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.