They Can't All Be Winners, Part 19: Sacramento Kings

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Talented enfant terriblesalways have their defenders. Well, the white males do, anyway. This maxim explains large swaths of Hollywood, large swaths of the writerly world, large swaths of the political sphere, and basically all of Silicon Valley. If enough people decide you have a gift, you’re permitted to exist on the asshole spectrum, whether you’re merely idiosyncratic and moody or a raging hemorrhoid of discontent, because of the things you make and do.

Our relationship with you is transactional. You give us The Executioner’s Song, and you get to take an adulthood-long bath in your own self-regard like Norman Mailer. You reinvigorate a sclerotic legislature and push through sweeping liberal reform, and we’ll venerate your senatorial and presidential career, even if you’re as damaged and avant gardely bullying as Lyndon Johnson. Maybe this is because we think the exceptional jerks’ acumen is twinned with their defects; maybe it’s because we just want to like people we think are good at stuff. Whatever the explanation, society enables a lot of egomaniacs and rage-cases and psychological terrorists.

Taking all of this into consideration, DeMarcus Cousins catches just an astounding amount of shit for making faces. Surely, some of this is attributable to racial prejudices—the sour uncle types, the sort who use hot-dogging as a dog whistle—but it’s not just 53-year-old caucasians who fixate on Boogie’s sulkiness and outbursts while ignoring his brilliance as a player. He splits fans along lines that are harder to trace than racial ones. It’s a taste thing, in the way Herzog flicks are a taste thing: do you like your geniuses comprehensible or difficult? There is not really a wrong answer. Although the partisans seem to think there is.

Let’s get this out of the way, so as to agree on a fact: Boogie can be kind of a dick. When your teammate throws you a bad pass that bounces between your legs and past the baseline, showing him up like you’re ashamed to share a court with him is not the move. Pouting your way through several possessions because of some perceived slight and/or your team being down by fifteen points is shitty and unprofessional. Shouting at your coach—actually, considering the new-skipper-every-third-Tuesday strategy the Kings have pursued, Cousins is at least a little bit entitled to quarrel with the stranger on the sideline once in a while. Boogie is the guy at the office who is both very good at his job, and in certain respects, the worst employee in the joint.

Cousins is unfortunate to be an athlete, in the sense that another field would be more likely to brook someone of his temperament. If Boogie were a film director, he’d just be another erratic guy with a movie camera. The NBA bills itself as a league in which players unafraid to be themselves, but this is marketing hooey disseminated by useful idiots in the media. Draymond Green is more outspoken than your average NFL linebacker, but he still abides by the code of sportsworld, which is to say even his most outlandish public statements are disses that would scan as tame if he were delivering them in a bar and not into David Aldridge's tape recorder. When fans and press encounter someone who’s genuinely off-putting in some ways, as Boogie is, the reproachful, faux-sober it looks like the young man has a lot of growing up to do admonishments abound. The only denizens of sportsworld who get to be truly strange and wild are coaches—princely belittlers like Jose Mourinho, prolapse-faced shriekers like Bobby Knight. Players must never be more expressive than an edgy press release.

All of this is irksome enough, but so is the Boogie apologist’s view. There is a strain of thought about Cousins that’s about as condescending as the one that polices him and asserts that he needs to get his act together. It's uncritical adoration that treats him unseriously, delights at his every exploit and mistake, gleefully screencaps and gifs those faces he makes, appends them with triple exclamation points or a cascade of emoji. It doesn’t humanize him so much as imagine him as a kind of basketballing, malcontent Pee Wee Herman, all zany misadventures and no interior life to speak of. Skywriting a name in twenty-foot letters while you do cackling loop-de-loops isn’t tribute; it’s crushing up someone and snorting them. If harrumphing traditionalists want to hold Boogie down and learn him some manners, his loudest boosters semi-ironically canonize him. Neither side talks about a person who actually exists.

Which is fine, as far and as squickishly as it goes. Public figures are unknowable and thus become, in a purely solipsistic sense, whatever we say they are. Your opinion of DeMarcus Cousins does nothing to the man himself, only the discourse that clouds and clarifies our understanding of him. And yet, are we so intellectually deficient that we can’t see Boogie as many things at once? By turns petulant and funny, engaging and alienating, distant and relatable, working to be better and failing occasionally. There’s nothing to scold, or excuse, or glorify, here: just a staggeringly talented dude, containing multitudes.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets | Philadelphia 76ers | Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks Indiana Pacers | Oklahoma City Thunder | Memphis Grizzlies | Chicago Bulls | Washington Wizards Cleveland Cavaliers Brooklyn Nets New York Knicks Denver Nuggets Miami Heat Los Angeles Clippers Atlanta Hawks | Utah Jazz

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