by Rudy Raya

As I sat in a line of cars outside of the gates of ARCO Arena, the thought of going to the Sacramento Kings’ practice hadn’t really hit me yet. Growing up in Sacramento, I’ve driven through these gates plenty of times for graduations, Disney on Ice and, of course, Kings games. But this time I was on a mission.

After some confusion at the gate, I parked and went into the Kings’ practice complex. I walked into a pitch-black room with a few chairs facing a large window with curtain drawn in front of it. The whole scenario had me a bit nervous, being that this was my first player interview. But, with the media room resembling a confessional waiting room, I was even more on edge.

My objective was to get an interview with the Kings’ first-round draft pick and SLAM’s newest Rookie Diary Keeper DeMarcus Cousins. Coming into the Draft, Cousins was made out to be the bad guy. Even with all the potential in the world, he always had an expression on his face like he didn’t want to be there. His play in college was impressive, and the fact that he managed to perform like he did while on the completely stacked Kentucky Wildcats was especially amazing. But coupled with an unmatched passion on the court, was an apathetic attitude off it that reared its head in many press conferences and post-game interviews. He had a few incidents where his antics were a bit out of out of line, but if anything, the circumstances were always blown out of proportion.

After a draft lottery that nearly brought the entire town to tears and ended Sacramento’s aspirations of landing John Wall, it felt as if any hope for the team was lost. Though they tumbled down the procession of picks, the Kings lined up in perfect position to land Wall’s former Wildcat teammate, the equally as impressive DeMarcus Cousins. Whispers of Greg Monroe circulated around as he looked the most like a “Geoff Petrie Pick” – which basically means a big guy who can pass – but I had hoped otherwise. It’s not that Greg Monroe won’t be a special player, but there was something about Cousins that made him seem like a perfect fit for Sacramento. His combination of power and footwork was something of a smaller Shaq, and something that the Kings had been on the other side of in their most recent, but now distant, playoff history. demarcus cousins

Not since Chris Webber have the Kings had a truly talented frontcourt presence. Spencer Hawes didn’t exactly pan out, and days before the Draft, they shipped him off along with Andres Nocioni in exchange for the one-year contract of veteran center, Samuel Dalembert. The Kings practically rolled out the red carpet for their new young big man by preemptively trading the two-year starter and former first-round draft pick. But how could the Kings simply hand over their Kingdom and their future to such a bad seed? What did they see in him that four other teams didn’t?

Flash forward three short months, and I am in the Kings’ media room waiting to infiltrate the practice and get my interview with the dastardly DeMarcus Cousins. The night before, while I was forming my questions, I watched YouTube videos of his past interviews and tried to keep track of what not to say to annoy him. The lights turned on to reveal a space that looked like rotating room ride in Jurassic Park, minus the handlebars and Jeff Goldblum. The curtain slowly rolled up and revealed a gigantic gym with four basketball courts and every Sacramento King there practicing.

Though my boyhood dreams were coming true right in front my eyes, the image of Cousins laughing and smiling was what really gave me a shock. A SMILE SIGHTING. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him smiling or if I ever even had. The signature scowl was nowhere to be seen, but here instead was a more revealing image of the young man.

Once the interview was underway and I stood there next to the supposed rookie ruffian, I wanted to dig deep into his trials and tribulations with reporters and attempt to victimize this villainized player. But Cousins’ response was hardly what I had expected.

“That’s my past, that was college. I’m in the NBA now with my selected team, so all of that, I can care less,” he says. “I’m here to play ball and help my team win. So what they have to say really doesn’t bother me.”

His answer was not in spite of the media, but was actually a more sincere tone. With Buddhist like enlightenment, Cousins doesn’t sound like the snot-nosed punk that I saw TV, but rather, a confident young NBA player. Reformed and renovated like Robert Downey Jr is this new, kinder, gentlemanly DeMarcus Cousins. The shoulder shrugs and the rolling eyes that accompanied many reporters’ questions were gone and were replaced by strong eye contact and thoughtful answers. The supposedly angry at the world teenager from Kentucky is now something of a humbled NBA rookie.

The Kings’ No. 5 pick was originally labeled as “risky” and a “project,” but with his display of talent in this year’s Las Vegas Summer League, the only risky project is for the player whose assignment was to guard the young big man. Cousins ran the floor like a point guard, commanded the ball down the stretch, and showed moves that if emulated, would make Grant Hill’s erector set of an ankle break to pieces. Cousins started off incredibly strong, but like any rookie, he encountered problems and his performance fizzled toward the end of the competition.

Regardless of the outcome, Cousins showed glimpses of a flashy and potentially dominant big man. Before anybody says, “it was only the Summer League,” the point of the Summer League is to gauge how far along young players are, and from his performance, it was obvious that he was miles ahead of the competition.

“I wanted to make a statement,” says Cousins. “Being at Kentucky, we had so much talent on the team, I was limited to what I could do. I had to play my exact role. Now that I’m in the League, I have the chance to show more of my talent, I did that to prove a point. I’m not just a player that sits in the post and out muscles people.”

With personal goals and expectations both high, Cousins luckily has two teammates to help wean him into the professional game and make his transition a smooth one. Though Tyreke Evans and Samuel Dalembert may be at opposite ends of the spectrum in their careers, both have the work experience that the fans and the franchise would love to see replicated in Cousins.

In Evans is the perfect role model for any first year player. This reigning Rookie of the Year is a soft-spoken guy who prefers to let his game do most of the talking. Quickly becoming the focal point of the team, Evans shook off any first year obstacles and made averaging Jordan-like rookie season numbers look easy. But Evans is not without flaws — both in his game and his driving record after the early summer reckless driving incident. But after seeing the tape on multiple local news channels, who doesn’t want a player who can drive the lanes like that?

“I can ask [Tyreke], OK, what does it take to be Rookie of the Year, knowing he had such a great season,” says Cousins. “He opens the door for me being the Rookie of the Year, but it also brings expectations for me to do the same thing that he did or try to be better than he was.”

Dalembert is the crafty veteran who has managed to stay healthy and relevant in the game for the past eight seasons. His stats may not be glaring, but in a league where many big men spend as much time in the training room as they do on the court, Dalembert is something of a rarity. “He’s been the vet, he’s been in my ear the whole time. I’m really looking at him to help me on the defensive end, he’s such a great defensive big man. He’s a great teacher for me.” With defensive pressure tighter than Cheryl Miller’s braids, Dalembert is another big body in the paint that can hopefully teach Cousins how to do something other than play matador with driving players, something that Kings’ front court has been suspect of in recent years.

Many analysts thought that with all the problems he had in college, how in the world could he be able manage himself with less restrictions and even more responsibility? Cousins recognizes that college and the NBA aren’t going to be the same, but he wants to do the work necessary to turn potential into a reality.

“The biggest difference is that you have a lot more time on your hands, and you really determine the type of player you become,” says Cousins. “You can be in the gym late, you can be in the gym early or you can be the last one in and the first one out. As far as the game aspect, everybody is good, everybody can play, everybody is strong, and everybody is fast. You just gotta go out and compete everyday.”

What was labeled immaturity early on was simply Cousins’ competitive instinct. It may have gotten the best of him at times, but if a player has a desire that’s too strong, you don’t hide it, you harness it. In the past, he may have seemed like someone who doesn’t really care, but he genuinely wants to be great. Cousins is ready to shed any former labels that he has accrued and instead let his play dictate just what kind of player he is.