METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps knew DeMarcus Cousins needed a little more than a plane ticket and car service to the team’s practice facility in Metairie, La., for the initial meeting after they acquired him from Sacramento. Cousins needed support after the Kings removed the comforts of all that he had known. He needed a reminder of how much he was wanted after experiencing rejection. Pelicans owner Tom Benson, enthralled by the move, offered his private jet, and Gentry and Demps went on an eight-hour, round-trip pickup with the last leg dedicated to establishing a connection that went deeper than basketball.
Gentry told The Vertical he wanted to talk face-to-face with Cousins about life “because to me, the basketball part will work out.” He wanted to learn about Cousins’ family, about his mother, Monique, about his children, Amir and Vana, about growing up in nearby Mobile, Ala. And he wanted Cousins to take a reprieve from the dizzying emotional ride that he had undergone ever since he found out that, after nearly seven years, he was no longer a King.
“I think what people don’t understand is, at the end of the day, he’s a 26-year-old young man that has feelings and he was deeply hurt,” Gentry told The Vertical. “Because that’s been his home the last six[-plus] years and all of a sudden, he’s not there. I don’t think people understand the impact that has. I just wanted him to know that we were excited to have him.”
A person close to Cousins said he was “blown” by the trade for myriad reasons. Losing nearly $30 million because he won’t be able to sign a designated maximum player contract worth more than $200 million was significant but only part of his frustration. Kings general manager Vlade Divac had told Cousins days before the deal that he wouldn’t be traded, only to ship him out for an uninspiring package from the Pelicans. Over the past few years, Cousins had developed a deep distrust of team management, which often told him one thing and did another.
But Cousins had come to a place where he was happy with the direction of – and his role within – the organization. Sacramento was home and its people were becoming his family, as he shared Monday night in an emotional speech at a farewell party and again Tuesday in a heartfelt Instagram post to Kings fans. Since he had recently expressed a desire to finish his career with only one franchise, Cousins had plenty of reasons to be scarred by the deal and didn’t hesitate to share what stung the most.
“Probably the way it was done. The dishonesty that came with it,” Cousins said Wednesday at his introductory news conference with the Pelicans, “but I’m OK with it. … I’m not sour, I’m not mad, I don’t have any ill feelings. This is a business. These types of things happen. I’m comfortable with it. I’m in a good place. I’m ready to get to work.”
Cousins sounded as if he was trying to convince himself that everything is fine. But he doesn’t have much time to dwell on the hows and whys of his unexpected change of scenery when there is a franchise – and a close friend-turned-All-Star teammate in Anthony Davis – depending on him for the final 25 games to make a playoff push. Cousins is doing his best to put the Kings in his rearview mirror: “I haven’t talked to anybody. Vlade, he tried to call after everything was done. But … it’s done. So.”
Demps admitted that he pumped his fist with excitement after the Kings agreed to send Cousins and Omri Casspi to New Orleans, a city that is often on the wrong end of superstar swaps. The franchise was forced into surrendering Baron Davis and Chris Paul during their respective primes. Cousins was available at a discount price because of a reputation for petulance that finally pushed the Kings to change course, with Divac taking a direct shot at him with a statement that read “character matters.”
Cousins’ passion can go over the edge and he joked Wednesday that he has “about 17 technicals worth” of competitive spirit. He added that he’ll have to “tone it down” because his next technical foul will result in an automatic one-game suspension, something the Pelicans can’t afford while trailing Denver by 2½ games for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. “We’ve already talked about that. Allow me,” Gentry said with a laugh. “We [coaches] don’t get suspended. Allow me to take that one for you.”
The NBA hasn’t had a pair of big men average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds since Tim Duncan and David Robinson teamed up in 1997-98. Cousins and Davis have been teammates on USA Basketball but have never been asked to carry a team together. Cousins believes they are perfect complements on the court because of their versatility and personalities. “We’re opposites. Got a little fire. Got a little ice,” Cousins said. “We can wreak havoc on this league. Will it happen overnight? Probably not. But the potential is scary. I’m excited for this opportunity.”
The Kings failed miserably in trying to find the right supporting cast for Cousins. With the burden and criticism increasing after each unsuccessful season, and a growing reputation as a malcontent unable to elevate his team, Cousins became more upset with his plight. “It’s crazy,” Cousins said. “I would go home, stressed out, pulling my hair out and just praying, praying, praying just to send me some help. Of course, things happen in different ways. But this was the answer.”
Cousins keeps a tight circle of NBA friends, including former Kentucky teammates John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, and fellow Kentucky alum Davis, with whom he has developed a big brother-little brother relationship. On numerous occasions, Cousins has dreamed of teaming up with at least one of them. After the Kings defeated the Pelicans on Feb. 12, Cousins said Davis was making a pitch for New Orleans while he was making a pitch for Sacramento that wasn’t going over well (“I was never going to Sacramento,” Davis said, emphatically).
Davis was made aware of the Pelicans’ interest in Cousins before All-Star weekend and sent him a text message last week that read, “I really want you to come.” Cousins ignored him because of the assurance he received from the Kings about his future. While walking through the streets of New Orleans on All-Star weekend, Cousins actually crossed paths with Demps for a few minutes and exchanged pleasantries. Demps was having trade conversations with the Kings and was getting excited about the pairing that he had envisioned ever since seeing the two big men practicing with Team USA. Cousins thought nothing of it. Demps said the brief interaction with Cousins “revved us up even more” to get a deal done.
“I guess I wasn’t paying attention. But all of the signs were there. And it happened,” Cousins said.
By the time he left Smoothie King Arena after Sunday’s All-Star Game, Cousins was aware of his fate, and dumbfounded by the realization that he was a Pelican. He sat at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, with his mind racing, when his agent, Jarinn Akana, told him to reach out to Demps. “Being the cool guy that he is, he kind of put me at ease,” Cousins said of Demps. “What he was saying, it made sense. Right away I got excited. I felt a little bit better about the situation.”
Cousins then engaged in a late-night text exchange with Davis that made him feel more confident that the move might well work out. He also chose the No. 0 to signify “new life.” Asked if he planned on signing a long-term extension with the Pelicans this summer, Cousins said, “That’s not a question I can answer right away, obviously, but I’m all in. Make the best of this opportunity and see what the future holds.”
The present doesn’t look so bad, especially after the Pelicans took the extra step by coming out to Sacramento to get Cousins. “It was like homies hanging out,” Cousins said of the conversation with Gentry and Demps. “Them doing that made the situation a lot easier, a lot more comfortable.”
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