CHICAGO – Stephen Curry is about to win his second consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player award. In its penultimate game on Monday, his team tied the all-time record for wins (72) in a season, equaling Michael Jordan’s 1995-96 Bulls’ record that many believed was as unassailable as Wilt’s 100 points.
Curry’s Warriors — and they are without question — are on a quest for their second consecutive NBA championship and to be considered among the greatest teams of all time along with those Bulls, Russell’s and Bird’s Celtics, West’s and Magic and Kareem’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs. Anyone could see why those teams were dominant by looking at their leader, superstars from adolescence and certainly by college.
Which makes the Golden State Warriors’ and Curry’s story even more amazing than their record quest this season.
Curry probably is the most unlikely icon in NBA history.
He is that by now, the debate over whether he’s the greatest shooter ever perhaps only surpassed by his pregame dribbling and shooting warmup routine that has become so much the rage of the NBA that it is perhaps the must-see highlight of the league.
Arenas now have begun to open doors earlier because of fan demand to watch Curry.
Warm up for the game!
It is without question the greatest phenomenon in sports.
And even more so because not only does Curry not look like the stars of the league that promotes the greatest athletes in the world — and the NBA is without argument that — but his path is the most remarkable.
And it comes with a humble nature rare in sports.
“Take a person you know well, who is humble, good at what they do and always aware of and looking out for the people around him,” says Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams, a usually crusty longtime NBA veteran who last year was voted the top NBA assistant in the annual survey of general managers. “He’s (Curry) marvelous. I’ve never been around a more spectacularly normal superstar. He’s thoughtful, takes time for fans, does too much because he has a huge heart, religious, a family guy.
“He hasn’t been sleeping well lately because his 1-year-old is teething, he’s worried, a good father, like his father,” said Adams.
Steph’s father, Dell, was a sweet-shooting, though stand-still, guard for the Charlotte Hornets. Dell was a North Carolina celebrity, the leading scorer in team history and treasured alumni of Virginia Tech. Yet, he couldn’t even persuade his alma mater to recruit his son for basketball.
So Steph went off to smaller Davidson, a 70-kg shooter who did have an amazing shot. He never grew all that much, maybe 190 cm and well under 90 kg, slightly built, which probably is a great part of his attraction. He’s an NBA star, the star of stars now, who looks like us. Hey, if he can do that! Yeah, why not me?
Perhaps more than any star ever, Curry seems to make the stratosphere of sporting success accessible for the first time. You could be like Mike in what you wore and digested, but you couldn’t do that! But you could shoot a basketball.
No one has ever seen anything like the way Curry shoots. Certainly not in distance, winning games with 10.6- and 12.2-meter shots this season that were shots, not heaves or throws. Of course, before the 1979-80 NBA season no one much practiced them because the shots were all worth the same, two points. After that they weren’t attempted much because it only made logical sense to everyone it was better to shoot closer to the basket.
But with the evolution of the game to spreading the court to take advantage of the numerical addition and decline of the interior center with rule changes that limited contact farther from the basket, Curry has emerged, surprisingly, as the laboratory experiment of the perfect player for this time.
It’s head-scratching, face-scrunching amazing because everyone missed it.
He was the fifth guard taken in the 2009 draft; he was almost traded to Milwaukee instead of Monta Ellis because even the Warriors didn’t know what they had. Ellis was more popular, and Curry had recurrent ankle injuries that the Warriors weren’t sure ever would heal properly.
And now he’s the model player for every NBA franchise.
His feel for the game, ability to shoot off the dribble or get to the basket is a rare basketball alchemy that has produced without playing with another player one could project as a future Hall of Famer on a transcendent team. You wouldn’t even try to make that up.
But perhaps because of all the rejection, which few stars ever experience, Curry became this unusual self-made player. He realized he had to try different things, so he experimented with shots and the ball handling, things others might not because they had so much other natural talent. It’s made him, in a sense, an artist of the basketball canvas. So he thinks creatively, like few in sports do, like an artist.
Adams said Curry will get bored in games because just the scoring part comes so easily; he’ll try to be creative in ways not generally considered. Because the Warriors are such an unselfish group with strong leadership in coach Steve Kerr, they accept someone like Curry for who he is and live with the odd turnovers.
“In the history of the world,” says Adams, not one to drop accolades lightly, “no one has a better feel for basketball. Few can translate it into the physical act like that.”
He’s made even his contemporaries gasp with awe. LeBron, sure, but not someone who looks like that! Mike Dunleavy Jr. has been one of the NBA’s best shooters for a decade. Yet, he says there’s been no one like Curry.
“I’m sure it’s pure hand-eye coordination,” said Dunleavy. “He’s a great golfer. . .. It’s more the way he plays and shoots so freely. He’s gotten to a point 30-, 35-foot shots are good shots for him, for the team. He’s made it normal and I think there will now be more people who’ll come and try to shoot from deep and mimic him. But I think he’s a once-in-a-generational-type talent like Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan. Just what he does is supreme to anything we’ve seen.”
There’s always a line of fans waiting for autographs when teams arrive at their hotels on the road. It’s become so formalized now the hotels set up barriers, like farm pens, for the fans to wait. Many wait hours for a player to pass by. Most don’t stop just because there are so many fans, and a lot of those fans immediately try to sell the autographs on the Internet. Curry always has time. And you figure because when he looks into that crowd of very ordinary people most ignore he sees himself, ignored, discounted, rejected, marginalized.
You are Stephen Curry; he is you. There’s never been an NBA superstar like this.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”