- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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DeMARCUS COUSINS IS sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles, across South Figueroa from Staples Center, where the Kings are about to play the Lakers in a heroic effort to sift through the grim remains of another bad season. Sacramento's star center is alone, suspended from the game for giving Rockets guard Patrick Beverley a gutshot three nights earlier.
This has happened many times -- three suspensions last season -- but this year, his fourth in the NBA, was supposed to be different. This was the year he finally got a coach who didn't judge on reputation. This was the year his talent would quiet his temper. This was the year there would be no nights spent wishing he hadn't put his worst impulses on public display.
The rain is hitting Figueroa at a 45-degree slant, bringing LA to a standstill. Cousins clicks through TV channels, trying to find the game. Every local station shows another giddy reporter standing at a Glendora intersection, where the rain created a mudslide. He flips through once more before conceding: The hotel doesn't carry the network that is broadcasting the game.
He's not there, and they're not here. The isolation is complete.
Inside Staples, Cousins' absence is a huge presence. Standing with a few reporters 90 minutes before tip-off, first-year coach Michael Malone says, "DeMarcus feels terrible that he's not here. He's worked so hard to get beyond this, but he has to hold himself to a higher standard."
Three days later, Cousins sits at his home locker, his wide shoulders hunched, his voice a low rumble. "I hate that I'm in this position," he says. "I can't believe it, to be honest."
It's jarring to hear a 23-year-old man speak of himself with anthropological distance, and even more jarring to hear the words arrive with such resignation. There is a person who lives inside Cousins and an image that does not. The image is out there, loose in the public arena, like a balloon after it leaves a child's hand.
He believes he is powerless to stop it, and so he does not try. He does not know what to do, and so he does nothing. It is, he admits, an approach that values personal defiance over man's better instincts. No matter. He's been fighting perception and assumption for as long as he can remember, and he knows some ironies are crueler than others: Cousins was constantly mistaken for an adult as a child, only to find himself infantilized as an adult.
"If you judge me only by my profession, you don't know me at all," he says. "Those people who do that? They'll never know me."
THEY. IT'S AMORPHOUS and malleable, and in Cousins' world, comprehensive. The NBA. The media. The refs. Anyone who calls him childish or immature or troubled. Anyone who mistakes passion for petulance. Anyone who suggests he needs to be saved from himself.
The NBA, in his view, kept him out of this season's All-Star Game despite his double-double credentials. The media propagate the bad-boy narrative as if spreading seed, never bothering to mention that he's never run afoul of the law. Nobody approaches a story on Cousins expecting introspection or examples of his charitable work. That's like visiting Las Vegas to check out the library.
In January, one of his friends took a screen shot of an NBA TV graphic listing scoring and rebounding stats of Western Conference All-Star candidates. On first glance, everything seems normal, but a closer look shows that Cousins is incorrectly listed fifth, behind Anthony Davis, who had lower numbers in both categories (and still does).
Sitting atop the kitchen counter of his 13,000-square-foot home east of Sacramento, Cousins eats his second Uncrustables -- he peels off the outer edge of the uncrust as he goes -- and drinks a glass of grapefruit juice. He stares at the graphic for what must be the thousandth time and shakes his head slowly.
How could they do that? How could they think nobody would notice?
One man's coincidence is another man's conspiracy. Davis was named an All-Star; Cousins wasn't.
It is harder to change opinions than to create them, and Cousins is too proud to wage the kind of eager public relations campaign needed to begin the process. He has a uniform disdain for what he deems as phoniness or politicking. He physically prevented teammate Isaiah Thomas from shaking hands with Chris Paul after a game this season because he considers Paul a creation of the establishment, a player whose persona doesn't mesh with reality. (Google "Paul Cousins flop.") After a game last season, Cousins confronted Spurs broadcaster Sean Elliott when informed that Elliott had criticized him. The NBA suspended him for two games. When the Spurs were in Sacramento this March, Cousins extended a hand to Elliott and apologized. "What happened with me and Sean was just me being man enough to admit I was wrong," he said. But in classic Cousins fashion, he complained after the exchange got out: "I was hoping that it was going to be something that was between me and him."
Business associates and team sources say he does significant work in the community but refuses publicity. They look over a shoulder first, as if confiding state secrets, before telling of large donations to charities and free camps for disadvantaged kids in Sacramento and his hometown of Mobile, Ala. Says a Kings official, "He could turn his entire image around in eight weeks if he would let it happen." But says Cousins, "I don't do things to be rewarded. I help people because it's the right thing to do."
His talent is so complete and so unusual for a 6'11", 270-pound man that the Kings gave him a maximum contract extension (four years, $62 million) in September and the unofficial title of face of the franchise. "We've made a huge commitment," Malone says, "not only to DeMarcus the player, but DeMarcus the person."
But the job description didn't call for Cousins to become a one-man quarantine. Not only did his jab of Beverley cost him the Lakers game, he was hit with two unrelated technical fouls (his 14th and 15th, tied for the league lead with Kevin Durant) and fined $20,000 for verbally abusing ref Courtney Kirkland. Technical No. 16 will trigger another one-game suspension, as will every two T's afterward. Following the suspension, Kings fans, among the most possessive in pro sports, lost their collective minds while talk radio callers raged about responsibility and repercussions.
"I'm not the first franchise guy to be suspended for a game," Cousins says. "I shouldn't have done it, but why does it automatically mean I'm a horrible person? Look at Kevin Garnett. I'm pretty sure he's been suspended as a franchise guy. But when he does something, it's: 'He's passionate.' Joakim Noah -- 'He's passionate. You want him on your team.' So how does mine come up? 'He's immature. He needs to grow up.'
"You can call it what you want: bad attitude, immature. You can say, 'He's a thug.' But I'm a competitor." Cousins draws out each of those last three words, like a challenge. Then he raises his enormous hands and drops them on his knees.
THREE WEEKS, ZERO T's and zero suspensions removed from the Lakers game, Cousins stands in the master bedroom of his Tuscan villa-style home, complete with a huge pool, small vineyard and lighted tennis court. He's surrounded by his most cherished possessions: sneakers. Hundreds and hundreds of size 16 kicks -- each pair out-of-the-box clean -- fan out from every corner, meticulously arranged in colorful arrays, like army men or stuffed animals. He goes over them pair by pair, quietly and intensely, like a jeweler choosing stones.
"These are all exclusive," he says, cracking the merest hint of a smile. "I'm a pretty exclusive guy. It's how I roll."
Smiling does not come naturally, unless he is playing with his pit bulls, Gotti and Capone. His perpetual on-court scowl is often mistaken for unhappiness, but he says, "If I started smiling all the time, people would say, 'DeMarcus must not care anymore.'"
In another seeming paradox, Cousins is slow to trust and yet loyal to a fault. He grew up in Mobile with five siblings and a single mother, but he has been constantly surrounded by men with something to gain since he quit football for basketball -- at his mother's insistence -- as a tall, gangly middle schooler. "He's been that size from an early age," says new USF coach Orlando Antigua, who was an assistant at Kentucky during Cousins' one-and-done 2009-10 season. "Even though he was 15 or 16, adults treated him like a grown man. His family situation wasn't always the best, but his mom was always a rock."
Cousins says he took to the game quickly -- he snaps his fingers -- "like that." By the time he got to high school, he was holding his own against older men on the street courts of Mobile. "They understood where I was coming from," Cousins says. "Of course they said 'Channel the emotion,' because sometimes I'd go too far. But it was never, 'He's immature' or 'He has to grow up.'"
Soon, the kid had an unending succession of hopeful mentors. AAU coaches wanted to make him their star; college coaches wanted a title and to make him a pro; pro coaches wanted to make him the savior of their franchise. "The issue with DeMarcus is the trust factor," Antigua says. "There's a wall there. He keeps only certain people inside, people he can trust who are not going to hurt him."
Former Kings coaches Paul Westphal and Keith Smart were unable to infiltrate the wall. In Westphal's case, a public feud over Cousins' commitment to the team cost him his job seven games into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Smart was promoted to head coach but went 48-93, and his relationship with Cousins soured as the losses mounted. He was fired last May with one year left on his contract. As soon as Malone and GM Pete D'Alessandro were hired, they took a trip to Mobile to meet with Cousins and his mom, Monique.
"This is a partnership," Malone told Cousins. "I won't hold your past against you, and I would ask that you do the same for me."
Cousins' me-against-the-world mentality can seem limiting, but consider this: Three days after the Lakers game, The Sacramento Bee polled readers asking how many technicals Cousins would amass by the end of the season. It included this line: "What we don't know is how much more of Cousins' behavior new Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive and [D'Alessandro] will tolerate before they decide 22.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game aren't worth the headache that comes with the package."
Some facts: The Kings have lost all 10 games without Cousins this season. Through March 31, he ranked 10th in scoring (22.3 ppg), fifth in rebounding (11.7 rpg), tied for third in double-doubles (46) and fifth in Player Efficiency Rating, behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis. Cousins' 15 T's were just one more than Blake Griffin, one of the NBA's most beloved player-salesmen.
The image is out there, though, drifting with the wind, asking: Is he worth it? Leaning back in his office chair, Malone slowly exhales. He talks the way a fullback runs, head down, straight up the middle, searching for something to hit. When things go wrong for the Kings, he clenches his eyes and pinches his nose with his right thumb and forefinger. He seems like the kind of guy who'll either succeed wildly or get worn smooth by the grind of living and dying with every game played.
"I don't get a lot of this stuff," he says. "He's having the best year of his career. He should be an All-Star. He's already shown that -- arguably -- he's the best center in the league. But his biggest jump will come from handling adversity and being comfortable when he's uncomfortable. When he can do that, it's scary to think how good he can be."
IT FEELS INCUMBENT to explain Cousins' ability, to isolate his talent without the static.
There is a raw fury to his game, a pitiless aggression that proves he is not furthering a brand or smiling for the cameras -- or even aware of them. He is not, in a metaphysical sense, watching himself to sway the undecided. He is simply balling.
At his size, he has such a unique all-around game -- quick feet, sure hands and a feathery shooting touch with range -- that ceding any aspect of it to his teammates can seem like needless subservience. On Dec. 27, in the second quarter of a home win over the Heat, a game in which Cousins had 27 points, 17 boards and five assists, he snared a Miami miss and dribbled downcourt to the three-point arc, lofting an alley-oop to Rudy Gay for an easy two.
"I don't think I'm a player who's in a box or limited in what I can do," Cousins says. "It's a gift and a curse. The curse is picking spots."
There are few personal touches on the walls of his mansion, but there are two framed action shots of him dunking over cowering opponents. Mitch Richmond and Chris Webber jerseys sit on the vast kitchen counter next to a stack of Cousins' trademark headbands. He picks up the Richmond jersey, an All-Star uni, and folds it neatly before placing it back on the counter. Asked whether he is hurt about not being named to the team, he answers, "Absolutely. I hear it's because I'm on a losing team, but Kyrie Irving was a reserve with  wins. Anthony Davis? Same story. So you can't sell me on that."
Agitated, he stops and sighs. He runs his hand across his forehead and down his face.
"[The fans] pick who they want to pick," he says. "That goes with the reputation. I can accept that. But I was flat done wrong [by the coaches]. And it's clear as day."
THE VAGARIES OF hotel channels spared Cousins the sight of the Kings' 126-122 loss to the Lakers. But the next night he's on the court for a home loss to the Timberwolves, and when the Pelicans come to town two nights later, Cousins is intent on ending the Kings' three-game skid.
He returns to his locker after a pregame workout to find a poster board of Bill Kennedy, Bennie Adams and Scott Twardoski staring at him. They are the game's officiating crew, and their smiling mugs were hung there by the Kings assistants. The inference is obvious. Look at these guys: human beings, men with families and dreams and mothers who love them.
"They're messing with me," Cousins says of his coaches. That a joke could carry a message doesn't seem to strike him as a possibility.
That night he outscores (23-13) and outrebounds (12-4) Anthony Davis as the Kings win. During this game and over the next 13, he will not pick up a T or the suspension that comes with it.
Which isn't to say the final eight games will be easy. Far from it. Late in the second quarter against the Pelicans, Cousins is called for a bizarre offensive foul after he tries to run through an Alexis Ajinca headlock. In the third quarter, Cousins is whistled for a charge on a play that could have gone either way.
As soon as the call is made, he bounces off the floor and jogs to the other end of the court, where he stops under the basket. Then he stares heavenward -- head thrown back, arms outstretched to the sky, all alone -- as if seeking help from the only place left to turn.