A few weeks ago, in a fit of mild frustration, LeBron James grabbed a beer.
It wasn’t because he was thirsty, or stressed, or in need of refreshment. He didn’t even take a sip—because, well, he had free throws to shoot and a playoff game to win. No, LeBron grabbed the beer because it was there, because a vendor happened to be ambling by at the same moment that James—annoyed with himself for missing a layup—hopped toward the sideline.
He grabbed the beer and took a mock-swig because, hey, why not? It was playful and spontaneous, and J.R. Smith cracked up, and everyone else did, too.
Then James stepped to the foul line and sank his free throws, and the Cleveland Cavaliers rollicked and rolled to a victory over the Toronto Raptors.
It was a good night for James—35 points and 10 rebounds—but it wasn’t his muscular dominance that was seared into memory. It was the whimsy. It was the spontaneity. It was the joy.
It’s fun to be LeBron.
And, as Smith’s laughter attested, it’s fun to be in his orbit.
The winning is nice, sure: the trips to the NBA Finals, the shirtless, sun-scorched parades, the fame and fortune—all enjoyable. Hang with LeBron, and you’ll bear witness to basketball history. But you’ll also flat-out laugh on a fairly regular basis.
When the mood strikes, James might break into a ridiculous dance on the sideline, or swipe french fries from a kid sitting courtside, or high-five a throng of raucous Celtics fans, or start a bottle-flipping contest on the bench. He’ll lip-sync to Rick Astley. He’ll shimmy to the Harlem Shake.
“Man,” former teammate Donyell Marshall says, “that dude’s the biggest kid there is.”
James will lead the Cavaliers into the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday, their third straight and his seventh, and we’ll soon resume the weighty debates over legacy and greatness and which part of Mt. Rushmore needs a facelift.
The Cavs will be heavily favored, regardless of the opponent, which means James could soon be making his seventh straight appearance in the NBA Finals, with a shot at his fourth championship.
At 32 years old, with three rings in the safe and permanent residency on the NBA’s all-time scoring and assists lists, LeBron James has plenty to be happy about.
He’s enjoying one of the greatest postseasons of his career, averaging 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.1 assists while shooting a career-best 46.8 percent from three-point range. He’s hardly seen a stressful moment since the playoffs began, leading the Cavs to sweeps of Indiana and Toronto.
In recent weeks, he’s passed Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the postseason scoring charts, and leapfrogged Shaquille O’Neal in playoff field goals.
With the clock running and the ball in his hands, James has been laser-focused and lethally efficient. On the postgame podium, he’s been loose, engaging. And in the moments in between, occasionally goofy.
He’s a nuclear-powered bulldozer disguised as a smiley emoticon.
That hand-slapping celebration in Boston came right after James obliterated Marcus Smart’s layup with a two-handed block from behind.
“He’s always been fun,” says Dru Joyce II, who coached James at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. “He’s always been a jokester. He’s always been that guy. He’s enjoying the game. It’s supposed to be fun. And he understands he can entertain a little bit and make this stuff good. That’s good to see, that he can still have fun with it.”
He always has. As a high school senior, James converted a breakaway, between-the-legs dunk and promptly took a joyful lap around the court, igniting a packed house at the University of Akron gym.
“He’s always been an entertainer,” Joyce says. “I used to think, ‘Maybe you’ll be a standup comedian if basketball doesn’t work.’”
It all seems preposterously obvious—success and joy should go hand in hand. Yet it’s often not the case in this testosterone-fueled arena, where players are judged based on their athletic prowess and dunks are rated by the humiliation they inflict.
Joy and fun are distant parts of the lexicon.
Tim Duncan won five titles with a metronomic efficiency and an infamous stoicism. If he was having fun, only he knew for sure. Kobe Bryant cast himself as a ruthless killer—in the mold of his idol Michael Jordan—and got his five rings while beating everyone (teammates included) into submission. If he smiled, it was probably because he’d just removed someone’s still-beating heart and tomahawked it through the rim.
