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On Sunday afternoon, the NBA suspended extremely promising and divisive Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins two games for confronting San Antonio Spurs TV commentator Sean Elliott following the Kings' 97-86 loss on Friday night. Here's the official press release, which in this case is a necessary part of the story for its language:
The Sacramento Kings' DeMarcus Cousins has been suspended two games without pay for confronting Spurs announcer Sean Elliot in a hostile manner [italics added] following San Antonio's 97-86 over Sacramento November 9 at Sleep Train Arena, it was announced today by Stu Jackson, NBA Executive Vice President Basketball Operations.
Cousins will serve his suspension tonight [Sunday] when the Kings play the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center and Tuesday against Portland at Sleep Train Arena.
Yet, in this case, a simple description of Cousins' actions and punishment barely scratch the surface of what happened (and what might have happened) between him and Elliott.
Let's start at the beginning: the fourth quarter of the Kings/Spurs game, when Cousins talked trash to San Antonio legend Tim Duncan. Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News has details:
After overpowering Duncan for two baskets and drawing a shooting foul on the Spurs star with about five minutes left, Cousins bellowed to his teammates on the Kings' bench after drawing a shooting foul on the future Hall of Famer.
Elliott paraphrased Cousins as saying, "I'm going to bust his (expletive)."
Elliott responded after Duncan blocked a Cousins shot at the rim and scored three baskets.
"That's why some humility is in order," Elliott said on the air. "You think you're dominating Tim Duncan, you get it stuffed right back in your face. Timmy doesn't like to talk trash. But if guys start talking mess to him, he's going to respond. All that trash talking was premature. I'm not about to let these guys off the hook. Young ballclub should learn from this. Don't start talking and flapping your gums against one of the greatest players ever. He's going to make you pay. Tell me who got the best of this exchange."
However, the battle between Cousins and Elliott didn't really get interesting until after the game. According to Monroe, Cousins, who had apparently heard Elliott's comments while on the court or from a trusted source, returned to the floor to confront the Spurs commentator:
"I was wondering why Cousins was out there in his uniform waiting for them to finish his postgame show," said Bill Schoening, who does the play-by-play call on radio broadcasts of Spurs games. "Then I saw them in an animated conversation out on the court.
"I observed Sean walk away from Cousins and Cousins continue to talk to Sean as he left the scene, but I couldn't hear what was being said."
Cousins also spoke about the incident to reporters in the locker room (as captured by Kings blog Cowbell Kingdom), calling Elliott "immature" and describing his incident with Duncan as a perfectly normal big man battle grounded in his respect for one of the best players in the history of basketball. Those comments brought more attention to the verbal tussle. The NBA noticed, investigated the incident, and decided to suspend Cousins two games for confronting Elliott in the aforementioned "hostile manner."
Before getting into the specifics of the NBA's decision, it's important to provide some context on how Elliott and Cousins typically conduct themselves. Those familiar with Elliott's work as a commentator will not be especially shocked that he chose to turn an excellent sequence by Duncan into a commentary on deserved karmic retribution. In a league full of announcers who double as cheerleaders, only the Celtics' Tommy Heinsohn doubles Elliott's penchant for homerism. He's a distinctly immature presence on broadcasts himself, chiding referees for any call that goes against San Antonio and taking an antagonistic tone towards anyone who may doubt the home team. On top of that, Elliott has a poor sense of the proper actions for a particular context. There's not much to say about a man who turned a beloved teammate's jersey retirement ceremony into an open mic comedy night complete with an outdated Austin Powers reference (via @DewNo on Twitter).
Cousins, for his part, gets very animated on the court, so it's not especially surprising that he would talk to his defender after a nice run, no matter if that player were Tim Duncan or the second-string center on a seventh-grade "B" team. Those actions are what make Cousins a unique challenge for both opposing defenders and his own coaches, and criticizing him for talking smack to anyone is tantamount to rejecting the player as a whole. (Plus, it's not as if Duncan is a picture of stoic professionalism at all times, particularly when he gets called for fouls.)
Nevertheless, Cousins' demeanor has earned him the reputation of being immature. On the surface, he certainly appears to be just that — it's very difficult for him to go a full game without acting out in histrionics after a bad call or great play, and he often appears to be in a bad mood. Of course, those reactions aren't unique to him among professional basketball players, and Cousins seems to have a positive working relationship with head coach Keith Smart. In fact, Cousins' reputation is largely dependent on three things: first, questionable recruitment by high school coaches and an incident with a bus driver as a high school sophomore; second, his lone season at Kentucky, when observers first got to see his attitude at length (as well as immense success on the court and a good rapport with John Calipari); third, a prolonged war with his first coach in Sacramento, Paul Westphal, who made a sport of fostering bad relationships with players during a little more than two seasons in charge. Apart from his trouble with Westphal, who deserves a fair share of the blame, those are not unique experiences for NBA players.
It's possible that the NBA decided to suspend Cousins here to set an example for other players who may venture onto the court at improper times. And, while we don't know exactly what Cousins said in his "animated conversation" with Elliott, any threats, violent or otherwise, could compel a suspension without much controversy. But something about this situation seems specific to Cousins' reputation. In effect, the NBA has decided that these actions were as offensive as the legitimately dangerous elbow to the head thrown by Kings power forward Thomas Robinson on Wednesday, which earned a two-game suspension the next day. Until we learn more specifics, it seems like all Cousins did was find a TV analyst (and former player) who criticized him, voice his displeasure, and make some comments to the media. It was stupid, but not necessarily overly hostile. Does that deserve the same punishment as a vicious elbow?
Based purely on the actions themselves, most people would say no. (The Kings, who said Robinson should be suspended shortly after the end of the game, appear not to agree with the decision to suspend Cousins.) But Cousins, for whatever reason, invites criticism and admonishment in a way that most players do not. For instance, this summer, when Cousins took part in practices with Team USA as part of its Select Team, he was criticized by USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo for his immaturity, which turned out to include regular fouling, complaining about calls in favor of the Olympians, and talking trash. Of course, from another point of view, that just means that Cousins fought back against the best players in the world and tried to exert his influence on a practice that he saw as an opportunity to prove himself. Put that way, his actions were worthy of some praise. But, because of who he is — and because he took exception to Colangelo's rather vague comments — he was hit with the "immature" tag and effectively told to know his place in the American basketball hierarchy. Never mind the merits of his argument — Cousins just wasn't acting like a pro.
Cousins is never going to be the establishment's ideal basketball player, but that doesn't mean he can't be a great athlete deserving of positive attention. To be sure, he won't get to that level if he doesn't mature, which really only involves tempering his emotions even a little and becoming a steadier force on the court and in the locker room. Yet it's not as if Cousins is an impossible presence — he's ultimately a 22-year-old kid with some emotional issues who could very well become the player many want him to be if he's given some space to grow. (It's also worth noting that Cousins has at least acknowledged his need to change.) Overreacting to every minor incident simply reinforces the prevailing narrative of his career and dooms Cousins to being called immature until well after he retires.
Cousins isn't beyond criticism — he needs to mature to fulfill his immense potential — but he also isn't a constant problem child. He may only start acting like more of an adult when we begin to treat him like one.
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