Nicole Clavo walked down a line of grave markers in early January, as an unseasonably warm breeze blew through Hilltop Cemetery in Elk Grove.
Dressed in black jeans and a black denim jacket, with gold-sequined angel wings on her sleeves, and a photo of her son on the back, she bent down to adjust tokens left on his gravestone: a worn cherub, flowers, a plastic bunny and two wooden letter J’s painted gold. He lies at the head of the second row in the 130-year old cemetery, in a plot that was paid for by Golden State Warriors center and former Sacramento Kings star DeMarcus Cousins.
Jaulon Jamaul “JJ” Clavo was just 17 when he was shot in 2015 by a 16-year old participating in a street gang initiation. He was in his car returning from fast food before playing in a playoff football game for Sacramento’s Grant High School. He had met Cousins, then on the Kings, when he came to watch a football game at Grant.
From attending local high school football and basketball games, to holding summer camps, to paying for the funerals of slain young men, Cousins was a significant part of the community in his seven years with the Kings. It’s the smaller acts, though, like the kindness he showed the Clavo family, that endeared him to the city.
Cousins will face his former team for the first and only time this season on Thursday. And, even two years after he was traded, Cousins still has an impact — and a legacy — in what was his first professional home with the NBA.
When he was first drafted by the Kings, Cousins knew nothing about Sacramento. What he found was that the city — particularly the Del Paso area around Grant — felt very much like his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. The people there treated him and his mother, Monique, like family.
“I just continuously wanted him to know how grateful I am, and how much his work means to Sacramento, when he was here, and the work he’s done, even still, not being here,” Nicole said. “He’s still doing work here.”
“Make sure the funeral arrangements are taken care of”
An hour before the Kings’ game against the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 13, 2015, the day of the shooting, Andrew Rogers,Cousins’ longtime manager, got a phone call from Cousins.
“I need you to find out who that kid at Grant High School was, find his family, and take care of them,” he said. “Make sure the funeral arrangements are taken care of.”
Cousins, as Rogers said this week, likes to move in silence. Only recently did it come to light — and not through Cousins’ camp — that he paid for the funeral of 14-year old Mobile boy JaMarcus Smith, who died in June 2018 while trying to rescue his drowning brother.
Cousins is uncomfortable in the spotlight. It’s why King’s owner Vivek Ranadive had to all but force Cousins, at the end of a 2013 press conference to announce his contract extension, to announce that he would donate $1 million to family and community organizations over the life of the contract, a fact he purposely omitted.
Likewise, his donation to Clavo’s funeral was to remain anonymous. That’s what then-mayor Kevin Johnson told Nicole and her daughter Japhera before a Saturday-night vigil at Grant, the day after JJ was killed. Then, at the vigil, vice mayor Rick Jennings announced that the anonymous donor was, in fact, the former No. 5 overall NBA Draft pick. That was the first the Clavo family heard about it.
Cousins instructed Rogers to call the Clavo family, and leave two seats for Nicole and Japhera for the game the next night against the Toronto Raptors.
“You try to be unnoticeable, especially during that time, because it was only three days later, “ Nicole said. “But, I had been all over the news … People from the concession workers to the security to everybody knew who we were.”
As Cousins warmed up for the game, he made his way over to their courtside seats.
“Look, mom,” Japhera said. “His shoes.”
It was not just because both JJ and Japhera were “sneaker heads.” It was what was scrawled on the side of Cousins’ purple and white sneakers: “RIP JJ”.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s big,’” Nicole said. “We were taking pictures of the shoes, and we’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s enormous.’ It was just a surreal moment, right? One, we’re trying to shield our emotions, but we’re wearing them. You could see it, I think, in our eyes.”
After being introduced on the public address system, and observing a moment of silence, the two took in the game, and then headed into the locker room afterwards.
Months later, Cousins made sure that Japhera and Nicole were invited to a Kings bowling event at West Sac Bowl, where they got to bowl with Cousins’ teammates. Nicole made sure to find him.
“He’s always been very humble about it, and always just said that it’s no problem, pretty much,” Nicole said. “I think, for me, I will always be indebted and grateful … I don’t know how many others who have done as much as he has here in Sacramento.”
Helping Sacramento and Mobile
While with the Kings, Cousins held annual Thanksgiving turkey drives, and one year, went around in a sprinter van to give away turkeys to families, showing up unannounced at their doorsteps.
For five years in Sacramento, he held his trademark “Santa Cuz” event, where he chose 100 underprivileged kids in Sacramento, and another 100 in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, to receive a $200 gift card to Target.
