MOBILE, Ala. -- It was early Saturday morning when Mobile's biggest active homegrown star athlete, Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins, welcomed 100 hand-picked students into an airline hangar, instantly recognizing the unmistakable surprise on each of the kids' faces.
The Warriors had just closed out a road win over the Milwaukee Bucks the night before, yet, here was Cousins, in his hometown just twelve hours later.
"It's really him!" shouted a young girl. Children glanced down at the caricature of a Santa Claus-costumed Cousins on their T-shirts, then looked up in awe. Every winter, Cousins has celebrated the holiday spirit with his "Santa Cuz" persona, taking 100 kids in Sacramento, New Orleans or Mobile on a shopping spree to Target.
Over the 6-foot-10 center's broad shoulders, 50 yards behind him on the private airport's tarmac, stood the Puma Jet. A perk for the 10 current NBA endorsers who recently signed shoe deals with the company, the black-and-white jet is styled after the brand's classic Clyde sneaker and made available for brand events, photo shoots and even personal trips.
Within hours of signing his four-year endorsement deal with Puma in late September, Cousins and his team began discussing ways in which he could partner with the brand over the next six months.
The Puma Jet immediately came up, and the Bucks game was circled by design, as the Warriors would be giving the players the following day off at the conclusion of their 10-day eastern road trip. Cousins pulled off the rare in-season visit home, jetting south thanks to his new shoe deal, just 25 minutes after the buzzer sounded in Milwaukee, eager to hold his seventh annual "Santa Cuz" event alongside family and friends in Mobile.
"It's hard out here," Cousins sighs. "People don't really understand."
Selected for their strong classwork and good behavior in school, 100 students from five local elementary schools were selected for this year's event, taken on a surprise bus trip to the Mobile Aeroplex, where Cousins awaited with Puma duffle bags of clothes and backpacks for each child.
"I didn't have the best Christmases, but my mom and family did what they could," Cousins said. "I'm just spreading the joy, spreading the love and helping out in any way possible."
A month before the season began, he also donated $253,000 to build a new basketball court and bleachers at his childhood park, which he unveiled at his annual free block party for kids and families.
"Mobile will always be home to DeMarcus," said Andrew Rogers, Cousins' longtime business manager. "This is where he grew up and where his mother currently resides, so every chance he gets, he tries to give back to leave a lasting impact."
After passing out gear inside of the airport hangar to each kid alongside Mobile's mayor Sandy Stimpson, his mother Monique and volunteers from each of the schools, buses shuttled off to Target, where Cousins gave each kid a $200 gift card to spend.
"I was in their position at one point," Cousins said. "I'm just doing my part to put a smile on their face and make the holidays a little better for their families."
FOR COUSINS, A four-time All-Star who was both an NBA free agent and sneaker free agent this past offseason, Puma's basketball relaunch presented a unique opportunity.
The brand had signed five of the top 15 first-round picks from the 2018 NBA draft and unveiled the Clyde Court Disrupt, a simple modernized sneaker that was well-received by both players and consumers. There was a strong commitment to its basketball relaunch, noticeable to anyone looking from the outside.
"They made an aggressive splash with the rookie market," said Matt Davis, Cousins' marketing agent at Independent Sports Entertainment. "But there was still this void to fill, because they didn't have a perennial All-Star."
As Cousins and his team began sorting through initial conversations with Nike, Puma and Adidas, a few elements of Puma's latest push rose to the top, even though the brand had been out of the NBA for nearly 20 years.
"The biggest thing for me was just the creativity behind it," Cousins said. "It was a more genuine and authentic feel for me, and I like to pride myself on that same thing. Just that alone took it to the next level for me."
In addition to the feel of the company, there was also the potential to be utilized more in marketing and brand activations, and the chance to headline each of the upcoming Puma basketball and lifestyle sneakers.
"For DeMarcus, it was the opportunity for him to be one of the faces of the brand," Davis said.
"It's not 200, 300 players with the brand -- it's a select few," Cousins said. "I feel like it's an elite group, and it's going to continue to grow from here."
Of course, there was also the jet.
"Designing and creating the Puma Jet was the idea of Jay-Z," said Adam Petrick, Puma's global director of brand & marketing. "When we first started discussing the ways we would support and service Puma's athlete partners, he recommended that we create a unique experience that would demonstrate our passion and desire to make them feel like the valued members of our family that they are."
The iconic rapper/business mogul, who has assumed the role of Puma creative director, helped design both the paint job and the interior, which features white leather seats and couches, an illuminated display case for the brand's latest sneakers and an elongated bed toward the back in a private room. Touch-screen controls can blast music throughout the plane's upgraded sound system. Wine and champagne glasses are engraved with the Puma logo.
In just a half-dozen months of being in constant use, the jet has been an instant hit with players and brand ambassadors, all of whom can use it.
"A lot of the shoe companies have jets, but only certain players have access to them," Davis said. "The fact that DeMarcus had access was something he looked forward to from a convenience standpoint, but more importantly, he felt the love."
"Man, this is different," Cousins beamed as he took a seat on the jet for the first time in Milwaukee.
ONCE COUSINS' PUMA deal was finalized, months before his slated return to action, he wasted no time showing love to his new brand partner.
As a broadcast interview guest during a Warriors preseason game, Cousins clowned teammate Kevin Durant after his signature Nike KD shoes fell off midgame, something that has become a habit for Durant.
"That wouldn't have happened in the Pumas!" Cousins joked.
The veteran Warriors broadcast duo of Bob Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett burst out laughing immediately, leading into the three discussing the brand until the next commercial break. The full clip with Cousins yelling out "Puma life baby!" went viral instantly on Instagram and Twitter.
"It just came off the dome," Cousins laughs now. "I was just being honest."
Puma put the phrase on T-shirts and social media posts to officially announce the signing a few weeks later. Rather than rely on brand taglines or a slogan for each player, Puma has been open to being more on-the-fly, tapping into social media with youthful captions on its @PumaHoops accounts and incorporating phrases from players that were actually said off the cuff or during an interview.
"I thought that was so cool," Cousins said. "Typically with the shoe companies, you sort of see the same things, the same type of layouts. It was totally different, it was some '90s themes, a graffiti aspect to it, and everything was different. It was just more raw for me, and I liked it."
For the company, that leeway and willingness to let athletes be themselves has been a way in which it's hoping to attract even more of the game's biggest stars in the seasons ahead. The company also is looking to change perception around the sneaker industry's longtime stigma that "big men can't sell shoes," looking less at position, and focusing more on players with "big personalities," like Cousins.
"He's got a great sense of humor, great personal style, and he exudes confidence and attitude," Petrick said. "We've been extremely pleased with the passion he's shown for our brand. DeMarcus represents perfectly the type of disruptive personality we want to represent our brand."
In addition to the brand support, Cousins has also already designed a batch of player exclusive colorways of the Clyde Court Disrupt, highlighting themes around some of his favorite phrases. Unlike most players in the league, Cousins actually owns the rights to the personal logo incorporated onto his shoes. When he makes his much-anticipated Warriors debut, he'll do so wearing player editions (PEs) that incorporate that trademarked "DMC" icon.
"My biggest thing is just being as loud and as different as I can be on the floor," he said. "That's something they've embraced and pride themselves on."
From the PEs to the jet access to the ongoing support of his many giveback efforts, the deal has already been off to a great start for Cousins. That's all before he has played in a single game this season, with the Warriors expected to once again make another deep playoff push.
"Being the potential face of the brand, getting behind his community initiatives, the collaboration opportunities, the connection to culture and music," Davis said. "When you put all of those things together, it was almost like a perfect fit."