A conversation with NBA rookie Willie Cauley-Stein
While a mental detour to the world of superheroes would be helpful, the car in the driveway hints strongly at the identity of the owner. The 2007 Camaro is black from front fender to tinted windows to back bumper, with a single flash of yellow brake pads peeking out beneath the tire’s rims.
Somehow, Kings rookie Willie Cauley-Stein squeezes his 7-foot, 245-pound frame into the vehicle. In another life, he reveals, his brown eyes warm and playful, he would be Bruce Wayne, the billionaire character who secretly suits up as Batman and strikes out evil.
“Think about it like this,” Cauley-Stein, 22, said recently. “Superman has all the powers. He is the big dude who is going to beat you up. He is just a jock. Batman is smart. He doesn’t have superpowers, but he’s going to take his time, use his mind, then maybe slip you some poison and kill you within a week. And Spider-Man is just weak to me.”
In the former University of Kentucky star’s mind — and his reality — he is a rebel with a plan. The idea is to tool around in his Batmobile, and when he clocks in for games and practices, conquer opponents with a combination of physical skills and keen intellect. He deliberately wears glasses that reflect his curious mind and probing nature and, with a grin, swears he sees no contradiction with an obsession that extends from head to toe, down to the Batman socks he is wearing with his newest pair of sneakers.
Don’t box him in. That’s what he says; don’t even try. As he leaped toward adulthood, hitting the 7-foot mark midway into his prep career, the Spearville, Kan., native switched from point guard to center and from quarterback to wide receiver, earning all-state honors in both sports after transferring to Olathe Northwest High School for his final two years.
Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari recruited Cauley-Stein on the football field.
“Cal came to two of my games,” Cauley-Stein said while seated on a couch at his home, cuddling his two puppies. “It must have been pretty funny to see a 7-footer out there catching footballs. But I loved football. If I hadn’t grown so tall, I’d still be playing quarterback.”
The transition to Lexington wasn’t all that difficult, and Cauley-Stein, who was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in a town of about 800 residents, enjoyed the lifestyle so much he stayed in school for his junior season after an ankle injury during the 2014 NCAA Tournament sidelined him.
Impressed by his maturity and intrigued by his length, wingspan and defensive instincts, and envisioning him alongside All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings selected him at No. 6 in the June draft. So far, there are no complaints from either side. The Kings finally appear to have ended their losing streak in the annual player selection, and Cauley-Stein seems genuinely delighted by his new surroundings.
“When I came here (for a predraft workout), I sensed they wanted me,” he said, “and I loved it. I can’t really explain it. It’s just a feel.”
TWO WEEKS AGO, WHEN WILLIE WAS HURT, IF YOU TOLD ME I’D BE PUTTING HIM ON THE COURT AT THE END OF GAMES, I WOULD SAY YOU WERE CRAZY. BUT HE’S LEARNED. THE WEEKS HE WAS OUT, HE WAS LISTENING, HE WAS AWARE. HE’S COME BACK A BETTER PLAYER.
Kings Coach George Karl
Living large, living healthy
Cauley-Stein, who lives in a gated community about a mile from Sleep Train Arena, describes the five-bedroom house he shares with two close friends and a younger brother as Bachelor Pad 5.0.
The furnishings are sparse, to say the least. A U-shaped sectional in the family room is the communal gathering spot, positioned in front of a 70-inch TV. There is no dining room table, nor are there any plants, live or fake. There is no artwork on the walls. During a recent visit, one of Cauley-Stein’s roommates, Blake Ares, mounted a Hoverboard parked in the living room and rode it into the kitchen.
In the backyard overlooking a man-made lake, a regulation-size basketball stanchion leans on its side, blown over during the recent storms, with the rim bent and kissing the asphalt.
With the hoop out of commission, Cauley-Stein and his buddies frequent a driving range a few miles south, though his golf activities have been at least somewhat curbed by the right hand injuries that sidelined him for 14 games in December and January. Since his return, his minutes gradually have increased, and he again is affecting outcomes with his energy, length and willingness to move the ball.
“Two weeks ago, when Willie was hurt, if you told me I’d be putting him on the court at the end of games, I would say you were crazy,” Kings Coach George Karl said. “But he’s learned. The weeks he was out, he was listening, he was aware. He’s come back a better player. I still think he’s about a six- or seven-minute player, though. He can’t do it in nine- or 10-minute bursts.”
Cauley-Stein’s stamina has been a cause of some concern, though not because of poor work habits. During his freshman year at Kentucky, he was diagnosed with the sickle cell trait (not the disease), which in rare cases and at high altitudes can be problematic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In its guidelines, the CDC advises those participating in competitive sports to establish a comfortable pace and gradually intensify the activity level, rest between drills, remain hydrated and keep the body cool in warmer climates.
Kings General Manager Vlade Divac was convinced the situation was manageable after consulting extensively with Calipari and several medical experts. And while Cauley-Stein appears to breathe more easily and be more effective in shorter bursts, he feels his stamina improving as his body adapts to the pace and rhythm of the NBA.
“When I look back on it, when I was a kid,” he said, “I would say, ‘How come I’m so tired one day and have so much energy the next?’ My little brother has had the disease (sickle cell anemia) his whole life, and every time he gets sick, he pretty much has to go to the hospital.
“But when you just have the trait, you just have to stay on top of it. It depends on what you eat, getting enough rest, and you have to stay hydrated. That’s huge. But you’ll never hear me say I’m out of shape.”
BELIEVE ME, THIS WILL NOT BE ME FOR THE REST OF MY CAREER, JUST DOING THE DIRTY WORK, BLOCKING SHOTS, REBOUNDING. IF WE SHARED THE BALL, I COULD SCORE 15 POINTS A GAME.
Kings rookie Willie Cauley-Stein
He’s hungry for more
Cauley-Stein’s mantra is live and learn, and he has no doubts his brains and athleticism will lead to success. He says he could have been an artist, a musician, a talent scout, anything he wanted. Though he might not want to fly like Superman, the sky is his limit. When he smacked his right hand on the rim in college, for instance, he started experimenting with his left hand. Today, on the team’s charter flights, he practices writing with his left hand. When eating, carrying equipment or fiddling with the remote, he reminds himself to switch to his left.
“I’m actually starting to feel more comfortable with my left hand,” he said. “The injuries have actually been a blessing. I’d almost rather use my left for jump hooks, and of course you want to block shots with your left hand because most shooters are righties. And right now, I’m just doing the stuff they want me to do. I’m just learning.”
There will come a time, he insists, when he will evolve into more than a shot-blocking and rebounding big man, when Karl and his teammates entrust him to dribble between the baselines and rely on him to score from midrange and around the basket.
The one-dimensional man? The one-dimensional player? Not in his playbook.
Cauley-Stein, who played the drums and trumpet as a youngster, intends to complete his degree and take piano lessons during the offseason. A self-described “outdoorsy, lake-type person,” he speaks longingly of his first glimpse of Lake Tahoe and spending a few weeks there.
He also is hopeful of landing local endorsement deals, though unlike Cousins and Ben McLemore, he has his eyes on the neighborhood “hole-in-the-wall” Mexican restaurant he frequents, the one that only takes cash.
As for his role with the Kings? Can’t limit his options there, either.
“Believe me, this will not be me for the rest of my career, just doing the dirty work, blocking shots, rebounding. If we shared the ball,” he said, smiling, shaking his head, “I could score 15 points a game.”
With that, he went searching for some money to make a return visit to the Mexican restaurant. He was hungry for more, he said.