Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Team USA selection is milestone moment for DeMarcus

During the late-night, in-house celebration that erupted when DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay were named to Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup that begins Saturday in Spain, one Kings official posed the following trivia question:

When was the last time two Kings were named to the 12-man roster representing the United States in the Olympics or World Cup, the latter competition formerly known as the World Championships?

The answer is too easy.

Never. Zero. Zip.

While this is a public relations coup at the very least for the Kings – whose owners and front office executives fit squarely in the camp of NBA officials who endorse their players’ involvement in the most prestigious international basketball events, the potential for injury and season-long fatigue notwithstanding – this is a nice plum and a second go-round for Gay, and an absolutely monumental achievement for Cousins.

Talk about a miraculous recovery. Two years ago, when Cousins was among the invitees who scrimmaged against the 2012 Olympians at the training camp in Las Vegas, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo practically chased him out of the gym. The gambling crowd would have gone broke betting on the guy. The young center was characterized as too aggressive, too physical, too generous with the elbows, too chatty with the referees.

Yet if Cousins flunked his original audition, he stubbornly returned for a refresher course in 2013. He re-enrolled again these past several weeks, and finally, for the first time in his pro career, he aced the test. If he were still in school, everyone would be looking up to the 6-foot-11, 270-pound kid with the gold star pasted on his forehead. He listened. He learned. He also took full advantage of fluid roster developments that included injuries, fatigue, contract concerns and a general lack of interest among many of his more celebrated peers.

“Who wouldn’t want to play for his country?” a puzzled Cousins asked during a lengthy conversation recently in Las Vegas, adding he would be “crushed” if he failed to make the World Cup team. “But I’m not a quitter. I would come back and try again.”

The roster announced Saturday night in fact offers more than a few surprises. Location, location, location. While Mike Krzyzewski’s national teams historically are dominated by quick, versatile athletes, a possible gold-medal matchup in Madrid against a massive Spanish team of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka has nagged like a headache that travels well overseas. In this situation, it was decided that size indeed matters, prompting the inclusion of four players who are 6-foot-10 or taller: Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Mason Plumlee and Cousins.

Davis was a lock. Plumlee was a late addition and a surprise. Drummond was sluggish throughout the Las Vegas camp and on the bench for the exhibition against Puerto Rico, but he had his moments in practices and scrimmages. Cousins, whose muscular and varied offensive skills distinguish him from the other bigs, has been something of a revelation, with both his game and his head.

With conditioning a chronic work in progress, he arrived in Las Vegas in decent shape and dominated the opening scrimmage with his rebounding, interior presence and outlet passing. A day later, he was sore, fatigued, ineffective. USAB bosses frowned. But he persevered, he persisted, he adapted, and he ran himself into better shape while developing a chemistry with Warriors guards Steph Curry and Klay Thompson – and engaging in some nifty give-and-go possessions with the long-limbed Gay, his Kings teammate who played for Krzyzewski in the 2010 Worlds and is projected as a stretch four (power forward).

And about the attitude? The need to prove himself as a good teammate? Check another box. USAB officials definitely warmed to Cousins. Krzyzewski and Colangelo – Chicago natives with an edginess and an appreciation for innate toughness – were further impressed when Cousins bruised his right knee and resumed practicing after an MRI revealed a painful but unremarkable bone bruise.

“A lot of players would not play that soon,” said Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro. “They would say, ‘I’m not ready,’ and pack up and go home. But DeMarcus wants to be on the floor. The guy plays. Making this team is a goal he set. I am just thrilled for him. Now he has to go out and do it on the international level. His next goal should be to say, ‘I’m going to show the rest of the world’ what we see in Sacramento.”

Yet not even Sacramento has seen this. Two current Kings on the same Team USA participating in an Olympics or World Cup (Championships)? Mitch Richmond was a stud when the USA won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Games. Mike Bibby joined the exodus of USA stars who bailed on the 2004 Athens Olympics because of terrorism fears. The duo of Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic won the gold medal at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis … but for the former Yugoslavia.

“None of us pitch a perfect game,” added Chris Mullin, a Vivek Ranadive adviser and member of the fabled 1992 Dream Team, “but the basketball part of this will be great for DeMarcus. Having our message reinforced by someone with the stature of Coach K and Jerry (Colangelo) can only help. He can reach another level. And while this is great for our Kings organization, it’s going to bring DeMarcus a lot more credibility.”

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