USF junior center Jaleel Cousins and his brother Demarcus grew up together, but now that his brother has become a star in the NBA, Cousins is trying to create his own identity at USF without forgetting who made him the player he is today.
Cousins played two seasons at Navarro College before transferring to USF to play under coach Orlando Antigua, who recruited his brother to play at Kentucky and said he can see the similarities.
“Obviously, one is the physical similarity,” Antigua said. “They are just two big human beings and really good kids. A big difference is that Demarcus had more experience on the court, whereas Jaleel is just scratching the surface of what he can be.”
The Alabama native comes in filling the void left by freshman John Egbunu, who transferred to UF following Stan Heath’s departure from USF. Antigua sees it as an opportunity to be successful rather than filling anyone’s shoes.
“You can’t look at it as who he’s replacing,” Antigua said. “He has the opportunity to step in a role of a big that has size, skill and some experience. We’re going to need his rebounding and his physical presence. He’s a big boy and we’re going to be playing up against some big teams.”
Starting out, Cousins said he didn’t take anything too seriously, but once he saw the success his brother was having, he knew he had to change.
“As he progressed in basketball, he was like, ‘Hey look, growing up our bodies are the same and you can do some of the same things, but you have to take it as serious as I am and work harder,’” Cousins said. “That’s what he still tells me to this day.”
His brother has remained a prominent adviser because he knows he can trust what his brother tells him.
“I really don’t trust too many people because I’ve dealt with a lot of coaches telling me stuff that never really happens,” Cousins said. “So, I just know coming from (my brother) it’s sincere. He tells me all the time I need to sit down and actually use my strength to move people instead of standing straight up. It stays with me.”
Having an NBA player for a brother seems like a kid’s dream, but for Cousins, it’s had its share of obstacles.
When Cousins began pursuing basketball as more than just recreation during his junior year of high school, he found that people saw his brother and expected him to have the same talent. Sometimes, he said, he was just thrown into the fire without being prepared for what he would experience, which led to poor play on the court.
“It (puts a chip on my shoulder) because of how people write it up,” Cousins said. “They saw that I wasn’t that good, but in reality, I was never worked with. They looked at (my brother) and expected the same out of me so they just threw me out there not knowing that I wasn’t quite prepared.”
Cousins said once people started to work with him, they saw the difference in his play.
“Coming to (USF), coach (Antigua) tells me every day that I’m doing good, doing a lot better and just keep working hard,” he said. “I didn’t start basketball the same time my brother did. I really didn’t start playing until about my 11th grade year, so I’ve just been trying to catch up.”
With both brothers measuring in at 6-feet-11, the comparisons are inevitable, but as much as he looks up to his brother, Cousins said he wants to escape the
shadow and become his own player.
“It’s hard at times because a lot of people compare us, but we’re two different people,” he said. “He’s more of a big guard where I’m just a straightforward post player. It’s hard being compared to him all the time, but that’s just a part of it.”
Even with trying to break away from his brother as a player, Cousins said he recognizes his talent and wouldn’t want to look up to any other player.
“I’m not the type of person to really idolize people that I’m probably never going to meet or know, so I’d probably say my brother is who I look up to because we came up through the same situations,” he said.
As kids, Cousins said the duo lacked a strong father figure in their lives. Their mom was the one who kept them going strong and kept their minds set on succeeding in the sport.
“My mother was my role model because I never really had that father figure, but she was always pushing me the same way my brother did,” Cousins said. “I used to complain about things being hard, but she would just keep pushing and say, ‘At the end of the day, it’s going to work out.’”
Cousins knew his dad and stepdad growing up, but said
neither stepped up to be a person he could rely on.
“He didn’t really fit the role, so I kind of saw what a father shouldn’t be,” he said. “I look at my mom as my father because she was there through everything. I had nobody I could just run to in the father role, but I had my mom.”
To make ends meet, Monique Cousins, a mother of six, had to work up to three jobs at a time, cutting into her time to spend with her kids. This led Cousins to step up and help raise his three little sisters.
He enjoyed being closer to his sisters and knew the experience would help him down the road.
“It made me closer to my family,” he said. “I saw people working hard to get what they wanted and saw certain people not fit for the role of being a parent; it just taught me how to be a better father for when I have my kids.”
When his brother was drafted fifth overall in the 2010 NBA draft to the Sacramento Kings, Cousins said he was beyond proud of his big brother.
The two still keep in touch whenever they can. In the offseason, the brothers meet up in L.A. to work with trainers and other NBA players in the area to better their game.
Cousins said they work on shooting and ball-handling drills, but also go to Impact Fitness and do circuit training to build endurance and get in better shape.
During the season, Cousins said it’s harder to find the time to talk, but he tries to call whenever he has the chance.
“(My brother and I) talk on the phone every so often, but every time we talk it’s like no time has passed; that’s the relationship we have, nothing’s ever going to change,” Cousins said.
When Antigua was hired in March, Cousins knew he wanted to make the trip to Florida to play under the coaches who made his brother what he is today.
“I’m very family oriented,” Cousins said. “Like I said, I don’t trust many people, so me considering (Antigua) and (coach Strickland) and everybody as family, it made me more comfortable coming here. I knew that he would be sincere working with me and not just be using me to get closer to my brother because he doesn’t need that.”
Cousins made a quick transition to the new environment. Veteran players like sophomore forward Chris Perry said his goofy and joking attitude fit right in with the team. His dominant play in practice made the transition even easier.
“He brings an inside presence along with me, but his is on another level because he’s 6-foot-11 and I’m only 6-foot-6,” Perry said. “(When he first came in), he just had this look on his face like you don’t want to mess
Cousins said his brother isn’t always there to help him progress, but he knows his brother is watching out for him one way or another.
“We don’t talk as much because of both of our schedules, but just from me watching him and seeing some things that he does, he’s basically showing me if you work hard like I’m telling you, you can have all of this that I have and more,” he said.