Mad about Cousins
(Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series.)
LEXINGTON, Ky. – When DeMarcus Cousins signs an autograph, you never know what you’re going to get.
If the crowd is big and Kentucky’s standout freshman is in a hurry, he’ll simply scribble his initials and jersey number. Catch him alone at a restaurant or on campus, and Cousins may write his entire name in perfect penmanship.
“The other night, he signed a shirt for me and I couldn’t even read it,” said Monique Cousins, DeMarcus’ mom. “I think he must’ve been in a bad mood. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Not at Kentucky, where in less than a year the 6-foot-11, 270-pound center has become one of the biggest celebrities – literally – in the history of the Wildcats’ storied program. At Rupp Arena females write marriage proposals on signs while others hold up posterboards that read “In Kentucky We Love Our Cousins.”
The autograph requests are non-stop, Cousins has his own nickname (“Boogie”) and everyone, it seems, wants to pose for a picture with the future NBA lottery pick. Back in the fall, at a burger joint called Tolly-Ho, Cousins put his arm around a classmate during a photo and could feel the kid shaking.
“Craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Cousins said. “Dude was so nervous.”
Cousins laughs as he leans back in his chair at Wildcat Lodge, Kentucky’s athletic dormitory. As much as he’s enjoyed his time on the court during his first – and probably only – season for the 32-2 Wildcats, he’s relished his time off of it, too. Feeling loved and respected, he said, is a nice change from his days growing up in Alabama, where his mother said he was treated like a “piece of meat.”
Cousins is thankful that the folks in Lexington were willing to let him establish his own identity instead of judging him by the labels that have always defined him.
“I’m a thug,” Cousins said. “I’m a bad guy, a criminal. I know that’s what people say about me, people that don’t know me.
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”
A first-team All-American pick by Yahoo! Sports, Cousins averages 15.3 points and 10.1 rebounds for the Wildcats – numbers that are even more phenomenal when you consider he plays just 23 minutes per game.
Still, along with being one of college basketball’s most efficient players, Cousins is also one of the most enigmatic, polarizing figures the game has seen in years.
Some teams devise schemes to try to stop Cousins while others resort to hacking away at his arms, ribs and groin. One fan may think Cousins is a whiner and a baby for complaining to the officials. Another sees passion and a desire to win.
NBA scouts know that Cousins has all the tools to be a dominant force at the next level and help turn a dormant program into a winner. But some of them also wonder whether Cousins has anger management issues that could cause him to implode.
“Ask all 30 teams about DeMarcus Cousins’ temper and you’ll get 30 different answers,” an NBA executive said last weekend. “I think that whole issue is overblown.
“From the first game of the season to the NCAA tournament, people have been sitting on the edge of their chairs waiting for that kid to mess up, and he hasn’t.
“Instead he just continues to kick some serious ass.”
“The Big Ticket” played his first organized basketball game as an eighth-grader, but Cousins was given his nickname before he ever stepped on the court.
Gary Williams, a recruiter for the AAU Birmingham (Ala.) Storm, went to watch a prep contest at Erwin High School and noticed Cousins walking through the halls. At age 14 he was already 6 feet 6, so Williams figured he was a senior.
“You know any eighth-graders who might want to play basketball?” Williams asked Cousins.
“I’m in the eighth grade,” he replied.
A meeting was set up with Cousins’ parents and Storm coach Danny Pritchett, who still remembers the moment Cousins stepped out of the car.
“His mom told me over the phone that he was about 6-3,” Pritchett said. “But when he rose out of that car he kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It was like he never stopped standing. In my mind I was thinking ‘Yes!’
“I knew he was going to be a kid everyone would want to watch play. He was going to be The Big Ticket.”
Before then Cousins never had much interest in sports. His junior high school classmates used to pick on him and tease him about not using his height to his advantage. “A waste of space,” someone once called him.
“I was just hanging around, doing nothing but getting into trouble,” Cousins said.
Now that was no longer the case.
Within weeks a kid who didn’t know how to shoot a layup was calling Pritchett every day, begging him to take him to the gym. It wasn’t long before he could jump high enough to dunk, and he was so dominant that teams began intentionally fouling and cheap-shoting Cousins to keep him from scoring.
“They were hanging on his back and hitting him with their open hands or fists,” Pritchett said. “Initially he thought, ‘This is about more than basketball. They’re trying to hurt me.’
“We explained to him, ‘It’s an honor for someone to have to double-team you. It’s an honor for a kid to have to do all these [illegal] things to stop you.’”
By the end of his first year with the Storm, Cousins had lived up to his nickname. Spectators were circling the court to watch his AAU games, and Rivals.com had ranked him as the No. 1 prospect in the country for his class.
“The day that ranking came out, a woman walked up to me and said, ‘Your life is about to change,’” Monique Cousins said. “She was right. In some ways it’s been downhill ever since.”
Excited as he was about his future in basketball, Cousins’ semi-celebrity status caused emotional strain on him and his family. Faculty members at his high school who had ties to other AAU teams approached him in class or in the hallways and tried to use shoes and money to try to bribe him to leave the Storm to play for their program instead.
College coaches began contacting Monique to tell her they would “take care of her” if DeMarcus signed with their school and people began spreading false rumors about his personal life.
“People were using me,” Cousins said. “They were taking advantage of me and trying to buy me. Coach Danny and I came up together. He took a chance on me and I wasn’t going to leave him, but when I didn’t people threw dirt on my name and tried to walk over me.”
Monique remembers it a different way.
“People did walk over him,” she said. “They walked over both of us. We didn’t know how to handle it all. Everything was so overwhelming.
“In the end you just trust in your beliefs, lean on the people you trust – and pray.”
Making the situation even more difficult was that DeMarcus was only 14 and 15 at the time. With Monique working to support him and his five siblings and his biological father out of the picture, Cousins said the brash attitude he developed on the basketball court began affecting his life in a negative way.
Violence and shootings were common in Cousins’ neighborhood. Many of his friends were either using drugs or selling them, and a senior on the Erwin basketball team that Cousins looked up to was arrested for a string of armed robberies.
Cousins managed to steer clear of trouble until his sophomore year when, midway through the basketball season, he got into a physical altercation on a school bus with a faculty member following a game. Cousins is adamant that he was defending himself, but he also conceded that his own immaturity may have provoked the fight.
He was suspended from the team for the rest of the season and, after finishing out the school year, decided to transfer to another high school the following fall.
“That’s been a dark cloud that has hung over me for my entire career,” Cousins said. “Every time I do something good, that gets brought back up.”
From that point on Cousins said he felt as if he had a target on his back.
The following summer he attended a pool party where someone was seriously injured in a fight. Even though he wasn’t involved, Cousins received a ticket in a mail a few weeks later indicating he had been charged with battery. The charges were eventually dropped, but the situation was another reminder of the scrutiny and spotlight that accompanied his status as a basketball star.
A few months later he was deemed ineligible to play at Clay-Chalkville High School because of allegations that first-year coach Robi Coker, a former staff member at Ole Miss, recruited him there. Cousins and his mother denied those allegations.
“There were a lot of people that didn’t want to see him succeed,” Monique said. “I love Alabama. I was born and raised here. But there are some things we just shouldn’t have had to go through. At that point the hits just became too hard.”
So DeMarcus and his mother packed up their car, left Birmingham and moved back to the city where Cousins was born and had lived until the fourth grade. Mobile, Alabama.
LeFlore (Ala.) High School has just won a playoff game by double digits, but as Otis Hughley walked off the court, the Rattlers head coach hardly seems to be enjoying the victory.
Instead he’s berating a player who had taunted the opposing crowd by flicking his jersey as the final horn sounded.
“We don’t stand for that stuff here,” Hughley said the following day. “Ask anyone that’s ever played for me. That’s not what we teach here.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari often says that standout freshmen Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe have always been coddled but never coached or disciplined. That may be the case with Wall and Bledsoe. But Cousins?
“That’s not true,” Hughley says with a chuckle. “He’s got to say those kinds of things and that’s fine. But that’s obviously not true.”
“Oh I definitely knew what it was like to be yelled at and coached and disciplined,” he said. “Coach Cal is on another level, but Coach Hughley was tough. He was crazy.”
It’s no wonder that Cousins wanted to play for Hughley at LeFlore. In the four seasons before Cousins’ arrival in the fall of 2007, 16 of Hughley’s players had earned Division I scholarships.
LeFlore was 35-0 entering the state championship game the previous year. National television appearances were commonplace for a team whose coach serves as instructor at Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp during the summer.
“Why wouldn’t he want to come here?” said Hughley, a former college assistant coach at various levels. “We were glad to have DeMarcus, but we didn’t need him. Our culture had already been built.”
Even though he was told he could transfer to any school in the state once he left Birmingham, Cousins was forced to sit out the first nine games because of recruiting allegations.
