Phil Jackson was right, Sacramento is a “cow town.” And I don’t mean that in the disrespectful way he meant it in. I had never been to California’s capital before today, but Jackson helped me with my expectations. The first thing you notice as your plane makes its descent into Sacramento Airport are the farms. Lots and lots of farms. Different color farms and plains ranging from spinach green to beige as far as the eye can see. So how does a young guy such as Willie Cauley-Stein entertain himself in such a city? Live in one of Eddie Murphy's old mansions, of course.
“One of my old coaches was telling me about it; he made it seem like his wife just lived here,” he told me with a childish grin on his face. The house is humongous, complete with an equally large backyard with a small pond and decent sized pool. Most notably, Cauley-Stein commissioned a Space Jam inspired painting of himself. “My man Justin, right when I got drafted, I was like: ‘Bruh, you gotta make me a Space Jam painting.’ I just gave him an idea, and he captured it exactly how I was visioning it. Bugs Bunny has the neck tat and everything.”
The painting is so good it should get Willie a gig in the upcoming sequel opposite LeBron James.
Referring to Sac-Town as “Cow Town” is as accurate as proclaiming it to be a “Basketball Town.” The Kings are the crown jewel in a city run by former basketball star Kevin Johnson. They love their NBA team and fought tooth and nail to keep them from moving to Seattle. Front office incompetence aside, the Kings have a young team with a promising upside, and a veteran point guard in Rajon Rondo, who knows what it takes to win. Sacramento went 33-49 this past season, good for 10th in a competitive Western Conference. However, Rondo is an unrestricted free agent, guard Darren Collison was recently arrested on domestic violence charges, star big man DeMarcus Cousins will be sought after by every team in the league, and they have a new head coach in Dave Joerger, formerly of the Memphis Grizzlies. The Kings are going to have an interesting summer.
For now, though, Cauley-Stein will be staying put and is looking forward to being part of the Kings future. “It was kinda cool being there,” he answered when asked about representing Sacramento at this year’s draft lottery. “I got to be there when they showed the new logo. This is DeMarcus’s show, but he’s older.” Willie played in 66 games last season, starting in 39 of those alongside Cousins to make up one of the more promising front courts in the league. He’s a bit rough around the edges offensively, but defense has always been his thing. During his time playing under John Calipari for the Kentucky Wildcats, Cauley-Stein was their defensive ace, even more so than No. 1 pick Karl Anthony-Towns. He’s long, athletic, versatile, exactly the kind of big man in demand in today’s game.
“Some of my conversations with Jay, I’m not really saying much, just listening. It’s really just learning.”
“DeMarcus is a beast down there," he told me while shaking his head. “When I first got here, I played defense on him, and he would just bully me. I had to use my length and speed, he’s the best center in the league.” He added, “I just wanna show people I’m a hooper. I don’t wanna be labeled as just a defensive player or a rim protector or someone who can dunk. I feel like I can do everything. That’s my whole mentality from here on out.”
Offense is something Cauley-Stein has to most certainly improve, especially in today’s game. Stretching the floor is essential, so without having a polished post game, he needs to be able to hit 15-footers on a consistent basis. How Cauley-Stein is tackling that, oddly enough, is by heading to the local driving range and not always the gym.
“Nothing else matters when you’re out there hitting balls. It kinda helps you with basketball, because you’re focusing on the back of the ball over and over and over again, so I was using it to help with free throws,” he said. “You’re looking at the back of the rim, and you’re just shooting and shooting and shooting. It’s a focus thing.”
When you’re living the Eddie Murphy lifestyle, you have to take up golf to clear your mind and help you hone your craft. When I mentioned J.R. Smith’s love of golf, I suggested they should take their talents and tattoos and join a country club. “They don’t wanna see that, they don’t want that to happen,” he joked.
Like most athletes these days, Willie has interests outside of basketball. Last year he inked a deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports and wore an original, vintage Roc-A-Fella Records chain during the lottery, a chain he still has. “I didn’t take it off for like two days,” he bashfully admitted. Me, [OG] Juan, Jay, and Dez Bryant are the only ones that have them.” Jay Z is the right mentor to have in your corner. At 26, Jay and his friends Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Dame Dash weren’t finding any luck getting the rapper signed to a record label, so they started their own, and the rest is history. They opened the door for so many young, black celebrities to become entrepreneurs and Cauley-Stein wants to follow in his footsteps business wise.
“Some of my conversations with Jay, I’m not really saying much, just listening. It’s really just learning.” Learning what? “I’m trying to have Jay Z’s money.”
Willie loves money so much he has giant tattoos on his back of zombie versions of Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson, and Benjamin Franklin with the Eye of Providence residing over him. The artwork was so over the top, I asked him if Hova helped him get into the Illuminati. “If I told you, I would have to kill you,” he joked.
One thing he wants to do with said money is open up a streetwear store, a personal milestone he’s been trying to achieve. Streetwear and sneakers are an important part of his life. His living room is like walking into a closet; Nikes, Jordans, and Bape gear find themselves on the couch, shelves, and racks. Whether it’s hoodies, sweats, glow in the dark camo tank tops, custom Bape camo Air Jordan 11 Lows, Cauley-Stein mixed and matched Bape pieces during the photoshoot as if he had Pharrell on speed dial.
“Since I got to college. I wanted my own shoe and clothing spot. It’s called ‘Catalyst.’ That’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “I wanna put it downtown Sacramento. It’s poppin down there, they don’t have anything like that. Honestly, my whole plan was to get it going now. I wanted it done by like June.”
He also sketches on a regular basis and wants to design his own sneaker with the same person who made him the star of Space Jam, and hopefully being a Nike athlete will expedite that process. “If Nike gives me my own shoe one day, I want to make it happen,” he proclaimed confidently.
At just 22 years old, Willie has a good head on his shoulders and seems to be adapting to this new era of the NBA life well. Personal branding is vital in 2016. There’s a lot of money to be made by playing up your personality. Brands are looking to reach younger audiences and appear more hip. A month before he was to be drafted in 2015, he not only legally changed his name from Willie Durmond Cauley, Jr. to Willie Cauley-Stein to honor his mother, he also made his nickname “Trill” his middle name because, in 2016, it’s all about the brand.
Back on the court, Trill Will is excited about playing for Joerger. “His plans for me are pretty cut and dry. I feel like he’s gonna use me," Cauley-Stein said. "He’s gonna try to let me play and let me rock and show the world what I really am.”
Headed into the second year of his young career, the athletic big is aware the game is as much mental as it is physical. “What I learned this whole last year was finding a routine, and I feel like after the season was over, I found my routine. I do the same things every day, I eat the same food, I go to sleep at the same time. It’s a snowball effect; you have no choice but to excel. Playing with Rajon helped me become a pro.”
He’ll be looking to make more of an impact next season as he continues to grow, and he seems ready. With his physical attributes being tailor-made for today’s uptempo brand of basketball, paired with a better feel for what it takes to be a professional, Willie Trill Cauley-Stein is the future.