“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
― Satan, pondering his fate in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The world is filled with screwed-up people who can channel their personal demons into high performance. Unfortunately, DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings does not appear to be one of those people.
When the 6-foot-11 Cousins gets rattled, he loses concentration, gives up on the court and lashes out at those around him. The would-be star’s tantrums and self-destructive tendencies have now gotten him suspended indefinitely by the Kings. In his third year in the NBA, Cousins, a loose cannon who has been babied by the enablers who surround him, has now put his pro career in jeopardy.
Too bad Cousins is unable to do what NBA great Jerry West was able to do: channel his insecurities and self-hatred into consistently high performance. In his 2011 memoir, West by West, My Charmed, Tormented Life, the great ballplayer reveals a life darkened by depression, anxiety, panic attacks and suicidal inclinations.
“This whole mix of self-hatred, failure, and low self-esteem plagued me even when I was playing at a high level and getting pleasure from it,” West says in his book. “It’s something I coped with, and something I still cope with.”
Despite his inner chaos, West, a terrific jump shooter known as “Mr. Clutch,” averaged 27 points a game over his 14-year playing career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a collegiate all-American at West Virginia and has been inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.
West acknowledges he had a chip on his shoulder from an early age and was determined to prove his self-worth by relentless practice and all-out effort on the basketball court. He was fortunate to be blessed with exceptional quickness, jumping ability and a good eye. He maximized his natural abilities through hard work and self-discipline. He refused to allow his demons to derail him from his athletic goals. He knew when to keep his mouth shut and get down to business. He was also resistant to psychotherapy.
“I went a few times, but I felt there was no way that any therapist could understand my particular torment and also felt in some respects they were sicker than I was,” West says. “I felt awkward and it felt futile to try to unscramble something by mere talking. I also felt it was a crutch.”
West doesn’t reveal much personal insight into his problems or how he coped with them through his playing years and his long stint as general manager of the Lakers. He admits that he still has days “when my depression hobbles me and sinks me into the darkest places,” but concludes that he has found “some weird and tenuous semblance of peace.”
While I wish that one of the heroes of my youth could have found more happiness from his accomplishments, I am impressed that he was able to perform so ably and show so much class in his public life despite his inner turmoil.
By contrast, DeMarcus Cousins seems like a troubled guy who lacks West’s ability to compartmentalize his emotions and focus on his game. He acts out his inner drama on a public stage and sabotages his own goals to be a star and a team leader. Expect Cousins to be a footnote in the long NBA history of players who never lived up to their potential.