Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: DeMarcus Cousins

Conquistadors in California, alternately: Channeling Emotion into Effectiveness: A Contrast of Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins

Two of the league’s youngest, shiniest, brightest and most volatile stars are residing in the same Sunshine State and we all get the luxury of watching these mountains of agility, power and skill square off four times this season. I’m not talking about Dwight Howard (not that bright), Pau Gasol (not that young), Andrew Bogut (not that volatile) or DeAndre Jordan (just not enough). Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins are captivating for what they’ve done in two short years and maybe even more for what they haven’t done; which is reach their stratospheric potentials.

Last night, Monday night, these two giants competed; not against each other, but for my attention. Big Cuz did his thing in Sacramento and went bananas during a third quarter stretch where he seemed to galvanize himself, his team and fans. His emotion rises in pitches and can be tracked by events: A blocked shot on the defensive end leads to Cousins making a face, a scowl that takes place while the 22-year-old barrels down the court, sprinting to get to the offensive end where his excitement almost results in turnovers, but instead it’s a hustle play, a jumper that extends the Kings’ lead and it’s followed by more sprinting and obvious satisfaction. There are sequences like this throughout the game: Cousins makes a layup, gets a steal on the other end and never missing a play, he gets a dunk going back the other way. He’s uplifted, raised to the rafters by a combination of his own energy (barely harnessed) and the sounds of the crowd urging him on, lifting him higher.

Down I-5 in Los Angeles, I focused of my attention on the Cavs-Clips game, Chris Paul vs. Kyrie Irving; which somehow turned into the Dion Waiters show. Point guard and ball handling clinics aside, I kept an eye on Blake Griffin; one of the league’s most recent poster boys. His face is more recognizable than Arian Foster’s, maybe better known than Mitt Romney among the 25-and-under set. And tonight he’s just OK. He catches lobs from CP3 that have a similar impact on the crowd as Cousins’ antics. The big difference is where Cousins wears his heart on his sleeve, unable to contain even the faintest emotion; wearing the worst poker face in the NBA, Blake is cool, expectant, nonchalant. In a deadpan tone, “I ferociously dunked on that man’s face, put him on a poster, got seven million views on YouTube, so what? It’s what I do.” And the crowd reveres him for it—it’s LA, it’s Hollywood, it’s cold, emotionless, unfeeling, sunglasses at midnight—swaggalicious! But it’s not enough tonight, the 20 points, the dunks, the improved post game, the passes, the increased defensive activity; it’s not enough and he ends the game with the poorest plus/minus of any Clippers player. The stat’s not all-indicative or all-encompassing, but it does tell us that the Clips were outscored when Blake was on the court tonight. The above isn’t to say that Griffin is emotionless. Rather, his furies are selective; taken out on rims and refs. A man can’t dunk with the aggression of Griffin without having something built up, pent up, bottled up…waiting to explode.

Griffin’s an embraceable face, a marketable style, a chiseled athlete that Subway and Kia throw wads of cash at in attempts to lure him into promoting their products. He’s rugged and competitive; he’s the perfect athlete to place on a pedestal. But DeMarcus? Last season he demanded a trade and (in a roundabout way) got his coach fired. To casual fans, he’s known as much for his outbursts and tantrums as he is for his dominant play and potential. To the unknowing, he’s the enfant terrible. How much of is this fueled by anger compared to immature indiscretion is impossible to know, but it’s fair to assume both parts sources drive Cousins’ madness.

And of course these two young innocents have exchanged words and occasional elbows on the court. After a physical game last season, Cousins called Griffin an “actor” and said the NBA “babies” him. Griffin responded with some jokes and questioned Cousins’ reputation. It was a nice tit for tat that can link players together through the media while driving them apart as people and potential teammates (all-star games, Olympics).

Despite Griffin developing somewhat of a reputation as being one of the league’s golden children (especially from a marketing and advertising perspective), he’s simultaneously becoming known for his flopping and posturing. He’s prone to the extended stare after a big play, the glare after a hard foul; he can be seen as a tough guy who doesn’t back it up. If you’re a Clippers or Griffin fan, you see him getting under the skin of his opponents, helping his team win while maintaining his cool. His cool is part of his being, part of his on-court persona and skill set. Given his effort and physicality, it’s hard to make a case that his cool results in any on-court detachment. This is where the primary break with DeMarcus occurs. Where Griffin’s immaturity and petulance are merely annoying for fans and opponents, Demarcus’s antics and eruptions are distracting for him and his teammates. He’s battling the refs, battling opponents, battling coaches and worst of all, fighting himself.

At risk of delving into a wormhole of sociological speculation, I’ll only briefly touch on the drastic life differences these two young men endured growing up. Griffin was raised in a two-parent home in Oklahoma; one where he was homeschooled until eighth grade and played for his father in high school. Alternately, Cousins grew up in a single-family household, attended multiple high schools in Alabama and steadfastly refused to take any responsibility for his behavior. A fully fleshed-out essay could easily be built around the differences in their childhoods and the challenges they face today as a result, but other than this brief review, I’d rather stick to the men we’re dealing with today, not yesterday.

Literally speaking of yesterday, I watched Griffin and questioned whether or not he’d actually developed over his first couple seasons. While Cousins’ statistical arrow is pointed straight up, Griffin’s stats have been slightly, but steadily, dipping down. Looking at it from a purely statistical standpoint or even watching the games, you can see Griffin’s impact isn’t what it was when he was a rookie. Meanwhile, Cousins has become the heart, soul, tears and pulse of this Kings team. Instead of looking at this as Griffin already reaching his ceiling, it’s not as simple as that. Both players are filling a void on their respective teams. In Los Angeles, Chris Paul has revised the climate from the Blake Show to a CP3-led, guard-initiated attack. It begins and ends with Paul; an on-the-court general; one of the league’s most intense competitors who’s willing do whatever (ask Julius Hodge) it takes to win. The team (Blake included) has followed his lead. Griffin’s learned to play off of his PG, drifting towards the basket on CP’s defense-collapsing drives, hitting the offensive boards on CP misses or kick out misses, he takes advantage of slower fours by hitting what’s become an improved mid-range jumper. In Sacramento, as Tyreke Evans has either plateaued or regressed, Cousins has taken on the role of catalyst. When Paul Westphal was fired last season, it was evident there was a Westphal-Cousins conflict and new coach Keith Smart was wise to tap into the mercurial big man’s psyche and give him the confidence and latitude to succeed—which he clearly did last year: 4th overall in rebounds/game, only center to finish in the top-20 in steals/game, 3rd in TRB%, led all centers in usage rate. Cousins arrived with heavy footsteps and swinging limbs, announcing his arrival to anyone in earshot or sight.

None of this is to say one player is better than the other, but rather each player’s giving his team exactly what they need. CP3 might be the Clips’ version of Jean-Luc Picard, but Blake is the swag, the electricity, the vitality. And Cousins fulfills both of those roles in Sacramento…because that’s what he has to be for them to have any chance of success. These kids leave everything on the court every time they play. They play, they care, they’re upsettable, excitable, irritable, irrationally talented. And for all their differences (vertical vs. horizontal, NoCal vs. SoCal, one-parent vs. two-parent, stability vs. volatility), they have just as much in common, although both would probably puke if they had to admit it.

Tale of the Tape

Waiting for DeMarcus

In the midst of the late summer league circuit, I wrote a post about the passage of myths and legends; about how Youtube, camera phones and Twitter had cannibalized the “I saw Kevin Durant go for 50, no 60, wait wait it was definitely 66 points…” stories. There’s a light lament that gives way to honesty with the erosion of legend. But there’s another unknown that still lives on no matter how technologically advanced we become (unless we end up developing some kind of AI to assess a human’s capability and just play the game through simulations—don’t doubt it) and that’s unrealized potential. Injuries, drugs, alcohol, attitude … tragedy. All temptations and we’re all human so we’re all susceptible. Depending on who you are and what genes your parents passed onto you and where you grew up and when you grew up there; the likelihood of you meandering down one of the dark paths above changes accordingly. Most of us find a way to walk, stumble or crawl straight enough or just make sure our wanderings don’t get too far off the path to become trapped and scrape by for survival.

But… we all know someone or many someones who have gotten stuck and maybe you fucked up too and maybe it wasn’t your fault. Someone close to me struggles to stay straight every day and even though I know his chronology and I know what he’s been through, I’ll never know what his struggle feels like. He’s talented, intelligent, exuberant, equipped with talent to create beauty out of thin air and yet … he’s his own worst enemy.

So we’re almost 300 words in and you’re like, “My man, where’s the basketball?” It’s here, it’s relatable. It’s DeMarcus Cousins. It’s every scouting report dating back to him being a sophomore in high school questioning his consistency, commitment to conditioning, emotional maturity (by 2007, I think the high school basketball scouting industry issued a mandate that all Cousins scouting reports include a reference to emotional maturity), mentioning loafing, asking about his effort and on and on. For every negative or weakness that came attached to a Cousins scouting report, there were five more positives/strengths that usually amounted to “sky’s the limit if he can figure it out.” The question marks above leeched onto Cousins’ reputation and whatever they sucked out, they spewed into the basketball world to be inhaled by people who want to make money off Cousins and are willing to give him things in return. Some probably believe the Cousins question marks were validated this past Sunday when the Kings reported that the 21-year-old had requested a trade or they just see it as one more validation in a half-decade full of validations.

