For all the wizardry he’s pulled on the court, Steph Curry’s greatest trick might be getting me to like the NBA again
Before I begin, I have an admission to make: I am not an NBA fan. Well, not anymore. But seeing the Warriors and what they have been building might just have me feeling otherwise. A 131–123 over my hometown Pacers Tuesday night pushed them to 23–0, the best start ever to open a season. While Klay Thompson starred in that most recent contest, the best part of the Dubs’ dominance has been fellow Splash Brother Steph Curry, the first player in a while I feel willing and able to latch onto.
The NBA I fell in love with was headlined by Larry Joe Bird, a poor kid from rural Southern Indiana with a wicked trash ‘stache and an even more wicked stash of trash talk. He was the hick from French Lick, a pasty white product of my native Hoosier State who had embraced aspects of the game previously reserved for more urban settings.
Bird was improvisation personified, making plays and shots only a card-carrying member of Basketball MENSA could envision and doing it all with chutzpah befitting a prizefighter. An unlikely showman, Bird was all awkward angles and unathletic grace. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he had mad #swagger before it had become a hackneyed catchphrase for the hashtag set.
To a young boy growing up in rural Northwest Indiana, this native son was the NBA. I reveled in the the exploits of Air Jordan, The Mailman, The Human Highlight Film, and The Round Mound of Rebound, but one man in short green shorts and black Converse kicks stood alone. They called him Larry Legend, and the stories of his boasting are exactly that.
But as time wore on, the body that appeared to be more mobile home than manse — certainly not fabricated to reach the highest levels of athletic achievement — finally succumbed to its limitations. Unable to sit when not on the court, Bird would lay on the sideline to alleviate the excruciating pain in his back. I bore witness to his diminution, finding solace in the brilliance that flashed with decreasing frequency and wincing along with the icon as he fought against inevitability.
But no sooner had Bird begun the march toward finality than I found a new shooting star to follow, this one a bit more of a renegade. Bird was a guy you couldn’t help but love. Reggie Miller loved being the enemy. I hadn’t even been aware of the Pacers until a trip to Market Square Arena to see the Harlem Globetrotters revealed to me the presence of a (semi) professional team in Indiana. As a kid from a farm with access to only South Bend and Chicago media, my knowledge of the world beyond Michiana and the Region was limited at best.
Upon recovering from my initial shock, I quickly grew fond of the team fronted by Wayman Tisdale and Chuck “The Rifleman” Person. But it was another Pacer who would soon capture my heart.
A love that sprouted in the 80’s with Larry Bird really took root in the 90’s, fostered by a skinny kid from Riverside, California with an angled high-top fade, a jacked-up grill, and an unconventional — and that’s a euphemism — shooting form born of launching shots from the rose garden that lie beyond the safety of his driveway’s asphalt. In Reggie Miller’s case, the latter affront was dismissed as a matter of “even if it’s broke, don’t fix it.”
And let’s talk about that form for just a moment, shall we? Propelled by legs only Colonel Sanders could love, Miller rose and fired, arms coming together and nearly crossing as he did so. His was the Humpty Dance of jump shots, ruing the image and style I was used to as one leg kicked out to catch defenders and draw unwarranted fouls.
But they’re all the same when the lights go out, and Miller almost always lights-out. Just ask the Knicks.
They listed him at 185 lbs, but if attitude was corporeal, Miller may as well have been Shaq. As a cocksure kid myself, there was nothing better than seeing him hit a three and then walk to the Bulls logo at center court and bow to the crowd in every direction. Sure, Toni Kukoc banked in a three-pointer of his own to win, but Miller showed that he had a pair and that they were pure brass.
But come to think of it, it did get better. Miller’s most memorable moments would come against the Knicks in a made-for-TV rivalry that couldn’t have been scripted any better. Reggie took on the role of anti-hero, gaining infamy for yapping at Spike Lee and acting out the director’s beloved team’s fate as he went off for 25 4th-quarter points in the Garden. The original joint did well enough to spawn a sequel with a climax that featured Miller scoring 8 points in 9 seconds to stun, well, everyone.
There I was, jumping up and down on my parents’ couch as shot after shot…after shot after shot fell, each taking Knicks fans’ spirits with them. Not even Patrick Ewing routinely getting 5 steps in the post mattered against Reggie’s barrage. Miller had supplanted Bird from his roost in hear, no small feat.
In time, I had the opportunity to attend my hero’s basketball camp, where I had the chance to give him an earful when he guest-refereed my team’s game. When I felt my ankle crunch beneath me on a drive to the basket the next day, it was Miller’s face I saw first through the tears I was fighting to keep from spilling. He was the one who carried me off the court and helped to get me iced and taped.
I watched the final acts of his traveling stage show from 80 feet above the floor, traversing an open catwalk as I toiled to update the manual scoreboards at Conseco Fieldhouse. But as Reggie Miller’s career breathed its last, so did my affection for the NBA.
Allen Iverson was greased lightning, Vince Carter a freakish leaper, and Kobe Bryant possessed of an unparalleled drive. But none did it for me. LeBron James came along, a tight end masquerading as a small forward, but even his brutish balletics couldn’t outweigh a meticulously formulated brand that struck me as staid. My adulation became amused observation, which devolved to detached passivity. Absent those touchstones of my youth, I fell away from the NBA and cared little to return. Until, that is, a phenom claiming a lineage to those days of yore burst onto the scene.