At multiple points during his tenure in Sacramento, he would be walking down a city street, and come upon a homeless individual. He’d promptly say, “Hey, Drew, give me my wallet,” take money out and hand it to the person.
“That was once a week, probably,” Rogers said.
Still, there were some in Sacramento that despised his history of hot-headed, petulant on-court antics. His constant foul trouble (he averaged a league-leading 15.3 technical fouls per season) and quick temper took the four-time All-Star our of games, and he was fined repeatedly by the organization, including a $50,000 fine for seeming to physically threaten a local columnist in the locker room after a game, and another from the NBA for going into the stands and throwing his mouthguard after a foul call.
As troublesome as Cousins’ persona could be on the court, off of it, he seemed altogether different. In December of 2015, he teamed up with local Kings sponsor Chase Chevrolet to give away a 2016 Chevy Malibu to Sacramento residents Maurice Williams and Selena Pina, who were raising their own 3-year old daughter, along with Selena’s two younger twin sisters, who had been abandoned by their biological mother and family friends.
The former director of community relations for the Kings, Scott Moak, said he would “do anything for Cuz.”
“He was a gold mine that was never willing to be limited and limit himself on what he could do,” Moak said. “The thing about him too, that’s different from a lot of players that I’d worked with in the past, was that he was very thoughtful about things that he wanted to do.”
In June of 2016, Cousins contributed anonymously for the funeral of Deston “Nutter” Garrett, who was shot and killed shortly after his graduating from Sacramento High School. He provided funds for food at the vigil at Sacramento High, and funds for the funeral itself.
“I never got to say thank you,” said Garrett’s mother, Tanya. “He didn’t even know Nutter from a can of paint.”
Still, Cousins had his on-court issues, and less than three weeks after Cousins became the quickest player since 2006 to earn a suspension because of his 16 technical fouls by early February, he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. He was dealt literally in the midst of the All-Star Game, and only found out during a post-game media scrum.
Having told ESPN Radio that he wanted to spend the rest of his career in Sacramento just a week before, Cousins wept when addressing fans the day after his trade.
“Every family in this city matters to me,” he said through tears.
In March of 2018, Cousins and former Kings teammate Matt Barnes helped pay for the funeral of 22-year old Stephon Clark, shot and killed by police in his grandmother’s backyard on March 18, 2018. That was a cause that was intensely personal for Cousins, who himself was once nearly a victim of police violence.
Applying lessons on the court to life
In 2009, Cousins, then a senior at LeFlore High School in Mobile, was leaving a high school basketball game with several teammates. When the group got out of the car at one of his friends’ house, a police cruiser pulled up. Officers drew rifles.
Seven years later, he would tell The Undefeated Marc Spears that the only reason the group was able to defuse the situation was because they were wearing LeFlore hoodies, and Cousins was recognized. He didn’t tell his mother Monique until he was in college, because he knew she would worry.
“He’s a protector … and he knew if I had found out, I probably wouldn’t have let him outside for the next two years,” she said.
Cousins went on to befriend the policeman father of a former teammate, and sought to more deeply understand how to alleviate tensions between law enforcement and the black community.
When he got back from the Rio Olympics in 2016, he held two town hall meetings with community members and local law enforcement: one in Mobile, the other at Bayside Church in Sacramento. Among the 150 students at Bayside that day was Sacramento High School sophomore center Garrett Richardson.
The meeting included Cousins’ Kings teammates Rudy Gay, Matt Barnes and Garrett Temple, as well as Deputy Chief of Police Ken Bernard, Deputy District Attorney Carlton Davis, Roseville Police Chief Daniel Hahn, Undersheriff Erik Maness and Dwight Pruitt, a former sheriff’s deputy and a longtime NBA security representative.
The attendees were encouraged to ask questions. Richardson, sitting towards the back of the chapel, stood up.
“As taxpayers,” he asked Hahn, “how are we going to get informed about how police are being trained to handle us?’”
Barnes applauded the question, as did Cousins, who also gave advice: When faced with an escalating situation, reel yourself in.
Months later, heading home from an early-season game, Richardson had his own encounter. Riding in the passenger seat of a friend’s car, he was two doors away from his home when he saw the flashing lights in the rearview mirror, then the bright spotlight of a police cruiser. After his friend pulled over the vehicle, the police asked the driver if she’d been drinking, smoking or doing drugs. She hadn’t been.
