This is the third installment in The Post’s “Court Visions” series, a look at the lives of NBA players on the floor and beyond in 2014-15.
The pain shot through DeMarcus Cousins's body, from his throbbing head to his aching back, like shock waves. A debilitating, burning sensation kept him bedridden for weeks, robbed him of his appetite and forced him to cover up under the sheets to avoid the glare whenever sunlight crept through his window.
Every subtle movement hurt, but all Cousins could think about was how he could fight through it and still play basketball. This was supposed to be the season Cousins made good on the commitment the Sacramento Kings showed in making him their franchise player, a season in which he would end almost a decade of dysfunction by snapping the organization’s nine-year playoff drought.
But after surprisingly putting the Kings within range of the eighth spot in the highly competitive Western Conference in late November, Cousins contracted viral meningitis. Cousins was so unfamiliar with the illness that when he was hospitalized with a heavy fever and doctors gave him the diagnosis, his first response was, “Am I going to die?”
Cousins was relieved to hear that his strain wasn't the life-threatening kind, but he is certain the Kings’ season effectively died at that moment. While he was home suffering, the Kings were sinking. Cousins watched Mike Malone — the first NBA coach to connect with him — get fired in just his second season, thus rocking the stability he thought had finally come to Sacramento.
The season got more miserable and messy after Cousins returned and the team later clumsily replaced Tyrone Corbin with George Karl, continuing a cycle of mismanagement.
“It’s been a circus, man. It’s been a complete circus,” a flustered Cousins said, when asked to describe this season. “We got off to a hot start. Unfortunately, I got sick, so it ruined the look of the team. I take some blame for that. I know for a fact, if I wouldn’t have gotten sick, things wouldn’t have happened the way it happened. It was no way it could. At the same time, a lot of it is not my fault and we all know why. But this has been a disappointing year.”
For his entire time in the NBA, Cousins has been in search of the kind of family-type atmosphere and structure he enjoyed while playing for his AAU team, his last two years of high school in Mobile, Ala., and his only year at Kentucky. In his five seasons with the Kings, Cousins has had 48 teammates and five coaches; he has seen the team change owners, replace its front office and nearly relocate to Anaheim or Seattle. Cousins has never won more than 28 games in any season, and two of the lottery picks drafted since he arrived in 2010 are already NBA journeymen.
“I think I carry more weight than the average player,” Cousins said. “Coming in, I never was in a great situation — coming at such a young age, not really understanding the business. I came in, franchise that’s been doing bad for a long time, I came with my own baggage, some earned, some given to me or whatever.”
Kentucky Coach John Calipari always tells his players that the NBA stands for “No Boys Allowed,” and Cousins’s maturation process has played out publicly. Cousins has had some impetuous outburts with coaches, teammates, officials and even an opposing team broadcaster, with each misstep solidifying a negative perception he has struggled to shake.
“People would garner whatever they saw, and it would be their stick, and they would beat him with it,” said Otis Hughley, Cousins’s coach at LeFlore High School in Mobile and a former Kings assistant. “He’s been through so much. He’s pretty resilient that way and he has an insatiable desire to be his very best. Some people are concerned about being right. He’s concerned about getting right. If that means he has to be wrong, he’ll own it. He doesn’t have a problem saying I messed up. He’s been forced to do that all his life. It’s not hard for him. And that’s a rare trait for anybody in today’s world.”
In some instances, the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins believes he is simply misunderstood, with his imposing size and angry glares giving the appearance of a bully and serving as an intimidating means to keep others at a distance. A hatred for losing and a passion for the game so strong he skipped his high school prom for an AAU tournament have manifested themselves in ways productive and destructive, but Cousins doesn’t believe his commitment should be questioned.
“I care; I really care,” he said. “I take my job serious. I love to play the game. It ain’t about the money, not about the fame. I care. The biggest thing I can admit is I’m not perfect and I know that.”
Washington Wizards guard John Wall, Cousins’s teammate and roommate during their lone season at Kentucky, met him in high school and knows him as the oversized goofball who had an annoying habit of playing R&B slow jams in their dorm room.
“He’s a loving, caring person,” Wall said. “If you’re on his good side when he first meets you, you’re perfectly fine. He’s one of those ones, if you get off to a bad start with him, ain’t no coming back for you.”
An example of Cousins’s evolution can be seen through his experience with USA Basketball.
In 2012, Cousins was invited to be part of a select team that would help prepare the Olympic roster. He hoped to use the experience to make the team. Instead he was said to be too physical and overly zealous during the scrimmages, and USA Basketball chairman and managing director Jerry Colangelo said Cousins had “a lot of growing up to do.”
The situation fell in line with Cousins's image as a tempestuous talent, but Colangelo felt the dispute was overblown. He brought Cousins back the next two summers and tapped him for the 12-man World Cup roster in Spain. Having made strides in his first season under Malone, Cousins revealed himself as a maturing player who was able to sacrifice and come off the bench for the benefit of the greater good.
Cousins also managed to keep his emotions in check in the World Cup semifinal against Lithuania, when he took an elbow to the neck from Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas. Cousins rushed Valanciunas, balled up his fist, but then backed off.
