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IN A WORLD GONE MAD, CURRY IS OUR ESSENTIAL FOUNTAIN OF JOY
Now more than ever, we need a hero who whisks us from daily calamity and COVID-19 outbreaks — and a record-breaking night from the miracle shooter underlined his importance in appointment escapism
He might be, without fear of overstatement, the most essential sports figure of my lifetime. No? Consider the world around Stephen Curry. We'll soon be jabbed with a fourth vaccine shot to combat a fifth coronavirus wave — sixth? 10th? — thanks to untold numbers of COVID-iots hellbent on perpetuating a pandemic. Global warming may kill us yet. The Proud Boys are invading school-board meetings and town halls. Crimes against humanity in China won't stop the Beijing Olympics.
The holidays are here. Santa Claus is wearing a mask, with Rudolph rumored to be in quarantine. Another COVID spike is canceling NBA games, putting Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden in protocols, ravaging NFL rosters, shutting down NHL teams, placing sports on alert again, disrupting our daily routines. We need a reliable source of joy, a hero to celebrate, a reason to shriek and leap and live.
The Steph Curry Experience is appointment escapism when we need it most, a slice of heaven in a time of knuckle sandwiches from hell.
And on a Tuesday night in New York, the most electric showman of the current athletic day performed on Broadway and reminded us, first, how he has transformed basketball and, perhaps more importantly, how he somehow has made everyone a Curry fan in a polarized, hate-spewing culture. His milestone was a mere formality — his five three-pointers against the Knicks gave him 2,978 in his career, breaking Ray Allen's record. But in a bigger context, the evening placed him in a silhouette, outlining how a megastar can be a humble, gracious, thoughtful human being who does not lie about his vaccine status, does not pick fights on Twitter or shout obscenities at fans, does not cheat and does not break the law. Nor does he complain when travel problems force the Golden State Warriors to stay overnight in Indianapolis and delay their hotel arrival until past noon, only hours before tipoff in a back-to-back grind. Rather, he bounces around pregame warmups like a pinball, banging bodies with teammates, laughing all the way.
Then, with everyone standing in Madison Square Garden, not midway through the first quarter, he lifts from 28 feet out, flicks his wrist on the right wing, lofts the ball over the outstretched arm of Alec Burks … and deposits history through the basket with a typically clean swish. He raises his hands, blows kisses skyward, pounds his chest and lets out a scream, sharing a long embrace with father Dell — the NBA sharpshooter who taught his son the craft — before hugging Allen amid applause, orchestra music and phone videography of fans. At courtside is Reggie Miller, who owned the record before Allen, broadcasting the game on TNT and not hiding his reverence for the moment and the man.
"The way he changed the game,'' said Miller, "is the way Babe Ruth changed the game with the longballs. He changed the game with the three-point shot. He changed the way teams approach the game.''
Before you know it, Curry is winning another game, Golden State's 23rd victory in this young season, and leaving the sport's mecca with a grin wider than Manhattan. The last time he didn't make a three-pointer was on Dec. 1, 2018 — 152 games ago — and there's no reason to think the streak won't continue deep into the decade. He's as automatic as the break of dawn. And exhilarating as the rising sun.
"I've been thinking about this number for a long time. I've even got it on my shoes," Curry says. "Basketball history. This is pretty special. Full-circle moment, man. I'm blessed. Blessed, for sure.
"Now, I can pride myself on getting to that number, hopefully a number no one can reach. I never wanted to call myself the greatest shooter until I got to this number. I'm comfortable saying that now.''
He is in love with basketball and life. Planet Earth is in love with him.
He is you. He is me. He is Everyman. He is the kid shooting jumpers in the driveway next door. He is the underdog who was the shortest guy on his team growing up, who changed his shot to adjust to taller defenders, who played at Davidson College when Duke and North Carolina and the major programs didn't want him, who had to develop a scrawny body and overcome constant ankle sprains in his early NBA seasons.
He is not LeBron James, anointed the Chosen One as a teen, built like a Mack truck. He is not Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, who maximized breathtaking talent with a killer's blood thirst. He stands 6 feet 2, tops, not 6-9 like Magic Johnson or 6-8 like Larry Bird. He is not a monster like Shaquille O'Neal or Wilt Chamberlain. Without built-in advantages, Curry had no choice but to raise shooting to an art form, a revolution, a revelation, and stretch the range of his missiles far beyond a stripe. He extended the imagination of a sport that invited creativity. And in a league that thankfully de-emphasized big men, a magician seized a generation and allowed all of us to relate to him — regardless of size, age, gender or lameness of gym jumpshot. Having validated what has been obvious for years, that he's the greatest shooter ever, Curry isn't going to change and let his head swell into the size of a basketball.