In true DeMarcus Cousins fashion, he denied having demanded a trade. And if you look back through the interviews and clippings that cover his basketball-playing career, Cousins has done a remarkably consistent job of deflecting blame and refusing to take accountability for his actions. Even small concessions have been tough to come by. After his sophomore season in 2007 he transferred from Erwin High School in Birmingham because he got into an altercation with a faculty member (Cousins is insistent it was self-defense and witness reports agree). From there, it was on to Clay-Chalkville High School, but he was deemed ineligible for some recruiting shenanigans and never played a game there. Next it was onto his final high school destination, LeFlore in Mobile. Along the way, from the suspension at Erwin to the ineligibility at Clay-Chalkville to the developing reputation for becoming easily frustrated if an opponent challenged him, Cousins and his mother, Monique, painted a picture of being the victim, referring to DeMarcus as being a “target” and “piece of meat” and insisting that his reputation for being a thug was completely out of context and unfair.

I’m not naïve enough to dispute that Cousins was a target for some people or he was treated like a piece of meat. And I can’t fault Monique for protecting her son any way she could—even if it meant three schools in three years and vehemently defending her son against portrayals inconsistent with her idea of the young man she raised. His coach at LeFlore, Otis Hughley, sided with mom and 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.”

Unfortunately, there’s no guide to raising a basketball prodigy which is exactly what Cousins was. Since the internet has claimed and archived so many moments of his teenage life that should’ve remained private, we can look at his development through the lens of time and realize that Cousins’ questionable behavior—whether you call it outbursts, tantrums, passion, emotion, motor—was allowed to grow, develop and settle in as part of his personality. More than likely, this was done to protect the young man. From the few quotes out there, Cousins has mentioned that he was bullied in junior high school. His biological father wasn’t present either. He had a strong relationship with Hughley and when John Calipari coached him at Kentucky, he had this to say in June of 2010, just after Cousins was drafted by Sacramento, “I coached him like he was my son, and he needs that. In fact, he and my (13-year-old) son (Brad) would play video games and I’d say (to Cousins), ‘You guys are the same age.’ He’s one of those kids that needs to be hugged, loved. Don’t act like he’s a grown man. He’s a growing man.”

Filling in the portrait of DeMarcus as a young man, I kept making connections between the youth of Cousins and Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq’s step-father, “Sarge” (Philip Harrison) is likely the most-referenced person in his auto-biography (or maybe it just seems that way because of the repeated references to physical and mental abuse—another post, another day) and while I can’t even get close to condoning Sarge’s method, the more I read about Cousins, the more I felt he needed (and maybe still needs) someone to hold him accountable, someone who wouldn’t let him hold his head down when classmates called him a “waste of space,” someone to get in his ass when the shoulders slumped and the nostrils flared, someone who wouldn’t let him run away when the shit hit the fan—three high schools in three years, one year in college and just four games into his second NBA season when he was ready to run away again.

But he didn’t have that and nothing can be done to change the past. His time at Kentucky sounded like a positive, stable experience and even after he was drafted by the Kings, Cousins was saying he wished he would’ve stayed in school. Even in that structured environment, he was involved in a couple of on-court incidents against Louisville, Vanderbilt and rumors had him fighting fans in South Carolina. And in his first season with the Kings, a franchise that went out of its way to provide stability for Cousins by hiring his former high school coach, Otis Hughley, Cousins got in a postgame locker room fight with teammate Donte Greene. Elbows, forearms, heated exchange with teammates … these things happen in competitive environments, but what separates Cousins from the majority of pro and college athletes is that reputation, that “dark cloud” as Cousins refers to it, that he’s unable or unwilling to take any responsibility for. It’s beneficial for pro franchises to keep these incidents behind closed doors and it sounds like the Kings organization has kept a lot of DeMarcus’s issues on the hush hush. Coach Paul Westphal explained it like this: “Everything that happens on a team does not become known to the public. This is how it should be. However, when a player continually, aggressively, lets it be known that he is unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team, it cannot be ignored indefinitely,” and told Cousins there would be “less protection” from the team in disclosing future issues.

The people who care about DeMarcus Cousins can see the fighting, arguments, pouting, knee-jerk denials (“I have not demanded or requested a trade.” – Bullshit.) and see beyond the punk or the brat. Just like we can all see people in our lives (friends, family, co-workers, the dude in the mirror) who are doing too little with too much talent, who struggle to buy into their own ability and create their own personal obstacle courses which they clumsily navigate. And when you see these people and especially if you find it happening to yourself, you want to reach out with the utmost urgency and shake this man or woman out of whatever funk that lies so deeply in their soul, but it’s not that easy. You talk it over with them and have the same conversations and the same solutions come up and they nod because they get it just like you do. Then the same behaviors crop back up, bad habits creep around the corner like the bad humor man delivering another sick joke. You sympathize and feel the pain and cut them a bit of slack because you love and care about this person, but at some point, maybe today, tomorrow or yesterday, you deliver your message with a little less meaning and it doesn’t mean you give up; it just means it’s on them to figure it out. For DeMarcus Cousins, there’s a world of basketball fans and media out there, sympathetic and unsympathetic (does it even matter?), watching closely, I mean up in his face, breath hot on the side of his 21-year-old stubble-covered cheek, watching and waiting. DeMarcus has already proven the ride’s going to be entertaining; regardless of the ending.


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