DeMarcus Cousins is the most polarizing player in the NBA today (Rondo sent him the symbol of that polarization, a giant foam question mark, used and graying at the edges, in a package for Christmas. Rondo was given the question mark from Josh Smith years ago, who received the question mark a while back from Rasheed Wallace. Though Rondo and Smith are polarizing more for their style of play than their reactions on the court, Cousins and Rasheed share the same reputation among reactionary NBA fans who dismiss their expressions of outrage and overflowing passion as immaturity. If you go deeper than the surface, there is a lot to unpack in the way Cousins and Rasheed respond to referees. What does a referee symbolize? Control. Authority. Order. At their best, referees keep the game flowing and the physicality within reason. Refereeing in the NBA seems like an impossible task. The game is so fast. The best angles always changing. The threat of a technical too easy to employ.
Join me for a second, on an imagined trip away from the reality you know and to Mobile, Alabama (birthplace of Hank Aaron). I don’t know Mobile. I read about the city in Aaron’s autobiography, I Had a Hammer, but all I know is the city is poor, mostly black, and on the gulf coast. What influence does Mobile, Alabama have on DeMarcus? What influence on trust does his upbringing have? Five kids. A strong mother.
I’ve read about DeMarcus, the man they call Boogie. Jonathan Abrams, who writes the most compelling NBA profiles out there, wrote about Cousins in January, 2014. Abrams goes deep on players in order to help us see them as genuine human beings, flaws and all. He doesn’t jump to conclusions or bring his judgments. In that way, he is following the lead of Gary Smith, the sportswriter all great sports journalists would be wise to follow. Grantland has allowed Abrams to spend time reporting and thinking about stories, the way Sports Illustrated has given Lee Jenkins the time and resources.
It may be wisest to read Abrams piece first in order to get a real sense of DeMarcus. Here’s the opening of Abrams’ “The Ballad of Boogie”:
Whenever they were at the grocery store, Monique Cousins would train one eye on her shopping cart and the other on her son, DeMarcus. By the time he hit adolescence he was more than tall — his arms and legs were always in a tangle, and his knees and elbows jutted out everywhere. At the store, DeMarcus towered over aisles and shoppers alike. Sometimes he’d carelessly bump into them while casting his gaze above their heads. Sometimes they got angry with the giant, wandering boy.
“There would always have to be [an adult] around so that you could make that individual understand,” Monique Cousins said. “You would always have to tell them his age; then they would calm down. Because they would just look at [his] body. If you would just look at the face and listen to him talk, you’d know.”
Everyone saw a man. But DeMarcus Cousins was just a child.
The first time Cousins practiced for Otis Hughley, his coach at Alabama’s LeFlore Magnet High School, he pawed a rebound, dribbled the length of the floor, and whipped a behind-the-back pass to a cutting teammate. Hughley ended practice right then and there.
“I needed time to process what he just did,” Hughley said. “I don’t even think he knew.”
No one has ever questioned Cousins’s talent. It’s his attitude — a unique brand of petulance that both makes him go and holds him back — that has defined his basketball life.
Abrams explores the deeper relationships in Cousins’ childhood. The one between Cousins and his mom, Monique. His early growth spurt and incredible athleticism. His trust-issues and attitude. Abrams includes quotes from his then-coach Mike Malone. Malone seemingly built a positive relationship with Cousins over the course of last season and the start to this one. The Kings were 9-6 and Cousins was playing fantastically and perhaps had turned the proverbial corner. Of course, what does it mean to have “turned a corner,” in regards to one’s relationship to anger and developing patience? It means the situation is going well and perhaps a new trust with one’s self is developing. It doesn’t mean one has instantly transformed.
Then he contracted viral meningitis. The season went south for Sacramento and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive made a seemingly irrational move and fired Malone. So much for the importance of trust and the bond between a coach and his best player. If Cousins secretly wanted Malone out, his play certainly didn’t show it. The explanation for the firing was that the Kings want to run an up-tempo offense. Now Ty Corbin must build something with Cousins, Rudy Gay, and the rest of the Kings. Time will tell.
