OAKLAND — It was billed as the “Battle In Birmingham.”
Picture nearly 3,000 spectators in the stands at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, but not for a college game — to see two high school teams compete.
That was the stage as DeMarcus Cousins’ seventh-ranked LeFlore High School (Mobile, Ala.) battled Derrick Favors’ No. 9 South Atlanta High School on ESPN2 a decade ago on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009.
“It was fun,” Favors recalled. “We was on the teams from our neighborhoods and playing with our friends and people that we grew up with, and that’s one of the reasons I stayed at the high school I stayed at because I grew up with those guys and I didn’t want to just leave them by going to a prep school, I wanted them to come on this ride with me. It was just fun.”
Cousins’ LeFlore Rattlers were ultimately victorious against Favors’ South Atlanta Hornets, 78-66, as part of the UAB ESPN Old Spice Classic, but Favors finished with 36 points, 14 rebounds and one blocked shot to Cousins’ 21 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five blocks.
“I think that game, me and him was the only two doing the scoring and it was a low-scoring game so we had all the points,” Favors said.
Fast-forward to now, 10 years later, and those elite big men remain relevant in the NBA. As the Golden State Warriors prepare to host the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, Cousins and Favors are once again in the spotlight, this time on TNT at Oracle Arena as men and not teenagers.
“It’s crazy. Time flies,” Favors reminisced. “The years are starting to go by faster. When you really sit down and think about it, it’s kind of hard to believe that I’ve been out of high school for 10 years, but it’s definitely a blessing to be in this spot because I have some friends and classmates who are no longer here. I’ve just got to look forward to seeing all your classmates when the reunion comes around.”
For Cousins, it’ll be the first time facing the Jazz this season after returning from a ruptured left Achilles last season. He has played the last 10 games for Golden State after being out the first 45 to recover, while continuing to find his rhythm for the defending champions.
“He’s been playing amazing. I know he’s just trying to get his rhythm and his flow night in and night out, having missed almost a year, so he’s doing exactly what we expect from him,” said Warriors star Steph Curry. “I know there’s another level he’s waiting to get to and just being patient. He’s had some flashes where you’re like ‘Wow,' and he’s reminding people kind of what he’s capable of, and as he puts it together more consistently we’re going to get better because of it.”
Favors remains rock solid in his role as the longest-tenured Jazzman, both on and off the court, as a forward and center. Entering the game versus Golden State, Favors was 12-9 in all-time matchups against Cousins’ teams. However, Cousins has the statistical nod averaging 18.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists to Favors’ 10.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists.
As ESPN top-five recruits of their class, both guys also competed on the East roster for the 2009 McDonald’s All-American Game, where Favors won MVP, then were drafted in the same 2010 NBA Draft with Favors going third to the New Jersey Nets and Cousins going fifth to the Sacramento Kings. Avery Bradley, John Wall, Mason Plumlee, Lance Stephenson and Kawhi Leonard were other notable pros among that class.
Even after competing against each other for so long through AAU and high school hoops, the Southern boys never considered themselves to be rivals. Cousins declined to comment during Tuesday’s shootaround, but Favors says he’s always admired the competition.
“I didn’t really pay much attention to the rankings and all that because I honestly didn’t care, but it was fun competing against those guys,” Favors said. “They was trying to make a rivalry out of it but we played against each other so much that us, we got tired of it, so we didn’t really make it a rivalry. I’m just happy for the success he has and it’s been fun just competing and seeing everybody grow so it’s been fun.”
Although San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan graduated a year ahead of Favors and Cousins in 2008, he was fully aware of the elite big men on the prep scene. DeRozan played in a couple of camps with Favors and admired his athleticism and ability to dominate the paint on that level. Seeing guys like Cousins and Favors still surviving in the NBA puts everything in perspective for how rare it is to stick at this professional level, especially a decade later.Comment on this story
“It’s crazy when you think about it. In reality, it lets you know how old you really are, especially now,” DeRozan told the Deseret News. “I remember back in the day, the mixtape era really started coming out and everything and you see the mixtapes now, all you gotta do is go to Instagram and you see who the next big star is like that.
“So it just shows you how much time has changed and it’s cool to be a part of and be able to look back and see all the guys that stuck, and sometimes even reminisce and talk about some of the guys that didn’t make it that we thought was everything in them classes.”