Whether or not he has become the league’s best player, he’s easily the most compelling.
Last Spring I declared an end to LeBron’s reign and hailed the ascension of Stephen Curry.
And then, when all was finished and done save the formalities, LeBron entered the Avatar State and flipped the script in a way only he can. Now, for the second time in LeBron’s career, we can all relax and just enjoy watching him play without the nerve-wracking drama that accompanies his place in the epic tales of the NBA.
But, even if LeBron defended his throne and established a reign of prosperity in Cleveland all while making safe his legacy, he is no longer the NBA’s most intriguing character. The would-be usurper, Stephen Curry, has at least taken that role.
Curry has now become, almost without anyone realizing it, the most fascinating athlete in American sports. Once merely a mesmerizing exhibition shooter, he has become, on and off the court, a Picasso of phenomena, a microcosm of Americana, a creature of contradictions, and a mannequin of hyperbole.
On the court, Curry has defined his game through the impossible. He is the best shooter to ever live. He was MVP in 2015 and then raised his game in every way the following year. He makes shots no one else even bothers to shoot. He throws passes no one else thinks to throw. When he starts on a hot streak, even opposing fans can’t help but ooh and ah. We have never seen, and may never see, a player do the things he does.
And yet, in two consecutive Finals, he has been…well, bad. He led the greatest regular-season team in history into a series against a rag-tag team trying to divvy up minutes between Kevin Love and Richard Jefferson, got a 3-1 lead, and then lost.
Earlier that season, Curry made his bones with the most ice-cold game-winner of recent memory, as he pulled up just beyond half-court to sink the Thunder. But there were no such heroics in the Finals. Just boneheaded behind-the-back passes.
We’re in a place, like we were with LeBron, where we have to ask: is the league’s preeminent superstar able to get it done when it really matters?
Oh, but the schizophrenia hardly stops there.
He has won the last two MVPs, but it’s only going to be a matter of weeks before we start asking if the Warriors are actually Kevin Durant’s team.
He was once the scrappy, undersized kid from a small school who made his way in the NBA. Now the deck is totally rigged in his favor. Success was once a dream, but now it’s an expectation.
Kids imitate his game because it doesn’t require supernatural size or athleticism, but it is no less unattainable.
He’s supposedly the humble superstar, but it turns out he’s less than gracious in defeat. He’s a model citizen, but he threw a temper-tantrum that ended with him throwing his mouthguard into the stands. He is supposed to be the happy-go-lucky team leader, but I cannot think of another player who exhibits worse body language on the court.
His wife, pertinent to the conversation because they made her pertinent, is simultaneously some sort of ideal spouse (according to some) and a salty “oops better delete that” Tweeter.
The NBA’s most popular player is supposed to be cool, but Curry is not cool. He doesn’t look cool, talk cool, Tweet cool, or dress cool. He has the most uncool sneakers any of us have ever seen. His commercials are dreadful. His on-court dance moves are kind of annoying.
Who is this guy?
Stephen Curry is the point at which our current conversations and debates collide.
He is the embodiment of basketball’s evolution, the business end of the jump-shot trident. His game is the antidote to big-man basketball, the perfection of the small-ball revolution, and a peerless demonstration of efficiency.
His career can be used as evidence for building a team the “right” way while also being a clear example of Super Team construction.
His Christian faith is well-known, but that conversation is usually minimized or tabled in the post-Tebow world.
Stephen Curry is a racial conversation. He is a black man with light skin, which, if you know your cultural and literary history, is a unique space to occupy in America, one which comes with its peculiar trials and advantages. As athletes rediscover their activism, he largely remains silent. As his fellow Bay Area athlete, Colin Kaepernick, bears the nation’s tumult, mums the word from Curry. As his hometown erupted in protest over police violence, Charlotte’s most famous athlete did next to nothing. His coach – his coach – says more profound things about social issues.
His game is made for GIFs and Vines. He is poised at any time to break the internet and enter the highlight reels. If the internet could draft a basketball team, he’d be on it (along with DeAndre Jordan, J.R. Smith, Russell Westbrook, and Kristaps Porzingis). He is the player for iGeneration.
There is no way an athlete can be all of these things at once.
And yet, he is.
I’ve written quite a few things about LeBron James, and one of the things I’ve found is that we, as basketball-watching people, squandered most of his career. While he was being singularly great, we were busy bickering about his mental fortitude, his career choices, and his legacy. And, before we know it, his career will be over. We missed so many opportunities to just enjoy watching him be special.
We need to learn from our mistakes as we enter the Curry epoch. Curry is unlike anything we have seen, and, if we’re not careful, we might miss something truly significant. The problem with Curry is that it’s tough to know where we should focus our attention. What’s the focus: regular season blowouts, or Playoff challenges? Dazzling dribbles, or lame commercials? His adorable daughter, or his own sulking? His behind the scenes good deeds, or his silence in the spotlight? And how do we frame this? Is he a perpetual underdog, or an odds-on villain?
It all demands to be watched.
Among the NBA’s stars, he comes up short in many regards: Westbrook is more entertaining, Damian Lillard is cooler, LeBron is better, Kawhi Leonard is more professional. But none cover such a mind-bending expanse of possibility. Curry enters territory accessible only to him.
Though he abides in a sphere of existence none of us can ever approach, through Stephen Curry the landscape of our sports and culture unfolds.
It’s probably too much to be contained within one man. Watching him grapple with it will be the story that defines the NBA for years to come.
Happy basketball season, everyone.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria