This Olympic journey to Rio de Janeiro? For Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, it was never going to be a non-stop flight. It took him five offseasons, repeated heart-to-heart conversations with USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski, intense offseason workout routines, and an almost obsessive desire to make the 12-man roster.
Cousins, who is coming off his second All-Star season, not only made the team, he starts at center for the undefeated United States.
The trouble is – and trouble tracks Cousins like a bounty hunter – the international referees are giving him fits. In two of his four outings, against Venezuela and an Australia team anchored by his nemesis, Andrew Bogut, Cousins was assessed nine fouls in 18 minutes. In Friday’s 94-91 squeaker over Serbia, he was tagged with two fouls in 21 minutes while contributing five points and three rebounds.
Before everyone starts carping about Cousins’ incessant whining and irritating habit of inducing fouls, not all of this is on Boogie. Officiating in international basketball has all the consistency of my beef stew – and I am a vegetarian who can’t cook. San Antonio Spurs icon Tim Duncan was so incensed by the erratic officiating at the 2004 Athens Games he vowed never to play again for the national team.
“(Bleep) FIBA,” the normally understated Duncan blurted after the disappointing bronze medal finish in what, indeed, proved to be his international finale.
In the international game, there is a lot of dirty stuff. It’s very different from the NBA. It’s almost like there is a different set of rules. Against someone like DeMarcus (Cousins), who has all this talent, teams are going to try all the tricks to stop him. But he has to learn to play through it. He can’t react.
Kings general manager Vlade Divac
Team USA nonetheless has survived quite nicely without Duncan in the ensuing decade, losing only once in a major international competition (to Greece in the 2006 world championships) and re-establishing the United States as the globe’s basketball power. Many of these victories were achieved with smaller lineups and without a conventional center, primarily because America in recent years has ceded the position to players from other countries, among them Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Yao Ming and Bogut.
This U.S. team, with the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan and Cousins, a muscular scorer, rebounder and occasionally spectacular passer, was expected to start a trend toward an old-school style, with interior post play and an inside/outside attack. Instead, as the team prepares for Sunday’s Group A finale against France, Cousins is as befuddled and annoyed as Duncan.
The confusion centers around a question without an answer: What exactly is a foul?
“A couple of times, they’re not fouls,” Krzyzewski insisted after Cousins played just 10 minutes against Australia. “They’re just not fouls. But early on in the game, people like to set a tone in how the game is administered, and so something is called a little bit closer than it would be five minutes later. I just told him (Cousins), ‘You’re a human being. You should be frustrated. Let’s just move on to the next thing and see if we can handle that going forward, because we need you.’ We need him to play more.”
Kings general manager Vlade Divac, whose masterful and experienced Yugoslavian team stunned the basketball world by winning the 2002 world championship in Indianapolis, has been meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week with his star center, offering tutorials. And who better than a former world-class flopper to instruct Cousins?
Though Divac was among the most skilled big men in the game, he turned cheap tricks into an art form during his illustrious international career. A subtle bruising blow to the ribs. A sneaky yank on a jersey. An arm around an opponent’s waist when the refs looked away. A wide-eyed “Who, me?” look when he was caught in the act.
“In the international game, there is a lot of dirty stuff,” Divac said between games. “It’s very different from the NBA. It’s almost like there is a different set of rules. Against someone like DeMarcus, who has all this talent, teams are going to try all the tricks to stop him. But he has to learn to play through it. He can’t react.”
A couple of times, they’re not fouls. They’re just not fouls. But early on in the game, people like to set a tone in how the game is administered, and so something is called a little bit closer than it would be five minutes later.
Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, on foul calls against DeMarcus Cousins
Not surprisingly, Cousins, who reacted to questionable calls with his familiar frowns, angry gestures and exaggerated retreats to the bench, suspects his reputation preceded him to Rio. “I don’t feel there’s any consistency,” he told reporters earlier in the week. “But my biggest thing is, I can’t worry about that.”
Perhaps not, but Krzyzewski surely will. The last thing he wants is another Athens meltdown. While he doesn’t have LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson to glam up his roster, Team USA is a heavy favorite in a field that lacks the talent and depth of the previous era. Argentina, Spain, France and Lithuania aren’t what they used to be as they transition between generations. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Bogut and the Gasol brothers, among others, are closing in on retirement, and their successors are either too young, not as gifted or not as interested.
“Nothing much has impressed me over here,” Divac said. “The Australian team maybe. They play hard, they play tough. (Dario) Saric is playing well for Croatia and Bogdan (Bogdanovic) and (Nikola) Jokic are playing good for Serbia. But Team USA better be careful. They are full of talent, but if you don’t put out 100 percent, especially starting next week, some team may surprise you. You have to play as a team. If you rely on shooting and playing by yourself, you could be in trouble.”
Divac, who is completing his term as president of the Serbian Olympic Committee, admits to being biased and is hoping for a USA-Serbia rematch in the final.
“I say Serbia wins gold and USA wins silver,” he said, laughing. “And then DeMarcus comes home after learning a lot from Coach K and Colangelo and stays in great shape for the rest of the summer. That would make me very happy.”