Sports Nut

The End of Joy

Why do athletes look so angry when they do something great?

eBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts alongside Mike Miller #13 in the fourth quarter while taking on the San Antonio Spurs during Game Five of the 2013 NBA Finals.
LeBron James during Game Three of the NBA Finals

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LeBron James had to be happy as the buzzer sounded to end Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He was still in the air, having just outsmarted and outworked and pretty much outeverythinged the Pacers to make a lay-in and give his Heat a game they otherwise would have lost.

Yet the world’s best basketball player was scowling when his feet hit the ground, and he continued scowling as he wandered around the court. His teammates appeared equally peeved by the outrageous good fortune he’d brought them. Study the replays of James’ layup and the ensuing seconds and you’ll find only one guy wearing both an NBA uniform and a smile: Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who was buried on the losers’ bench.

James reprised the hot and bothered act during Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when he tipped off a 35-second display of athletic greatestness by stopping a Tiago Splitter dunk attempt dead, superhero style, while they were both above the rim. With the ball still in play after the block and the rest of his team already downcourt, James stayed beneath San Antonio’s backboard, glaring at the grandstands as if he’d just heard somebody up there razzing his mom. He joined his mates in time to assist on a three-pointer from Ray Allen, then capped the freakish extravaganza by forcing a turnover and charging in for a breakaway slam. As play stopped, James meandered about the floor sorta like Jim Valvano did just after his North Carolina State Wolfpack won the 1983 NCAA Tournament on Lorenzo Charles’ drop-in bucket. Back in the day, Valvano was looking to celebrate his good fortune by hugging somebody; here, James looked furious enough to ground and pound whoever crossed his path. Miami was up by 24 points.  

Throughout the NBA Finals, the only man who’s looked happy to be there is Danny Green—a telling indication that the Spurs’ record-setting three-point shooter has not yet absorbed the lessons of NBA stardom. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, and even Pacers up-and-comer Paul George treat every great play as if it’s a rebuke to a crowd of unseen doubters. These agony-of-victory routines aren’t new, but they have made this year’s NBA playoffs less fun to watch than they should be. It’s a sad reality of big-time sports: Nobody smiles when he’s happy.

As only a member of the get-off-my-lawn generation would, I went on a YouTube binge after watching LeBron’s walk-off scowlfest just to confirm that there really was a time when great athletes cracked a smile. And there was! I found: Carlton Fisk windmilling his arms as he coaxed a batted ball fair to give the Boston Red Sox Game 5 of the 1975 World Series. And the U.S. hockey team throwing gloves in the air and hopping on ice after beating the unbeatable Soviet Union squad in the 1980 Olympics and generally oozing so much ecstasy that it’s hard not to tear up watching that celebration even so many years after the game’s Us vs. Them storyline has become moot. The list goes on: Magic Johnson beaming and Ozzie Smith flipping and Joe Carter galloping, and … yeah, it’s an old, old list.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it’s undeniable that bliss has become non grata on the playing fields. I’ve lived in the Washington, D.C., area my whole life and first noticed scowling kicking smiling’s butt when I followed Georgetown basketball in the early portions of John Thompson Jr.’s run as coach. For me, forward Michael Graham became the godfather of modern mean mugging while staring down everybody in his path during the 1983–1984 season. That was a championship year for the Hoyas.

Now everybody glares when good things happen.

Last week, the Library of Congress noted the 125th anniversary of Casey at the Bat, famous for the lack of joy when Mighty Casey struck out with the bases juiced and his “Mudville nine” down by two. Nowadays, Casey could hit a walk-off slam, and his teeth would still be “clenched in hate” as he stood in the batter’s box.

The all-anger-all-the-time pose has trickled a long way down from the highest levels of sport. ABC’s Wide World of Sports showed Little Leaguers rolling around on the field after a win to epitomize the thrill of victory. Lately, a preteen baseball player known as Lil Papi has become an Internet star on account of videos in which he acts mad beyond his years after hitting what for a kid his age qualify as tape-measure homers. The clips are as fascinating as they are depressing.

Even Tim Tebow promotes a joy-is-soft ethos when in uniform. His name’s synonymous with making a joyful noise. Yet when he scored his first TD as a pro in 2010, his celebration was less heavenly than Beelzebubbly, as the since-fallen QB initiated enough helmet-to-helmet contact with teammates that Roger Goodell could have ordered him to tithe to the league as penance.

It used to be that female athletes, at least, were still secure in expressing bliss. Now I’m not so sure. When Lisa Leslie completed the first-ever WNBA dunk in 2002, she smiled wide, threw her arms over her head, and pranced to center court and into the arms of her Los Angeles Sparks teammates. Compare that to Brittney Griner’s insolence after her first two WNBA slams—still only the fifth and sixth dunks in the history of a league that is now in its 17th season.

What makes James’ recent rages maddening is that it’s clearly an act—that he’s refusing to smile to prove a point about his seriousness. For LeBron, expressionlessness is a way to broadcast that he cares about the team above all else. In naming him its 2012 Sportsman of the Year, Sports Illustrated attributed James’ first championship season at least in part to his having “muted his on-court celebrations” and “cut the jokes in film sessions.” When he made that shot to win Game 1 of the Pacers series, James was asked in the post-game press conference why he didn’t celebrate. “I made a layup,” he said. “I’ve been doing that since I was 8 years old.”

Given the championship-or-else bar that he’s set for himself, James only gives himself permission to smile under two circumstances: when he wins a title and when a fan makes a half-court hook shot. Earlier this year, a 50-year-old named Michael Drysch won $75,000 during one of those bread-and-circusish sponsored events that all NBA teams now inflict on the fans during timeouts. James was so overcome with glee that he abandoned the Heat bench to tackle Drysch and roll around on the floor with the fan at center court.

In an interview after the game, NBA TV commentators told James they were struck by the “genuine joy” he showed when Drysch’s shot went through the hoop. Everybody who saw it was.

“We might need him in the playoffs,” a smiling James said.

LeBron and the Heat don’t need Drysch. But, win or lose, they’d be a whole lot more fun to watch if LeBron celebrated his own skillful feats with as much bliss as he did that fan’s lucky shot. So, c’mon, LeBron. Turn that frown upside down. If you win another title, act like you haven’t been there before.