Before his gold medal tour with Team USA and the dominating performances that characterized his opening weeks of the season, the DeMarcus Cousins theme song was a broken record, a modern dance to the tune of one step forward, two steps back.
Then, suddenly, just when he appeared to be getting it right – his career, his game, his demeanor – the fifth-year center caught a nasty case of viral meningitis and was sidelined for 10 games. By the time he returned, his favorite coach was fired, his team was in a massive funk, and his All-Star prospects had diminished by the hour.
Cousins, openly and admittedly, struggled mightily with the transition from Michael Malone to Tyrone Corbin. But as an aspiring All-Star? Potential superstar? Bona fide leader? The role comes with conditions. The job description includes lifting his teammates from the abyss, guiding them from losing streaks to winning stretches, and in the process, establishing a mentality resistant to darkening, damaging mood swings.
“If I come out aggressive, the team follows,” he said late Wednesday night. “I’m the heartbeat of this team. But it’s a lot easier said than done.”
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Locker rooms are as fragile as newborns. Athletes aren’t widgets. Bloated salaries and comfortable lifestyles don’t inoculate against abrupt change and emotional upheaval. The recent Kings melodrama, in fact, is a little reminiscent of the final days of Vlade Divac/Chris Webber/Peja Stojakovic, when team dynamics were shattered by injury and tone-deaf managerial decisions.
Yet there is a game against the Denver Nuggets on Friday night and another game Sunday, and on it goes. Cousins, 24, who emerged as an important and maturing presence on Mike Krzyzewski’s World Cup team, recognizes that elite players adapt to their circumstances. That next stride, though, the one that speaks to ongoing progress, is still ahead, tempting him, daring him.
Reverting to the days when his overheated reactions led to flurries of technicals and/or team suspensions should not be an option. Wednesday’s technical against Oklahoma City should be his last. That should be the plan, anyway.
“This is new for everybody,” said Cousins, who is averaging career highs in points (23.5), rebounds (12.3), blocks (1.6) and assists (2.9, tie). “It’s not easy for us. It’s not easy for anybody right now. The best way for all of us to get through this is to come together, find something.”
Much of his frustration is understandable. The Kings were 9-6 when he became ill. They slumped to 3-7 during the ensuing 10 games. On more than one occasion since his return, Cousins has spoken about feeling guilty, as if getting sick was within his control. More concerning is this: He still doesn’t feel great.
Sitting alone at his locker late Wednesday, the 6-foot-11 veteran said he remains fatigued and is having trouble regaining the weight he lost during his illness. Though declining to provide numbers, he bolted upright and extended his arms for emphasis, as if to make his case; and he certainly appeared lighter than at any time during his Kings tenure.
“I’m trying to play through it, get my conditioning back,” he said, “but it’s hard because when I’m playing, I’m always tired. I’m winded. My stamina’s just not there. When I missed those games, I did not touch a basketball. All I did was sleep. I laid in bed all day.”
The muscular element of his game, which combines with his craftiness around the basket and more than compensates for a lack of explosiveness, is noticeably lacking. Though he scored 23 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked three shots in 37 minutes against the Thunder, several of his close-in shot attempts were off-balance, and eight were rejected, most by Serge Ibaka.
Only half-jokingly, Cousins said he is mulling a larger commitment to the weight room.
“I’m all about strengthening my core and flexibility,” he said, “but I had a good lifting session (Tuesday). We’ll see. I’m still trying to figure out how to manage my body without getting hurt. I don’t really know what’s going on. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe out there.”
Leaning back, he shrugged. “Eventually it will happen, I guess. It’s just taking a lot longer than I wanted.”
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