Beauty and the Beast – Steph and LeBron

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I’m watching NBA playoff games, and that’s as unlikely as my setting up a herpetarium in the bedroom.

I am a total bandwagon fan of the NBA, only following the sport for the past three years after almost twenty years of thinly veiled contempt for professional basketball and for what I considered its grotesquely overpaid  divas – both players and coaches.

I’d been a fan in my boyhood, unattached to any particular team; I liked individual players, each of whom was a hero for differing reasons.  I grew up in New England and saw more of the Boston Celtics than any other team, and those years were very good years for Boston, so my attention was often focused there.  Bob Cousy (The Houdini of the Hardwood) was a brilliant passer and playmaker, slick, deft, bordering on flashy but so passionate about the game that his behind-the-back no-look passes to equally adept teammates – Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones – were simply part of a Celtic machine that operated with surgical precision.  Equally talented as an offensive player, the Celtics’ Bill Russell was a defensive genius, a shot blocker, rebounder, and a team leader who took the Celtics to 11 championships in his 13 seasons with the team. If I’d known the phrase, I would have said I admired Russell because he played within himself, a warrior handing opponents one slam after another with calm dispatch.

I didn’t much care for Wilt Chamberlain; he was conspicuously taller than the rest of the league (and humanity) so his scoring seemed inevitable.  Much later, when I saw the documentary about Chamberlain’s years as a waiter in the Catskills, I found him more interesting.  I did care quite a bit about four or five other luminaries – Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor for example.   I was a sophomore in high school when Baylor pumped in 61 points against the Celtics in game 5 of the 1962 finals.  Baylor was an incredible athlete with a smooth jump shot and remarkable rebounding skill.  I’ve always admired rebounders , so I’ll put Bob Pettit and Jerry Lucas on my list as well.

All of which is to explain that I stuck with the NBA watching the Lakers,  Detroit’s Bad Boys, Jordan and Pippen, John Stockton … and then/but then  … the lockout.  Jordan to the Wizards. Kobe and Shaq.  Isaiah Thomas and Jim Dolan.  Practice, we’re talking about practice.  Ron Artest.  Tanking otherwise known as “the process”.  Players demanding trades from small markets.  Players firing coaches.  Personalities larger than teams. Teams out of the chase before the season began – Phoenix, Memphis, Dallas, Sacramento, Atlanta, Chicago, Brooklyn, New York, Charlotte.

Back to Kobe.  As others have noted, unimpeachably brilliant player (at times), probably no more silly and egomaniacal than many superior athletes, but somehow allowed by the Lakers’ owners to run a dynasty into the ground.  Kobe sucked the air out of the league and replaced competition with contention.  There were still great players on the floor, but the tone of the game had soured.  Yeah, I’m blaming my disaffection with the league on Kobe, although the game itself had grown stale and formulaic.  Remember, this was the era in which the Spurs were an outlier because they played as a team.

My son and I saw LeBron James play in his senior year at Saint Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio.  At least three of St. Mary’s games were televised that year, pretty much the only regular season high school games broadcast at that time, but LeBron had already moved into the pantheon of remarkable athletes sometime between his junior and senior year.  Sure, it was high school basketball, and some of the play was spotty, but this 6’5 high school kid ran the floor as if he was literally a man among boys.  His physical presence was notable; he had grown four inches since his freshman year, and he was less bountifully muscled than he has become, but rock solid and capable of bouncing defenders at will.  To use the scouting lingo, he had hops, a smooth stroke, and saw the floor.  What most impressed me though, in addition to this kid’s mature charisma, was his ability to dish the ball to teammates with stunning precision.  I’d seen Shaq play at LSU, and he moved well for a 7 foot kid approaching 300 pounds, was clearly a force of nature, but did not have LeBron’s mastery of the game.  Shaq could rebound and drop a hook shot, but he played in reaction to the game around him.  Even as a high school senior, LeBron created the game.

