Stephen Curry’s tale of wimp revenge has taken him to Messi-like heights
Originally published in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2016/feb/29/stephen-curry-record-season-lionel-messi
It’s what the world ignored that made Stephen Curry’s Saturday night so special. Kevin Durant sat in the stands, glum-faced, as Curry sunk the improbable, preposterous, on-script, last second three-pointer — heaved, it seemed, almost apologetically, from mid-waist — that gave the Golden State Warriors victory in one of their sternest tests of the season. Durant himself had just capped off a performance every bit as impossible as anything the Warriors idol has produced this season: He scored 37 points and shot 7-of-11 from the three-point line. But all that was forgotten in the delirium of Curry’s last-second heroics, all 50 of these United States of America seemingly losing their shit over this latest chapter in the unstoppable rise of Steph. Historically, the NBA has specialized in creating great players everyone loves to hate, anti-heroes over whose unquestionable athletic greatness hangs a permanent caveat, flawed geniuses like Kobe Bryant. Durant is a player everyone can like — an all-round Good Dude who contributes to charity and is kind to people less rich than him. Curry, alone among modern NBA greats, is the player everyone loves to love.
The great sporting streaks gain power from the depth of their shadows — the players the world forgot about, even if just for a moment, while the streak was being made. Curry, it’s true, benefits from a stellar Warriors support cast: his achievements this season would never have been possible without the dogged defending of Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green’s snappy distribution, or the tweets of Andrew Bogut. These players often get overlooked — as do the feats of the other greats in the league. If the best we can say about Curry is that he’s putting modern titans like Durant in the shade, that alone stands as testament to the scale of his achievement this season.
As it happens, there’s so much more to say — because Curry, no prize for pointing this out, is unfairly, scandalously good right now. And what he’s doing this season is more than just a fluke, or a one-season flash, or a reflection of league-wide defensive weakness, as Phil Jackson and legions of has-beens might argue: few doubt we are witnessing the first steps of a potentially historic march to greatness. Basketball has always been stacked in favor of the meatheads. The rise of Curry — impish, elusive — represents a readjustment in favor of the little guy. It’s not that he’s little, not in a Muggsy Bogues sense at least: the guy is 6ft 3in, after all. It’s more about the way he moves around the court, finding the pockets, working the dead zones, tricking the big men.
There’s something slightly nerdy about Curry: the wiry frame, the easy mastery of proper syntax when talking, the not-quite goatee, less a fully formed beard than a wispy, pubescent statement of aspirational manhood. Even the choice of clothing for Saturday night’s last-second stunner — a T-shirt rather than a sleeveless jersey — was somehow fitting. Players are supposed to graduate from sleeves to no-sleeves once they leave college and move to the pros, but Curry is doing things another way, smashing records as if in tribute to his own puniness: Look mom, sleeves! He’s the anti-macho boy wonder who never gets old. His strategy is deflective, and the unique insight offered by his genius is that often, the best way to neutralize your opponents is to refuse to confront them head-on: he meets power with evasion, and gains strength even as he runs away. In the face of power, he offers less than power can conquer. In a sport of Steves, he is Steph.
It’s important to get a handle on what exactly it is that makes Curry’s season so special. Yes, the team he leads now looks set to beat the Chicago Bulls’s 1995–96 regular-season record of 72 wins (Golden State have 53 wins with 24 games left). Yes, he’s smashed the record for consecutive three-pointers: he’s now scored from beyond the arc in 129 consecutive games. Yes, he’s already beaten his own record for total three-pointers scored in a single season — and there’s still around 30% of the season left to play. But this only captures part of the achievement. It’s not just that Curry is sinking a lot of three pointers — he’s doing them from farther and farther out. All streaks are impressive from the vantage of pure statistics — that’s their very nature — but few fundamentally explode the limits of what was previously thought possible in their given sport. As Curry’s three-point streak extends, so too does the range from which the baskets land.
Curry was a talented college player, but nothing about his three seasons with Davidson or early years as a pro suggested he would suddenly vault, in his mid-20s, onto the same plane as basketball’s true greats. In his first few seasons with Golden State, he stuck to the point guard manual, mixing work around the basket with mid-range jumpers and three-pointers. But over the past two seasons, the Curry jump shot has almost completely evaporated; this term almost all his points have come from layups and three-pointers. It’s the growing range from which he’s landing his long shots that makes this Curry season truly revolutionary. Single-handedly, he is reimagining the sport’s understanding and use of the mid-court, once thought of as a strictly transitional zone in the movement from defense to attack.
Basketball’s traditional rhythm — speed through the center of the court, deliberation on the edge of the three-point arc as different play options are assessed — is being upended: Curry has made it possible to conceive of a space of pure transition as a space of pure scoring. In the process, he’s reintroduced an element of surprise into a sport most often seen by its detractors as plodding and predictable. Curry is a freak, of course, and his ever-extending three-point range is unlikely to herald an immediate tactical revolution throughout the NBA: his achievement is unique because it’s difficult. But the arc of athletic excellence only knows one historical direction, so it’s fair to see in Curry’s example a light for future NBA generations to follow.
Where does Curry’s season fit in the pantheon of the great streaks? Wilt Chamberlain, who smashed his own points record with around 25% of the season left in 1961–62, offers the most obvious corollary in basketball, and some have reached for the Michael Jordan comparisons. But this era is different to Chamberlain’s, and Jordan’s record is a tribute to sustained, superhuman greatness over three different decades — something Curry will only be able to match years from now. For pure streakiness, Rocky Marciano, Wayne Gretzky, and Lionel Messi all enjoyed unbroken chains of achievement on a level similar to Curry’s — with Messi’s 2012–13 feat of scoring in 21 consecutive games, which overlapped with his 2012 record of 91 goals in a calendar year, probably the closest we have to a modern point of comparison. Messi, like Curry, doesn’t look like much of an athlete: he’s the high priest of wimp revenge. Messi, like Curry, doesn’t just score a lot: he expands the realm of the possible. But Messi had been heralded as a future great since his teenage years; he didn’t suddenly, without much warning, explode onto a plane of greatness as if kicking through a locked door, dragging an entire team along with him. With Curry, this is what we are witnessing right now. Perhaps, in the end, it’s pointless to make comparisons, because however you look at it, Curry’s season has no precedent. The numbers are jaw-dropping but what makes Curry’s streak so special is that it’s about more than the simple accumulation of stats: it’s a movement, an opening, an advent, a Bernie Sanders-like strike for the little guy, its own kind of basketball revolution.