“I saw a young man growing as a person, as a responsible member of a team, and I could see some leadership oozing out a little bit,” Colangelo said. “What developed was some trust and I think for him, that’s important. I think in his life and his career, there may have been — in fact, there has been — a lack of trust. Not blaming anyone, but just that it wasn’t there. He’s the kind of guy that needs to have that kind of relationship, not only to be happy, but to perform to the best that he can.”
When he returned to Sacramento, Cousins was determined to build upon his experience in Spain and continue a transformation that began late last season.
After clashing numerous times with his first coach, Paul Westphal, and failing to respond with consistent efforts for Keith Smart, Cousins had connected with Malone, whom Kings owner Vivek Ranadive hired for his first head coaching gig before a general manager was in place. A long-time assistant who had worked with superstar talents such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, Malone built strong relationships with Sacramento's best players, Cousins and Rudy Gay, who signed a three-year extension less than a month before the coaching change.
“When the ownership changed and Mike came in, DeMarcus’s growth took off, right back into high gear again,” Hughley said. “Mike was great for him. Mike’s a straight shooter. Does an unbelievable job of dealing with those kind of guys.”
In the first year of a four-year, $62 million contract extension signed in the summer of 2013, Cousins was in the best shape of his career and eager to accept the responsibilities that came with being a leader. The Kings opened the season at 9-5 — their best start in 10 years — and recorded stunning wins against defending champion San Antonio and playoff contenders Portland and Chicago.
Cousins started to feel ill around Thanksgiving, after a 29-point, 17-rebound effort in a loss to Houston, and missed the next two games because of what he thought were migraine headaches or the flu. He tried to come back and went through his usual pregame warmups before facing Toronto on Dec. 2 but felt a burning sensation throughout his body.
While lying on the training table, Cousins felt paralyzed and was rushed to the hospital when the Kings training staff discovered that he had a triple-digit temperature. Cousins later found out the cause of his headache and stiff neck and heard he would miss a few weeks with the contagious disease that causes an inflammation of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid.
“I’m still wondering how in the hell did I get viral meningitis. Where did it come from?” Cousins said. “I was like, this is going to get bad. And it did get bad. And it was just downhill from there.”
The Kings lost seven of their first nine games with Cousins sidelined, and Malone was fired after a 95-90 loss to Detroit. Kings General Manager Pete D'Alessandro differed with Malone in their visions for the style of play and the direction of the team, and Cousins's absence created an excuse to make a move.
Cousins decided he would make the best of the situation with Corbin, under the assumption that the Kings would look to hire a new coach in the summer. Though Cousins was unable to halt the slide once he returned, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver named Cousins to his first all-star team as an injury replacement for Kobe Bryant. For Cousins, the approval from Silver in conjunction with the Team USA experience was evidence of how far he’d come.
“They’re recognizing me now, they’re respecting me now as a player,” Cousins said. “I feel like they were finally ready to accept me for being a good player and not just, he’s a young guy that’s talented. It’s starting to turn the corner now, and those two moments help validate that.”
What should have been Cousins's moment was quickly overshadowed by reports that the Kings had entered negotiations to hire Karl while Corbin was still coaching the team. Even worse, Cousins was at the center of a controversy not of his own doing when it was leaked that “Cousins's camp” was opposed to Karl's hiring. Eventually, Cousins had to release a statement explaining how he wasn't against Karl’s arrival. When asked if it bothered him that his name was mentioned as the obstacle to Karl, Cousins angrily shook his head.
“I felt like a line was crossed and I was trying to figure out how I’m going to deal with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m in Sacramento,” Cousins said. “And not to sound arrogant, but what’s bigger than my name in Sacramento? It could be a damn forest fire in Sacramento, my name will come up. ‘It was near DeMarcus Cousins’s house!’ ”
Cousins understands how that comment sounds but added that he remains grounded by his belief that his relevance to some is fleeting.
“I’m not really a guy to get caught up. All this,” Cousins said, whirling his hand around, “it’s fake to me. It’s temporary. It’s not reality because, when it’s all done, when I can’t run up and down the floor, grab a rebound and put the ball in the basket for them, it’s over. And then, after that, I’m a normal person again. I can remember time before all this, wearing the same clothes to school every day. This is temporary.”
Though he has yet to return to his pre-illness conditioning level, Cousins no longer feels the physical effects of viral meningitis. The mental anguish persists, as Cousins has more than doubled his self-imposed cap for technical fouls, accumulating 11, tied for fourth-most in the NBA this season.
And the impact of the setbacks on this season, and possibly his future, remain profound. Sacramento has continued to founder since Karl took over, going 6-11, but Cousins said he would remain open-minded while adjusting to his coach and a system that isn't necessarily fit for his strengths.
Cousins looks around and sees most of his fellow Team USA participants on playoff teams or in the MVP conversation while he remains in a situation that isn't improving at his preferred pace. Hughley recalls how Cousins used to always ask why things had to always be so hard for him, but now the question has changed.
“It’s, what can I learn from this? Not, why is this happening to me?” Cousins said. “I feel like everything is a lesson. At the end of the day, it’s just going to make me a stronger person. I know I’m going to reach success, some type of way, because that’s just me. That’s what I do. That being said, I’m going through these hard days now, because when my time comes, there’s no stopping me.”