‘I don’t want to be Boogie’ — DeMarcus Cousins tries on something new for size
The Golden State center enters the playoffs with a championship run, and his career, in the balance
There are two stories of how Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins got his nickname. One is true, one is apocryphal. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to that one as well.
One begins in Alabama, where there’s a proprietary way big black bodies get treated by the people who need them to win ballgames. As a 6-foot-9-inch 10th-grader, Cousins was kicked off his Birmingham high school team after an altercation with a coach on the bus after a game. Soon, people were saying that Cousins had beaten up his coach — because with Cousins, the story always gets bigger — and that was the beginning of the Boogie Man.
Cousins’ mother, Monique, retells the real Boogie Cousins origin story: about how former NBA star Rod Strickland, then an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky, where Cousins was a one-and-done, became enchanted by the smoothness of the big man’s moves and chalked it all up to the “boogie” in him.
More than a decade later, that story remains true. Cousins, 28, is a 6-foot-11-inch, 270-pound bruiser with this refined, almost feathery touch around the basket. Historically, it is the exact opposite of the touch he’s had with other people, which contributed to his reputation as volatile on the court and a challenge in the locker room. And explains why, to some NBA watchers, the Boogie Man is real.
The four-time NBA All-Star landed a modest one-year, $5.3 million contract with Golden State after rupturing his Achilles tendon in January 2018 while he was with the New Orleans Pelicans. After an injury-shortened season in Oakland, California, Cousins will appear in the playoffs for the first time this spring. Unlike his messy years in Sacramento or his brief time in New Orleans, the Warriors are replete with big names and outsize personalities, and Cousins doesn’t have to be the whole show. This past year, he’s gotten a chance to step back a little and consider which Boogie he’s going to bring to the court and into the future.
With a potential championship on the line and his career in the balance, this season is more than a comeback. This year, Boogie Cousins is trying on something new for size.
Two games this spring helped answer some of the questions. One was his first off the rip.
After a grueling yearlong rehabilitation — the boot, the crutches, the leg that felt useless, the thoughts he couldn’t quiet — Cousins finally got back on the court against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 18. Physically, he was antsy; emotionally, he was a bundle of nerves.
He began the game with a thunderous dunk and ended up with 14 points, a block, a steal, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in a 112-94 Warriors victory. Yes, he fouled out early in the fourth quarter. But, hey, he didn’t get any technical fouls — holla! — and his new teammates rose to their feet and cheered him on his way to the bench.
“It looked like he just wanted to cry,” said forward Draymond Green. “The first points is him flying down the middle of the paint with a right-hand tomahawk. It’s like, dude, you don’t jump like that! Where is that coming from?”
“To get to that moment, it means the world to me,” Cousins remembers. “It may not mean much to others, but I knew the grind and the blood, sweat and tears put throughout that process.” After being gone for so long, “when I first play, to have an athletic play down the middle was one of the best feelings ever.”
Falling and taking a long time to get back up has changed him. “A lot of times in adversity, people just look at it like it’s the worst thing ever. In actuality, it’s not. It sucks in the moment, but you overcome in that moment. You overcome in that adversity. It builds you as a person. It’s almost like putting armor on. It’s putting armor on over your body for that next situation, ’cause it’s not gonna be the end. That next situation, you’re much stronger. You’re more prepared and tough that next moment. And then the process starts over. I think adversity builds a person.”
Earlier in the season, he had played a role in the locker room, intervening to help calm a dust-up between Green, whom he’d known from the 2016 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, and Kevin Durant. “He was one of the guys talking to everybody in that situation, one of the guys making everything right,” Green said.
His return began helping the Warriors on the court as well. The team won nine out of 10 games after Cousins’ return. But by mid-March, Golden State was going through a lackluster stretch, having lost two of their previous three games, including a 128-95 blowout loss to the Boston Celtics at home on March 5 in which Cousins got a technical for a shoving match with the Celtics’ Terry Rozier. He also was getting dinged in the media with questions about his mobility and defensive shortcomings.
The Boogie of old might have felt a type of way about that.
That guy would run the fast break, catch balls in traffic, rebound every board. But he was perpetually aggrieved, always squaring up against players he thought took cheap shots, and fighting with refs and teammates. He made history as the fastest player to hit 16 technical fouls and earn a one-game suspension since the NBA instituted the rule in 2005. He got into a shouting match with the media.
This season, there’s much less of that.
The second game that helped answer who Cousins had become was on March 13 against the Rockets in Houston. It was the toughest challenge of Cousins’ return to date and a crucial foreshadowing of the playoffs. With Durant sidelined by an ankle injury, Cousins scored a then-season-high 27 points (he’s since scored 28, on April 2 against Denver), to go along with 8 rebounds and a team-high 7 assists in a 106-104 victory.
