Judging Happy

Posted by David Hopkins on January 29, 2013 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read


“I am displeased, Morg. You have destroyed one of my creations. Such an act is my decision, not yours. You have overstepped your bounds.” – Galactus, Devourer of Worlds

I’m not usually one to quote Spurs coach Greg Popovich, but I love his response to David Aldridge during a sideline interview. Coach, how happy were you with the shot selection? Popovich quipped, “Happy? Happy? ‘Happy’ is not a word we think about in the game. Think of something different. Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”

Popovich makes a good point. How do you “judge happy?” Is it one of Hollinger’s advanced statistics that I haven’t heard of yet? But sports analysts do treat “happy” like a stat. We measure “ happy” and consider its weight and effect on the game.

I’ve found myself wondering if Chris Kaman is happy right now—according to this report from ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, not very. I contemplate how his unhappiness will affect the team. Will his “lack of happy” cause him to get traded? Does Rick Carlisle even care about Kaman’s happiness? The correct answer is probably not, and nor should he care. The Mavs are trying to win games, not maintain the happiest franchise in professional basketball. (Tangent: Which franchise do you think is the happiest right now? My guess is the Clippers. They seem like a happy bunch.)

We get so worried about “ not happy,” because we associate it with players not performing to their potential. Unhappy players become a nuisance in the locker room. Unhappy players start fights, get coaches fired, and leave the franchise in a lurch. Unhappy players look like Lamar Odom in a Mavs uniform. No one wants that.

Chris Kaman isn’t happy with the amount of minutes he’s playing. In the last game against Phoenix, the Mavs had a center rotation of Bernard James, Elton Brand, and Chris Kaman—even Brandan Wright got a few minutes. Afterward, Kaman chose his words carefully. He said “it’s frustrating” and “not really fun.” Sportswriters, of course, are the ones who round those comments up to “not happy.” Chaos ensues. Next thing you know, if it hasn’t happened already, Lakers fans start plotting absurd trade scenarios involving Kaman for Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre, or Jerry Buss’s cat. The Mavs shop is selling Kaman jerseys at 50% off. Agents are freaking out. And before the end of the day, some talk radio host is predicting that the Mavs will be doomed for the next decade because they can’t keep Chris Kaman… who hasn’t gone anywhere.

Rick Carlisle’s response, on the SportsDay DFW blog, was the most rational: “Sometimes, there’s a difference of opinion, but that’s OK. Reasonable men have a right to disagree. But I make it clear to him [Kaman] that he’s an important guy on this team, and we need him and need what he can do for us.”

Carlisle isn’t worried about happy. And I honestly don’t think Chris Kaman worries about it either. As I mentioned in a previous column, Chris Kaman is one of those rare wonderful players who treats his job like a job. And sometimes, work sucks. Kaman realizes that. He’s a mature enough player to suck it up and still come to work.

What makes a player happy? I’ve compiled a list. Feel free to add to my list in the comments.

Winning — Players love to win. Heck, everyone loves winning. Winning is better than losing. Winning makes you a winner, which is better than being a loser. People do not go into pro sports to be losers.

Respect — Players work hard. They want their hard work to be valued. Players will even tolerate losing as long as the people around them are willing to acknowledge how much they’ve committed to the effort.

Minutes — Players want playing time. Without playing time, they cease to be a player. They are simply being paid to sit on the bench, wondering why they bothered to suit up for the game. Players get sad when they spend too much time on the bench. (Brian Cardinal might be the rare exception. That was one happy guy. I miss him.)

Note: Players who demand more minutes are sometimes unfairly criticized. In their defense, I understand the frustration. They can only bolster their stats when they are on the court. Those stats directly impact contract negotiations and trade agreements. If they are unhappy, they at least want to prove their worth for someone else. They are convinced all they need is more time to show what they can do.

Having a defined role — Not every player wants to start, but they all want to have a defined role within the team. They want to feel like their presence has meaning and purpose. When their role keeps changing, players begin to have an existential crisis.

Teammates they trust — Players don’t need to like everyone on the team, but they need to trust them. When there’s no trust on the team, everyone looks ridiculous when a play breaks down or a possession is thrown away.

Coaching staff they trust — Nothing is worse than being coached by an idiot. A player wants to be confident that the people in charge know that they’re doing.

Highlight plays — A layup is two points. A crazy alley-oop no-look 360 dunk while jumping over a 7 foot European is also two points. However, you won’t be telling your grandkids about all those great layups.

Getting paid — Oh yeah. Professional athletes like to be paid. That’s what makes them professional. It’s not just about the money. Some players will take less money to be in a better situation. But the money does represent, to some degree, your worth on the team. It also represents your ability to buy awesome clothes, a nice condo, a sweet ride, and a round of drinks for everyone at the bar. People groan about how much pro athletes get paid. I’m fine with it. That Rolex isn’t going to buy itself.

Control over their fate — The benefit of being a pro basketball player is that you get paid a lot of money to do something you love. The downside is you can be traded to Toronto or Charlotte. You might be banished to the D-League. You and your family might move every year. Players want some degree of control over life.

Positive crowd — I’ve always been curious. How much of an impact is this, really? Do players actually “feed off the energy of the crowd” or is it a pleasant thing to say after a win? Some players need the adoring fans more than others. For instance, Jason Terry loves the crowd. Other players seem too lost in the game to even notice. Regardless, it has to be demoralizing to see your paying customers arrive late, leave early, and barely respond to how awesome you are.

One final thought. The irony of “not happy” is that closer a player gets to ultimate victory, the more unhappy they are if they don’t obtain it. Who was the most “not happy” Maverick in team history? No, not Lamar Odom. Not Jim Jackson during his rookie year. Not Jim Jackson during his second, third, fourth, or fifth year as a Maverick. (Seriously, Jackson, what happened?) No, the honor goes to Dirk Nowitzki after game six of the 2006 NBA Finals. I’ve watched those final seconds more than a few times. Terry advances the ball, a screen by Nowitzki, a final three point shot attempt by Terry, and a rebound by Dwyane Wade. Here’s the part that fascinates me: With only a second left and three points down, Nowitzki rushes over to Wade. To do what, I have no idea. There was nothing to do. It was a desperate gesture with no solution. Wade throws the ball into the air. Victorious. The Heat’s bench empties onto the court to celebrate, running past Nowitzki. Nowitzki stands there for a moment, stunned, surrounding by red. He does not stay to congratulate his opponents. Instead, he exits down a dark corridor to the locker room. I’ve never seen anyone so unhappy.

For the record, “not happy” isn’t the best measurement of future success or even past failures. Don’t worry about Chris Kaman’s happiness. He’ll be fine.

David Hopkins is a freelance writer — a regular contributor to D Magazine and Smart Pop Books. He is usually happy. Follow David on Twitter at @davidhopkins

  • Marjun

    Well, that Dirk bit was unexpected and made me pretty unhappy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidghopkins David Hopkins

      Dirk stuck around and stuck it out. Mavs fans are all better off for it.

      • Marjun

        Yes, yes. He went through the lowest of lows with no immediate success in the horizon and still remained with the team in 2010. That image of an unhappy Dirk in 2006 makes me sad; but oh well, at least 2011 happened.