The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sports aren’t joyless. Just watch Sixers Piano Girl.

Not the author's parents. (Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

My favorite current thing in sports is Sadie Smith, a 15-year-old from South Jersey who has played the piano half her life; who decided this winter that she should fuse her love of music with her love of the Philadelphia 76ers; who began posting minute-long clips of herself performing the jaunty fight song “Here Come the Sixers” seconds after every win; who soon attracted the attention of team president Daryl Morey and then the team itself, which queued up her performances (“Sixers piano girl, song today”) and invited her to perform before a game whenever people start doing such things again; who grew her Twitter following from around 40 to more than 17,000 in a few weeks; who has been told of grandmothers racing to text her postgame videos to their grandchildren and grade-schoolers dancing around living rooms to her accompaniment; and who has ignored those who bitingly ask whether she knows a single other musical composition.

“Like, I have no reason to post any of these other songs I know,” Sadie said when we chatted about her whirlwind few weeks. “I don’t think all these Sixers fans are going to want to hear ‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin.”

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Why do I care about a ragtime-loving teenage piano player I have never met serenading a basketball team I don’t follow in a city in which I have never lived? Because those videos twinkle with a glimmer of happiness that maybe isn’t easy to find in this particular winter of this particular year. (Plus the song slaps, but that’s another story.)

Since sports came back, there have been occasional suggestions that this whole operation is unseemly. Crass. Exploitative. Joyless. That the strained toiling to produce broadcast inventory is a misplaced pursuit, playacting to satisfy billion-dollar contracts. That we should maybe shut it down.

“Sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said months ago. That sentiment seemed convincing, so a lot of people were convinced.

I wasn’t, though. Do poorly functioning societies not deserve art or literature? Do they not deserve film or music or sea shanties? Or do they perhaps deserve those things more than Utopian societies because they need them more?

Our compact with sports always has been a bit absurd: that we, grown adults with far more serious things to worry about, would douse ourselves in the jumping and swinging and throwing and sprinting of other grown adults. That we would care, deeply — for 15 minutes here or four hours there — because, once in a while, it made us smile. That we would compartmentalize our concerns — about labor exploitation and serious injury and toxic behavior — so we could hold on to those smiles.

Sports might not be as mindlessly fun right now. The compartment of concerns has been stuffed with some nasty new packages, many of which have given me pause — before and during and after the games. And yet sports are perhaps more memorably fun right now, because we — or at least I — have so little else. Beyond the usual family joys — in recent months, mine have included copious waterfalls of sourly fragrant baby spit-up — my memories of this stupid pandemic will be moments of national tragedy and of athletic joy.

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Of Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa trading binoculars-required birdie putts in a playoff of a July golf tournament in Ohio. Of DeAndre Hopkins coming down in a crowd of Buffalo Bills with the football somehow lacquered to his hands. Of Najee Harris leaping over defenders and DeVonta Smith flying past them. Of Jimmy Butler lugging the Miami Heat to an absurd Finals win over a Lakers team that was destined for rings just because he was too damn stubborn to stop scoring. I jumped off my couch during that game and squealed, or yelped, or whooped, and few non-sporting events in the past 10 months had me squealing and yelping and whooping.

The NFL playoffs have been filled with such noises, and I’m vacuuming up the memories. Lamar Jackson’s touchdown run against Tennessee. Taylor Heinicke just diving all over the place in a losing performance that would remain immortal if his career ends tomorrow. (I texted a Washington-loving pal “Wow” after one of Heinicke’s magic tricks because there was nothing else to say; he wrote back that mine was the third “wow” text he got simultaneously. When else in the past 10 months have we shared our wows?) And Taron Johnson’s 101-yard interception return last weekend that put Buffalo in its first conference title game since I was a Bills-obsessed teenager.

“Really makes me happy,” my dad texted me late that night.

My father, who spent years insisting that Bach’s “Fugue in C minor” was the Bills’ fight song while playing it throughout their games, is an observant Jew who doesn’t turn on electronic devices during the Sabbath. In this season’s unprecedented six-game first round, the Bills wound up playing their opening game early on Saturday afternoon, so he made his peace with setting a clock radio to turn on at kickoff. He didn’t realize, though, that his radio would shut off automatically after two hours, so there he was: in the second half of a playoff game, locked out of the action. He and my mom walked to the nearest supermarket and saw Buffalo’s first playoff win in a quarter-century on a television in the closed cafe. I’m not sure what the Talmud would say, but I think Sadie Smith might understand.

I reached out to Sadie a few days before that Bills win because I wanted to know why, with the world in chaos and so many insisting that the joy had been leeched out of sports, a basketball team and a piano could make her look so happy. Our first interview was scheduled for 3:30 on the day of the Capitol riot. Even a conversation about happiness can’t be easy just now. But we rescheduled, and she played the song that night, and eventually we talked.

“It just makes me happy, not only that I can show appreciation for my favorite sports team but also that I’m making other people happy,” she said. “... It’s kind of crazy that a lot of my happiness and my attention is put towards a sports team. But at the same time, it’s what makes me happy.”

It makes me happy, too. I look forward to flipping on the game — any game — more now than I ever have in my life. These leagues and athletes contorting themselves beyond normal recognition aren’t doing so only because of mindless momentum or to satisfy heartless television executives. On the other end of the televisions are people such as Sadie and my father and me. We have our literature and our music, and we have our games, too, and I’m not sure what I’d do without them.

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