“DeMarcus was unbelievable,” said teammate Stephen Curry after the game. “He’s been through a lot this last year and has had some ups and downs since he’s been back, but nothing he does out there should surprise anybody. It’s just building that consistency, and he’s done an amazing job of that, so it’s going to get better for us.”
After the game, Cousins acknowledged the team victory, his standout performance — and the criticism from the media. “I’ve been around this team long enough to know how things go around here. You’re always looking for something to write a story about. I mean, I could care less, y’all gotta do y’all job and I gotta do mine. Y’all looking for a story. It is what it is.”
He then invoked his beloved 92-year-old grandmother, whose death over the holidays had contributed to what Cousins called the toughest year of his life. She had her soap operas — she called them her stories, he recalled — and her favorite was As the World Turns.
“I used to watch it with her and, you know, every episode it was something. That’s what this has turned into: As the World Turns.” Every day, there’s some new drama.
He’s seen it his whole life.
It’s the early December morning of the annual charity event, Santa Cuz, in Mobile, Alabama. Cousins’ mother and older sister, Ryan Knight, along with his younger sisters Auriel and twins Jessica and Jesslyn, are milling around near the doors of Target, answering questions and directing children. The only sibling missing is Cousins’ younger brother, Jaleel, who plays for the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA G League and couldn’t make it. His aunt Marcelete Stewart, a retired school principal, is making sure the cacophonous kids are getting in line behind color-coded banners, a different hue for each elementary school.
There’s no decision, tradition or meaningful part of Cousins’ life that doesn’t involve family. They are, for him, restorative. This is particularly true of his mom, a nurse who raised her six children — Cousins is the second-oldest — by herself on the Blues for Mister Charlie side of Birmingham.
Cousins is flying in for the seventh annual holiday shopping spree — he gives 100 kids $200 apiece — and for a quick visit. It’s just part of his charity work; he hosts a summer youth camp, has resurfaced a basketball court and paid for the funerals of shooting victims in Sacramento.
“This is my community. This is where I grew up, and I’m just spreading the love,” Cousins says.
He flew in on the Puma corporate plane, and the kids all get Puma bags and gear before the serious shopping begins. Each kid pairs up with a member of the Cousins family or one of dozens of local volunteers to power shop. And for the next two hours, Cousins walks among them, patiently posing for pictures, listening in on their shopping deliberations, sharing his thoughts.
“Monopoly?” he asks one young man.
“I had to buy it for my day care because we didn’t have one,” the boy says.
Adults come up to shake his hand and take selfies. A woman tells him she goes to church with his aunt. Another chides him for not remembering her since she knows his mother and he used to love the dressing she made especially for him. One gentleman invites him to be a guest speaker at his church any third Sunday of the month.
As he heads toward the front of the store, a 16-year-old, with four young children trailing her, says her cousin sent her to ask what she needs to do to be part of the shopping spree. He points the teen to Monique. “That’s my mom. She’ll take care of you.”
We come from “a humble beginning,” says Monique. “And we never forget. And that’s why it’s so important when you give back, the whole family is here.”
Growing up, Cousins played football, like nearly every big black boy in Alabama, until eighth grade and a chance meeting with Danny Pritchett, coach of the AAU Birmingham Storm. Pritchett saw DeMarcus and, thinking he was a high school student, asked if he knew any eighth-graders who wanted to play basketball. Within two years, Cousins was one of the top young players in the nation and all the proportions of his life were getting blown out.
Cousins was big from the time he was little, and Monique was always having to translate for her child — not his words, but his body and his age, and the ways those two things didn’t go together for many people. Their bond was born of a particular kind of imperative for the mother of a black child who is so big that he’s both sought-after and mistaken, and suffers as a consequence.
“We got a picture of him when he looked like he was 5 and he still had a pacifier in his mouth, and he was only 2,” Monique Cousins says. People would be like, “ ‘That boy’s too big to have a pacifier.’ ”
If he ran through a store and bumped into people, they got furious. “If he’s passionate about something and he beats on the table, all the dishes fall off,” Monique Cousins says. She would explain to her son why he couldn’t always act like other children, and why he was met with such contempt when he did. And because he was a child, he often didn’t understand.
His sister Ryan, a kindergarten teacher in Mobile, is also tall and says she’d feel it when people would question her brother. ” ‘Why are you acting that way?’ ” she says they’d ask him. “ ‘Why are you so tall? Are you sure you’re in the right grade?’ ”
Basketball amplified that. He was always playing against older kids looking to make a big name against his big body.
“The center position is the hardest position to play when it comes to the physicality of the game,” says Monique. “If you’re one of the guards, if you get one little touch, they’re calling the foul. But if you’re the center, you’re supposed to be able to take that. You’re the big man on the court.”
