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The Great Boogie Heist

Imagine DeMarcus Cousins on the Boston Celtics. Here’s how it could happen — and how it could all go right.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Click here for Part 2.

Boston, November 4, 2018

Everyone knows DeMarcus Cousins at DeLuca’s in Beacon Hill. It’s tough to miss the 7-foot NBA star gliding through the aisles every day, grabbing groceries and whatever else he wants; it might make sense that Cousins enjoys his neighborhood, but nobody expected him to smile this much. Once unfairly maligned in basketball circles as a malcontent — and even worse, a loser — the 28-year-old Cousins buried those stereotypes long ago. Winning tends to do that. But the smiles? Nobody in Boston saw that coming.

“I remember when we traded for him last year,” says Bobby Sullivan, an assistant manager at DeLuca’s, “hearing how he was a cancer and all that stuff. Then you see him here every day and it’s like, ‘This guy?’ I’ve seen him buy groceries for everyone in line. I’ve seen him stay for hours outside just taking pictures with strangers. I’ve never been more wrong about anyone.”

Celtics coach Brad Stevens never expected Cousins to settle on Beacon Hill, an iconic Boston neighborhood known for its brick sidewalks, winding hills, and vast array of stores and restaurants. Both Stevens and boss Danny Ainge believed that Cousins was better served living near the team’s new practice facility in Allston-Brighton. But Cousins didn’t want to play for Boston; he wanted to breathe it. One day after what’s been affectionately nicknamed The Heist (we’ll get to that), Cousins spent two hours wandering through Back Bay, through Boston Common and down Charles Street before heading up to Cambridge. When he glanced left and noticed Shriners Hospitals for Children, that’s when Cousins knew. Beacon Hill. It had to be.

“I’m as shocked as anyone,” says The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy. “I thought that trade would be awful. I fully expected to turn him into a punch line and maybe even goad him into slugging me after a game. But he’s been amazing. We had David Ortiz through 2016, and then the Sports Gods gave us Boogie. What can I say? He’s a local hero.”

To be fair, Cousins never punched Shaughnessy, though he did get into a shouting match with the cranky Globe columnist, earning a one-game suspension that endeared him to the locals even more. It’s impossible to believe that only 20 months ago the possibility of acquiring Cousins had nearly splintered Boston’s inner circle. Stevens and president Rich Gotham believed, adamantly, that Cousins could undermine the team’s enviable chemistry and selflessness. Their increasingly impatient co-owner, Wyc Grousbeck, blanched at turning Boston’s war chest of picks and young assets into anything less than a sure thing. And Ainge kept steering everyone back to Cousins’s undeniable talent, as well as the nagging sense that Boston would never truly contend without having, as he calls it, “A Guy.”

“Look, we spent five years stockpiling enough assets to trade for an MVP candidate,” Ainge explains now. “In 2007, we needed Kevin [Garnett]. In 2017, we needed someone as talented as Kevin. We had to take a chance. We had to. You can’t win without A Guy.”

In the NBA’s past four decades, only the 2004 Pistons won without “A Guy” — every other champion had Kareem, Moses, Larry, Magic, Isiah, Jordan, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, Wade, Garnett, Kobe, Dirk, LeBron, Kawhi, Curry, and then last year, Curry and Durant. That’s 17 in all. Eleven were landed on draft day. Three signed as free agents. Three were acquired by mega-trade. Actually, make it four — in 2018, Cousins joined that potent list too. The Big Trade became The Heist, and DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins became an NBA champion.

“I never stopped believing,” Cousins says now. “People never understood how bad it was in Sacramento, how messed up it was, how much it affected me. The team changed every year. Everything changed every year.”

Boogie walks through a snowy Boston Common, the 50-acre park between Back Bay and Beacon Hill that doubles as the epicenter of every Boston sports championship parade. Cousins spent 19 years in Alabama, one in Kentucky and seven in Sacramento, so he’s still getting used to snow and slush. A longtime Raiders fan, he respectfully shunned the Patriots but won points locally by frequenting Fenway Park, one of many reasons he clicked with Bostonians right away. “They’re like me,” he offers. “They care, they really care. They actually care too much. They can be a little hot-headed about it. That’s like me. We just understand each other.”

The Celtics acquired Boogie on January 23, 2017, a day that quickly became overshadowed by then-President Trump’s declaration of war on Turks and Caicos after the island nation rejected his plans for a new hotel. Boogie dropped 42 points and 18 rebounds in his first home game, destroying the Rockets in front of a euphoric Boston crowd. Watching from his courtside seat across from the Celtics bench, longtime season-ticket holder Mike Rotondi remembers gushing to a companion, “Same look in his eyes as [Dave] Cowens and KG!”

“You saw it right away,” Rotondi says now. “From the opening tip to the final buzzer. Just a hunger. When Cowens yelled at the officials, it was really because he was killing himself out there and he couldn’t get over the fact that the officials were failing him. That’s what this kid Cousins is like. He wants to leave his imprint all over every game, and if someone lets him down, he can’t hide it.”

Two nights after that Houston shellacking, Cousins broke Larry Bird’s team record by dropping an astonishing 62 points on the Magic. A delirious Celtics crowd kept lifting Cousins to a higher place, as Celtics announcer Brian Scalabrine says now, “like they needed each other.” He compares the experience to seeing a Springsteen show in Jersey, how the Boss feeds off his hometown crowd and gains energy as the night creeps along. Is it strange to compare DeMarcus Cousins to Bruce Springsteen? “Two years ago, I would have said yes, obviously,” says Scalabrine. “But not after everything we’ve seen. He’s the new Boss!”

Every Celtics home game feels especially Boogie-centric. You can’t walk 5 feet without seeing a Cousins jersey. During the introduction of the starting lineups, every Celtics starter gets cheered until the announcer belts, “And from the University of Kentu- …” as the remaining words get drowned out. Every Cousins trip to the foul line, and there have been a slew of them, triggers serenades of either “Boo-gee! Boo-gee!” or “M-V-P! M-V-P!” And Gino’s goofy victory dance from the KG era died of natural causes, getting supplanted on the video screen by KC and the Sunshine Band singing “Boogie Shoes” (and, of course, Boogie’s head superimposed on KC). Celtics play-by-play legend Mike Gorman says simply, “Only Larry. That’s the only other guy who had … this.”

Why didn’t we see it two years ago? Why didn’t we listen to Boogie’s defenders, people like Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones, who says now, “We all tried to tell you: Boogie’s as good as his situation. Everyone loved him here.” Was there really a time when Boston fans fretted about giving up Brooklyn’s 2017 lottery pick, Marcus Smart, Amir Johnson, and two protected first-rounders for the most impactful center since Shaq? Or as that trade is better known, The Heist. Only acting Celtics patriarch Tommy Heinsohn pushed hard for Cousins, gruffly telling his friend Ainge to stop overthinking it. When Ainge asked if Red Auerbach would have pursued Cousins, Heinsohn quickly fired back, “Red would’ve already gotten him.”

Ainge finished the deal with Sacramento two hours later. Within a few weeks, we started to wonder if The Heist would assume a place alongside the other legendarily one-sided deals in NBA history: McHale and Parish to Boston, Harden to Houston, DeBusschere to the Knicks, Oscar to the Bucks, Kareem to the Lakers …

“You can’t teach talent,” says The Ringer’s Jalen Rose. “You can’t teach 6-foot-11, you can’t teach 30-and-15 every night, and you can’t teach pedigree. But you can ruin talent. You can give a player like Boogie two owners and six coaches and 11 point guards and four different front offices, and you can teach him bad habits, and you can teach him how to lose, and you can teach him how to hate a situation. Sacramento put Boogie in a position to fail for almost the entire time that Barack Obama was our president. Think about that.”

Four weeks after stealing Cousins, Boston flipped Isaiah Thomas, its 2018 Brooklyn pick and a future protected pick from the Grizzlies for Washington’s franchise player, John Wall, better known as Boogie’s best friend. “My head was spinning,” admits Al Horford, who’d signed a lucrative free-agent deal with Boston the previous summer. “It was like being in a video game as the computer randomly rebooted our lineup into an Olympic team.”

Flanked by a genius coach and adoring fans, surrounded by elite shooters and playmakers who enabled his superior low-post game, a grateful Cousins averaged 36 points and 14 rebounds over the next three months as online retailers practically ran out of Boogie puns for T-shirts. “We were all kicking ourselves by March,” gushes an anonymous GM on another team. “We all overthought it. Talent always wins. We still knew it and we still overthought it.”

Longtime Rockets GM Daryl Morey remembers his staff crunching projection numbers after the Wall trade, doing a collective double-take, then crunching them a second and a third time. “We projected their point differential to be plus-12, which was what the 2017 Cavaliers were averaging right before they were brought down by their PED scandal,” Morey remembers. “All of us were like … whoa.”

But after Golden State beat Boston in six games for the 2017 title, naysayers wondered if Ainge had assembled a stacked contender destined to become the Generals to Golden State’s Globetrotters. Celtics radio voice Sean Grande recalls flying home on the team’s charter with Stevens, as the Celtics head coach stared at Game 6’s box score before muttering out loud to nobody in particular, “Just about any other year, we win the title easily.” A few weeks later, fate intervened — again. Stephen Curry shocked the world by ditching Under Armour and Golden State for Jordan Brand and his hometown Charlotte Hornets.

“I think Brad willed it to happen on that plane,” Grande jokes. “He kept calculating the odds of beating Curry and Durant and Klay and Draymond — he didn’t like the results, so he went home and prayed to the Hoop Gods every night until Curry left.”

With Cleveland in shambles and Golden State reeling after Draymond Green’s yearlong suspension for rupturing DeAndre Jordan’s testicles, the 2017–18 Celtics stormed out of the gate and never looked back: 68 wins, Boogie’s first MVP trophy, Jaylen Brown’s first Defensive Player of the Year award, Stevens’s first Coach of the Year award, even an unexpected All-Star appearance for Most Improved Player of the Year Terry Rozier. In June, Cousins won his first Finals MVP by torching Russell Westbrook’s Lakers for 35 and 15 in an unexpected sweep. (“I liked that it happened against the Lakers,” Heinsohn says, “because those were Shaq numbers.”) If there’s an enduring image from that championship run, it’s Boogie bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Shriners Hospitals for Children the following day, tears streaming down his cheeks, the head case turned hero turned champ.

“We had to pry the trophy away from him,” Stevens laughs now. “He didn’t want to let go of it.”

“I kept trying to take it,” chuckles Wall, “and Boogie was clutching it like a baby. I was like, ‘C’mon, man, you gotta share it!’”

Will this become the first Celtics team to repeat as champions in 50 years? With Trump and former vice president Mike Pence officially out of office, and President Paul Ryan promising to overturn Trump’s repeal of the antitrust act for professional sports — a still-inexplicable political action that nearly submarined the upcoming season (and every season after that) — the National Basketball Association finally feels like it’s drifting back to normal. Boogie Cousins already got there. Nearly two years ago. The day of The Heist.

“I will explain it this way,” he says. “You ever been traveling for a while and you get home, and you throw your suitcase down and jump on your bed and relax and you just feel calm because you’re home? I didn’t feel that way for seven years in Sacramento. And when I got to Boston, it was like jumpin’ on that bed. My whole life fell into place. That makes sense right?”

It makes sense when you watch him strolling through DeLuca’s, without a care in the world, a man reborn in a city that never knew it needed him so much. He’s just a guy, but he’s also A Guy. And you can’t win without A Guy. Danny Ainge was right.