There was a curious coda to Stephen Curry’s Most Valuable Player award presentation and press conference earlier this month. As we sat gathered in a somewhat hastily prepared ballroom on the first floor of the Oakland Convention Center – literally below the Golden State Warriors’ downtown practice facility, conveniently enough – the final question of the Q&A, after an exhaustive and entertaining speech from Curry, came from one of the team’s beat reporters.
“When did you really want to be a Warrior?” he asked. Over nearly 40 minutes, Curry had laid out his soul in front of the media, friends, family, teammates, Warriors executives and members of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, to whom he was donating the $25,000 SUV he’d won for being named MVP. Never before had Curry spoken so candidly in such a public forum, watched at home on local cable by a public that’s grown to adore his play over the past six seasons. Curry had been so humble and gracious throughout the ceremony, citing every teammate by name with thank-yous and jokes and stories – the scene was almost too much for one man.
But this was the topper. To have to single out the moment this journey had begun for him on an emotional level? No matter the burden of such a query, Curry didn’t demur. He answered honestly, no false origin story to be drummed up. “I don’t know, man,” he said after asking the reporter to clarify and then composing himself. “I didn’t know much about the organization when I was drafted. Obviously, I didn’t know the players or the kind of direction we were headed. I was just happy to be drafted. That’s a dream come true for anybody.”
After seeing Curry’s NBA career in full from a local perspective, I think this is why he is truly beloved and admired by the Golden State fans. It’s not because of his whiplash passing or his scientifically beguiling jumper. It’s not due to his cool, controlled style on the court or his many community contributions away from it. These are all inextricable pieces of the larger story, but they are bricks held up by the keystone.
With Curry, basketball is merely the spotlight that accentuates his greatest quality: an ability to relate. Curry has captured the love of Bay Area hoops fans – and, increasingly, America at large – because he is the embodiment of the kind of dreams we’ve all held. He is not of startlingly great physical gifts; to walk past him (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) on the sidewalk would not make you think you were strolling past the greatest shooter of our generation. But that is the point. It’s his result that is often super-human, but not his process. Curry, who even as the son of an established NBA sharpshooter was still too scrawny to get a big-time D-I scholarship (see: Rivers, Austin), has used the very accessible and attainable powers of hard work and sheer will and transformed himself in less than 10 years into a budding sports megastar of the highest order. He is, and will always be, more Allen Iverson than Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. It’s rooted in a “If he can do it, I can do it” mindset born of admiration.
And now, Curry is on the verge of something far more historic than the NBA-record 286 threes he sank in the regular season – breaking his own record, of course – and a career milestone that would differentiate him from Iverson and slide him more toward MJ and Kobe on the continuum of NBA legends. The Warriors are officially halfway to a championship, which would be their first in 40 years. First, they have to beat the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, a round to which they haven’t advanced in a mere 39 years. After that, they’d have to deny either the Atlanta Hawks or the Cleveland Cavaliers their first-ever title, the former a feel-great, out-of-nowhere success story, the latter with LeBron. Even for a team that’s so far won eight of 10 playoff games, that’s going to be an appreciably tough task.
Except that Curry is making it all look excruciatingly simple. Even with his two-game slump against Memphis, he’s averaging more than 28 points per game in these playoffs. The biggest reason why is that a whopping 52 percent of all his shots are threes and he’s making more than 40 percent of them. The average result is about 13 points per game on threes alone, to say nothing of the layups he forces off turnovers and pockets in transition, or even the mid- and long-range jumpers that comprise another 35 percent of his playoff shot attempts. Remember, the Warriors may be a defensive juggernaut that’s merely disguised as a jump-shooting team, but as long as Curry keeps swishing them from 62, coach Steve Kerr will say thank you very much and happily keep piling up the wins.
Maybe the craziest thing about Curry’s play thus far is that most of his baseline peripherals and percentages are trending below his regular-season stats. He’s carrying his team right now with a higher emphasis on quantity than quality, which is not only what great players do, but what great, fast-paced players must do. If Curry’s numbers were to improve toward the mean just a tick or two more, the Warriors could yet prove to be near-unstoppable in racking up eight more wins and their first title since Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” was the No. 1 song in America, only Oakland will be awash in tears of joy if it does happen.
After four long decades of futility and missed expectations, the Warriors are tantalizingly close. The Western Conference, the far-superior half of the NBA, was supposed to battle-test any team that could survive its three-round gauntlet. With its 67 regular-season wins, Golden State wasn’t tested all that much, but it has already overcome one stretch of poor play against Memphis and hopes to make quick work of Houston, whom it beat four-out-of-four this year and by double-digits each time.
The work is far from done, yes, but the truest Warrior in a lifetime already has his team past the playoffs’ halfway mark and Golden State fans are starry-eyed for something bigger, something that began with Curry’s dream, like we’ve all had, to simply be given a chance to do what he does best.