A few years back, I spoke to a high school baseball coach in Alabama who had the good fortune of witnessing the force of nature that was Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson, and he was telling me a story about Bo managing to coax an inside-the-park home run out of what should have been a bloop single…after which came the inevitable insistence that this was not a myth exaggerated for effect, that this had really happened.
The thing about Bo, this coach told me – the reason he believed so many of the stories about him veered into the realm of the implausible – was because he managed to defy the geometry of the game itself. He was bigger and faster and stronger than anyone who had come before him. And this is how Bo graduated into American mythology; this is how the stories about him burgeoned into the realm of the fantastical, how he eventually became a superhero, both in video games and in real life, before vanishing into the ether post hip-injury.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Bo lately, because there are only a handful of times in one’s life when a human’s physical performance utterly defies the natural laws of a sport, and it seems clear we are in the midst of such a moment right now. Just last week, the makers of the NBA 2K video game fessed to the fact that Stephen Curry’s prowess this season had them utterly flummoxed. And that was before Curry went 20-for-27 from the floor in the second game of a road back-to-back against Orlando; that was before Curry made 12 of 16 three-point attempts on Saturday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and culminated the best NBA regular-season game in recent memory by pulling up from roughly 32 feet, or 35 feet, or – aw, hell with it – 38 feet, and sinking a shot that proved what we already suspected, which is that Curry has essentially redefined the geometry of basketball itself. He is changing basketball, just as Bo long ago elevated both baseball and football into more electrifying athletic pursuits.
In a way, Bo’s dominance was easier to explain, because (unlike Curry) he looked the part: He was sculpted in ways that few athletes ever were, despite the fact that he never really lifted weights. He was a divine gift, and yet there were skeptics within the moment, particularly when Bo decided that he was going to play both professional baseball and professional football. Who did this guy think he was?
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But this is to be expected. This is why, even as Curry appears to be beyond reproach both on and off the court, there are still a few crotchety voices who feel the need to publicly condemn him. And the reason why is obvious; Curry is a progressive force within his own sport, and progressive forces are always going to be met with a certain amount of resistance.
Sports are inherently grounded in nostalgia, and people want to remember the games as the way they used to be when they were young. But the leagues themselves are constantly pushing for more interesting and dynamic methods of execution, because this is how the culture evolves: Every sport is perpetually seeking to become a better televisual product. So pro football alters the passing rules in the late Seventies, facilitating the West Coast offense of Bill Walsh; college football eventually follows suit, spreading the field behind dynamic coaching freaks like Mike Leach; baseball coalesces around the home run, thereby ushering in the heyday of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and the steroid era; and the NBA reacts against the grinding pace of the Nineties, which leads us to Steph Curry and the age of the 3-pointer.
This is how it always happens: A change agent facilitates the evolution. Anyone who says that pro basketball today is not as exciting as it was when those Jordan-era Bulls were winning 72 games is clinging to nostalgia. It’s as objectively untrue as claiming that Lombardi’s Packers were more exciting than Belichick’s Patriots. Maybe you think they were better, but that’s a different argument. The natural evolution of sports means there can always be disputes about eras; but what cannot be disputed is that every sport tends toward the bigger and the faster and the more wide-open. This is why sports are inherently progressive, and this is why Steph Curry is almost certainly the herald of a new era, whether you like it or not.
“It’s not usually like this,” a friend in the Bay Area recently said, when wondering whether his 6-year-old son would be spoiled by watching Curry play this season. And he’s both right and wrong: It isn’t usually like this, and Steph Curry is an utter original, but the changes he’s wreaking are almost certainly here to stay.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb