Going into his first ever NBA playoffs, DeMarcus Cousins made an important statement about how he wanted to be seen and who he wanted to be. Or rather, who he didn’t want to be anymore. He wanted to rid himself of “Boogie”, the nickname given to him in his first year at Kentucky by Rod Strickland, a name he’s carried for most of his NBA career. As he told The Undefeated:
“It’s just like, Jesus Christ! It’s so much extra put on with ‘Boogie,’ I don’t want to be Boogie. I just wanna be DeMarcus.”
Cousins’ mother told The Undefeated that Strickland gave him the nickname after being enchanted by the smoothness of his game; he said that Cousins had some “boogie” in him. But the story presents an alternative rumor for how he got that name, that in 10th grade, Cousins was kicked off his high school team for an altercation with a coach on a bus after a game. People said he beat up the coach, and he became the “Boogie man” from then on.
Whatever the truth, both stories are believable enough within the context of Cousins’ history in the NBA. His game is smooth, and when he’s at his best, few players can stop him. He’s also had a history of bad behavior, fighting with opponents, teammates, coaches, referees, etc. His rare combination of size and skill has always balanced on a shaky temperament.
That enigmatic reputation was primarily with Cousins while he was with the Kings. When he was traded to the Pelicans and paired with Anthony Davis, and finally on a winning team where responsibility didn’t fall entirely on his shoulders, he seemed much happier. He was still near the top of the NBA in technical fouls, as he has been since he came into the league, but the stories about him clashing with those around him withered away.
Then, last season, when it looked like he would finally get a chance to play in the playoffs for the first time in his career, he tore his Achilles.
When Cousins signed with the Warriors in July, there were as many concerns about his fit as a player as the effect of his attitude on a group that was known to be well-behaved and fun (perhaps Draymond Green excepted). Yet, for most of Cousins’ time on the bench, and then when he started playing, he had no issues. In fact, Steve Kerr praised him for keeping the mood light:
”What happens during games is he’s on the sidelines and he’s making guys laugh. It’s been a really good way for him to sort of incorporate himself into the group without playing.”
The problem with Cousins — or anyone, really — is his reputation was crystallized early on in his public life. Even if we understand someone as dynamic and prolific, we rarely grant anyone outside of ourselves the ability to change. Once what you are has been determined, what you do only seems to reinforce that image. Boogie is Boogie, because he’s been Boogie for a long time. And whenever he does something bad, it’s evidence that he’s still the same Boogie, even if he has gone a long time without incident.
That’s not how people work. Cousins can be Boogie, and he has personality traits and beliefs that are essential to who he is regardless of his environment, but environments also shape who we are, and what traits we express. While he was with the Kings, the worst of Cousins was on display because he was in a toxic situation. Changing his environment to a place where he feels appreciated and supported, in a team where the burden of success isn’t solely on him, can bring out more positive traits, and has. He shouldn’t be condemned to be “Cousins with the Kings” forever.
Like Richard Siken observed in his poem, Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light:
What can you know about a person? They shift
in the light. You can’t light up all sides at once. Add
a second light and you get a second darkness, it’s only
Changing one’s name may not seem like a big deal; it wouldn’t radically alter one’s character, for example. But the names we go by help shape how people see us and how we see ourselves. Names are linked to our identities. One of my favorite parts of The Lion King is in “Hakuna Matata”, when Pumbaa sings about how he had once been so ashamed to be a warthog that he “thought of changing my name.” Timon responds, “Oh, what’s in a name?”
Well, a lot is in a name. The idea of a person is in their name. Even nicknames. Each of us goes by different names in our everyday lives. Your parents might call you one thing, your coworkers another, your siblings something else, and your friends something completely different. Each name signifies a different self, and carries its own history and baggage. And it can feel limiting to be called something that you’ve outgrown.
Cousins has outgrown “Boogie.” The beginning of DeMarcus, of this new life, was supposed to mean playing in the NBA playoffs and helping the Warriors to another title. He only managed one full game before he was injured while chasing a loose ball in his second game against the Clippers. He immediately grabbed his quad when he fell, and after the game he found out he had a significant tear in that area. His progress towards a new self has been put on hold.
But DeMarcus has already done a lot that Boogie never did. Though the experience didn’t go as he hoped, he finally made his playoff appearance. If the Warriors win the title, he will also get a ring. That’s incredible just a few years removed from being seen as irredeemable and tearing his Achilles.
An injury is an unfortunate way for his season to end, but in fighting to return from injury, fitting himself into the Warriors’ culture, and playing his role as well as he could, Cousins has given himself a chance to finally become someone else. He has a long road back to the court, but when he does return, he wants to be DeMarcus, and it’s time we let him show us who DeMarcus is.