His mother, Monique, often refers to her son as an oversized teddy bear. On Sunday, DeMarcus Cousins played “Santa Cuz” to 100 Sacramento-area youngsters at his third annual shopping spree at the Walmart in Natomas Marketplace.
For an hour, the fifth-year Kings center, though still recovering from viral meningitis, walked the aisles and helped children pack $215 worth of presents into shopping baskets, signed autographs and, at the end, sat on a throne and posed for photos with dozens of youngsters and volunteers. He was high-fived, hugged and thanked repeatedly, often accompanied by the rhythms of the acclaimed Drum Line from Grant High School, whose football program he unofficially has adopted.
Cousins has his own wish list, of course, and it consists of only three words: a speedier recovery. During his nine-game absence, the Kings have morphed from early-season surprise to slumping 2-7 franchise.
“It was scary because of the fact I had never heard of (viral meningitis),” he said later in the evening, “but they did a pretty good job breaking it down, telling me the difference between what I had and the very serious stuff. Once I found out I would continue to live (laugh), I was a little better.”
In his first extended public comments about his illness, Cousins grinned mischievously when told the organization expects him to be sidelined another week and hinted that the Kings’ timeline conflicts with his own target date, though the day and the opponent will remain secret. Like most athletes, he is at least mildly superstitious, and given the holiday season, is eager to avoid another pre-Christmas chance meeting with the Grinch.
Before he began to feel poorly after the Kings-Rockets game on Nov. 26, Cousins, 24, was still receiving raves for his presence on Team USA’s World Cup squad in September and his All-Star-caliber start to the NBA season. The most dominant presence on the court on most nights, he ranked among the league leaders in points (23.5) and rebounds (12.6), was blocking 1.5 shots per game, and was regarded as a much improved, engaged defender.
“But after the game in Houston, I went in the locker room, I was shaking,” he said, chronicling the medical ordeal. “I was extremely cold, and I didn’t know why. I thought I was just super tired from the game. But the next day my body felt terrible. My back was aching. My neck was aching. Of course, I assumed it was the flu. So I spent Thanksgiving in San Antonio, and they sent me home the next day.”
“Then I thought I was getting better, so I tried to warm up (against Toronto on Dec. 2), but my eyes were burning, and I felt a little hot. So I told them to take my temperature. The temperature was 103, so they took me to the hospital that night. Then, you know the rest of the story. That was a tough week.”
There was a spinal tap that Cousins describes as “extremely painful,” though no more than the excruciating headaches that finally are subsiding, replaced by a dull, less-frequent discomfort. He also experienced a sensitivity to bright light and a loss of appetite and energy. He estimates he lost 10-15 pounds, and adds, jokingly: “I was walking around, getting pretty scrawny. But my energy is coming back. My weight is coming back. So it’s getting closer. If it was up to me, I would have been back as soon as I was able to deal with the pain. But the doctors suggested I do the full course and come back 100 percent instead of getting sick again.”
Though he appeared fatigued near the end of Sunday’s event, Cousins participated in the Kings’ morning shootaround Saturday and was back on the floor about 45 minutes before tipoff against the Detroit Pistons, launching jumpers, working on his post moves, breaking a serious sweat.
And, he promises, he will be back in full Santa Claus regalia for his Santa Cuz event next Christmas.
“No Santa Claus outfit this year because everybody knows I’m a little under the weather,” he added. “They didn’t want me to get overheated. They want me to take it a little slow.”
As for his teammates and coaches? How much do they miss him? That 2-7 record during Cousins’ absence has wrecked what could have been a joyous December.
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.