SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Andrew Rogers must be out of his mind.
Doesn't he know who he's sitting next to, this burly beast of a man whose temper runs hotter than this scorching city in the summertime? This is DeMarcus Cousins he's making fun of.
The DeMarcus Cousins.
Nasty, mean, so-scary-four-NBA-teams-said-no-before-the-Kings-said-yes DeMarcus Cousins. Six-foot-11, 270-pound, 20-year-old man-child who was booted from Kings practice last month DeMarcus Cousins. The guy who during a July summer league game yelled at Minnesota center Greg Stiemsma, "Man, I'll kill that f****** white boy," DeMarcus Cousins.
Yet here's Rogers, his smallish (and, yes, white) 22-year-old roommate who's driving Cousins' black Range Rover down Interstate 80, acting as if he knows a different DeMarcus Cousins than the rest of us.
"Hey, make sure you get this in your story," he says with a mischievous grin to this reporter in the backseat. "DeMarcus Cousins loves Taylor Swift."
He has awoken the bear -- again.
Apparently the milquetoast country music star was crooning on Cousins' bedroom television when he awoke this morning, but Rogers has decided to spin the story just to get a rise out of him. And goading Cousins, as Rogers knows better than anyone, is like taking a rebound from a baby.
"Man, you woke me up, so how was I watching it?!" Cousins protests incredulously. "And then what did you say? You said, 'Oh, that's my girl.' Did you not say that?"
Rogers, who left his job as the Kentucky Wildcats' team manager after three years to come assist Cousins with his new life in the pros, is having too much fun to stop now.
"I'm just saying, I went in your room this morning and Taylor Swift was on ..."
Cousins is far from mad, but he's about to end this madness. His image is bad enough as it is without this rumor spreading.
"I do not listen to Taylor Swift," he announces in a playfully formal tone. "I could not name one of her songs right now. If she was on the radio, I wouldn't even know it was her."
If you didn't know any better, you wouldn't know this was him.
Cousins wastes no time seeking his revenge on Rogers, whose unfamiliarity with the area's highways makes him an easy target when it comes to driving. There is a GPS system on board, but Rogers still struggles to find his way and Cousins, rest assured, lets him know just how funny that is to him. They eventually arrive at the destination, where Cousins has decided to put in some extra work.
Not for the Kings, but for the kids.
The team had already scheduled a number of charity events for this holiday season that would involve numerous players, including one at a later date to the same UC Davis Shriner's Hospital for Children he is at now. But Cousins had asked to make an additional visit on his own, one that didn't come with a press release but that did give him a chance to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes: making children smile.
The second oldest of six siblings and self-described family man isn't used to being so far from his loved ones. His mother, Monique, flies in from his hometown of Mobile, Ala., at least once a month and calls every day, but the next best thing to family is Rogers and the the nation of Kings fans that is hardly feeling the love these days. But as his extended family of Wildcats fans back in Lexington, Ky. certainly know, Cousins always enjoys the kids.
One of his favorites in college was 12-year-old Olivia Pruitt, whose touching experience with Cousins last year was chronicled in the local media and who will be receiving a present from him this Christmas. A passing mention of the Pruitt encounter prompts Cousins to remember another youngster he adores -- a 7-year-old named Jacob who will also receive a present from Santa Cousins late next week.
"He was so funny," Cousins recalls of the boy. "I had a great relationship with his family."
This is the paradox of his personality. Cousins, by his own admission, is guarded and untrusting of people and their motives. The pain of past experiences has made him that way, from the absence of his father growing up to the way, as he sees it, he was demonized by so many people he never met. Yet away from the floor, those who know him best say he's far more teddy bear than grizzly bear. And just as he can scowl and snarl with the best of them, he has an ability to be open and warm with strangers, too, a charming trait that he's about to put on full display.
