SPOKANE, Wash. — Oklahoma assistant Lew Hill knows Isaiah Cousins.
Not the way most assistant coaches know their players, though.
Hill really knows Cousins.
“He’s me,” Hill said. “That’s what I tell him, he was me. I went through the same stuff.”
Both grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a city part suburb and part urban New York City.
“It’s like being part of New York City in a different way,” Cousins said. “We kind of dress how the city is and we kind of talk like that.”
Slowly, the New York City edge is coming off Cousins off the court. That edge has stayed on his game, though, and made him the Sooners’ best perimeter defender and a dangerous threat both outside and close to the basket on offense.
Cousins and the Sooners open the NCAA Tournament against North Dakota State at 6:27 p.m. Thursday at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
Hill first caught sight of Cousins when he went home to recruit Jabarie Hinds when Hill was an assistant under current Sooner coach Lon Kruger at UNLV.
“Everybody was saying, ‘You need to look at Isaiah as well,’” Hill said. “There were some similarities in us because we’re both tall point guards. Now, he’s more of a combo but I played more point. I could see his future though. I didn’t know his work habits but I said if he works hard, he’s going to be good later on.”
Work habits haven’t been a question since.
“Now nobody works harder than he does,” Hill said. “He’s just starting to get some of the fruits from that work.”
And Hill is seeing the fruits of his, both on and off the court.
The sometimes icy demeanor that Cousins has displayed off the court is starting to fade away.
The smiles, which he kept well-hidden not too long ago, have been coming much easier recently.
“He’s always had a pretty smile,” Hill said. “I’m always telling him, ‘Smile, the world ain’t coming to an end.’ Now, everybody else is starting to see his personality. Now, you’re starting to see his softer side. He had to go through a process though. It wasn’t easy but life is not easy. He’s put work into it and it’s being rewarded.”
Hill knows that process.
He grew up on the south side of Mount Vernon, near the Bronx.
“It’s a town of hardship and unemployment and ghetto per se, but it’s a place where you have a lot of love,” Hill said. “It’s a place that if you work hard and stay on the right course, you can get out of there too.”
For quite a few Mount Vernon teens, the way out was basketball.
Hill counts among his mentors former NBA players Gus Williams and Scooter and Rodney McCray.
Other notable basketball names from Mount Vernon are the Charlotte Bobcats’ Ben Gordon, the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond and former West Virginia standout Kevin Jones.
Hill knows all about the outward edge that Cousins displayed.
“Coming from where we come from, sometimes trust is the hardest issue,” Hill said. “You can’t always let your guard down in New York. It’s a cutthroat city. You’ve got to have a hard edge. It takes time for them to trust and now as he’s trusting the system, he’s understanding what Coach Kruger and I and what we’re telling him is true and he’s seeing it with his very eyes, he’s let down his guard some.
“It’s like we’ve got a big brick wall there and we just chisel it out and it just starts falling apart. He’s just understanding that you can have fun. Everything ain’t a grind. Everything ain’t being mad at somebody. There’s people out here you can trust. There’s people out here that do love you. There’s people out here who want to see you do good.”
Hill started building that trust on recruiting visits. Cousins’ mother went to school at Mount Vernon around the same time Hill was there, though they didn’t know each other. One of Cousins’ mentors is a guy Hill mentored when he was coming up.
“I’m more like a father figure to him,” Hill said. “Just teaching him how to make it — how to be the best player he can be and the best person he can be and he’s really, really growing in all those areas.
“It’s not just about basketball because if basketball is all I could give him then I’m no good for him. I’ve got to give him life lessons that I messed up on that I can help him with. I just want to be a person that he can trust, that he can talk to about anything.”
While most everyone else on the team has family within a few hours of Norman — Buddy Hield of the Bahamas has a brother in Arkansas and D.J. Bennett of Chicago has a brother who goes to OU — Cousins’ family in Norman is Hill.
“He’s been a great influence,” Cousins said. “He helps me and he understands what it’s like growing up and being from Mount Vernon.
“I’m far away from home so it’s pretty good to have someone here to bring that feeling of home to me.”