Jordan had his impish moments—a sly grin, a coy shrug—but they were less expressions of joy than gestures of subtle ego-flexing. Hey, I can’t believe I just did that, either.
To be one of the most fearsome players in the game, and simultaneously one of its most overtly joyful, is rare indeed. Among modern-day superstars, only Shaq fused those traits so seamlessly, an MVP doubling as the class clown.
“He’s natural,” Cavs veteran James Jones says of James. “He understands that basketball is not everything. Life is so much bigger than basketball, but basketball is our life. And so we have to enjoy it. It can’t be consistently something where there’s no love, there’s no joy, there’s no passion. Because it requires you to go and give everything you have, and you don’t do that unless you love something or love someone.”
In his early years as a young NBA phenom, James was a constant source of locker room mirth—“jumping on people, messing with people”—Marshall says, and yakking away on the team plane.
“We’re like, ‘Dude, will you sit down? We’re trying to sleep!’” Marshall says, laughing.
There’s a burden that comes with vying for the title of Greatest Of All Time—an expectation that every game should end in victory, and every season should end in a parade. It can be suffocating.
The Cavs felt the pressure from the moment James returned—every stumble documented, dissected and exaggerated. Winning the title last year brought momentary relief, but the doubts were stoked anew as the Cavs meandered to 51 wins and a second-place finish in the East.
James recorded one of his best statistical seasons—averaging 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists—and yet was an afterthought in the MVP race. When you’re LeBron, even your best sometimes isn’t good enough to please the masses.
“A strange season,” James called it.
When LeBron spontaneously busts a move or grabs a microbrew, it’s a subtle reminder to teammates: It’s just a game.
“This team needs it,” Jones says. “It allows guys to understand that the human element still exists, even when you’re on a mission like we are.”
Joy, of course, might be in the eye of the beholder. When LeBron and Danny Green busted a move to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” during a 2009 game against Chicago, the Cavs were all smiles. Bulls center Joakim Noah took offense and barked his displeasure.
“I don’t think he means disrespect,” Green says of James, “but he likes to have fun and finds different ways to keep loose.”
So Google will direct you to clips of LeBron pantomiming a team photo, singing along with Drake and Fetty Wap, dancing to Eminem, Kanye and Kendrick, or just boogeying his way to the court.
“It’s all genuine,” says Cavs assistant coach Damon Jones, who played three seasons with James. “Because you can’t fake that. You can’t say, ‘Well, today I’m going to be funny.’”
There are, too, endless videos highlighting James’ flops and flails and varied missteps—“Not one, not two…”—but it’s been a long time since The Decision and the Smoke-Filled Rally and the narratives that cast James as a villain for daring to leave Cleveland for Miami.
It’s been six years since James, in a rare sullen moment, told his critics they would have to “wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before.”
For a time, it seemed, James had lost the joy.
“It was a lot more anger than love,” Joyce notes, “and you gotta do this thing out of love.”
James won a championship the next spring, and another after that. Last June, he got his third, this one for Cleveland, eliciting a burst of smiles and happy tears, a promise fulfilled, his most joyous moment yet.
If James never wins another MVP trophy or another title, he will still go down as one of the greatest to play the game, and perhaps that knowledge allows him to treat each night as a celebration.
As James himself said earlier this month, “There isn't anything I have left to prove.”
“Every day he walks into this place, he has a smile on his face,” James Jones says. “He’s laughing, he’s joking, he’s giggling, he’s excited, he’s upbeat. Because if you think about his life in general, he’s spent maybe two-thirds of his life on this hardwood. And you only do that if you really love the hardwood. I couldn’t tell you what the drive in is like, when he’s waking up in the morning, he’s stiff, or he’s tired. But I can tell you once he gets here, these are the happiest moments of his day.”
Yes, greatness requires validation and validation requires ringzzz and on and on. James knows it. He’s lived it. Those debates will rage regardless of what he does today, tomorrow or next year. That’s about legacy.
The game is about joy.
Mike Monroe contributed reporting from San Antonio.