Any skepticism about whether this latest event is truly off the PR radar is erased upon arrival, as a Kings official greets Cousins at his car and wears a look of shock upon seeing a member of the media in tow. This fly-on-the-wall access came via a third-party invite just hours before the visit was scheduled to begin, and Cousins was clearly planning on stopping by the hospital whether it was publicized or not.
He will spend nearly 90 minutes helping others while helping himself as well, as this time is an excuse to forget the rigors of his most-tumultuous rookie season and gain some welcome perspective. He pops in and out of dozens of rooms, with photographers from the team and the hospital capturing the scene. No one will ask him about last night's loss to the lowly Clippers while he's here, nor will they inquire about the $5,000 fine he was issued by the team or how he and Kings coach Paul Westphal are getting along.
Kids like David Acosta are dealing with far more dire problems.
The 12-year-old from nearby Stockton was diagnosed with a bone cancer called osteosarcoma in October. He is scheduled to have a tumor in his arm removed two days after Christmas, and he will continue chemotherapy treatments before and after then. As if that's not taxing and terrible enough, David is in the hospital again only because an infection recently arose that forced him to leave the comfort of his home.
His spiritual family is deeming his fight against cancer "David v. Goliath," and they have printed t-shirts with their motto and bracelets that read "Team David." His father, Jim, gives Cousins a bracelet, and he laments the NBA regulations that will keep him from wearing it during games but vows to wear it as a sign of support when he's not playing.
It's not the last of his kind gestures.
The Acostas, as they inform Cousins on his way out, plan on "busting (David) out" in time to attend that Saturday's game against the Miami Heat. Cousins takes note as he leaves their room, then subtly motions for Rogers to arrange for a postgame reunion.
Sure enough, they meet again on Dec. 11, when Cousins will lose the frown he wore during a 21-point loss to the Heat and win their hearts all over again while visiting near the Kings locker room.
"Here's a young man who has plenty of other things he can do in his spare time, and he took time out to visit some kids in the hospital," Jim would write on his son's Facebook page that evening. "To me, that says a lot right there."
Cousins is gregarious until the end, far surpassing the hour of time that was scheduled while saving his best for last. A woman wearing hospital scrubs is waiting at the end of the fourth-floor hall as he starts to leave, and it soon becomes apparent that she's waiting to meet Cousins.
She brings music to his ears with one sentence: "I'm from Kentucky," she tells him. Cousins has been homesick recently, not only for Mobile but for the Lexington folks who "treated (him) like family" during his time there. He grabs her shoulders as if they're fighting for position on the block, then gives her the warmest of bear hugs. Her voice is muffled by his chest -- not that she would be heard over the commotion anyways. The exchange sparks a chorus of warm-and-fuzzy "awwws" from the group of onlookers that has grown around him.
He has left an impression alright. Just not the one you might expect.
There's no running from the issues Cousins continues to face -- especially when you run into one of them at dinner.
After heading from the hospital to a B.J.'s restaurant near Arco Arena, Cousins sees Kings assistant coach Truck Robinson dining with friends. The two exchange pleasantries, appearing to have set aside whatever differences led to their verbal sparring back in mid-October.
It wasn't the first time Cousins' dangerously-candid mouth got him in trouble and certainly won't be the last. But it was the second time in the span of a few days, leading to the team's decision to issue the aforementioned fine. It was the first of two public black-eyes in Cousins' pro career, with the Westphal situation coming in late November. And for a player who is being scrutinized here just as he was in college, that's two too many.
As he settles in at a nearby table, he's ready and willing to be honest in a far more positive way.
First and foremost, he says, he loves to hate losing. It's a desirable quality for a competitor, to be sure, but one that's problematic in this environment.
The Kings are a youth-filled team that's on pace to win 17 games for the second time in three seasons and to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Westphal is the fifth coach to feel his seat get warmer since Rick Adelman wasn't brought back in 2006, joining the likes of Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus and Kenny Natt in that regard but, he hopes, not in their shared fate of being fired. Add Cousins' individual struggles into the mix -- specifically the 41.5 percent shooting, league-leading foul trouble (4.1 per game) and penchant for turnovers (2.2 per game) that ranks second on the team -- and it's the perfect storm of a rough start as far as he's concerned.
