MOBILE, Ala. — Home is where the heart is.
It says so on DeMarcus Cousins' skin, tattooed on the very same back that is expected to do much of the heavy lifting this season for the New Orleans Pelicans.
For Cousins, home is Mobile, Alabama.
That's where his heart is, too, as the folks here will proudly tell you.
They all have a Cousins story, and every story typically starts one of two ways.
"Most people don't know this about DeMarcus, but ..."
"DeMarcus wouldn't want anyone to know about this, but ..."
There's always a "but," followed by an example of some good deed Cousins has done that contradicts everything NBA fans thought they knew about him.
"I think we sometimes have to wear an alter ego to exist, especially playing a position like center," said Monique Cousins, DeMarcus' mom. "His alter ego developed over time. But the DeMarcus you see on the court is a totally different DeMarcus than the one you see at home."
Cousins is vocal when he does something on the court. And he's not afraid to say what's on his mind, like during media day a few weeks ago when he said President Trump "needs to get his s*** together."
But Cousins isn't as vocal when he is giving back. In fact, he never mentions it.
"DeMarcus isn't an attention hound or a glory hound," said Otis Hughley, Cousins' coach at LeFlore Magnet High. "He doesn't do things for the attention. He does it because he feels like it's the right thing to do."
Like the time in September he wrote the $253,000 check to refurbish a park in his hometown.
Or the time he paid for the funeral of a California high school football player who was tragically shot and killed in 2015. Or the day he got his first contract extension with his former team, the Sacramento Kings, and donated one million dollars to families in the city that same day. Or the state championship rings he purchased for the girls basketball team at LeFlore Magnet. Or the scoreboard he bought for a California high school. Or the times he pulls up to a stop light and hands money to a homeless person simply because he can.
"To be honest, DeMarcus feels like he's a super hero," said Dervonda James, Cousins' barber in Mobile. "He thinks he can change everything."
So Cousins is doing his part to make sure things around him — past, present and future — are changing.
Figures Park, the neighborhood court right by his old high school, will go from having the two goals currently standing there to a replica of Harlem's famous Rucker Park thanks to Cousins.
Cousins himself has changed too, shedding pounds in the offseason to get into the best shape he's been in since being selected as the fifth overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft.
And he's hoping to help change the Pelicans into a playoff team.
"I think we have a chance to have a very special season," Cousins said. "The urgency is there, for sure. Everybody wants to win. That's everybody's mindset. It's not about any accolades. It's not about any stats. Everybody just wants to win."
No Pelicans player wants to win more than Cousins. He has never made the playoffs in his previous seven seasons. It's the one thing missing from a basketball résumé that also includes three All-Star Game appearances and a career average of 24.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. As impressive as those numbers are, though, there are the ones that aren't so impressive, like the 108 technical fouls that have been called on him. (He's only received one tech since joining the Pelicans after the All-Star break in February last season.) There have also been several fines along the way, as well as confrontations with coaches and media members during his playing days in Sacramento.
"He's grown a lot since the trade," said Marc Spears, NBA writer for ESPN's The Undefeated. "I think he realizes that this is a business and it opened his eyes a little bit. He had to get out of Sacramento. It was probably best for both parties. I think this was a blessing in disguise for him, going from a rebuilding situation in Sacramento to a playoff situation with Anthony Davis. From a financial standpoint he may have loss. but from a basketball standpoint and a happiness standpoint, he's in a better place."
The news stung at first, but Monique Cousins knows her son is glad to be where he is. She's noticed how upbeat he has become.
"Excuse my French, but he's happy as hell," she said.
But the trade seemed to catch him off guard at first. His softer side came out and he got emotional having to leave the city he had grown to love. But when it comes to basketball, Cousins is always emotional. The emotional way he plays the game is a big reason Rajon Rondo signed with the Pelicans this offseason and also the reason Rondo compares Cousins to future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett.
"He wants to bite your head off every night," Rondo said. "He's going to try to destroy his opponent. He's not going to back down from anyone. He puts the fear into a lot of guys in this league. I love it."
Hughley, who not only coached Cousins in high school but also served as an assistant for the Kings during Cousins' rookie season, says the energy his former player brings to the game often gets misinterpreted.
"He plays with his heart," Hughley said. "If Draymond (Green) and LeBron do what he does on the court, it's viewed as passion. When DeMarcus does it, it's viewed as anger."
Cousins approaches everything with that same zeal.
Erica Massey taught Cousins in school and remembers how he excelled in writing poetry.
"He brought energy to the class and made everybody else step their game up," Massey said."They knew they couldn't beat him on the court, so when he wrote a poem, they would try to outdo him."
A giant picture of Cousins in his old Sacramento uniform still hangs high on the wall in the LeFlore High school gym, with his No. 15 Rattlers jersey right beside it. Students in the school have to look way up to see the jersey, just like Cousins' former classmates had to look way up at him when he walked the hallways.
His size was a good thing on the court, but it had its disadvantages, too.
"People wanted to treat him like he was a grown man and that's the furthest thing from what he was," said William Henderson, now the principal. "He acted like your typical teenager, but people expected him to show more maturity than his age was, and I thought that was unfair to him."
Sherry McDade, LeFlore's athletic director, called Cousins a "big kid at heart."
Cousins loves kids. He has two of his own but has plenty more that he provides for. His Santa Cuz during Christmas time sends kids on shopping sprees in both Sacramento and Mobile. He's provided free eye exams and glasses for children at his camps.
Spears, who has covered the NBA since 1999, has visited some of Cousins' charity events.
"I've covered a lot of NBA players and have gone to a lot of charity events, and I've never in 18 years been around a guy who puts that much time and effort into every single child," Spears said. "He spends time with every single child. I've seen it with my own eyes, and it's not a rush job. He's not waving any flags about it because that's just how he was raised."
Credit Monique Cousins for that. She remembers the "rough times", when the family lived from paycheck to paycheck. It's why her oldest son never forgot where he came from and it's why he does what he does.
"It's something I picked up from my mom," said Cousins. "She's the type of lady who barely could make ends meet most of the time. Even with that, she was ready to give back to the next person. She would give her last to the next person. It's just something that was instilled in me... She wasn't raising me to get attention so why would I do it to get attention."
But it didn't stop with DeMarcus. Monique Cousins instilled that same willingness to give back to all six of her children.
"We want to see everybody make it," said Jaleel Cousins, DeMarcus' younger brother. "We don't have everything. But a lot of people don't have anything, so we give what we can give."
Now Cousins can continue giving back. But he now just closer to home.
"It's good to always get back home and get back to your roots," Cousins said." Just to feel that home loving, so it's good."