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It happened five years earlier aboard a luxury cruise ship docked off of Rio De Janeiro’s Pier Maua that doubled as the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams’ home for more than three weeks amid their Olympic gold medal runs.
It had a pool. A gym. Room service around the clock. From the 6-foot-10 Cousins, a player who had earned a reputation six years into his career for bruising dunks, All-Star production and volatile moods, George came to expect a steady supply of something else: jokes.
“He made the experience fun,” George said Tuesday, after Cousins scored seven points with four rebounds in his 10-minute Clippers debut amid a 133-116 win against Portland. “He definitely made it light and loose, he kept everyone laughing.
“I think that's what we enjoyed most in that 2016 run in Brazil, was just how lighthearted and light he kept everything."
Things have changed since the U.S. teams disembarked from the Silver Cloud holding gold medals. For one, the NBA’s coronavirus restrictions have rendered such close quarters unthinkable — teams have been permitted only scant time together as a group on the road this season.
And the 30-year-old Cousins no longer is included in debates surrounding the NBA’s best big man. After injuries to his Achilles tendon, quadriceps and ACL, his last three years have been hardly a joke.
It’s how he landed with the Clippers on a 10-day trial run, with no guarantee at the outset he will parlay it into a second 10-day contract or a deal that runs through the season’s end. Since averaging 21.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists through his first seven seasons, Cousins is now on his fifth team in his last three.
“I’ve put in an incredible amount of work to get to this place,” Cousins said Tuesday, in his first comments since his signing. “I'm in probably the best shape I've been in my entire career. At this point, it's about going out there and, you know, just putting everything together and just trying to continue to show that I'm healthy and I'm here to play this game at a high level.
“I understand the situation that I'm in. Whatever opportunity is given to me, I plan on just taking full advantage of it. Just controlling what I can control.”
The Clippers need Cousins to control the paint whenever possible for as long as he remains on the roster. Though coach Tyronn Lue said Cousins’ conditioning was to be determined, he called him ready to contribute immediately, and Cousins’ first basket — a putback layup after grabbing an offensive rebound — left new teammates jumping out of their folding chairs to celebrate.
“He brings toughness, big body, rebounding, can help [center Ivica Zubac] through the practices, tough mind set,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “Winning mentality.”
Cousins had been out of work since Feb. 23, when Houston waived him after 25 games less than a week after guaranteeing his contract through the season. With starting center Serge Ibaka out of the lineup for three weeks because of a back injury, the Clippers (34-18) looked to Cousins to play backup minutes behind Zubac.
Cousins wasn’t the first center off the bench Tuesday. That was 6-8 forward Patrick Patterson, his college teammate at Kentucky. During breaks in play, he chatted on the bench with guard Rajon Rondo, a close friend through their time as teammates in Sacramento and New Orleans.
“It's no different than starting a new school, you always want to go somewhere, or gravitate toward the people you're a little more comfortable with,” Cousins said. “They definitely played a big role in making all of this become possible.”
Cousins was unhappy with what started as a backup role with the Rockets to begin this season, ESPN reported upon his Houston departure. Describing the qualities the team would look for in filling its final two roster spots after March’s trade deadline, Clippers President Lawrence Frank said someone who would not disrupt the locker room because of a lack of playing time.
Two days into his Clippers stay, Cousins described his approach as “head down, ready to work every single day, and whenever my mind is called upon just being ready to play.”
“I think they are one of the best defensive teams in the league,” Cousins said. “Obviously they have a two-headed snake in Kawhi and [Paul George] and obviously everybody else’s job is to make their job easy. I think this is probably one of the most complete teams in the league. I just bring whatever I can to help this team and elevate it. I don’t really see this team lacking much.”
Should he stick, he would chase the championship that has eluded him since signing with Golden State three seasons ago. Cousins injured his quadriceps during a first-round playoff matchup against the Clippers and wasn’t fully healthy during a Finals loss to Kawhi Leonard and Toronto.
He then signed with the Lakers, but never played a minute of their championship season after tearing a knee ligament during a preseason workout. Back in L.A. with the Clippers, he’s hoping to resuscitate his career and claim a title.
In basketball circles, the latter is nicknamed a ‘ship.
"He's still one of the most skilled bigs in the league, and so he can finish, he rebounds, I thought you saw a little bit of everything from him tonight," George said. "And he showed he's still got a lot left to give."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.