A.J. Price is my favorite college basketball player of all-time. He wasn’t the best. He never won a National Championship. But he’s still my favorite.
To me, Price represented everything that college basketball, and really the college experience should be about. For all the discussion that we as fans and analysts have about paying players, college football playoffs, expanded March Madness, whatever, what college is really about, is molding young people into adults. It’s like the commercials say, most NCAA athletes will “go pro,” in something other than their chosen sport.
Nobody signified that better than Price.
When A.J. got to UConn, he was a lot of what is wrong with the AAU sneaker culture we have in place right now. He entered school with a cocky, my s**t don’t stink, I don’t need to listen to anybody, swagger to him. Believe me, I was there. While I wouldn’t say A.J. was a bad kid, he was definitely misguided, and probably a bit immature. I bet if you asked him that, he’d tell you the same.
Then reality hit. Price had a near fatal injury (bleeding in his brain), which cost him his first year of college, nearly his life. Just as he finished up his recovery, Price followed that up by getting in trouble with the law.
With the arrest, Price was suspended from school for a year and was away from basketball for two. Thankfully though, by the time he got back to campus in the fall of 2007, Price was humbled, humiliated and matured. He ended his career by leading the Huskies to the 2009 Final Four, and more importantly by becoming a great ambassador of the school in the process. A.J. Price entered UConn a boy, and left a man.
To a smaller degree, that’s the same reason why DeMarcus Cousins may be my favorite non-UConn player ever. He didn’t quite have the same college experience as Price, but then again, didn’t do the same time in school either.
Fairly or not, from the first day that Cousins walked on campus at Kentucky, he was considered a bit of a bad apple. Not that he did much to help his public image. Cousins trudged around the court looking like an angry bouncer at a rowdy bar, just waiting to knock out the first drunk who gives him a problem. He bickered with John Calipari like the two were an old married couple. And at times it seemed like Kentucky was winning despite Cousins, not because of him. At one point my buddy Matt joked, “That guy is going to get at least three NBA coaches fired.” Honestly, I didn’t think it was too far off.
But like Price, Cousins eventually let his guard down and spread his wings in Lexington. Within months, he went from “toxic,” and “un-coachable,” to the biggest goofball on the team. He showed up at press conferences wearing funny outfits. He was no longer “DeMarcus Cousins,” but simply, “Big Cuz.” Go ahead and ask any Kentucky fan about the 2010 season, and they’ll all tell you the same: John Wall may have been the most important player on that team, but Cousins was the most beloved.
From there, you know how the rest of the narrative played out. Kentucky went onto a storybook season that ended just one game (and a few made 3’s) away from the Final Four. With their coach’s blessing Cousins, Wall and three teammates left for NBA riches, where the 6’11 power forward was the fifth pick in last summer’s NBA Draft. And while things weren’t perfect in his first few months as a professional, they were getting better for Big Cuz. Entering Saturday’s game he’d had four double-doubles in his previous six games.
That’s when things changed though.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story from Saturday night’s loss to the Thunder, here’s what you need to know:
The Kings and Thunder played a hard-fought back-and-forth ball-game that went down to the final possession. Sacramento had the ball with just five seconds to go, and after a timeout, Donte Greene inbounded the ball to Tyreke Evans, who took a few dribbles, went up for the last shot, and missed. Game over. Just another tough loss in the NBA, right?
Wrong, as according to a report by Sam Amrick of AOL Fanhouse, Cousins became infuriated that he didn’t touch the ball on the final possession, and let Greene know about it in the tunnel under Arco Arena. Eventually their confrontation turned hostile, and Cousins took a swing at Greene. The players had to be separated, and later on, Cousins had to be pulled off the Kings plane which was getting set to leave for Sunday’s game in Phoenix. Cousins was suspended Sunday night, and according to Amrick’s report, he may be suspended for up to this three-game road trip the Kings are currently on. Just to be fair, this wasn’t Cousins first run in with his teammates or management, as he'd already been fined $5,000 once before.
So what should we make of the whole incident?
As expected, the mainstream media got the ball rolling as only they can, and have spent the last 36 hours calling Cousins every derogatory name they can could up with: Selfish, a team cancer, immature, a head case, spoiled, un-coachable. You name it.
Me, I’m not so sure though. Obviously Cousins is to blame for this one, isolated incident. Even I wouldn’t deny that. But is he to blame for the big picture problems with this team? That, I’m not so sure about.
Look, we don’t know, nor will we ever know, what led to Cousins frustration. Was the last play called for him? Had Westphal given Evans or Greene explicit instructions to dump the ball down low? Is Cousins just straight off the funny farm? Or is it some combination of all those things? Again, we’ll never know.