Opposing coaches would tell kids to “go in there and keep fouling him, and if they’ve got 10 people on the bench and you got five fouls, that’s 50 licks he takes in one game.” By the time DeMarcus graduated from high school, he’d gotten one of his front teeth knocked out four times. (A year later, at only 19, he became the face of the Kings, who, thirsting for a winning team, hung a full-body banner of him from the side of a building.)
Monique says she never sugarcoated his situation. “You’ve got to mentally and physically be tough,” she says. “But at times, the physical part of you is gonna tell your brain that s— hurts. And I can’t take not one more lick.”
As he got more successful, the family had to watch out for all the coaches, and all the coaches’ friends, who wanted to ply them with promises of shoe deals and scholarships to lure them away from Pritchett.
It made the family turn inward and led Cousins to put a premium on loyalty. He played with Pritchett his entire AAU career. His longtime business manager was a student manager when they were both at Kentucky. He’s engaged to a woman he’s known since high school. His head of security followed him from Sacramento. He’s got a tattoo that reads “Loyalty is Love.”
After the bus incident — Cousins said the coach put his hands on him first and he was defending himself — the state ruled he was ineligible to play at another Birmingham-area school. Monique Cousins moved her family to Mobile and introduced herself to LeFlore High School coach Otis Hughley. The coach had not sought her out, and his teams had already won six area championships, six regional championships and a state championship.
At his first practice, Cousins grabbed a rebound, sprinted the length of the court and threw a behind-the-back pass that ended in a layup. Hughley canceled practice. He needed “time to process.”
“I had to try to figure out how to use him. Because in my mind, a kid like that is fragile,” Hughley says. “He thought he wanted to play basketball, but what he needed was to be armed and equipped for this nasty world that had beat his head up until then so he didn’t trust anybody except his mother.”
Some of that belongs to the dirt of Alabama. The beat-ups were physical, but also racial and political. Football is the state religion, basketball is ascendant, and the fight for control of the black bodies that make it all run is largely unregulated. Or, as Hughley says, “In the South, it doesn’t matter what the rules are, they’ll make them up as they go. And they just went after him.”
Hughley managed his kids — like DeMarcus, a lot of them didn’t have a father at home — with consistency, accountability and honesty. “I was real hard on them, but I would take the other arm and just hug them and love on them,” said Hughley. DeMarcus was one of the nicer kids, but “he just got emotional. He just had to shut up and sit down.”
For college, Cousins chose coach John Calipari and the University of Kentucky, where he played with future NBA players John Wall, Eric Bledsoe (a friend from Alabama) and Patrick Patterson. The Wildcats went 35-3 and made it to the Elite Eight. As at LeFlore, it was a program with a winning tradition that didn’t solely rest on Cousins’ shoulders.
Put a pin in that.
To Monique Cousins, DeMarcus having to battle back after injury for a fraction of what he’d been worth was just more of the same. It’s part of the tribulations that characterized his seven years in Sacramento (with six coaches) and year and a half in New Orleans. “If it doesn’t come hard, then it’s not for DeMarcus,” she says.
But the injury unexpectedly gave Cousins something he’s never had. Time to be still. And to think.
“The past year has slowed me down,” Cousins says. It’s helped “me see the reality of this whole business, just appreciating every moment.”
He began rehabbing in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, with the early months marked by days of doubt and depression. He was starting in a game he had never played: the waiting game. Playing chess, watching movies, trying to quiet his mind. Hours in the gym, doing rep after tedious rep. He wondered if he’d ever play basketball again.
The return to playing wasn’t the end of the process, but another beginning. “I’m not where I want to be. I don’t think I’m anywhere close to being a finished product,” he said a week after his return in January. He knows that will take time.
“I suck at being patient, and this whole process has taught me how to be patient, even when I was fighting and going against it, you know? It’s crazy how you still learn lessons within lessons.”
Immediately after he tore his left Achilles, “I started trying to lie to myself. Just kind of, I guess, just keep a positive mindset with what was the reality of it. … It worked for a short distance — until I got to the MRI room.”
Then, “Everything just kind of flashed,” says Cousins. His career, his upcoming free agency. “Like, damn. You’re just kind of lost. You’re in the middle of the sea. In the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing around.”
Despite the injury, Cousins originally thought he’d re-sign with the Pelicans. He said he was told by general manager Dell Demps that the team was uninterested in bringing him back. Other teams weren’t a good fit or were unwilling to risk a contract, let alone a potential $180 million max contract, on a player who might never again be an All-Star. Stung, he signed with Golden State for $5.3 million in a move that shocked the basketball world. It even shocked his family at first. But then, they understood. The Warriors are a stable team, full of grown men who were already winning.
For Cousins, it was a chance to recover without being rushed back, on a star-studded team sure to go deep in the playoffs. Golden State got a big man in the middle to bring them new energy and extra motivation to win another championship. It’s a one-year deal, but everyone gets what they need, Hughley says.