The officer asked for her license, then clicked on his flashlight and shined it in Richardson’s face. He questioned the 6-foot-7,245-pound center, too.
“I’m in my basketball warm-up. Literally, ‘Boys Basketball’ is across my chest,” said Richardson. “He’s like, ‘You been drinking anything?’ I’m like, ‘Nah, I just got out of a basketball game.’”
The officer asked if he’d been smoking or doing drugs.
“The hood side of me wanted to be like, ‘Come on, man, I just told you. I had a game. Why would I do something like that?’”Richardson said. “Then, I remembered. It was like whenDeMarcus’s teammates say to him on the court: ‘Calm down, you don’t want to get a technical. I was thinking the same thing.”
Cousins earned a fan for life.
“Sacramento is always going to be home for DeMarcus,” Richardson said. “It’s always going to be a second home. He’s always welcome here. Any time he wants to watch a game, he knows he has a front-row seat, and we’re going to treat him to a good time.”
A proclamation from the city
Richardson jumped at the chance, a year later, to be one of the mentors at Cousins’ annual camp at Sacramento High School.
Cousins reveled in the camps, where every summer for five years — including the summer after he’d been traded to New Orleans — he invited 200 kids to get one-on-one instruction from him in the Sacramento High School gym. Youngsters lined up to get their shots blocked by Cousins, who was more than willing to oblige.
In 2015, one of the campers, named Elijah, managed to win a one-on-one contest with Cousins by dribbling the ball between the All-Star center’s feet for a lay-up. Cousins nearly hit the floor laughing.
That camp was the first that was truly free to all campers, who mostly came from the schools that fed into Sacramento High.Starting with that camp — which Cousins hopes to revive this summer — Cousins partnered with VSP Global as a sponsor, and insisted that not only all the campers be given free eye exams and glasses, but that their families did, too. He also paid for swamp coolers for the un-air-conditioned gymnasium. His work earned him a proclamation from the city in 2017.
In the process of finding a space for his camp in 2012, Cousins became close with Erika Terrell the mother of Dragons guard Christian Terrell. Cousins had promised to help replace Sacramento’s aging, steel-clad scoreboard with two brand-new ones, and two new shot clocks, which he eventually did in 2015.
“I used to tell coach Lo, I don’t care if he donated something; I need to see him in person,” she said. “ I used to harass in a fun way, and he showed up to a game and refused to talk to me. He said I was the crazy lady that nags him all the time. We’ve been talking ever since.”
When Cousins, who became a regular at Sacramento games — and eventually grew close with Christian, mentoring him and working out with him during the summer — laid into referees about their calls on a Cordova big man one night, Erika set him straight. If he was going to cheer for the other team, he could find another seat. He quieted down.
“I think that’s why he’s so approachable, because the more real you are with him, the more of DeMarcus Cousins you get a chance to actually know,” she said.
Sacramento sees Cousins differently
When Cousins was traded away from the Kings, they were a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006. With Cousins, Sacramento was as moribund as it had been since its early-2000s clashes with the Los Angeles Lakers. In six full years with Cousins, they never finished higher than 10th in the Western Conference.
Because of the players Sacramento got back in that trade, including one of their best players in Buddy Hield, the franchise is one game out of the playoffs, in ninth place in the Western Conference, playing an exciting brand of up-and-down, fast-paced basketball. Cousins, for his part, is thriving with the Warriors, where he doesn’t have to be the center of attention, or the focal point of the offense.
While Cousins may have had a reputation as a malcontent or a thug around the NBA, the city of Sacramento has seen something markedly different. For Carolina Panthers linebacker and Grant alum Shaq Thompson, Cousins is an inspiration. The two held a joint Back 2 Sac block party the summer after Cousins had been traded.
“We’re never going to forget him in Sacramento for what he did for JJ and what he did for the whole city of Sacramento and the Sacramento Kings,” said Thompson, who met Cousins when he was just a sophomore safety for the Pacers, and now shares representation with him. “That’s something that I learned through him: I wanted to give back to the community wherever I went.”
On Thursday, Nicole Clavo and her daughter Japhera will sit down and watch Cousins as he and the Warriors square off with the Kings. She was never really a Kings fan, but Nicole will now forever be a DeMarcus Cousins fan who vociferously defends his honor.
“If they just knew half the things that he has done to help families in Sacramento alone,” Clavo said, “from providing meals for families at Christmas time, to relieving families of stress during death and unimaginable tragedy, I think they would have a different perception of him.”