Still, I guess I don’t understand why everyone is so quick to heap 100 percent of the blame on Cousins, and absolve Evans and Greene. What exactly have they done in their careers to give them the benefit of the doubt?
Now I know you’re all probably thinking something like: “Hey stupid, Tyreke Evans was last year’s Rookie of the Year. He’s one of only four guys to average 20-5-5 in his first year. The other three are Oscar, Michael and LeBron. Ever heard of them? Are you really going to tell me Tyreke Evans can’t ball?”
Obviously to a degree you’re right, but anyone who knows basketball will tell you that raw numbers only tell part of the story. Remember, Stephon Marbury averaged over seven assists for his entire career. Did that make him a good teammate? Ask most people he played with, and my guess is they’d say no. Well, I ask the same with Evans. Yes he puts up great stats, and I’m sure he’d be a treat to have on your fantasy team. But is he a good teammate in real life? Well, Sacramento is 37-95 since the beginning of his rookie year, so I’ll leave the judgment up to you.
As for Greene, well, I don’t even know why I’m wasting my words on him, considering he’s never done a single productive thing to help his team win. Forget about Sacramento for a second, and just ask any Syracuse fan about his time in the Big East. Their responses will range from, “He sucked,” to “I loathe him,” to “He put up enough bricks to start his own masonry company.” Is it any wonder that they went to the NIT in his only year on campus, and the Sweet 16 the next?
Really though, you know who I blame for this whole mess? The Kings themselves.
Look, it’s no secret that coming into the league, Cousins could- at times- be emotionally unstable. You know what his presence early on reminded me of really? It reminded me of the high school friend that we all had, who came to visit you at college and proceeded to get way too drunk, and just make a general ass out of himself the whole time he was there. But at the end of the night, he was still your friend right? And once he passed out, didn’t you spend the next 45 minutes telling everyone, “No seriously, he’s a good guy. You’ve just got to get to know him.”
Well, that was Cousins coming into the league. He wasn’t like any other dude in the draft. You had to handle him differently. You had to “know,” him.
Here’s a quick excerpt from my Draft Preview on June 23:
What it really comes down to with Cousins though is the support system you put around him. No guy in this draft needs to go to a “good,” situation like Cousins does. That’s why I was almost hoping that the Hornets or Rockets would sneak into the first three picks and take this kid, so that Chris Paul or Yao Ming could show him the ropes and show him how to be a pro.
So here’s the question: If I knew all that way back in June, how did the Kings not know the same? Why didn’t they stay away from Cousins, or if they did draft him, bring in some veteran presence to help guide him? Why were John Calipari and John Wall able to keep him in line, but Kings management hasn’t been able to do the same? Can you really blame Cousins when the Kings knew this is what they were getting from him, and did nothing to help? Is it Cousins fault that he was drafted by a team with worse role models than the babies on Teen Mom have?
The other thing to remember too, is that Cousins is only 20-yars-old. I don’t care how much fame, wealth or basketball skill he has, this was a guy who was in high school 20 months ago. Are we surprised that he’s a bit immature?
Listen, don’t let Kevin Durant fool you, not all 20-year-old's are as mature, eloquent and well-spoken at that age as he, LeBron James and Dwight Howard were. There are plenty who are equally quiet, insecure and unstable. Yes that includes Cousins, but it also includes the kid working at the pharmacy down the street from you, and your nephew the Econ major. Just speaking for myself, I can promise that I'm not proud of everything I did at 20.
And ultimately, that’s the biggest mistake the Kings made: Trying to treat Cousins like every other 20-year-old.
To take an example from real life, let me ask you a question. A lot of you are parents. Do you treat all your kids exactly the same? Do you scold them equally when they get a bad report card? Reward them the same when they’re good? Or do you have to juggle them differently? Push different buttons to get the reaction you want?
Well, it’s the same in dealing with basketball players.
I think we can all agree that within the last decade or so Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich are the two best coaches in the game (You know, since they’ve won nine of the last 12 NBA titles). Well, what do they have in common? My answer would be that at some point they realized that to be successful, coaching isn’t about X’s and O’s, as much as managing egos. And ultimately, isn’t that what this whole situation is about? Getting Cousins to work with Evans, Greene and everyone else for the good of the team?
Look, I’m not trying to absolve Cousins here. Whether you think he’s immature or irredeemable, you can’t punch one of your co-workers in the face. Well, unless you work in the MMA. But you get my point.
All I’m trying to say is that whatever is brewing in Sacto is an issue on all fronts. Blame Cousins if you want. That’s fair. He deserves it. But blame Kings management just as much, for trying to stick a square peg in a round hole, and not helping a guy who clearly needs it.
Again, Cousins was in the wrong here. But like everything else in life, there are two sides to every story.
And with the way this is being reported, we’re only hearing one of those sides right now.
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