“We hadn’t lost a game in this area for four years and we hadn’t lost one in the state for two years,” Hughley said. “They thought, ‘The rich are getting richer. We’ve got to do something about this.’”
Once Cousins became eligible it was obvious he and Hughley were a good fit. Hughley began picking DeMarcus up each Sunday morning so he could attend church services with him, his wife and three young children.
Because they didn’t have a gymnasium at their school, LeFlore played all of its games on the road. The more time Hughley spent with Cousins on buses and vans and in arenas and hotels, the more he realized that he hardly fit the reputation that preceded him.
The only “fights” he was involved in were harmless wrestling matches with assistant coach Jeff Pope in fast food parking lots. Cousins was never ejected from a game and, although he talked back at times, he never refused to follow orders.
“DeMarcus isn’t a tough kid,” he said. “On the court he may be tough, but off the court he’s scared of the dog. He’s not a wussy kid, but he’s a sweet kid. I don’t know anyone that’s met him that doesn’t like him.
“My son sees him on TV now and almost starts crying: ‘I miss DeMarcus.’”
Even though Hughley knew the real DeMarcus Cousins, the problems Cousins encountered in Birmingham were public knowledge in Mobile. Cousins also continued to receive criticism for his attitude and poor body language during games.
Some people may have thought Cousins acted like a punk when he’d get face-to-face with an opponent or flail his arms after absorbing a flagrant foul. Monique Cousins saw it as a natural reaction any 17-year-old would have after taking a vicious shot.
“DeMarcus has had his front teeth knocked out four times,” she said. “Every team he plays, the scouting report says, ‘Foul Cousins until he loses his cool.’ Who else deals with a scouting report like that? Each game he gets pounded and pounded and hit and scratched.
“Ask yourself this: If five guys intentionally pounded on you for an entire game, how would you react?”
In his final high school game, Cousins fouled out with about 3 minutes remaining on a technical foul. His team lost 52-39. An article in the Birmingham News indicated that Cousins, who scored just seven points, continuously complained to officials about a lack of foul calls and that he taunted the opposition after opening the game with a hook shot.
Former NBA star Charles Barkley drove in from Atlanta to watch Cousins for the first time.
“Very disappointing,” said Barkley when asked to discuss Cousins’ play.
Hughley prevented Cousins from speaking with the media after the game. A few weeks later – even though he was ranked as the No. 2 recruit in the nation – sportswriters didn’t even vote him as the top player in the state.
For awhile Cousins had considered signing with Alabama-Birmingham to play for Mike Davis, but by that point he was ready to leave the state. He said he needed a fresh start, and it’s tough to get a fresh start in an old place where people harp on your past instead of offering encouraging words about your future.
“DeMarcus lives on Front Street,” Hughley said, “and there’s a lot responsibility that comes along with living on Front Street. He’s done an unbelievable job considering all the people that are out there waiting for him to screw up.
“People are trying to get a kid to act like an adult all the time when adults don’t even act like adults. No one is perfect. I’m just glad life isn’t fair, because we’d all go to hell for what we’ve done.”
A few hours before Kentucky’s basketball team left for a Feb. 16 game at Mississippi State, DeMarcus Cousins’ phone began to ring as he ate a piece of sausage pizza at the Wildcat Lodge.
As he answered, Cousins activated the speaker so some visitors could hear.
“What’s up (expletive)?” a voice on the other end said. “You ready to get dominated? I hate you so much! You’re the biggest baby in the SEC – the biggest (expletive) ever!”
The caller had just referred to Cousins using a homophobic slur and a racial slur, but instead of getting upset, he started laughing as he scrolled through more than 100 missed calls and text messages all beginning with Starkville, Mississippi’s 662 area code.
“I guess I’ll have to change my number,” he said. “But I think I’ll wait until after the game so I can see what they say after we beat them.”
The scenario provided a perfect example of how far Cousins – who scored a team-high 19 points in Kentucky’s overtime victory the following night – has come since arriving at Kentucky.
Even though he’s expected to enter the NBA draft after the NCAA tournament, Cousins said he recognizes how much he’s developed since arriving at college nine months ago.
“Everyone needs at least a year of college,” he said. “It helps you mature and it gets you one step closer to becoming a man. There are baby steps to becoming a man, and I’ve taken a lot of them during the last year.”
Much of that is because of head coach John Calipari, who Cousins had signed to play for at Memphis before getting out of his letter of intent to follow him to Kentucky.
