God is real and he really, really has it in for DeMarcus Cousins. On Thursday, news broke that the 29-year-old big man, who had signed with the Lakers during the off-season, had suffered a torn ACL. This, of course, comes on the heels of Cousins’s coming back from a career-threatening Achilles injury that required almost a year of recovery and rehab time and a quad issue that knocked him out of action in the first round of the playoffs. There’s no timetable for his returning to action, but it’s safe to say that by the time he suits up for the Lakers, he will have missed the better part of two consecutive seasons. It’s anyone’s guess whether, at that point, Cousins will even be able to make any meaningful contribution to an NBA team.
On the most basic level, these kinds of catastrophic injuries are upsetting. You really, genuinely do (or at least should) hate to see any person have their life and livelihood subjected to this level of turmoil and uncertainty. But professional athletes aren’t just random nobodies whom we (hopefully) evaluate in humane, ethical terms. They’re larger-than-life characters whom we cast in narrative or symbolic terms that, to varying degrees, deny or at least elide their very real person-hood. These projections can be self-serving or self-absorbed, as when we talk about professional athletes in ways that express our own hang-ups or aspirations. At the very least, we want their exploits to make sense, because sports are a story we tell ourselves for amusement, edification, and comfort.
In the case of Cousins, there’s an added layer: People fucking love Boogie. Over the course of his nine years in the league, he’s gone from oft-maligned malcontent to polarizing cult figure to universally beloved veteran. His Achilles injury made him into a thoroughly sympathetic figure. If you weren’t rooting for Cousins—to say nothing of rooting against him—it was probably not the best look on your part. What’s more, the Cousins saga isn’t even about on-court performance anymore. Cousins’s game is a distant, foggy memory; with his future hanging in the balance, the sheer pleasure of watching him play basketball is beside the point. When Cousins took the floor for the Warriors, the question of whether he could actually help them win games initially took a backseat to the “Will he ever be the same again?” concerns, and when he was once again sidelined last summer, it almost mercifully spared us from having to acknowledge that Cousins wasn’t there yet, and certainly wasn’t the best fit for that Warriors team.
“We like the idea of a causal universe way more than that of an incoherent one.”
Cousins’s recent history has made him less lofty and superhuman. His is a high-profile narrative that commands media attention, while at the same time feeling surprisingly personal. But most of us don’t know Cousins, and have no real access to or insight into him as a person. However much we want to send out our thoughts and prayers for him, they’re ultimately just reflecting back our own anxieties, which in this case means trying to find an explanation for, or account of, Cousins’s seemingly senseless, ceaseless spell of misfortune. One of the hardest things for human beings to accept is that what happens may be totally senseless. We want to believe that there’s a deeper order to things, that they aren’t entirely random, and that good things and bad things happen for reasons pertaining to what’s come before—if not what we’ve ourselves decided to do previously. We like the idea of a causal universe way more than that of an incoherent one.
We often look to sports to assuage this fear. Whether it’s to complement, supplement, or replace religion, there’s an entire theology of sports based on the concept of karma, which around the NBA gets articulated as “the basketball gods.” The basketball gods are neither benevolent nor arbitrarily cruel. They enforce, or maybe just act according to, a form of justice that squares up with a usually pretty conservative view of what values the NBA should embody. We can say that Cousins doesn’t deserve these injuries because nobody does. But we also want to find a why there, because one never convincingly presents itself in our own lives. Sports making sense affirms our fantasy that someone or something is in control, even if it’s not us, and the idea that there are laws and parameters that this power abides by fills out this fantasy even further.
Would Cousins have been injured again, twice now, if he hadn’t gone to the Warriors to “chase a ring”? While only a total jerk wants this to be the case, most of us wouldn’t mind if it turned out to be true. This scenario has played out in even more stark terms around Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury. The loss of maybe the most talented player in the NBA was a crushing blow to anyone invested in the league. But it also came on the heels of two years of people accusing Durant of having violated the unwritten rules of the sport by signing with the Warriors. If karma is a bitch, then it also must be real, and if you feel that Durant ran afoul of the way things should work, it’s hard to totally silence the voice in your head asking, “Was this fate?” Durant isn’t a bad person, but he may have done something that’s viewed by many as “wrong,” and because bad things are going to happen, we like having a coping mechanism in place that can help soften the blow.
The twist here is that, while all of this may be sports functioning as a stand-in for religion, there’s an entire thing in the Torah about just this issue. Job is a very decent man whose life is very good, until it’s not. Job doesn’t understand why he, a good person, is no longer being rewarded by God for being good, and instead is being treated as if he were being punished for being a bad person. Job gets angry at God for being unfair, then God shows up to put him in his place. God refuses to explain himself to Job, because he’s God and Job is a mere mortal. Job repents and things start going his way again, because he accepts that the world doesn’t always make sense. The paradox here is that Job is rewarded for understanding that divinity, or the cosmos, doesn’t always play fair, which is why the only way to make ourselves feel better is to make ourselves feel worse and just hope that we, and DeMarcus Cousins, get lucky.
Originally Appeared on GQ