But the dust-ups only compounded matters, feeding a fire of public opinion that has burned hot since his sometimes-volatile ways grabbed headlines in high school. Still, Cousins -- who gave a genuine mea culpa after his unexpected exit from practice -- swears that he has grown and vows to keep growing.
"I would've liked for (the incidents) not to have occurred, but I learned from it," he says as he delves into the calamari and buffalo wings in front of him. "It's helping me become a better professional, a better player, a better teammate, so it really benefited me."
The challenge, it seems, is maintaining his edge while not being so unpredictably edgy.
"It's tough," he says. "It's a tough road. And I want to keep that same attitude. I don't ever want to be the type of player who's just in it for the money. I want to continue to be a competitor. I want to be considered the type of player who puts on his hard hat and who wants to win, who's not out there just to collect chips.
"I still have a lot to learn, but just this short process this season I believe I improved in that area a lot. Even some of my teammates, they say they can tell that I am trying, and that's the most important thing."
It's certainly more important to him than the opinions of the anonymous masses.
When asked if it bothers him to be so consistently labeled in such a negative light, Cousins turns reflective. It's not the criticisms that anger him, but the nature of the critics themselves.
"People don't really want to find out for themselves, so it's like, 'OK, he said it, so it's the truth,'" he says. "They're just going along with it. And then they judge you by a sport. I've never understood that. How can you judge a man by a sport? You're going to determine a whole man's personality, how he is as a person, by a sport he plays?
"The only time you see me is when I'm playing a sport, but you can determine what kind of person I am? That doesn't make sense to me. One person says something, and then instead of another man finding out for himself and speaking his own opinion, he just goes along with it?"
While Cousins and his team that includes Rogers, his agent, John Greig, and his doting mother, hoped to quiet that crowd early on in Cousins' career, the practice episode with Westphal started that chorus anew. The incident may have sparked a long-overdue cultural change within the Kings as well, as the enormous banners of Cousins and reigning second-year guard Tyreke Evans that adorned two sides of Arco Arena's outside walls were taken down just days afterward.
The organizational message was clear: no more over-hyping of individuals to spike sluggish ticket sales as they had done with Evans during his Rookie of the Year campaign and even more prematurely with Cousins. The symbolic shift back toward the team concept came as a relief to Cousins and Westphal, especially in light of the context.
According to sources close to the team, part of their practice argument touched on the banner and the topic of perception vs. reality when it came to Cousins' place in the NBA. Cousins took exception to the notion that he felt entitled because of such marketing nonsense, and responded in the kind of loud-and-proud way that gets one sent home early.
Cousins, who was arriving at the arena just as his banner was being taken down, chuckles when he's asked about it.
"We've been playing a lot better basketball (since then)," he says with a laugh. "I guess you could say it's a pressure release. Me being me, that type of stuff, I really don't care about. The attention, I don't care about it. But at the same time, it's a pressure release."
One that hasn't lasted nearly long enough for his liking.
While the Kings would go on to lose three of their next four games, the man with perhaps the most unmistakable presence in the NBA community would raise the pressure on Cousins yet again. On Dec. 9, TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who said in May that he believed Cousins wasn't ready for the NBA, announced his perceived vindication in a diatribe that was thick with hypocrisy and irony.
Barkley, whose struggles with maturity have been nothing short of epic and who was also once a highly-touted No. 5 pick hailing from Alabama, came to his old coach's defense at Cousins' expense in front of a few million viewers during the NBA telecast. Barkley, who was blessed with the likes of Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks as teammates when his career began in Philadelphia, played for Westphal in Phoenix from 1992 until he was fired during the 1995-96 season.
"Let me tell you something," said Barkley, who campaigned hard for Westphal to get the Kings job in the summer of 2009. "My guy Paul Westphal in Sacramento is in trouble. Listen, DeMarcus Cousins has got a long ways to go as far as growing up and maturing. He's not growing up. He's not maturing. They threw him out of practice last week."
