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Boogie Week: Prevent, Teach, Reinforce–On Watching Boogie Be Boogie

It’s #BoogieWeek at Hickory-High, an extended celebration and exploration of all things DeMarcus Cousins. We’re proud to present this guest post from Jacob Greenberg, a fantastic writer and one of the minds behind The Diss. You can find more from Jacob on Twitter, @jacobjbg, and check out the rest of our Cousins content here.

Like the vast majority of my peers, I use the NBA as a way to escape my own chosen career path on a limited basis. Don’t get me wrong: I love my job as a clinical behaviorist. But certainly, there are moments where I become uncomfortable in my own skin, and overly deliberate about my movements in this sometimes far-too-predictable world of ours. There are moments where it is necessary to flip the work switch to the “off” setting, and just let the beauty of our preferred professional sport wash over me. In the existences of these 400 or so players, I am able to transpose multiple meanings and memories, and give them new meaning and worth in my own personalized value system, which is based upon fiat memories, and backed by the strength of an emotional connection; a form of currency stronger than gold, silver, or any other precious metal.  As the soft, eerie glow of the television fills my darkening living room, casting long shadows across my carpeted floor, which crawl up the smooth faces of my faux-Formica walls – another workday defeated, wriggling horribly under the murderous boot of a full night of NBA games – I am able to finally let go of the un-pleasantries of my typical day, and slip into a world completely informed by leisure.

Yet, when I watch DeMarcus Cousins, this moment of relaxation never arrives. Whenever I watch Boogie, I find myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat, clearing my throat self-consciously.  When I see other players crash into his impressively-built body – a girthy specimen whose sheer size and mass reminds you less of an overland trucker, and more like a schoolyard bully, where size can be converted into a destructive payload more easily than not – and I witness his body language shift as ref’s whistles remain awkwardly silent, I become nervous for what surely is to come. The contact compounds, the injustices pile up, and seemingly, before I know it, before I can prepare myself, DeMarcus becomes undone, and we all lose him.  The outburst itself can take many forms, ranging from a low, menacing growl that gets noticed by the referee who, just a few minutes prior, couldn’t see that DeMarcus was getting uprooted with criminal force in the post, to the full-blown tantrum that cannot be missed, no matter how hard you try. In the end, the proceedings appear generally the same as in the prior incident, and frankly, the incident that is surely bound to come. Teammates and coaches vainly try to restrain DeMarcus as he tirades, bellowing epithets at the top of his lungs, and storming around the court as if the anger was taking the form of thousands of devilishly-red ants, biting and pinching with claws that are controlled less by a sentient brain, and more by cold, electronic impulses.  If he’s lucky, his tantrum only lands him on the bench, left to cool out on his own before attempting to return to the court.  If he’s unlucky – and he typically is – the referee quickly blows their whistle, gestures to the scoring table that #15 has yet another technical foul, turns their back to the now-shrieking behemoth, and leaves it up to DeMarcus and his team to get him off the floor.  This is why DeMarcus leads the lead in technical fouls. This is why, even though he is surrounded by teammates and coaches, the man is on an island.

I am trying not to be too oversensitive about this. Certainly, this is generalization of the highest order, from an individual who qualitatively does not watch him as often as others. As Greg Wissinger correctly pointed out, DeMarcus has calmed down a lot over the course of his career, and this season he has been on his best behavior since he entered the league in 2011. Additionally, it stands to reason that I am more sensitive to DeMarcus’ outbursts because of the very nature of my work as a clinical behaviorist. I spend the vast majority of my days observing and tracking target behaviors for children and adults in both residential and community settings, and as such, I have an overly sensitive eye towards maladaptive behaviors in almost every context.  This jitteriness informs my viewership when it comes to Kings games. I find myself searching more for clues as to why DeMarcus behaves the way that he does, and additionally, trying to craft tools that DeMarcus’ support network can use when Boogie, himself, is too agitated to access his own de-escalation systems, and needs others’ help to remind him that he’s not the bad guy, and that he needs to relax. I know that I could just leave that all behind for a moment, and just watch the basketball. But DeMarcus makes it hard to quit my workday for good. DeMarcus is one of those guys who just keeps you thinking, long after you’ve punched your timecard, and headed home to cope for a few hours before going back and doing it all over again. DeMarcus, frankly, is one of those players who just can’t make me quite leave work behind. Sometimes, I feel the Kings would benefit from the services of a behaviorist. Luckily, as an NBA blogger, I’m used to working for free.