Cousins hasn’t always used his powers for the good of the locker room. There’s a 2015 story, for instance, about how he intimidated former Sacramento guard Nik Stauskas on a team flight to China. Whatever the rap was, and whether or not it was deserved, that isn’t what teammates are saying now.
Warriors point guard Quinn Cook was Cousins’ teammate in New Orleans and has known him for a decade. “He’s just a good dude,” Cook says. He took third-year center Damian Jones “under his wing when he wasn’t playing and Damian was playing. As a young guy, to have a superstar player be so happy for your success and guide you and help you every single day.” In the locker room, “he’s fit right in. And he’s taken us to another level. He’s just such a really good guy, and he deserves all the success.”
Green saw Cousins cry in the weight room during rehab. He saw how nervous and vulnerable he was before the first game. He encouraged teammates to check on him, to make him feel welcome. “You’re coming in where you’re not just the guy, you’re a guy,” Green says. “That’s how we all view ourselves, by the way. He hasn’t come in and tried to throw his weight. He’s tried to fit in and find his role within the team.”
Green says the team wants to help Cousins get something he’s never had: a championship. “One hundred percent extra motivation. It’s a lot more special when you’re playing for something bigger than yourself.”
Head coach Steve Kerr says he tries to manage people according to their needs, their insecurities, their hopes for the future. So when Cousins became a Warrior, Kerr set about getting to know him. They ate together, they texted. “I think it all starts with a connection. I don’t think you can coach a guy unless you really know him. He can’t trust you unless he knows what you’re about.”
And you need trust to heal. “As an athlete, having been through some tough injuries myself, it’s beyond the physical,” Kerr said. “When you’ve been injured, you can be fragile, especially a very serious injury like an Achilles. So to get back to the level where he knows he can get out there and dominate a game can take a lot of work. It’s going to take some failure first.”
Before the Boston game in January, Cousins talked about being back. “My spirit feels unbelievable,” he said. In the recovery process, “you kind of go back and forth with yourself about continue your career, continue to fight through it, or whatever the case may be. You almost kind of lose that joy and that love for it.”
In Houston in March, he was just having a good time: “Every team wants to beat us. It’s every team’s Super Bowl,” Cousins said. “It’s a lot of fun to play with this type of talent, to share the responsibility and play the right way every night. It’s a lot of fun.”
Kerr learned he needs to check in on Cousins. Keep him posted about what to expect, what the team is trying to accomplish, “and constantly reminding him to channel the energy and channel the emotion in the right way. And when you do, you’re a powerful force for the group.”
Cousins had always been on younger teams that needed him as a focal point, Kerr observed. And he was younger too.
But the Warriors are a different type of party. The playoffs are almost a different season, in which different decisions are made about the lineup, about plays and playing time. You do what it takes to win, regardless of who’s in their feels, and “part of our job has been to get him to fully grasp what we’re walking into, where personal feelings gotta go to the side,” Kerr said.
Since his return to the court in January, Cousins has averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists over 30 games. He continues to draw technical fouls, with seven over that stretch. (He leads the league in technical fouls over the past decade.) He was tossed out of one game in late March for a flagrant foul 2, although Kerr says the contact, to the other player’s head, was inadvertent. But he stayed relatively cool after getting a tech (later rescinded by the league) for tossing another player’s lost shoe to the sidelines in a February game against Charlotte.
He’s been a force down low and adds a new suite of offensive options to the Warriors, who for decades have lacked a powerhouse big man. Still, on the eve of his first playoffs, it’s an open question whether Cousins has covered the ground he needed to cover. This summer, he’ll be looking for a new contract and probably a new team. He had to demonstrate he is capable of returning to All-Star form, of making the guys around him better, of being a good fit for a new team. It’s a subjective judgment, and historically, those have not inured to Cousins’ benefit. Teams will have to decide who it is they think they’re looking at. And which stories about him they’re willing to believe.
Cousins says he’s not thinking too much about what’s going to happen this summer. He’s trying not to even think too much about the potential championship run. Fame came early and he had to grow up under a harsh light, but he’s not stuck in time. He’s had to let go of others’ expectations.
“I want my family and myself to be comfortable wherever I am at the time, and just be able to relax and kind of let my hair down,” says Cousins. “I’m going to be judged. My life is in a fishbowl. They gonna love you and they gonna hate you. I’m being the best me every day.”
And there’s something else he’s letting go of. Something that, at times, has weighed him down and blown him out of proportion. “It’s just like, Jesus Christ! It’s so much extra put on with ‘Boogie,’ ” Cousins says.
He’s had time to face himself in the past year, and he’s come to terms with the things that scare him. “I don’t want to be Boogie,” Cousins says. “I just wanna be DeMarcus.”
It’s something new in the NBA, and in life, that he’s trying on for size.
Marc J. Spears, The Undefeated’s senior NBA writer, contributed to this report.