The Year of Magical Shooting
How Stephen Curry became a basketball folk hero.
Barring a miracle, the annual Elks Lodge meeting known as Selection Sunday will gavel to a close with Stephen Curry and little Davidson College left out of the NCAA Tournament brackets. This is a pity, not just for Curry and Davidson but for those of us who prefer our basketball blithe and unconstipated— which is to say, those of us who are not Billy Packer. It also means that Curry, the NCAA's leading scorer and the man who turned last year's tournament into his own personal Vegas act, will likely close out his amateur career on college basketball's undercard, the NIT. He will get his 30 a game, book it, and could conceivably shoot an otherwise hopeless Davidson bunch into the Madison Square Garden portion of the proceedings—and it all will be about as sad as watching Olivier do dinner theater.
"I don't think we've seen anything like him in college basketball for decades,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told Dan Patrick, and Huggins would know, having spent the previous two decades acting as a bail bondsman for some of the finest players in the land. This was back in December, a day after Curry dropped in two dead-eye 3-pointers in the game's final 1:15 to beat the Mountaineers at the Garden, the last on a shimmying little flick of a crossover that about juked his defender into the beer stand. Huggins, in the interview, likened Curry to the gold standard of hoops showmen, Pete Maravich.
These kinds of players appear on rare occasion, and invariably they become a phenomenon. I don't mean the otherwordly specimens, like LeBron James and Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor, who crack open basketball's possibilities and push the game to new dimensions. I mean the scorers who excel within the game's given parameters, who master its angles rather than invent new ones, whom even the otherworldly specimens feel compelled to see for themselves. LeBron James watched Curry play in last year's tournament and rose to his feet twice to applaud. This year, James again bore witness. Curry scored 44.
Curry is less athlete than folk hero, a star who shares a strand of DNA with the knife throwers, crack shots, and pool-hall massé artists of the world. Happy cults have always sprung up around players like this, and a faint air of religion seems to hang over their celebrity.A very brief and random survey: There was Rick Mount, whose jump shot lit up Indiana basketball in the 1960s. As a boy in Lebanon, Ind., he would shoot tennis balls into a Planters peanut can with the bottom cut out, and then later into a hoop contrived out of coat hanger and fishing net. At Purdue, he once scored 61 points on 47 shots—"You know how much skill it takes to get 47 shots up in 40 minutes?" he jokes to this day—and video review later determined that, had the 3-point line existed in 1970, he would've had 74. As a high-schooler, I once attended a basketball camp at which Mount gave a brief shooting clinic. Over and over, he'd pop in a jumper, and the ball would hit the floor with so much English that it'd return obediently to his hand. He called it "walking the dog back."
"God was looking after me, you know?" he once said. "The jump shot he gave me, that was my special gift."
There was Maravich, of course, who for too long after his death in a church pickup game was thought of as a parable about the wages of obsession and dizzy celebrity—like a floppy-socked Jim Morrison, only talented. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had Chris Jackson—he later converted to Islam and changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—of whom his coach at LSU, Dale Brown, once declared: ''I believe there are certain people God touches, and I believe He put His hand on Chris' shoulder and said, 'You're special.' " (Curry's game bears more than a superficial likeness to Jackson's. You'll recognize the former in Brown's description of the LSU star's ability to get out of traps: "They locked up Houdini, and he got out, didn't he? Chris dances. He skates. Gee, he evaporates. It's like Shazam!") It's said that one year, an 8-year-old girl called a New Orleans hotline to say she was running away from home. She planned to visit Jackson because, she explained, "he makes me so happy." As Curry Kirkpatrick recounted in Sports Illustrated: "The counselor who took the call told the girl that if she returned home, CJ would win a game for her. The next game Jackson did just that, beating Vanderbilt with a last-second rainbow from 18 feet." That this story is no doubt a heaping pot of beans is immaterial. The point is that Jackson was the sort of player about whom people wanted to concoct such wonderful, Bunyan-esque lies.