In my view, a behaviorist is trained to do three basic things, and then teach those things to the group who will be supporting the individual displaying maladaptive tendencies. Both things involve annoying acronyms, but provide basic guidelines for structuring behavior support plans, and implementing programs for positive change. The first acronym – PTR – refers to “prevention, teaching and reinforcement.” We are tasked with creating tools that will prevent a behavior from occurring, teach a functional replacement skill, and reinforce more appropriate behaviors in the long run.  Additionally, when tracking a behavior, we are supposed to look out for the “ABC’s”; the antecedents, behaviors and consequences of a particular set of actions. When looking at antecedents, the behaviorist wants to identify any conditions that may preclude the meltdown.  Is he or she tired? Are they sick? Stressed? Hungry? With that established, they want to describe the behavior as fully as they can – did he just vocalize displeasure? Did he resort to physical aggression? – In order to get a fuller picture of the topography of the event. And finally, they want to assess what consequences are derived from the behavior.  What does the person get out of this? Are they seeking attention? Do they want to escape a non-preferred task? Once all of this data is collected, a team can sit down, compare and contrast their findings, and work together to craft a plan that will not only support the individual, but also teach new skills, and provide functional replacement behaviors to take the place of troublesome tendencies that could plague a person’s actions and existence.

However, in transposing this model into the NBA context – and doing so from the safety and security of my ratty second-hand couch – a number of problems arise.  We can pretty easily track the antecedents, which precede Boogie’s outbursts. Typically, lack of attention from the referees is the primary reason Boogie misbehaves. Whether it is true or not doesn’t really matter; Boogie needs consistent attention from the referees, or else he starts to get agitated. The behaviors themselves typically look uniform across the board as well. Rarely ever does Boogie escalate to physical aggression, but he becomes verbally abusive and difficult to restrain. What is puzzling, however, are the consequences. Indeed, it’s hard to know what, exactly, Boogie gets from his loud, boisterous outbursts. He shows a certain level of contrition after a tantrum leads to an ejection (though that’s only happened once this season), and he is forced to apologize for his actions. But frankly, there appears to be a remarkable lack of reflection when it comes to his maladaptive behaviors. There doesn’t seem to be many consequences at all, either positive or negative. Boogie bursts, and everyone moves on. Everyone involved, from teammates, to coaches, to announcers, to ownership to fans, all collectively shrug their shoulders, and let Boogie be Boogie. This is a truly humanizing act, but it is also one that absolves Cousins from any sort of accountability. It enables him to get a hefty extension. It directly relates to him leading the league in technical fouls, and firmly perches him at the top of every referee’s list of public enemies. It allows him to remain, essentially, who he is.

Perhaps it is this realization – that Boogie is gonna be Boogie, no matter the circumstances – that produces stress in the parts of me that are more oriented towards my chosen line of work, and not my chosen form of leisure. While my NBA fanhood cherishes individualism, and actively seeks out players who refuse to conform to the norms that society sets for them, my life as a mental health professional informs my feeling of anxiety and dread around the potential career arc of DeMarcus Cousins. Are the Kings up to the task of supporting someone so volatile? Do they have what it takes to allow Boogie to be Boogie, but not let his maladaptive behaviors dictate how the team will run itself? Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this conundrum is that the Kings, themselves, have not quite defined how they are going to behave from here on out. They still have their own issues to work out regarding their ongoing existence in the Central Valley; they must make a name for themselves that escapes the Maloof-State-of-Mind that still seems strangely present in their roster transactions, and continued dalliance with the other bottom-feeders in the conference.  It’s hard to know how they will fit in the time to create and implement a behavior support plan that goes beyond “encourage him to be himself.” It’s hard to know if that will be enough.

Until I know – and neither you nor I ever really will – I will continue to watch Boogie be Boogie. You are free to join me; I certainly don’t mind the company. And despite every part of me that says otherwise, I will try not to squirm. I will try to finally leave work behind me, and just watch the player play. Indeed, every one of us could benefit from a behavior support plan. We just tend to think more deeply about the ones whose behaviors seemingly are on display; presented prominently to an ever-increasing audience who will give them attention, whether it’s positive or not.

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