I love LeBron James, but I can understand if you don’t. He’s the best athlete of his generation, the smartest player in the NBA, and a fantastic teammate. He’s also big and burly and runs over people. He flops and whines. Leaving Cleveland for Miami wasn’t really a dick move. But it was kind of a dick move.
Or, to put it another way: LeBron James is a human being. He is not Michael Jordan, who won all of the championships he was supposed to win. He is not a basketball player out of a children’s book. He is not a character in Space Jam (at least not yet). He is a real person who’s done a lot of stuff, and some of that stuff has been good and some of it has been bad.
That is the normal way to be great. You’ve got your fans, you’ve got your haters, and the only thing that brings us all together is mockery of your hairline.
Stephen Curry is not normal. He just broke the record for three-pointers in a single season, and there are still 24 games left to play. The record he broke was his own, set last year. Saying he’s the best shooter of all time undersells his shooting ability. Curry is so good at tossing the ball through the net that he makes other professional basketball players look pathetic by comparison. He is playing a different game than everyone else in the NBA. He is a great shooter like Einstein was a great physicist.
He is also a great dribbler, a fantastic passer, and he knows how to score close to the basket. And he can shoot, really, really well. Did you see Saturday night’s game-winner against Oklahoma City? Let’s watch it again.
This was a shot that only Steph Curry would take, much less make, a pull-up three in transition from 38 feet away.* The shot went in, of course, because Curry took it. He embraced his teammates and hopped and screamed and thrust his right arm in the air, and it was fun for everyone except the dudes with mustaches on the Thunder bench.
Steph Curry is not a human being. He is a basketball player out of a children’s book. Back in 2009, at the tail end of Curry’s final college season, Tommy Craggs described him as “a great big magic act everyone was in on.” Now, in the pros, against competition that makes undergrad illusionists disappear, the show keeps getting bigger and more far-fetched and more joyful. Fans show up 90 minutes before tip-off just to see him warm up.
Steph Curry looks like a human being. He has arms the size of arms and legs the size of legs. He weighs 190 pounds and stands 6-foot-3. He is tall for an adult male, and short for an adult male who plays professional basketball. A couple of nights a week, he darts around and through the one sliver of humanity that can make a muscular 27-year-old look like a small child. He transforms the world’s largest traveling genetic freak show into the Washington Generals, and we’re all watching the confetti fly.
There is nothing not to like about Steph Curry. He is the most relatable player in the NBA, and he is the best player on a team that is 53-5. His haters are grouchy old people like Oscar Robertson who say the game was tougher back in their day, when teams had centers, guys knew how to play defense, and players trained for the rigors of a long season by smoking a lot of cigarettes.
Sports fans and sports writers are preoccupied with legacies. Before a player retires, we think about how we’ll think about him when he does retire. We understand today’s games by comparing them to yesterday’s box scores.
That doesn’t work with Curry. We’ve never seen anyone like him, and we’ve never seen anything like this.
The best athletes are the ones that mess up the least. Great hitters get on base four times out of 10. The best shooters only make half their shots. Everyone makes mistakes, which means that nobody is unimpeachable.
That’s how sports have always worked, but that’s not how Curry plays the game. Basketball players don’t predictably knock in half-court buzzer-beaters. They don’t make 38-foot pull-up threes.*
More than all the winning streaks and the impossibly long jumpers, this is the most amazing thing about Curry’s season: He has killed nostalgia. Forget Larry Bird. Forget Oscar Robertson. Michael Jordan—stop crying, you’re still OK. But Stephen Curry is more fun to watch than any player who ever lived. He is changing the way the game is played, and we’re seeing it happen in real time. Sports fans are obsessed with the past. Stephen Curry is forcing us to live in the present.
*Correction, Feb. 28, 2016: This article originally understated the awesomeness of Steph Curry’s buzzer-beater. It was from 38 feet away, not 31 feet away.