The Breathtaking Reaches of Stephen Curry

Whether or not he has become the league’s best player, he’s easily the most compelling.

curryshotchartryansimpson

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

– Peter

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ESPN Does Nudity the Right Way

The Body Issue is art. Why aren’t we treating it that way?

Odell Beckham Jr CREDIT: Carlos Serrao

Odell Beckham Jr CREDIT: Carlos Serrao

Tomorrow, ESPN the Magazine will release its annual “Body Issue.” If you’re not familiar, the issue features photos of elite level athletes in the nude. At first look, it might appear to just be an answer to the swimsuit issue released every year by Sports Illustrated. It’s a natural comparison to make, but the Body Issue is only like the swimsuit issue in the most superficial ways. Yes – they are both exhibitions of the human body found in sports magazines. But while one uses sexy decadence to create attention and sell issues, the other is a true meditation on the nature of the body. Let’s put it this way – if the two annual issues were made into science fiction movies, one would be directed by Michael Bay and the other by Ridley Scott.

Perhaps the first edition of the Body Issue in 2009 was a response to SI‘s iconic swimwear showcase, but its true inspiration is rooted in some of the great works of art ever produced. While bodies have been the subject of many mediums, in no other form does it quite come to life as in sculpture, and most of the great sculptures are studies of the idealized human body.[1] For thousands of years we have been fascinated by presentations of human physicality.

And while the Body Issue springs from this ancient facet of our consciousness, it also exists at a time in which reevaluating physical ideals is a constantly trending topic. Discussions of body shaming, standards of beauty, health, and objectification are consistently lighting up social media and appearing *ahem* on blogs. At times it seems like no one really knows what to make of everything – it’s a complex conversation with its own lexicon.

So, knowing that humans have a history of considering physical excellence and considering the fluid and nuanced modern perceptions of the body, it might seem safe to assume that the contributions of SI and ESPN are just two more planes in Dechamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. But I do not believe this is the case. Rather, the Body Issue makes a definitive statement on the matter through a beautiful expression that is both a work of art and a triumph of human physicality.

This year’s edition will, like past issues, feature an eclectic group of elite athletes, including behemoth Vince Wilfork, tall and graceful Elena Delle Donne, petite and powerful Christen Press, and transgender athlete Chris Mosier, all of whom will be featured alongside more conventional Greek Gods like Greg Louganis and Nzingha Prescod. And they are all beautiful. They are all ideal. They were given different body types, but through their natural talents and hard work they perfected their bodies into their version of the ideal athlete. Color, shape, and size doesn’t matter in the Body Issue.[2]

By featuring the bodies of elite level athletes, ESPN promotes goals but denies standards. It displays the ideal, but subverts understanding of what is better or more beautiful. Just because there is something else we should strive for does not mean we need be ashamed of what we have. If the photos were just of attractive people with impressive physiques, it would lose some of its potency, because these bodies are shaped into serving a specific purpose. These impressive figures are used to compete in the great arena of sports, and knowing that there is a specific intent that goes into making these bodies makes them that much more inspiring and beautiful.

So our culture asks: What is the ideal body type? What is our standard of beauty? ESPN can answer by holding up any photo from their Body Issue archives.

Again, this does not mean that we are not beautiful just because we don’t look like Greek and Roman sculptures. What it means is that our beauty and our physical excellence is not defined by our skin tone, height, facial features, bra size, jock size, or bone size. It’s based in being our best self. Is that cliche? Maybe, but it’s the message of the Body Issue. It’s the message of I don’t know how many pop songs[3] and that remarkable AXE commercial from earlier this year.[4]

Sure, athletes are endowed with some things the rest of us don’t have, but they are not all equally endowed, and 99% of them only made it to the big time by improving on their natural gifts. They are the most excellent version of themselves – and that is a goal for any of us.

It’s the missing component of sport that makes me say that Sputting plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover of their most recent swimsuit issue is a minimal effort at changing the body image discussion. They are still saying that beauty is based in a lascivious presentation of breasts and hips and a pretty face. And they are still making sex the purpose of her figure. They are not presenting her, or any of their models, as figures of speed, strength, and agility – just figures of sex.

