Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: DeMarcus Cousins returns to Sacramento with more than FIBA World Cup gold medal

DeMarcus Cousins left Spain with a ton of baggage. Not the old baggage, new baggage. His luggage was stuffed with a FIBA World Cup gold medal, a sampling of souvenirs, a Team USA jersey to be forever cherished, and gentle reminders from USA Basketball officials – though nothing in writing, of course – that the Rio de Janeiro Olympics are only two years away.

Imagine Boogie dancing his way to Rio?

Could happen. Should happen. Probably will happen.

During one six-week period in the late summer of 2014, Cousins tinkered madly with his narrative, changing perceptions and recasting his image, emerging as a significant, perhaps invaluable member of the senior national team, and displaying a familiar dramatic flair at the end.

Here is what coach Mike Krzyzewski said moments after the USA’s 129-92 gold-medal romp Sunday over Serbia: “The first five minutes of tonight’s game, they knocked us back. Cousins really, I think, turned the game around. I don’t only think; I know. Watching (him), I’m saying, ‘Whoa,’ we just made another stop, or he just made another stop. He knocked the ball off the rim and they didn’t score. (Nenad) Krstic wasn’t able to score because he bodied up on him. …”

Now, given the history between Cousins and Krzyzewski, between Cousins and USAB executive director Jerry Colangelo, between Cousins and teammates, in general, this would be the time to rub the stardust out of your eyes. But then look again. It happened. It really happened.

Colangelo and Krzyzewski, initial critics who became skeptics, who invited Cousins to the 2014 tryouts while still not convinced he would be a physical, bruising asset instead of a 6-foot-11, 270-pound headache, lead the lofty list of converts. They enjoyed him. They respected his relentless determination – three consecutive summers spent sweltering in the Las Vegas heat – to make the team. They appreciated his willingness to improve his conditioning, to run the floor, to complement an offensive system that features wing players with his tenacious rebounding, defense, interior presence, passing.

There were no on-court or off-court issues, only one potential flareup against Lithuania that earned a technical but hardly merits a mention, and at least one occasion when his sharp wit rekindled memories of another Team USA character (Charles Barkley) on a previous visit to Spain.

During one of the mandatory media sessions, Cousins was asked if he knew where Slovenia was located.

“No,” Cousins deadpanned. “Do you know where Alabama is?”

It was that kind of tournament, 1992 Barcelona all over again, with the youngest collection of Team USA players minding their manners and entertaining their hosts when not otherwise routing the competition. If FIBA had a mercy rule, the games would have been called at halftime, or right about the time the baby Dream Teamers began envisioning late-night meals of tapas and sangria.

But none of this lasts forever. Team USA’s continued dominance in major international competitions – the USA has suffered one defeat since Colangelo and Kryzewski took over the national program in 2005 – coupled with increasing concerns leaguewide about injuries and fatigue, has prompted an intense and ongoing re-evaluation of the process. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern a year ago suggested limiting participants to those 23-and-under. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also has complained the international tournaments financially benefit only FIBA and exploit the NBA.

While some degree of restructuring seems inevitable, the current construct is expected to remain intact through the 2016 Games. All of which should further encourage Cousins, who turned 24 last month and could still shed several pounds, to keep aiming his arc upward. An All-Star berth should be a given. A Kings playoff push would be another eye-opener. An invitation by Team USA to next summer’s training camp in Las Vegas already is in the mail, though the competition for Rio stiffens if Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and LeBron James, among others, are healthy and interested.

But Cousins can’t worry about who’s in, who’s out. He merely has to remain, well, the King of Spain.

“You can use all the superlatives you want,” Colangelo said Tuesday afternoon, “and apply them to DeMarcus. He made the team, made a major contribution, made tremendous strides. In the locker room after our win over Serbia (earned an automatic berth to the Rio Games), DeMarcus in particular was emotional. He hugged me and thanked me for putting him on the team, and I told him, ‘the past is the past. This is the beginning of your career. Take everything you learned back to Sacramento. You can build on this and have a tremendous career.’ ”

Dream onward. Training camp opens next week.

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