OK, willing to endure Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson, Dwight Howard, and Kobe, to see how the phenom would turn out, and that meant watching the Cavs who were not good, so not good, that there was talk that Carmelo Anthony and Dywane Wade were more likely to emerge as stars.  By the end of his second season, LeBron had pulled the Cavs above .500 and was averaging almost 30 points a game, despite being the only threat on the floor for the Cavs.  “The Decision” broadcast in 2010 took LeBron to Miami and created the first of the athlete controlled “super” teams, interesting in the abstract, but indicative of the character of NBA basketball at the time; the Spurs remained the only team operating as a team.  I lost interest in seeing Kobe and Carmelo hog the ball and spent my winters hoping the Red Wings could figure things out before sliding into irrelevance in the NHL.

LeBron’s return to Cleveland awakened my curiosity, (do you remember the East before the Celtics and Sixers were reanimated?) and the drive toward a championship season had all the elements of mythic battle, particular to the City of Cleveland and to LeBron.  He had come of age, had multiple MVP seasons and All Star appearances behind him, and was now returning home to do for Cleveland what no other player could have done.  He was bigger, more focused, humbled by the response to his decision, ready to carry this franchise on his back.  There were other impressive players in the league, but none took the team’s success as personally as did LeBron James, and in the playoffs against the Warriors he rose (literally – remember his chasing down Iguodala and blocking the lay-up in game 7?) to the challenge.

LeBron is smart and still sees the floor better than all but one or two guards in the league.  He is 6’8 of ball handling acumen with the ability to crash the boards, go to the rim, loft a three, float a short shot, and sink a fade-away jump shot as the clock winds down.  He is a master of the game with unmatched skill and yet, for all his attainments, LeBron  is a beast – durable, tough, imposing, physical, and driven by a fierce will to win.

The conversation, then, turns to Steph Curry, born in Akron, Ohio, the son of Dell Curry, then playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but with the exception of that accident of birth, the mythos of these two players could not be more unalike.  If LeBron is a force of nature, Steph is the play of sunlight on the water.  OK, that’s out there, but there is joy in Steph’s play even as he takes the role of the baby-faced assassin.  In a sense, for Steph basketball is play and the court a playground.  This is not to say that he lacks competitive fire; he is a relentless competitor, but even in the heat of battle, there’s nothing grim about his play, determined, for sure, but not grim.

Curry was good in high school, very good.  He had played competitive club basketball in Toronto when his dad was with the Raptors and later for Charlotte Christian School, taking them to three state playoffs while winning all conference and all state honors.   Whereas some part of LeBron’s dominance is in being “roughly the size of a barge”,  Curry wore the number 20 on his high school jersey because the 30 jersey was too big for him.  He tipped the Toledos at 130 pounds and stood 5’7  as he began his career at Charlotte Christian.  His games were not televised nationally, but there are some clips available that show him in at the start of his high school career.  From a quick glance and from the testimony of his teammates and coaches, it is clear that Steph had the ball handling skill and shooter’s eye that would distinguish him throughout his collegiate and professional career, but he was small enough, that he had to hold the ball at his shoulder to begin his shot and often had to jump to get a shot past a taller defender.  Even in his high school years it was clear that the only defense against his sharpshooting was to swarm him, suffocate him before he could loft a three.

Coming out of Saint Mary’s, LeBron was the undisputed first pick in the NBA draft.  Curry had hoped to follow his dad in playing for Virginia Tech, but was considered too small to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  Lightly regarded by the other members of the strong ACC including Duke and Wake Forest, Steph was recruited by Davidson College, then a formidable member of the Southern Conference.  Davidson with an enrollment just under 2000 is among the most highly regarded academic institutions in the South, routinely called “The Princeton of the South”, and it’s had its moments in the athletic arena as well,   Celebrated coach Lefty Driesell took the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament in the 1960’s, earning a Sports Illustrated’s rank of number one in the nation in 1964.  The next wave of Wildcat fever peaked during Steph’s 2008 season when Davidson knocked off Gonzaga, Georgetown, and a tough Wisconsin team to meet Kansas in the elite eight thanks to Steph’s 30 plus points in each of those games.  At the end of his junior year, Curry was the leading scorer in the nation, a seasoned point guard and the seventh overall pick by the Warriors.