Fellow analyst Kenny Smith attempted to interject: "But he's a rookie, so he should learn. He should learn from these things. (Let's) not harp on these things."
But Barkley wasn't done.
"No, no, Kenny," he continued. "Kenny, I'm going to tell you something. It's deeper than that. He's very immature. I feel bad for Sacramento, because you get a guy like that in the draft (and) he's got to be an impact player. They got a young guy in Tyreke Evans who's a terrific young player, but this kid here is so volatile, and he's just got a long way to go. I feel bad for the Sacramento situation because it's not going to be good."
Westphal said he had heard about Barkley's latest view on Cousins but hadn't actually heard the segment.
"I don't want to get in the middle of it," he said. "I love Charles and I love DeMarcus, and both of them are very strong personalities. At the same time, all I can say is (that) we never thought that DeMarcus was going to have a perfect career arc without some bumpy roads along the way. I still think there are bumpy times ahead, but he is somebody who has always been honest with me and I've been honest with him, and we're going to continue to try and tell him the truth and be consistent and have expectations and demands and at the same time have understanding for what his sensitivities are.
"There has been a marked improvement (since Cousins was kicked out of practice). But he's been kicked out of practice before, in other situations, and he'll probably get kicked out of practice again. He's a very passionate, volatile person who says what he thinks and that's going to get him in trouble."
In a message that has been sent to the league at large regarding the possibility of the Kings looking to part ways with Cousins, Westphal made it clear the organization isn't about to give up on him anytime soon.
"He's worth the ups and downs that are inevitable," he said. "He's had ups and downs everywhere he has been, but he always continues on an upward path, and that's why I'm so sure that he's going to be successful."
Rogers and Cousins are part odd couple and part married couple.
The fellow Southerners clicked from the start, becoming good friends who are now, in essence, business partners. Rogers is an integral part of Cousins' support system, chosen over DeMarcus' 24-year-old sister, Ryan, to live with him largely because of his familiarity with the ins and outs of the off-court hoops game. He helps Cousins with off-court affairs, allowing him to focus on basketball while certainly enjoying the fringe benefits himself that come with this invitation inside the world of professional sports.
He makes sure their five-bedroom house that's not far from Arco Arena stays tidy. He plays the part of interior designer in the suburban home, with passing mentions of Aaron Brothers frames that are on their way and looks of pride when a visitor compliments the many pictures of Cousins and his career that adorn these domesticated walls.
The holidays have made the already long to-do list even longer. The fake tree is already up, its plastic top smashing into the ceiling in the corner of Cousins' cozy family room where the 60-inch, high-definition television also resides. As of this early December day, the Christmas lights have yet to be hung. But that won't happen, Rogers cracks, unless Cousins does his part.
"I ain't doing it by myself," Rogers says at Cousins without a hint of subtlety.
Despite being a relative runt when standing near Cousins, Rogers refuses to be his yes-man. The ribbings that went on in the car are a nonstop occurrence, and he makes a point to crash the pity parties that sometimes go on for too long when Cousins has a bad day at the office.
"Andrew is family to me," Cousins says. "I try my best not to carry (frustrations from basketball) over, because I don't want to take out my frustrations on Andrew. He didn't do anything. I try to balance it, really. Or usually after the game my mother is calling me, so I don't want to take my frustrations out with her, so I just try to balance it and let it go.
"I'm kind of getting better at it. Andrew knows me well, and I'll come home and usually I'm talking, actin' a fool or something and after a loss, I won't even say anything and he'll be like, 'Cheer up man.' And I'll say, 'Man, I'm good.' And he'll be like, 'No, you're not, you're not even talking.' He knows me."
And while Cousins might not be a Taylor Swift fan after all, he might not be who we thought he was either.
"I tell people all the time and they don't believe me," Rogers says. "He's a big softy."
E-mail Sam at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.