Boogie Week: The Sacramento Identity and DeMarcus Cousins
USA Today Sports
It’s #BoogieWeek at Hickory-High, an extended celebration and exploration of all things DeMarcus Cousins. Check out the rest of our Cousins content here.
Sacramento is scruffy. Drive east from San Francisco, through the tangle of freeways, and finally up over the river and you’ll see the city all laid out. They advertise themselves as the City of Trees and it’s easy to see why. Sacramento looks like a city popped up in a forest and the forest never quite noticed it. From this relatively aerial vantage you can see most everything; the ziggurat, the faded gold Tower Bridge, Raley Field: Home of the River Cats, the heights of downtown, and the beginnings of radially outward sprawl.
The first things you move past as you scoot down the highway ramp into the city are a creaky industrial plant to the south and a hulking, rusted out train car to the north. Sacramento used to be bigger. It is the capital because it was the midpoint between the Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada Mountains during Gold Rush, and the city had it’s moment of prominence at the right time. Sacramento doesn’t have the size of Los Angeles or the money of San Francisco, and there’s not really an argument beyond geographic centrality as to why it should still be the capital. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, he was notorious for skipping town in a big private jet every Friday.
Sacramento is a government town through and through. Everyone has a relative who works for the state. It’s unglamorous work, thoroughly middle class. There is money in Sacramento but it tends to live in the (very white) hills to the east. Within the city, there is incredible diversity. You can walk ten minutes from Mayor Kevin Johnson’s house in the affluent neighborhood of Curtis Park and end up in a completely Spanish speaking area. Twenty more minutes and you’re in Little Saigon. There are so many different kinds of people and they all live relatively together. The city has its serious problems like any city, but there is a lot right about Sacramento. You won’t go there for vacation unless you have family, but Sacramento still takes itself seriously, in its own dusty way. There are gangs, drugs, and civic debt problems, but there’s also the Kings.
And that matters. For all of its perceived smallness and irrelevance, Sacramento is a professional sports-sized town. It might be the Bay Area’s fuckup cousin, but it’s a top 20 TV market with no professional or major college teams to support beyond the Kings. The city has a civic inferiority complex, a paranoid fear of irrelevance. The old line goes something like, “What’s the best thing to do in Sacramento? Leave.” It lives at the terminal margin of the urbanized strip jutting northeast along I-80. There are no big cities in either of those cardinal directions for a while, and sometimes it’s not clear what kind of place Sacramento is. It can feel like a distinctive hub or a fringe-level city, occasionally at the same time. The Kings are the best argument for the importance of a city grappling with looming questions of identity.
DeMarcus Cousins is the right player for this halfway tenuous time of doubt. Young stars and the small market towns that have tended to draft them over the past half decade are in an uneasy marriage of convenience, but DMC and Sacramento are perfect for each other. He’s talked in the past about a certain wariness of bright lights and hordes of attention and Sacramento offers the inverse of a New York or LA media circus and the accompanying paranoid negativity. Kings fans are critical like any sports fans, but after the Maloofs dipped, the dust settled, and the team stayed planted in Sacramento, there is widespread optimism and a sense of gratefulness that the team still exists. Cousins wouldn’t engender as much patience in other markets — imagine him on the Knicks for example — but Sacramento is the right place for him right now.
He’s not actually from Sacramento of course. Regional NBA heroes are Ryan Anderson, who’s from those hills I mentioned earlier, and Matt Barnes, who is from the city’s rougher fringe. A generation of fans grew up watching Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic symphony opponents to death, which was gorgeous basketball but not as good of a fit as DMC’s ersatz brawling is. Style and civic identity don’t really map onto each other anymore. Back when basketball was still learning to toddle around and crawl, barnstorming squads played distinctively. Now, style is less a marker of identity than it is a means to an end. The Webber-era Kings were florid because it fit their personnel. If anything, they were a utopian sci-fi vision of Sacramento’s future, an alien glimpse into dreams yet unrealized.
DMC’s game is defined by seemingly opposing attributes. He is a massive earthbound human, but he plays with grace and creativity. Watch him in the post and the first thing you notice is his characteristic immovability. When he opts for power, he is a runaway cement truck that embraces contact as an ethos. It’s all you’ll see at first. But if you continue to track him, you’ll inevitably appreciate his class. It almost seems incidental to his anatomy, but skill and intelligence are what make Cousins truly special. Anthony Davis has an exotic look to match his exotic game, but Cousins’ is hidden, which makes appreciation all the more difficult and rewarding.
In this sense, he is a lot like Sacramento. It’s easy to only see the veneer of a drooling network of suburbs or Stockton: North Annex when you look at the city. Sacramento is unsexy but it is steadily growing and maturing, and rising real estate prices in the Bay Area are driving growth in the technology sector. It’s a place full of interesting people and a vibrant culture, but you have to go looking for it to some extent. The Kings won’t be good for a while but behind Cousins, there is a way forward. Patron Saint Joan Didion wrote that “Sacramento is California,” and she’s right. In anchoring themselves to Cousins, the Kings unintentionally doubled down on the notion that Sacramento’s duality as distinctive place and transient place is a profound and significant identity.