But some might say the Body Issue is no better. They may claim that it is really just lewd objectification. What? Nude photos? What could be redeeming about that? My guess is that people who say this have not actually looked through the Body Issue galleries. Yes – some photos are a little more risque than others, but the vast majority have a clear artistic intent, and that is to demonstrate the excellence of thw athlete’s body. Something that makes these photos remarkable is that so many of them are of the athlete in a natural athletic position. In the photos, they are doing something that we would see them do in competition, and now, with clothes removed, we see their body in all its glory doing that athletic thing. Might that thing draw attention to their legs and buttocks? Yes – because the athlete needs their legs and buttocks to looks fabulous in order to do the things that they are doing. Christen Press, who will appear in this year’s issue, talked about how her body looks like soccer. The Body Issue captures the specific beauty of each sport as represented in the physiques of its athletes. It’s possible to see physical beauty without sexual edification, and that is what the Body Issue does. It’s beautifully designed, directed, photographed, and presented.

And maybe some will avoid the Body Issue on the simple basis of nudity. And maybe that’s best for some people, but, as a culture, this is the kind of nudity that we should embrace (uh, phrasing?) in the same way that we embrace the great works of nude sculpture. If nudity is a problem, it’s because we’ve made it a problem. We’ve lost the gift of admiring the strength, grace, and beauty of magnificent bodies because of our collective lechery. I hope that, through proper understanding of things like The Body Issue, we can recover a useful appreciation of the human body. And, to do that, we kinda have to look at the body when it’s naked.

The body and how it is valued and presented will continue to be a contentious subject. And, as confusing as some of it may be, these are good discussions to have. Meanwhile, the great sculptures will remain in museums to be admired by millions of visitors every year.

And, tomorrow, ESPN will once again step into these two facets of culture and expose us to the best kind of art – the kind that is beautiful and creative, and the kind that teaches us something about each other and about ourselves.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

10 of the Best from the Body Issue

  1. Indianpolis Colts offensive line
  2. Aly Raisman
  3. Nigel Sylvester
  4. Angel McCoughtry
  5. Kenneth Faried
  6. Sydney Leroux
  7. Danell Leyva
  8. Ashton Eaton
  9. Destinee Hooker
  10. Jon “Bones” Jones

Notes

1 But not just in the splendor of David or Venus – in the pain of Laocoon, the sleeping faun, the weary boxer, the winged woman, the defeated warrior. There wasn’t just one way to portray an ideal body in sculpture.
2 There have also been physically “disabled” athletes. I will add that there has been a dearth of Asian athletes. It’s possible that’s a cultural thing about modesty and Asian athletes turn down the offer…because obviously there are Asian athletes with impressive bodies. Then again, it could be a sorta racist thing (white imagination has a way of distorting views of non-white bodies).
3 Isn’t Mary J. Blige great?
4 I’m serious when I say this commercial is a work of genius.

The Gloomy Last Days of LeBron

Steph Curry has completed his coup d’état. But was the end of LeBron’s reign deposition, or was it abdication?

curry and lebron

Niccolo Machiavelli famously wrote in The Prince: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” King James has never quite mastered either.

Here we are in the third phase of LeBron’s career, and we are neither having fun nor fearing for the safety of the NBA’s 29 other teams. Instead, malcontent grips his literal and figurative court as the league’s crown passes to the fun and terrifying Steph Curry-led Warriors.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. When LeBron went home to Cleveland, it looked like we had a wildly entertaining basketball story ahead of us. But, after the Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love deal, a deal I still believe to have been the wrong decision, it became clear that LeBron was expediting the process of building a contender, trading a beautiful struggle for the weight of expectation. Even so, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving apologists thought the team would be dominant as well as fun.

It’s been neither.

Last year’s Finals was tragic basketball bushido. What looked like it might have been a glorious Spartan last stand became something akin to the ravings of a mad monarch. That wasn’t fun. That was morose.

This Cavaliers team is depressing, not enough fun to watch, laborious to follow, and, ultimately, doomed.

After losses to the Raptors and Wizards had the Cavs doing some soul-searching, the team came back and won three in a row, including two routs in which they exhibited a small ball game plan and then some true grit. But then, just as quickly as it looked like they might have been figuring something out, they lost in tremendous fashion to a team missing its three best players. They let the Grindfather score 26 points on them. And now we’re engulfed in Cavalier concern again – what’s wrong with them? Does LeBron believe in his teammates? Do Kevin and Kyrie want to be there? How should they incorporate Kevin into the offense? Is Tyronne Lue making the right moves?

Most things we hear from the Cavs are gloomy. Every winning streak is shattered by every disappointing loss. And all LebronCurrythis bellicose drama is augmented by the Sword of Damocles that hangs over whomever makes it out of the East to face the Warriors or Spurs. The Cavs can’t win it all this year. Or at least it will be damn near impossible.

And so, by extension, LeBron isn’t having fun. He isn’t fun to watch – not only because he doesn’t do the amazing LeBron things like he used to, but because there isn’t the rampant joy that now makes the Warriors so lovable.

The lack of fun would be okay if LeBron and the Cavs were terrifying. We can’t expect all of our champions to be lovable. In English football, last year’s Chelsea team was unlikable, and their success came with snarls as often as smiles. But good gracious me did they play fine soccer. They were a beast to reckon with, and that made them worthy EPL champions, even if they were villainous whiners. Fun as Michael Jordan must have been to watch, his demeanor was thoroughly mirthless, right?

But the Cavs aren’t terrifying. They’re rather tame. They got beat at home by the ‘effin Grizzlies and then moped about the state of their team.

This is a premature end to LeBron’s reign. Even though he’s at the end of his prime, this feels so much more like the twilight of his career.

Now we must consider how unsatisfying his reign was. To say that it began anytime before the 2008-09 season would be a reach. Even as he was winning that first MVP award, Kobe was leading those Lakers to the first of back to back championships. But from that season through 2012-13, LeBron won four MVPs and won two out of three trips to the Finals. And even if you extend his reign into the next two seasons, in which he appeared in two more Finals, in neither season was he the MVP. In fact, last year, there were three or four players more deserving of the MVP than LeBron. And, of course, Stephen Curry is going to win the award again this year. So even a generous estimate of LeBron’s reign would reach from 2008-2014.

That reign was full of controversy, failure, pressure, scrutiny, villainy, and treachery. Even as LeBron had the best seasons of his career, he was slow to make himself loved or feared.

But, for a small window of time, in the midst of Miami’s back to back championships, it looked like everything was coming together. LeBron was dominating. His team was owning the East and had bested two Western Conference champions in a row. He was having fun. His team was having fun. And, finally, we were having fun. The haters were quiet. LeBron had, after a long journey, arrived at the place an NBA monarch is supposed to live. I think the world of the NBA breathed a collective sigh of relief.

And then it crumbled so quickly in the wake of that Finals rematch with the Spurs. Before that, it looked like we were headed for a few more years of blissful Miami Heat basketball teams. I seriously thought the rest of LeBron’s career would be a breeze, in which he won a few more MVPs and a couple more Finals, all while having tons of fun with D-Wade and Bosh.

Leaving Miami didn’t destroy the chance for a happy future, but it did change the game. And, like I’ve already said, this new phase of LeBron’s career has not contained the fun it could have had and it certainly has not struck fear in the way that I think LeBron must have envisioned as he and David Griffin built this roster.

I think we missed out on something special. The time to really enjoy LeBron was all too short. NBA fans of the last 30 some odd years could enjoy the greats like Kobe, Duncan, Jordan, Magic, and Bird in clearly defined eras of dominance. And while LeBron’s first years in Cleveland playing for bad teams were fun, and while he was an ascending star, the definitive years of his career were cut short so soon after it had stabilized into something magical. All things considered, for a player who will be in anyone’s top five or ten when it’s all done, it was a brief and unremarkable stay atop the NBA.

The rest of his career may very well be filled with joyless regular seasons, Eastern Conference championships by default, and losses in the NBA Finals, all while posting a high PER but never again getting serious MVP consideration. Even if he, individually, is a very great player well into his 30s, he won’t be the king of basketball ever again.