He remains insecure, despite three NBA championships and two league MVP awards, and is driven to continue working harder than the competition. Most likely, this night was a prelude to another MVP trophy, if not another title. There is too much more to accomplish to start being too impressed with himself.
"It’s not about anything in terms of how people look at me as a basketball player or where I’m ranked on all-time lists,'' Curry said the night before. "I feel I have the respect of my peers and continue to double down on that. I’m very confident in my career, what I’ve done, who I got to do it with. The accomplishment part was the fun part. And it continues to be.”
The coach who enabled his career explosion, Steve Kerr, knows the Curry phenomenon goes even deeper. "It’s the way he conducts himself off the court with such humility. That’s why he’s so appealing to so many people. He not only looks like a normal guy, he acts like one, too, and yet he has these incredible superpowers,'' Kerr said. "There’s definitely a natural gift. A lot of gifts but a work ethic that was born out of not being a McDonald’s All-American, not being a freak of nature. He was basically unrecruited out of high school, so he had to work for everything. … When you combine that type of work ethic with God-given talent, it’s pretty potent stuff.”
Which explains how Curry — when James and Aaron Rodgers and even Tom Brady have their detractors — can step into the Garden and hear goose-bumpy roars from New Yorkers. Remember, it was his wish out of college to play in the mecca of roundball. He wanted no part of the Warriors, then a nondescript franchise based 2,700 miles from his native Charlotte, and refused to work out for the team in the Bay Area. His dream was spoiled when the Warriors drafted him anyway, at No. 7, one spot ahead of the Knicks. So if the record couldn't go down in San Francisco, the Garden was perfect. So was the long standing ovation, from fans who always have appreciated royalty in enemy colors and pushed ticket demand to a median price near $1,000. The spirited salutes have been relentless throughout a five-game road trip.
He is, after all, an American darling. And his inspiration is a sweet tonic in a period that wouldn't have been the same spiritual fit for, say, Michael Jordan. He was followed by controversy — he was a capitalist, not an activist, and a problem gambler to boot — and it's mind-boggling to think how Jordan's carousing and womanizing would have dominated social media today. Curry has no such issues. He is nothing but bliss.
"It's been awesome. Every 3, the crowd goes crazy,'' he said, amazed by the exultant reactions at every stop.
The fans just want to be shocked and awed, wondering if he's real or, as Milwaukee's Jrue Holiday called him, "an alien.'' Said Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers, who has lost hair dealing with Curry through the years: "What he’s doing is revolutionary. Only the greats can do that, leave their mark like that. Actually, the great-greats. They change the game.”
"I think people have compared him to myself and to Reggie and to other past shooters, great shooters in the NBA,'' said Allen, ''but he really operates somewhat in a lane of his own.''
"What he's done has just completely redefined what's a good shot," Kerr said. "Redefined the point guard position, in terms of what's expected. You can see a whole generation of young players who are playing the game the way Steph does, with shooting range and handle, all kinds of skill and joy. It's amazing how much he's impacted the game both strategically and artistically."
Said NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a statement: ''He has revolutionized the way the game is played and continues to leave fans in awe with his amazing artistry and extraordinary shooting ability."
This is not the first time sports has soothed a planet in upheaval. It has happened during wartime, during 9/11. But faith in the future is in short supply, and if the years ahead include one dependable constant, it will be Wardell Stephen Curry II making shots from beyond 22 feet in the corners, 23 feet and nine inches elsewhere, in transition from 30 and 35 feet, and as far out as the mid-court logo, the other side of the court, the opposite baseline, from the locker-room tunnel before games, anywhere he damn pleases. He is only 33. He wants to play past 40.
"Ultimately,'' said teammate Draymond Green, who has been there for most of the treys, "I think he'll end up beating this record by 1,000-plus 3s.''
Meaning, he just might outlast a pandemic. Does it surprise anyone, as the league and sports and Planet Earth are bombarded by COVID outbreaks, that our hero has not tested positive?
Of course, he hasn't. Nor will he.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.