL. I didn't really know how that plan was going to work, but I felt like it was going to happen."

When a local AAU coach asked if he knew any eighth graders who were interested in basketball, he said, "I'm an eighth grader." DeMarcus, already 6'4", was a bit of a homebody. He wasn't looking to traipse all over the place by himself playing in AAU tourneys, so Monique worked overtime during the week as a licensed nurse so she could accompany him to those events.

Still, she insists the family never viewed basketball as its golden ticket.

"That wasn't my prayer," she said. "My goal was for us to be happy. When you're a single mom, you're just looking for something that will keep your kids occupied and out of trouble."

As a high school freshman playing varsity, he was pounded by older—and invariably shorter—players. He had his front teeth shattered or knocked out four times. Meanwhile, opposing parents and fans screamed at this 14-year-old as if he were some kind of monster simply because of his size and ungainliness.

"I was lanky, tall, skinny," he said. "They always thought I was older than I was. It would come from the parents and the crowd. My mom talks about it to this day. From the student section, of course, that's going to happen. Opposing players would be yelling, 'Take him out!' Or I might make a move and hit someone with an elbow and you'd hear a mom yell, 'He's trying to hurt my baby!'"

Cousins said he was still learning how to play and just making a normal move, but opposing players' only way of stopping him "was to hurt me or beat the s--t out of me. When you're big, it's 'You can take that.' And I'm thinking, 'I'm younger than these guys, give me a break.' And physically, I wasn't really there yet. I was like, this s--t hurts. But I never ran from it. I embraced it. It's why I play as physical as I do now."

Growing as a Teammate

Kentucky coach John Calipari forcefully instructs DeMarcus Cousins.
Kentucky coach John Calipari forcefully instructs DeMarcus Cousins.AP Photo

As a freshman at Kentucky, he was tagged as difficult to coach because he and John Calipari were seen barking at each other now and then.

"No matter what anyone said, he listened to Coach Cal," Williams said. "He rarely dribbled the ball, and you never saw him take jump shots. He did exactly what Cal asked him to do."

Calipari practically gushed via text about Cousins. "He’s my wife's favorite! I love him. He is so loyal. Would give a kidney if I needed one." When asked if his interaction with Cousins was as problematic as it sometimes appeared, Calipari wrote there was "nothing out of the norm in the growth and maturation of a player in THIS environment. He was great here."

Asked to clarify his emphasis on "this" environment, Calipari added, "Spotlight. Micro HOT. Every move scrutinized!! Crazy!"

As a rookie with the Kings, he was seen as the biggest disappointment and the ultimate architect of head coach Westphal's ouster, even though Westphal hadn't been winning before he arrived and the Kings roster was a treasure trove of immature players and limited talent.

"When they say I'm a bad teammate and that I got a coach fired, that irritates the hell out of me," he said. "The biggest thing for me is to always have respect for my teammates. And then the whole Westphal thing—the man got himself fired. He was losing before I got here."

Carl Landry, who played with Cousins in Sacramento that first season and then took tours of duty in New Orleans and Golden State before returning last season, viewed Cousins as a typical rookie in his lack of understanding of how the NBA worked, and atypical in that the Kings thrust a leadership role upon him.

"There was a lot he didn’t know, like every rookie," Landry said. "But the problems we had weren’t the result of one individual. Anytime you are the face of the franchise, though, they’re going to say it’s your fault.

"At the end of the day, he’s a competitor. He gets tough with teammates and coaches. I don’t have a problem with that. Everything he does, even now, is not going to be right, but over the course of his five years he’s definitely made the effort to learn and get better."

Team USA Experience a Plus

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

Cousins smiles wryly at the idea that his performance for Team USA this summer in helping it win a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup in Spain reflected a change in him as a person and a player. He believes he simply was a product of his environment, much as he has been before.

Put him in an unstable environment (Sacramento), and he may be, at times, unstable. Put him with a coach prone to emotional outbursts (Calipari), and he might respond in kind. Team USA, in turn, happened to be an ideal incubator.