Trust me – I hope I’m wrong.

But it’s so rare that a deposed ruler reclaims the throne.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

The Tragic Last Stand of LeBron James

“Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

LeBron vs Wariors

There’s a lot going on in this series.

We’ve marveled at the shooting of Steph Curry and the tenacity of Matthew Dellavedova. We’ve seen a young star ascend in Tristan Thompson and an old star shine in Andre Iguodala. We’ve second-guessed strategies, criticized under-performing players, jumped to conclusions, and made plenty of great memes. We’ve seen one of the worst teams in Finals history hang tough with one of the best teams of the last 15 years. We have three legitimate MVP candidates.

And, oh yeah, we have LeBron James. Doing LeBron James things.

And, entering a Game 6 in Cleveland with the Warriors one game away from a championship, the greatest basketball player in the world – playing against such a strong team with such a ragtag band of teammates, in front of his hometown fans who have hated and adored him – is the only character that really matters.

LeBron stands alone in the Q with his team on the brink. He has already given so much, and he is prepared to answer the call and give his last (so to speak).

But, in a Shakespearean turn of fortune, he may be doomed no matter what he does. As we have seen, LeBron is not getting the type of help he needs to win this series. He has astounded the basketball world with his play and yet his team trails 3-2. He might score 50 points tonight and still lose.

It is all on LeBron’s shoulders. And it is all out of LeBron’s hands.

The Cavaliers cannot win unless LeBron has another Herculean performance. And they might still lose, even if he has his mightiest performance yet. Tragically, all of the mystique surrounding the greats in basketball and “finding a way to win” won’t save LeBron. Fate has been unkind to him. His quest to bring a championship to Cleveland hangs in the air with the errant alley-oops of Matthew Dellavedova and the frozen jumpshots of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. And, of course, the much more accurate jumpshots of Stephen Curry. Whether or not Timofey Mozgov or Shawn Marion play makes little difference now.

I do not doubt LeBron James. He came out of the TD Garden alive in 2012 down 3-2. He limped out of Game 6 versus the Spurs the following year with a big help from Ray Allen. He will give everything he has to defend his homecourt and give the Cavaliers a chance in Game 7 back in Oakland. He seems determined to banzai charge the Warriors and live or die with the result.

And, should LeBron find a way to win these next two games, it will be the greatest individual performance we have ever seen on the basketball court. All doubts about him will vanish. Every mistake will be forgotten. The haters will look even more foolish. And he will ascend as basketball’s greatest hero. Ever.

But when the final buzzer sounds tonight, I expect to see LeBron kneeling on the court, totally spent, thinking about how he’s going to receive the Bill Russell trophy amidst the Warriors’ celebration. And, if not tonight, then in Game 7, that much closer to the goal but still just as far from finally reaching it.

Then what?

How will Cleveland receive their tragic hero?

Will they bear him up on his shield, or expect him to fall on his sword?

Will he have failed them again, or will he be celebrated for doing more than could have ever been asked with his deadliest lieutenants gone?

I think I know how “we” will receive him. But what about the people who so desperately want to see him win?

How will they see the man who left and then came back when he takes his team so far yet fails to win again?

There will be next year. Kevin will be healthy and will surely re-up if they want him. Kyrie will be “healthy” again. The salary cap will be up and the Cavs can look to build an even stronger team to glide through the Eastern Conference again. But LeBron will be a year older and will have played that many more grueling minutes. He might grow tired of Kevin Love’s defense or David Blatt’s plays. He might take some nights off, weary from a career full of bearing the weight of the basketball world. And maybe he will get right back to this place this time next year with nothing left to give. Maybe his body will finally break down. Maybe Kevin and Kyrie will be injured again.

So, this week, there isn’t next year. It’s here and now. The Cavs, somehow, once led this series 2-1 after dominating the first three games. They were leading by one midway through the fourth quarter of the last game. They have been that close to doing what looked nearly impossible.

LeBron still has a say in this story.

But this story might not be LeBron’s to write.

But if this is to be his end, then he will make such an end so as to be remembered.

Will that be enough?

ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter