Former University of Kentucky standout DeMarcus Cousins celebrates his 24th birthday in two weeks, which means that if he earns a roster spot on the U.S. national team preparing for the basketball World Cup that begins Aug. 30 in Spain, he will be years ahead of Charles Barkley at a similar age.
We mention Barkley because USA Basketball officials have not confronted anyone as talented, controversial and intriguing since the Hall of Fame forward — at age 29 — emerged as an original 1992 Dream Team sensation.
Different strokes, different generations, different issues. But Barkley offers a powerful lesson for Cousins for a number of reasons, including that he also had to convince skeptical American basketball officials that he would curb his behavior and represent his country honorably and without incident in the first Olympic Games featuring NBA superstars.
Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler. The roster was ridiculous, and Barkley, as one of the most dominating players and personalities of his generation, absolutely belonged on the team.
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"But Charles had a few incidents," recalled former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik, who supervised the league's foray into international competition. "He tore some equipment apart in the locker room. There was an incident in Milwaukee where somebody did or didn't go through a window. We decided to have a conversation with him. Rod (Thorn) and I got him on the phone and told him the committee wanted him on the team. 'And can you be a good ambassador? Are you ready to take on that role?' He took nothing for granted. But we took him at his word, and as you know, he was terrific."
After being chided by teammates for his excessive physical play in the opener against skinny Angolan forward Herlander Coimbra — and doesn't that sound like the criticism of Cousins during his first Team USA practice two summers ago? — he dominated both the Games and the street scene.
Barkley was a charmer, an irresistible presence, and by the end of the Games, a beloved figure and reigning Pied Piper of Barcelona, and an emerging superstar throughout Europe. While other Dream Teamers sought refuge in their hotel, the power forward strolled the grand boulevards in his matching shorts and shirts, spent hours shaking hands, signing autographs, attracting hundreds of followers into the wee hours.
"Charles is unique, in so many ways, in the annals of the NBA," Granik said, chuckling. "You can't help but love him. And it turns out, he has this great talent on air."
Cousins doesn't have to imitate Barkley — not that anyone could — but he has several advantages as he attempts to make the World Cup team. The original Dream Team and recent Team USA squads are Hall of Fame snapshots. The '92 Dreamers didn't need Barkley. But the 2014 squad needs Cousins, whom NBA execs repeatedly refer to as the most talented big man in the league. Several players originally named to the World Cup talent pool have withdrawn for various reasons, including power forwards Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.
USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo — who wasn't thrilled with Cousins' history of behavior issues, NBA suspensions and demeanor during training camp two years ago but admittedly was intrigued with his talent — may be pressed to take another look. He wasn't so keen about Aldridge's decision or the more abrupt withdrawal of Griffin, either. And these USA types historically have long memories. Colangelo also has an affinity for players who fully commit to the cause — which Cousins apparently has done. He worked out with the Kings during the NBA Summer League and is expected to arrive at this week's training camp in excellent shape.
That could be critical for his prospects. So could the real world. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski is masterful at mixing lineups and utilizing his versatility, but his list of available bigs has been significantly thinned by the withdrawals.
Cousins — still an emerging star, still working his way into the good graces of the powers-that-be, has a tremendous opportunity. He doesn't have to charm like Charles, and he won't be asked to strip down to Bermuda shorts and shirts or stroll along the Strip. But he can learn from the Hall of Famer, who interestingly is a frequent critic.
Cousins is turning 24. Charles was 29 when he made his Team USA debut. Why not now?