GAME CHANGERS….OR, ANOTHER WORD OR TWO ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #22)

Dec 8, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Golden State defeats Indiana 131-123. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often that we get to see a major American sport essentially redefined by one man. That’s what the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, a seven-year NBA veteran who, remarkably, was only the seventh pick in the draft coming out of college (i.e., he was projected as a fine player, but literally no one saw this coming), has been doing for the last several years, culminating this week in leading his team to a staggering (and record-setting) 73-9 regular season record, basically by shooting three-pointers at such a rate that he’s literally expanded the area of a basketball court that needs to be defended by a couple of hundred cubic feet and more or less brought his teammates along with him.

The ways in which this changes the game both physically and psychologically are too numerous and subtle for me to go into in depth. All you really need to know is the last phrase of that first paragraph: A couple of hundred extra cubic feet now need to be defended by the same five men who have guarded the traditional area since basketball went full court many decades ago (and which did not fundamentally change when the three point shot was implemented in the seventies). Granted those men have gotten considerably bigger and faster, so much so that the game is almost unrecognizable from what it was fifty years ago.

But no player has ever changed the dimensions of the sport so radically in such a short time. For some perspective, Curry’s fabulous season just past allowed him to join the NBA’s 50-40-90 club (fifty percent from the field, 40 percent from the three-point line, 90 percent from the free throw line).

He’s the seventh to have done it (Larry Bird (2) and Steve Nash (4) did it multiple times). But that doesn’t come close to measuring the dimension of Curry’s achievement. He’s the first guard to do it while averaging twenty points (Nash averaged nineteen in his best year). He’s the first player period, to do it while averaging thirty points (Bird fell half a point shy in his best attempt). In other words, he averaged thirty, while doing something no player at his position had ever done while averaging twenty.

That’s changing the game dramatically.

And that’s just for starters.

Bird, the first man to achieve the feat, attempted 225 three point shots (1986-87). In the thirty years since, the most three point shots attempted by any player who achieved the feat was by Nash, who shot 381 in 2007-08. That’s a substantial, but perfectly reasonable increase, fully explained by coaches and players gradually reassessing the risk/reward of the three point shot attempt in a perfectly feasible and foreseeable fashion.

This season, Curry reached the same club while making 402 threes, or twenty-one more than Nash attempted. Put another way: He made more threes this season than Nash, who previously had the two highest marks for made threes by members of this particular club, made in his two highest seasons combined. Not one or two more: 73 more. For more perspective: The year Bird established the club, he made a total of 90.

Again, this is not incrementalism. It’s a complete re-imagining of what is possible in your sport.

Even more remarkably, Curry generated all this massive offense while playing the point guard position, which is designed for ball-distribution to his teammates, at an elite level. That is, even while leading the league in scoring and expanding the entire sport’s comfort-shooting range by 3-5 feet (the sport has to deal with it, even if he’s the only player at present who can really take advantage of this expansion–they dealt with it this season by holding the Warriors to 73 wins), he’s still one of the two or three best pure point guards in the league.

Oh, by the way, he also led the league in steals, a stat that complements his expansion of the floor’s scoring space by speeding up the game and leaves Curry running free in the middle of the court where, unlike any player in history, he can literally pull up at any point past the mid-court line or, if a game clock is running out, any point beyond it and make shots previously regarded as “prayers” way more often than real prayers have been answered since Moses got shut out of the Promised Land.

I mention all this because the emphasis from the basketball press all season (and the sporting press at large) has been on silly things like whether this Warriors team (assuming it wins the championship) could beat the Chicago Bulls team that held the previous wins record (hint: we’ll never know), or whether Curry could get to 400 made threes (hint: they played the entire 82 game season, just like always, and, in a season where he absolutely either would or would not, he did). Easy narratives prevailed, as usual.

But the real story is that, in theory, any great shooter who has had the benefit of the three point line could have done what Steph Curry did, and, more significantly, any number of players could have at least built a bridge across the yawning gap that now divides Curry from the history of the game.

None did.

None did, because that’s the way a sport usually works and the way human nature usually works. The unthinkable is always impossible….until it isn’t.

And sporting breakthroughs are just like breakthroughs in art, science or general human enlightenment: First, somebody has to dream it.

The only act of pure sporting imagination I can compare Curry’s last two seasons to are Babe Ruth’s home run barrage in the early twenties. Baseball answered the impending challenge to their business model’s competitive balance by introducing a “lively” ball. We’ll see what, if anything, basketball does to bring the rest of the sport up to Curry’s startling new standard, or, more likely, bring him back to the existing standard.

Let’s hope it’s not with the reintroduction of clotheslining.**

tycobb3Speaking of a return to the primitive, and players who define their sport for an era, I am definitely looking forward to getting hold of this author’s book. Among other things, it gives the catcher’s side of this famous photograph, taken roughly a century ago, of a player who defined his own sport for an era, while, in legend at least, remaining too crude, on and off the field, to be a role model for history….

TYCOBB2

I’ve always suspected that Ty Cobb’s “virulent” racism, etc–which, along with the absence of compelling video footage, has rather overshadowed his own imaginative sporting genius (the best account we’ll ever have is from this man)–has lost nothing in the telling. That there might be a kernel of truth there is still likely, and I’m also wary of easy revisionism. Counter-myths can distort as easily as any other kind.

But if the quotes in the link are indicative, it certainly looks as though the story might have another side. Look for an assessment of that developing narrative in some upcoming monthly book report.

Meanwhile we can all amuse ourselves wondering what legends the famously mild-mannered Steph Curry will inspire a hundred years from now…if his team keeps wining championships.

**If you need a definition of “clotheslining,” the action around 0.35 to 0.38 should suffice. For the record, the NBA used to encourage this kind of thing.

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