No coach in the country does as good of a job as Calipari of preparing one-and-done caliber players for the NBA – mainly because he’s hard on them and refuses to treat them like superstars.
“His whole life, when he was challenged to do stuff he didn’t want to do, he’d react like a 13-year-old,” Calipari said. “So when he wasn’t in shape and we were doing conditioning, he’d start having fits.
“I’d say, ‘Fine, go on the side until you can finish these drills. When he figured out that I wasn’t budging and that none of it would work with me and that it wasn’t going to upset our practice, he slowly started coming around.
“When he found that by getting in shape and doing it right and listening, he was being elevated as a player, he was like, ‘I’m going to listen and do what the guy tells me to do.’”
Calipari said he couldn’t be more impressed with Cousins’ personality and the way he respects his coaches and teammates.
“He’s not some self-absorbed jag-off,” Calipari said. “He’s really not. He’s got a huge heart for other people. He cares about how they feel.”
Monique Cousins relocated her family to Lexington last summer to help Cousins adapt to college life. Cousins’ 16-year-old brother, Jaleel – who stands 6-6 and weighs 255 pounds – enrolled at an area high school and everything seemed great.
But after a few months Monique’s mother fell ill and she had to move back to Mobile. By that time she said she was more than comfortable with leaving her son alone in his new surroundings.
“He’s in an environment where he can be himself,” she said. “No one is out to get him anymore. He doesn’t have a target on his back.”
Hughley senses the same thing when he talks to Cousins on the phone.
“He’s been allowed to resume his childhood and his maturation process,” Hughley said. “He was always under so much scrutiny in Alabama that he was always guarded. In some ways he was like Michael Jackson. That part of his life was taken from him.”
Cousins knows his size and tattoos make for an intimidating look, but he says he’s approachable and will talk to anyone – whether he’s walking through campus or eating crab legs at Hooters with Wall and Bledsoe. The players refer to themselves as “Three Amigos.”
“I’m not going to bite anyone’s head off,” he said. “You respect me. I’ll respect you. I’m having so much fun. I never thought college would be like this.”
The liberating feeling is obviously paying dividends on the court.
During one late-season stretch, Cousins posted double-doubles in 10 of 12 games. He was named Freshman of the Year in the SEC and is now projected to be a Top 5 pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
Cousins has had a few less-than-flattering moments. He walked out of a huddle while Calipari was yelling at him last week. Earlier this season he was kneed in the head by Louisville’s Jared Swopshire during a skirmish for the ball. Cameras caught him throwing a forearm into Swopshire’s head.
Still, those things are minor compared to the reputation that preceded Cousins’ arrival. No matter what happens in the NCAA tournament and beyond, Cousins will always be able to say that he did more than just live up to his expectations at Kentucky.
He surpassed them.
“Everyone in Alabama comes up to me now and says, ‘I saw DeMarcus on TV last night,’” Hughley said. “These are some of the same people who used to criticize him and talk behind his back. I think the state is starting to appreciate him now. Everyone here is getting behind him. They’re happy for him.
“Mainly because he proved them all wrong.”
1. Cole Aldrich, Kansas – The 6-foot-11 junior’s numbers (11.2 points, 9.9 rebounds) may be down, but that hasn’t stopped Aldrich from maintaining his reputation as one of the nation’s top defensive players. He’s averaging 3.5 blocks per game for the No. 1 Jayhawks.
2. Greg Monroe, Georgetown – The Hoyas sophomore is the most versatile big man in college basketball. It’s not uncommon for the 6-11 Monroe to bring the ball up the court, shoot a 3-pointer or take his man off the dribble. And he’s got a variety of moves inside to go along with a soft touch from midrange.
3. Ekpe Udoh, Baylor – The Bears wouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament if not for Udoh, the 6-10 junior who in less than a year went from being an obscure transfer from Michigan to a potential NBA lottery pick. Udoh ranks near the top of the Big 12 in scoring (13.9 points), rebounds (9.8) and blocks (3.9).
4. Luke Harangody, Notre Dame – One of the most prolific players in Big East history is averaging 22.4 points and 9.4 rebounds in his final season, but he probably won’t post those kinds of numbers in the NCAA tournament considering Notre Dame has switched to a slow-paced, low scoring offense.
5. Damion James, Texas – The Longhorns have been a huge disappointment – but James hasn’t. The versatile senior is averaging a team-high 18 points and 10.4 rebounds for a squad that finished sixth in the Big 12 after opening the season 17-0. James would be a tough matchup for Kentucky if the Longhorns and Wildcats face off in the second round.