"It's funny, I'm seeing stories about 'Cousins grew up so much' and I'm like, I just played basketball like I've been doing," he said. "They just finally saw me on a national stage, which most people have never seen. The only time some of them have seen me play is when it's something negative. All I did was be myself and now they're saying 'I grew up.' But, hey, I'll take it."

In the game against Maccabi Haifa, he still yelled "Move!" at his teammates in exasperation after a double-team on the block forced him into a tough shot that didn't come close to going in. He still drew a glare from Haifa center Alex Chubrevich after an aggressive box-out by Chubrevich earned him a Cousins elbow to the ribs as they turned to go up the court.

Cousins still dived onto the floor for a loose ball, suffering a bloody nose in the process that required him to play with gauze packed in his right nostril the rest of the half. But he didn't badger any referees or draw any technicals or allow his frustration to ferment into a tantrum.

In fact, in an earlier exhibition against the Toronto Raptors, in which he went to the bench with two fouls before the game was barely two minutes old, he could be seen talking civilly with referee Bill Spooner during a subsequent timeout and even patting Spooner on the backside as he walked away.

That's a change, given his history of leading the NBA in technical fouls twice and never finishing lower than fifth in that category.

"I can't really say anything about basketball has changed, but my mind has grown," he said. "It's just my way of thinking. I can understand situations better. I understand the league better. I understand the politics of it."

DeMarcus Cousins and DeMar DeRozan.
DeMarcus Cousins and DeMar DeRozan.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As the Raptors and Kings warmed up for their preseason matchup, Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan dribbled two balls at midcourt and yelled, smiling, at his Team USA teammate: "You scared?"

Cousins ignored him, focused on his pregame mid-range shooting drill. DeRozan was referencing Cousins' habit during the World Cup of approaching every teammate before a game to ask, "You scared?" It never failed to break the tension and lighten the mood.

"Some people see him as a bully," said DeRozan, who first crossed paths with Cousins as a ninth grader. "If you really know him, you wouldn't pay attention to all that. He's a big softie."

Cousins' refusal to joke around with DeRozan before the game—even an exhibition—reflects his growing sense that there is a time and place for everything.

"Now I'm becoming the professional I need to be," he said. "It took time."

What Does His Future Hold?

As for making up with his brash, talented predecessor from Alabama, both Monique and Williams believe that could happen with time as well. Barkley made a point of noting that he was able to speak and interact with every other player on Team USA; clearly, it bothers him that he does not have a relationship with Cousins.

"Charles has a platform and has a reputation for saying things other people would not say without thinking hard about it," Monique said. "I have no ill feelings toward him. In a way, I think Charles and DeMarcus are alike. The growth Charles had to go through is not that different than DeMarcus'. They both have strong personalities and they both are not afraid to say what they think."

Barkley, however, never seemed to care what anyone said about him. Cousins still does, although not to the extent he once did. There was a time he tracked down every negative word about him, keeping a log of every writer's name and choice, deriding comments. Williams and Cousins were in the car as Cousins scoured the Internet for stories forecasting his demise.

"Listen to this," Cousins said. "They say I'm going to be Benoit Benjamin; I'm going to eat my way out of the league!"

Now his blanket distrust of the media has developed a few holes. He still looks wary anytime a group of reporters approaches his locker, and some questions still inspire one of the better eye rolls the league has ever seen. But he’s allowing a growing number of people to see just how personable and thoughtful he can be.

Monique Cousins believes he will one day allow Barkley to do the same. As hard as that may be for DeMarcus to imagine.

Asked about that possibility, DeMarcus responded via text: "She sometimes knows me better than I know myself. As of right now, I have no respect for him and don’t really care to forgive him, so I don’t have the answer to that."

That perspective alone, though, reflects a shift. Someone fixated on right and wrong would have the answer because there would be only one.

So, while adapting to a new environment is never easy, there are some who are able to see the big picture and become who they need to be to achieve what they want to achieve.

DeMarcus Cousins is becoming one of those people.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.