Tim Keown wrote a profile for ESPN the Magazine last April, titled, “What is DeMarcus Cousins So Mad About?” I read it, and thought: if only Keown had gone further. The piece contains a photo of Cousins with an impossibly large collection of “exclusive” sneakers. Keown describes Cousins’ fascination with the shoes. What does a prized shoe collection represent? Childhood fascinations. Materialism. Feeling good about objects.
As fans, many react strongly to dramatic displays of exasperation from athletes. The ref makes a call. The athlete responds. Some fans love when athletes get technical fouls. The link between unbridled volatile expressions and the calls to quell the disturbance. What do you think these protests around the country are about? What connection (that should be hitting everyone directly between the eyes and in the heart as well) can we make? There is a deep anger that comes from being oppressed, from being labeled and misunderstood. Outrage is sometimes warranted. It makes people in power uncomfortable. It makes fans who want to escape into a game uncomfortable. #ICantBreathe t-shirts make some fans uncomfortable. Legislation in California. School bans on the t-shirt. Forms of censorship. None of this is incidental. We don’t have to connect the dots, but we should feel compelled to.
How are tall, black male children (who will later become men) generally treated in our society? How are large black men policed in our cities? Where does frustration go when unexplored feelings of rage river through one’s body and psyche? In the heat of the moment? Fight or flight is a real human response that most rarely have to experience in real life. When your life is public and centered around a basketball court, and your own issues with authority become manifested in public, you are labeled.
Cousins was labeled a “headcase,” a “knucklehead,” and all kinds of other titles in 2010, when he entered the NBA as a 20 year-old. In his first two years in the league, he led the NBA in personal fouls. Staying on the court became his Achilles heel. Not losing his temper went hand in hand with playing no-foul defense. As Kings fans know, the early season optimism (9-6 start) has turned to utter despair, and the future in Sacramento is in experimental laboratory mode. Not the best foundation for a volatile player to thrive in.
As I watched the Celtics game, 69 year-old Mike Gorman, longtime Celtics play-by-play announcer, declared the following about Cousins, “He came into this league unhappy and he’s been unhappy ever since.” The words are said with complete authority. Fact. The man is unhappy. Gorman and legendary color commentary man Tommy Heinsohn took turns pointing out the undeniable antics of DeMarcus. Cousins needed some counseling on the bench, but shots of coach Tyrone Corbin looking on apoplectically didn’t do much. With every hard foul and non-call, Cousins grew increasingly mopey and agitated. He didn’t run back down the court on defense. He went one-on-one too much. He let his frustrations overtake him.
The words echoed in part because of the “Cuzzzzzzzz-ins” chant that came from a fan near the television microphone. A mostly quiet matinee crowd was treated to a drunken lunatic berating a frustrated NBA player for stretches of the second half. It amazes me, and repulses me, that fans are still allowed to taunt players this way. Buying a ticket and drinking beer gives the lowest forms of human life a sense of entitlement. These are the ignorant among us. How do the fans in the arena, hearing the chorus of idiots, how do they feel? Do they blame the volatile young athlete for his anger and just move on?
Celtics coach Brad Stevens was wise to focus his game plan around Cousins, as most coaches facing Sacramento do. Cousins is the absolute key to any hope of Kings success on offense. Rudy Gay can create some points on his own. Darren Collison flashes around the court, but isn’t a great shooter. Ben McLemore was showing signs of a shooting break-out in November, back when things were working for the Kings. Not so much lately.
Cousins missed 10 games with viral meningitis. The Kings went 2-8 in his absence. In the 12 Kings wins where Cousins was on the court, he has a plus-minus of 19.2, an offensive rating of 119 and a defensive rating of 99 (basketball-reference.com). Without a doubt, Cousins is the key to Sacramento’s future, but who will unlock the best in him, and who will he allow to unlock the best in him?
DeMarcus Cousins is too good to be ignored. He is too volatile for many fans. His career remains a question mark. What will the next statement be?