Steph Curry is the actual child of marksman Dell Curry, but he’s metaphorical lovechild of Bird and Miller, a beanpole with a flair for the spectacular (kinda like Miller, only with the trophies to back it up) and self-confidence that requires its own checked bag on road trips. He had achieved a small degree of notoriety after leading an unheralded school to unlikely heights (kinda like Bird) but concerns over durability hurt his stock.
Makes sense though, right? I hadn’t thought this little twig of a man capable of weaving through the trees, figured he’d be far more likely to break his own ankles than a defender’s. And that’s how it looked early on as sprains hampered the young marksman early on, costing him nearly all of the 2011–12 season. But once he finally got healthy…
Wardell Stephen Curry II was built to play in the digital age. He’s a GIF waiting to happen, embarrassing defenders with silky smooth spontaneity that has inspired countless Vine loops and didyouseethat’s. As for Curry himself, though, there have been times when, no, he didn’t see that…
The only thing missing is an index finger raised above his head. He might be a darling of social media, but Curry is a throwback those two heroes of my youth. He’s both of them and neither of them. It’s not his game that reminds me of Bird and Miller though, it’s his game.
He is Carlos Hathcock and P.T. Barnum, often turning his sharpshooting into a three-ring circus. Steph is Bird’s extemporaneously unorthodox playmaking and Miller’s IDGAF antics, buffed and polished to remove the annoying burrs and corners. To bear witness to Steph Curry is to see something as familiar as it is unprecedented in basketball.
Whether he’s admiring a three-ball or dancing on the sideline as his teammates finish off games he’s already put out of reach, Curry just exudes fun. His smile is infectious, indoctrinating all you see it into his cult of personality. This guy could stab your team through the heart, then pimp his dagger of a shot with a flamboyant gesture and still have you loving him.
Steph Curry is the leading practitioner of an elite group of assassins that does its work from long range. In terms of NBA history, it’s a fairly young group, having just been founded some 36 years ago.
Larry Bird helped to usher in the three-point shot, which was adopted by the NBA during his rookie season of 1979–80. While Bird would twice lead the NBA in makes from behind the arc (82 in 1985–86 and 90 the following season), he only averaged only .7 makes per game and never made more than 98 in a year (1987–88), retiring with 649 total threes made.
Reggie Miller debuted that same season and splashed 61 home runs (the preferred nomenclature of Pacers PA man Reb Porter) in what was mostly a bench role. He would up that total to 98 the following season but would not fall under the century mark for another 15 years. Miller retired in 2005 as the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers made (since eclipsed by Ray Allen, who had 2,973) with 2,560 (1.8 per game), nearly 2,000 more than the man who ended up coaching him through some of those iconic moments.
By the time Curry came along 5 years later, the 3-ball was neither a gimmick nor the sole property of shooting guards and maybe the occasional small forward. Almost everyone is moving downtown these days, but that just makes Steph Curry the landlord.
He’s never hit fewer than 151 trifectas in a full season, and now boasts the top 2 — and 3 of the top 5 — single-season 3-pointers-made totals in history. Curry has averaged 2.9 threes per game in his 6 seasons, but has hit an absurd 3.47 per over the last three seasons. If he keeps close to his current pace, Curry will catch Allen around the All-Star break of the 2022 season, his 13th in the NBA. He will be only 34 years old.
Miller was 39 and took 18 seasons to reach his total. Allen was 38 but took the same number of seasons to reach his. Barring injury or significant erosion of talent, Curry should be able to take the all-time record and set it up a very high shelf.
Because of the changing environment of the NBA, moving away from cumulative and into relative stats may better illustrate some of the similarities between the players in question, particularly Miller and Curry. Over the course of his career, Larry Bird had an effective field goal percentage (eFG%, which weights three pointers as 1.5 times more valuable than twos) of 51.4 percent and true shooting percentage (TS%, adjusted to include value of both threes and free throws) of 56.5 percent. Those are only marginally higher than his actually FG% of 49.6.
Miller, on the other hand, turned a 47.1 percent FG% into a 54.4 percent eFG% and 61.4 percent TS%, products of his three-heavy approach. Curry’s numbers are almost identical, as he has thus far put up an eFG% of 56.4 and a TS% of 60.5 as compared to an actual FG% of 47.3 percent. Curry has more flash and is more prolific, not to mention far better at getting his own shot and creating opportunities for theirs. While generally disparate, there are enough similarities in the stats for me to confirm shades of both Bird and Miller.
But this isn’t about numbers, not really.
I used to have fun watching NBA basketball, used to stay up late to watch all the West Coast games. The Association was it for me, but when Reggie’s career would down, that was pretty much it for me. My touchstones gone, my fandom was PM Dawn. I was too disinterested to bother telling anyone to get off my yard, so I just hung a No Trespassing on the tree out front and became a curmudgeonly recluse.
And then this kid came along, ignoring the sign and walking right up to my door to ring the bell. I wanted to be angry at first, but how can you get mad at a face like that? I mean, I’m still not ready to open the door all the way just yet, but I’m about to head out to the garage to check the sparkplugs on the mower. After all, I’ve got to have the lawn looking nice if I’m going to let the kids play on it again.