COLUMN: Loyalty is a sticky subject in pro sports

We were sitting in the downtown Las Vegas Krispy Kreme when my friend Maddie received the unfortunate news via text alert on her phone.

“Not Boogie!”

The yelp of desperation came as somewhat to a surprise to me. Maddie is a sports fan, but she exists at a different intensity of emotion when it comes to her teams, unless the Trojans are trailing 49-35 with nine minutes remaining in the Rose Bowl.

But when she heard the Sacramento Kings were trading DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans, she got as close to tears as I’d ever seen her. Even though Maddie is a casual fan, the news was a shock because Cousins, at his core, was a staple of Sacramento. Maddie owned his jersey, and even if she didn’t always watch the team’s games, his seven-year run with the Kings was a part of her identity as a Sacramento native.

Cousins himself was tearful as he discussed the trade, barely choking out his speech and addressing Sacramento as a whole — “My love for this city has never changed.”

The moment captured a theme that is tied tightly to the overall emotion of sports — loyalty and the way that a loyalty to one team and its players knits a whole city together. Cousins received a loving goodbye from his city, which seemed heartbroken at the loss of “Boogie,” their first-round power forward who came to the team as a scrappy kid with only one season at Kentucky under his belt. And Cousins, for his part, gave that love right back to the city in which he became an NBA star.

When it comes to sports, I put a lot of stock into loyalty. I hate college one-and-dones and bandwagon fans. As a Royals fan, I’ve come to love the players who started out in our farm teams and grew up to become our headliner stars. As a University of Kansas fan, I root every week for a pair of senior point guards who started out as nobody transfers and became the best backcourt in the nation.

But the lines of loyalty often blur when I look at professional sports.

I remember, of course, the explosion that followed Kevin Durant’s announcement that he would leave Oklahoma City to join the Warriors this season. The rage of Thunder fans has simmered somewhat, but many still describe the move in the same way — betrayal.

That’s a strong word, and at first, I had to agree. Mainly, I was annoyed that Durant was adding yet another piece to the Evil Empire of the Warriors. But there was also something frustratingly disloyal in the act of jumping ship after a team drops the ball in the playoffs, and it was that apparent lack of faith in his team that made me question Durant’s actions so greatly.

It would seem, after all, that loyalty to a program makes both the player and the team stronger. Take a look at this year’s Super Bowl champions, for instance. Tom Brady has served as the quarterback, figurehead and demi-god of the New England Patriots for 17 years.

If that’s not loyalty, I don’t know what is. And look how it’s paid off — in the process, the team has clinched the second-most Super Bowl rings in the nation, trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers by only one championship. If you’re trying to sell the idea that loyal players are the best type of players, then the Patriots would be the poster child.

But no matter how personal and emotional they are, sports at their core are businesses. And when baffling trades and transitions occur, it’s important for fans to remember that.

Cousins, for instance, isn’t leaving of his own accord — his trade was made to better a Kings franchise that is sputtering to a halt at ninth in the Western Conference. The move was a business transaction, and it brought in a payload for the Kings, who received Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and two draft picks.

It’s not a matter of his disloyalty to his own program or the Kings’ disloyalty to a long time player. But when teams go stagnant and begin to struggle, it’s an integral role of those at the top of the food chain to pump new life into their franchise.

In the same way, players need that mobility to stay fresh and remain in team situations that allow them to play to the fullest of their abilities. Despite LeBron’s jersey-burning days when he left Cleveland for Miami, the time he spent playing — and winning — with the Heat fueled his ability to return to the Cavs to bring the championship home. The same can be said for Peyton Manning, who found the storybook ending to his career only after leaving the Indianapolis Colts.

Fans will always miss the players who leave, and that’s understandable. They are, after all, the humans who make us fall in love with the sport and the team to begin with.

But remember that when one player leaves, another comes to fill their shoes. After watching Buddy Hield in the Big 12 last year, I know what he’s capable of doing in Sacramento. The same can be said for Evans and Galloway, and the two unknown draft picks leave a lot of wiggle room for a Sacramento team that definitely needs it.

So yes, it’s easy to hate on Durant for leaving or on Sacramento for not fighting for Cousins to stay. And it’s hard to see these types of trades and transitions occur without feeling that there’s something inherently bad or evil or just plain wrong about them, but that’s just a part of the game.

At the end of the day, no matter how hard it is to lose a star player, Sacramento should know — if this trade works out the way it’s supposed to, I think you’ll get by just fine without Boogie.

Julia Poe is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs on Wednesdays.