Conjecture runs wild in any conversation about sports and about the composition of teams in particular.  Does the team have chemistry, the players complementary skills, veterans who show composure under pressure, the right coach for the right star, a happy locker room?  And the answer for great teams is, sometimes.

There’s no kind way to describe the Warriors’ franchise that Curry joined in the 2009-2010 season.  Things had been rocky in the prior decade, but in Steph’s first season, the Warriors called up five D League players signed on a ten-day contract.  Yes, the Iowa Energy, the Idaho Stampede, and the Sioux Skyforce coughed up three starters that season.  Nevertheless, Curry averaged 17.5 points a game and was runner-up to Tyreke Evans as the Rookie of the Year.  Injuries plagued Steph throughout the 2011 season, allowing backup, Jeremy Lin, to take the floor when he escaped captivity with the Reno Bighorns.  Curry only appeared in 26 games that year, and many basketball cognoscenti thought the Warriors made a mistake in giving injury-prone Steph Curry an extension on his contract for the 2012 -2013 season.

But here’s where the addition of one player can make an outsized difference.  Klay Thompson joined Steph in the backcourt, and, as the “Splash Brothers”, they rained three point shots on opponents, leading the Warriors to their first playoff in 13 years.  Curry dropped 252 three point baskets that season, combining with Thompson for a total of 483 treys, and the Warriors appeared in the NBA playoffs for the first time in 13 years.

Steph was averaging 24 points a game, had earned the title of “baby-faced assassin” and was still splashing with Thompson as the Warriors got a second playoff sixth seed in the 2013 – 2014 season, but the Warriors current success as a team began to gel when Steve Kerr, the NBA’s most precise three point shooter of all time took the helm in 2014 – 2015.

And here’s where I fall into the adjectival abyss in a lame attempt to evoke the impact of Steph Curry’s shot on me, on the league, on the game, on the future.  It may not matter that his release is as unfailingly elegant as it is, or that the arc is so geometrically precise that the moment the ball leaves his hand we know that Steph’s shot is clear and clean, or that he’s taken the shot from just short of mid-court.  Yes, his shots are beautiful, and yes, I see them in my dreams, but it is in the moments just before the shot that Steph Curry causes one to catch one’s breath.  What words suffice?

Here’s a brief account of how Steph gets space in order to shoot.  He starts with a crossover (ok, not the only crossover in the league) between his legs, followed by a step back, into a cross back, which sounds simple enough (!) except that he has already dribbled past two defenders and shrugged of a third before sensing that the range is right, the defender off-balance, the ball coming off the dribble in just the right ascendency.  He’s moving forward, back, side to side, and then up.

Don’t take my word for it.  An article in the New York Times profiled several ballet dancers who have become basketball fans after having seen Curry in action.  One of these, the director of the Oakland ballet, put it this way, “…he’s not even trying to do something beautiful.  His coach doesn’t tell him how to land, but he does.  It’s innate.  His whole body knows what to do in the air and in the return.”

Steph has already changed the game; his team passes frequently, creates motion and space, and wins consistently.   As we speak, a twelve-year-old somewhere is working on his crossover and another dribbling with two basketballs.  The next generation of basketball players will come up shooting from behind the three point line and handling the ball in an attempt to recreate Steph’s magic.

At the end of this rhapsody, it occurs to me that I’ve come full circle, from boyhood appreciate of the wizardry on the best ball handler of his time (Cousy) and the most physically imposing player of his time (Russell) to LeBron and Steph.  So, in the end, I have to admit that LeBron is also a beauty and Steph some kind of beast.