As the media best prepared their “Talk abouts” and “Take me throughs” on Sunday night, Boogie Cousins was only minutes removed from hitting a game-winning jumper to bury the Phoenix Suns, perhaps the unluckiest team in the NBA this season. If I had to guess, the reporters huddled around Cousins assumed it would be a run-of-the-mill procedure, asking Cousins about the shot and the win and what it meant heading into the All-Star break. After all, no matter how dreary things had been of late, every ball player wants to talk about a buzzer beater. Right?
Then again, the array of late-game losses Phoenix has suffered this year are a walk in the park compared to the first five seasons in Sacramento for Cousins — five years, no playoff appearances, four losing campaigns, one of the most incompetent ownerships in NBA history, the threat of relocating the franchise, and a revolving door at head coach.
Has Cousins been the perfect soldier for the franchise? Umm, I guess not. I guess he has been a bit of a headache from time to time. I’m not going to break my back to pull up every technical foul, every defensive lapse, every befuddled stare down of one of his teammates, or every time Boogie carried himself on the court like he was playing 1-on-5. We know what his time in Sacramento has looked like.
But it was changing. With the Maloof family long gone, and first-time head coach Mike Malone entering his second season with the team, there was finally some reliability being built between Cousins and the Kings. Malone is a defense-first basketball mind, working under Mark Jackson in Golden State and even before that on some of the best teams of the Cleveland/LeBron and New Orleans/Chris Paul eras, respectively. And Boogie was steadily improving on that end, using his unusual combination of size and speed to snuff out pick-and-rolls and plug the lane.
Cousins was better than ever offensively under Malone. You like counting stats? Boogie averaged 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists on nearly 50 percent shooting last season. Beyond the numbers, though, he was transforming, evolving into the player who would make Team USA last summer and win a Gold Medal. Cousins entered 2014-15 as one of the best big men in basketball, and he was starting to carry himself like it. In 13 November games, the Kings outscored opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions with Boogie on the floor, per NBA.com. Sacramento was staying afloat in the West, taking a winning record into December for the first time in ages, and Boogie was a two-way destroyer of worlds — heralded as an early-season MVP candidate — who was, like, actually smiling and earnest with teammates.
We don’t know these people, these athletes and singers and actors who come on and off our television screens, but I was beginning to see a side of Boogie I had never experienced before: he was having fun playing the game, and he was having fun playing with his team.
Then he contracted a virus. Cousins missed 10 games. The Kings went 2-8 over that stretch. Sacramento, for reasons that clearly included more than just basketball, fired Malone. The Kings suddenly found themselves free falling out of the West playoff race.
Boogie returned on Dec. 18 in a loss to the Bucks. Something out of a science-fiction movie, here he was again, losing meaningless December basketball games with four long months left to go.
“Wasn’t this season supposed to be different?” he must have wondered. “Wasn’t this the year I — no, WE — finally broke through?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Boogie since December, as he continues putting up monstrous numbers, but now in the fashion of miserable garbage man on a hot summer afternoon. I wonder if he blames himself, blames that virus. I wonder if he feels like the little kid who just watched his parents get into a screaming match at the dinner table. Did I do this? Is it all my fault?
Of course it’s not, the people around him say. You’re Boogie Cousins, one of the best basketball players in the world. Sacramento is failing YOU.
I don’t blame Boogie for contracting viral meningitis. I don’t blame Boogie for the ridiculous mid-season firing of Mike Malone. And I don’t blame Boogie for being drafted by the Maloof family and a Sacramento franchise firmly rooted in incompetency and mediocrity for more than a decade. But any man or woman who is as gifted at anything as DeMarcus is at basketball must go to bed at night and toss and turn over how his first five years in the NBA have transpired.
“I got a lot on my mind,” Cousins told the reporters Sunday night. “The crazy thing about it.. I got a question for ya’ll: How you going to stop God’s plan? How you going to stop God’s plan? How you going to do that? I want to know. Man, this city done put me through so much. And I done stayed loyal to it the whole time.. God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers. The marathon continues. I’m out.”
I’m not trying to deify Boogie Cousins, or professional athletes at large, but I am fascinated by the relationship a man like Cousins has with his maker — the idea that hitting the genetic jackpot comes with some sort of promise or a destiny that must be unlocked. Asking the people holding those microphones, and you and me who watched the video over and over again on YouTube, why we are trying to stop God’s plan speaks greatly to how serious Cousins takes these failures.
He sees his basketball career as part of God’s plan; I’m not for one second refuting or making fun of that — I take him at his word. Nobody can stop God’s plan, right? That’s what makes it divine. These questions, then, are purely rhetorical; he is merely telling us that no matter how difficult the times get for him in Sacramento, he will persevere, because he is one of God’s strongest soldiers.
But isn’t this entire narrative deflecting the frustration away from the real perpetrators of the franchise’s failures? The technical fouls and on-court mental lapses aside, I’m not really sure what else Cousins is supposed to do. At some point, ownership of the Sacramento Kings needs to stop getting in its own way.
Cousins will represent Sacramento in the All-Star game next weekend, his first time as an All-Star. After missing so many games and the Kings plummeting in the standings, Cousins wasn’t initially chosen by the West coaches; Cousins was selected, however, by Adam Silver as an injury replacement for Kobe Bryant. We know now that even if Silver had selected Damian Lillard as Bryant’s replacement, Cousins would have still made his All-Star debut replacing the now-injured Blake Griffin. It seems Cousins’ trip to New York was destiny.
And thank God. This season has been dark enough for Boogie.