WHY THE LONG FACE?

Here are some things that make Paul Davis smile, in case you thought he never did: 1) Mexican food from room service. 2) Hitting a wedge shot on the golf course. 3) The movie “Dumb and Dumber,” when they say, “We have no money and our pets’ heads are falling off!” 4) His family. 5) Riding a roller coaster with his girlfriend. 6) “The Simpsons.” 7) Staying at a cottage on Duck Lake. 8) Ragging on his teammates. 9) His grandmother, when she says, “Win one for the Gipper,” because, as he points out, “I don’t know if she thinks she’s the Gipper, or what.”

See? A joke. And you thought he had no sense of humor. You thought, with that perpetual scowl on his basketball face, that he was some sort of collegiate Lurch from “The Addams Family,” capable only of monotone answers and heavy sighs.

Well, he does have a monotone. But you can say that about a lot of college kids. And he has been known to sigh. Then again, who hasn’t?

But spend a little time with Paul Davis, the Spartans’ 6-foot-11 junior center, the jewel of his recruiting class, the NBA hopeful, the likely lynchpin of Michigan State’s chances against North Carolina at the Final Four, and you realize that look on his face, the furrowed brow, the down-turned mouth, the reddened cheeks, the burning eyes, is not a look of anger, bitterness or ego.

It’s worry.

Paul Davis worries.

He worries about messing up. He worries about letting people down. You judge a man less on the face he makes than on the one he hides, and what Paul Davis hides is a fear of failing expectations. “My first two years, even earlier this year, I worried about making even one mistake,” he says. “I thought I had to have the perfect game, every game.

“My life seemed more of a job than anything else, like, this is all I can do, school and basketball. I wouldn’t let myself enjoy college. I would come home and stay in my apartment. I didn’t want to interact with people. We weren’t playing well, and I felt they were all going to judge me.

“That’s the pressure of this life, having people watch your every move. People make a decision on what kind of person you are by what you do on a basketball court. If you play bad that means you’re a bad person.

“Living in that fishbowl, being judged, I don’t know, I feel like there’s so much more to me than basketball.”

He stops talking, raises his gaze, and makes rare eye contact. You know what his face looks like now? A kid’s. That’s what it looks like.

The scowling Spartan

Remember that Davis, who is only 20 years old, the son of a corporate pilot and a corporate financier, has always had intensity. But it’s often on the inside, not the outside. His coach, Tom Izzo, says Davis gets fatigued late in games sometimes due to the pressure he puts on himself early.

Izzo calls it “anxiety.”

But Davis is also a good and honest young man – sometimes alarmingly honest – who has been talked about as NBA material for the last three years. In truth, he’s had expectations put upon him ever since he sprouted, and he sprouted early and he sprouted large. When you are that tall and an athlete of his caliber – a Mr. Basketball in high school, a state champion in the NFL’s punt, pass and kick competition, and a gifted baseball player – peaceful anonymity is out of the question.

Combine that with a reluctance to let his emotions out and you get a steam engine with its valves closed. Gets pretty hot in there.

“As a kid, I didn’t express my feelings to anybody, really, my parents included,” Davis says. “The older I get, the more I regret doing it. Now I try to do express things more and more. It may sound easy just to talk to your parents, but when you haven’t done it for 20 years, it’s kind of hard. It’s getting better. But I need to let people into my life.”

Oddly enough, Davis relates well with a young cousin, an adopted Russian boy named Jimmy, who is 9 years old and whom Davis counts as a joy in his life. When he goes home to Rochester, Davis makes a point to visit Jimmy, to play video games, to swim, to shoot baskets. They don’t talk much. Jimmy is deaf.

“We have a weird way of communicating, because I really don’t know sign language at all,” Davis says, “but he makes me smile. When I come home, he’s always waiting for me to do something with him.”

Surprised? Well. You can’t make such revelations when you’re pounding for a rebound or having a microphone shoved in your face. And that’s how most people see Paul Davis. They see him at his best, soaring between Kentucky players for an offensive rebound and a put-back basket to seal the victory last Sunday. And they see him at his worst, failing to scramble for a loose ball against Michigan last year, then committing a foul, his team losing by a basket.

But this is who Paul Davis is, a work in progress, the body of a powerful man draped around a quiet, anxious kid.

A kid who happens to look, well … serious.

“My mom says I was born with a scowl on my face,” he says. “But it’s just one of those things. You get in a mode when you’re out there and you don’t think about it. I know it doesn’t look like it, but I am having fun on the court.”

Time to enjoy college

A few months back, Davis was sitting in Izzo’s office. They were having one of their long, heart-to-heart conversations. Davis looked out the window and saw a student -“He looked like a freshman, he had a backpack, and he seemed a little lost”- and something stirred inside. Davis told Izzo, “You know, sometimes I just wanna be that kid out there, a regular student, going to school.”

Izzo talked to him about scrutiny. He told him of his own life under the microscope, how the best and worst had been said about him, how he endured. Then Davis’ father, Joe, told his son, “Stop thinking about the NBA. Just tell yourself you’re going to be here four years.”

Something clicked. Allowing himself the luxury of time – something so many college kids feel is running out on them – Davis began to play more consistently, and more productively. He didn’t feel like the next mistake would move him down in the NBA draft. He didn’t feel a missed shot would cost him a million bucks.

He started going out around East Lansing. Movies. Places to eat. “I just told myself, what’s the big deal if I stay another year? I’ll have another summer to hang out here, to hang around with my friends, to be around this campus – and I do love being up here.”

Not surprisingly, his basketball has blossomed. He’s having a terrific NCAA tournament, averaging 15 points and 10.8 rebounds. He’s matching his intensity on the outside with the internal combustion. And his play against the big men of North Carolina should be a focal point of this weekend’s action.

“I’ve been having more fun,” he says, “and obviously, right now, I’m having more fun than I ever dreamed.”

What’s that old expression, “A smile is just a frown turned upside down”? Perhaps it works the other way as well. The face he makes and the face he hides have time to find each other. After all, Davis still has one big weekend left in his junior season, and a whole senior year to find the grins and memories that comprise a college life.

“And next fall,” he says, “right at the start of the season, I’ll announce that I’m going to put my name in the NBA draft, so there won’t be any speculation.”

Another joke. The kid’s on a roll.

BY THE NUMBERS

Michigan State junior center Paul Davis’ stats before and during the NCAA tournament:

FG FT REB BLK PTS Reg. .568 .656 7.4 0.7 11.8 NCAA .468 .762 10.8 0.3 15.0

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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