His presence on Team USA has always been about him. His ability to ignore the white noise, to avoid emotionally crippling funks, to play to his strengths and run himself into the type of shape demanded by longtime head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
But Friday – the night that was supposed to tip off his audition for the 2014 World Cup team -–DeMarcus Cousins was a footnote. He was good, very good, and no one cared. He was shaken, and he was healthy, and afterward, that was all that mattered.
Indiana All-Star Paul George? He might never be the same. In a freakish, horrific collision with a basket stanchion in the fourth quarter of the scrimmage between white and blue teams, the 6-foot-8 forward elevated and contested a drive by James Harden. As he landed, his right foot hit the protective cushion on the basket support, then gave way in a gruesome, 90-degree angle that elicted gasps from spectators and players who stood nearby with an unimpeded view.
Cousins, among those standing mere feet away, gripped a towel and nervously stretched it above his head while members of the USA Basketball medical team rushed over to tend to the stricken George. His parents came down from the stands and offered comfort. Players approached and observed, a few quickly turning away.
After an approximately 15-minute delay, Krzyzewski addressed the crowd, thanked the fans and canceled the scrimmage. Later, USA officials declined to make players available and tabled all roster decisions.
“This is a very tough blow,” an emotional basketball czar Jerry Colangelo said, “not so much about us, but about Paul. It’s a first for us in USA Basketball to have something like this take place. It’s a tough situation for our entire organization. So we need to take a step back before we do anything at all. It seems so … unimportant in the big scheme of things.”
Since the inception of the 1992 Dream Team, when NBA stars first became eligible for international competition, superstars have come and gone, and mostly winning gold medals without sustaining anything remotely resembling a career-threatening injury.
George may fully recover. But the devastating images, reminiscent of horrific injuries to Joe Theisman and Kevin Ware, are sure to renew the debate about the potential cost of allowing NBA players – even young players … to compete in future World Cups and Olympics.
Interestingly, Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadive was among a contingent of team officials who attended the event to support Cousins and lobby for his presence on the final 12-man World Cup roster. About an hour before the game, Ranadive and Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, a Kings adviser and member of the 1992 Dream Team, pressed their case with Krzyzewski in a chat on the sideline.
“I told coach that DeMarcus has a really high basketball IQ and that he hates to lose,” Ranadive related at halftime. “And I told him DeMarcus was a good guy.”
Mullin and Krzyzewski reminisced about the Barcelona Games before turning the topic to Cousins.
“He thinks DeMarcus had three really good days and one bad day,” said Mullin, a longtime USAB executive who will accompany the team to Spain for the tournament that begins Aug. 20. “But it’s also about fitting in. Which players are going to complement the core group?”
Before the basketball world came to a screeching halt with 9:33 remaining, Cousins enjoyed a strong overall performance. He led both teams with 11 rebounds to go with 11 points. His highlights included an outlet pass that Kyrie Irving tipped to Harden for a layup, a one-handed rebound stuff, seven (of eight) free throws. His offense and physical presence pretty much offset an ill-advised airball from the left baseline, though he endured some defensive misadventures against Mason Plumlee.
But the ending completely destroyed the mood and left further debate for another day.