Stephen Curry and the Spirit of History

Rather than height or leaping ability, Curry creates spatial advantages by simply shooting from farther away than ever before. To prevent taller defenders from closing the distance, he speeds up his shot and increases the arc without losing efficiency, simulating the play of someone much bigger and bouncier than himself. He has collected an arsenal of different shooting forms: going left or right, backward or forward, shooting over or underneath defenders, off one leg or two, spotting up or off the dribble. It only works because of the dexterity and control of his fingertips, providing airtight ball handling abilities and freakish accuracy.

Most gratifying is how he did it

Stephen Curry

My first NBA memories begin in 1993, when John Paxson’s wing three-pointer gave the Chicago Bulls their third championship, out of six total. The top two players in my lifetime have been—unquestionably—Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Below them is a tier consisting of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal. After the Golden State Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics 103–90 Thursday night to win the NBA title, finals MVP Stephen Curry embedded himself somewhere in that second group—in my view, frankly, he is at the top.

There are Golden State Warriors fans, and there are Curry fans. The space-time bending afforded by League Pass and illegal streaming sites have rendered local allegiances, if not quite obsolete, then less relevant than ever. Curry fans like myself, scattered across the world, have waited for this finals performance for over seven years. It may feel gratuitous to hunt for more accolades after dominating the past half-decade of the sport, but, as with Jordan in 1996 after clinching his first title following a two-year layoff, Curry broke down in tears during the final seconds of Game 6. He knew he had crossed some final frontier into basketball immortality.

When the Warriors won their first title in 2015, the main story was LeBron James’s physical dominance in a losing effort. He claimed four out of nine votes for finals MVP, and the eventual choice—James’s defender Andre Iguodala—was really an indirect vote for James as the best player. (The same was true of Kawhi Leonard the year before.) In subsequent runs, a new teammate and a fellow all-time great, Kevin Durant, won the award over Curry. Coaches and data nerds will point out that the Warriors’ offense thrives only due to the space provided by Curry’s shooting threat, but there really was little statistical case to argue he deserved Durant’s trophies. And though Iguodala’s MVP selection has become an easy target, almost nobody at the time found the decision controversial. The historian in me finds it necessary to preserve the spirit of the moment in its time. Besides, that Curry had not earned the award in five previous efforts only lent this year’s series more drama.

Before Thursday, sympathetic players and media downplayed the idea that Curry needed a finals MVP to secure his place in history. His legacy, after all, were the multiple rings his team had won. But this reasoning struck me as disingenuous. Teammates Draymond Green, Iguodala, and Klay Thompson could all claim the same resumé, but nobody would ever debate their status as all-time greats, right? The difference, of course, is that Curry has been the team’s clear best player for a decade. A trophy to cement his status as a basketball deity would only be fitting; its absence glaring.

Most gratifying is how Curry did it. After that first, unexpected title run, Curry had transformed his preternatural talents into a traveling basketball circus during the 2015–2016 season, when millions truly fell in love with the team. Curry simply got hot in a way nobody else in the league ever had before. He first showed flashes of it in 2013. Against the higher-seeded Denver, he was in such a rhythm that on a fast break he casually flung the ball from forty feet away and turned around while it nestled implausibly into the basket. Against San Antonio, he mixed in floaters over Tim Duncan with turnaround pull-up threes against hapless Corey Joseph, hitting only net, no matter the distance. He would peak during that 2016 unanimous MVP season. Aside from the famed game winner in Oklahoma City, he repeatedly went on twenty-point runs to end games in the third quarter, and he seemingly made 95 percent of his halfcourt buzzer beaters. That year he trademarked the no-look three-pointer, wherein he turns around confidently to run back on defense even before the shot goes through the hoop.

So much of the regular season is about entertaining TV audiences and obliging agents and owners. But the playoffs, especially the finals, bring out a primal competition. The business of sports is never fully absent, but the best coaches and players craft every decision toward winning, aesthetics and individual statistics be damned. Winning the finals MVP means you were the best player in the least artificial, purest version of basketball. As the 2016 season unfolded I thought that James may have deservedly overshadowed the previous title—but wait until this version of Curry is unleashed on the biggest stage.

It never happened. The Warriors lost the 2016 finals to James, a historic collapse after a historically good regular season. They rebounded by signing Durant as a free agent, but in subsequent title runs Curry’s spotlight moments were only sporadic. With Durant’s departure and Thompson’s injuries in 2019, the Warriors finished at the bottom of the league the next year. It seemed the moment had passed for Curry to realize his destiny as the NBA’s best player during the most meaningful time in the season. It had felt so tangible in 2016; now it was unimaginable.

Over the years I had learned to rationalize the absence of a Curry finals MVP. Iguodala had said, after the 2016 collapse, that winning multiple titles with Durant would outweigh the pain of losing one. But over time, my friends and I came to acknowledge that winning the 2016 title would have meant more than the two as a super team. The reason was our deeply held belief that Curry was the most transcendent player of this era. We wanted universal acknowledgment.

Last week, Curry won the finals MVP with impeccable statistics—putting up thirty-one points per game, shooting 44 percent on three-pointers—and he did it with signature bravado. The masterpiece was Game 4. The Warriors were losing the series 2–1 and playing against a hostile and inebriated Boston crowd that had spooked them two nights earlier. In the final minutes of the third quarter, Curry unleashed two pull-up three-pointers dribbling to his left and from several feet behind the arc, hemmed in by two of either Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, or Derrick White, each defender towering over him. Splash. Splash. It shocked the audience and unnerved Celtics players, who offered only respectful praise after every game. It would have been nice to see Curry win the finals MVP under any circumstances. But to see him win the award by daring to take those majestic, frankly unfathomable moonballs—ones skeptics long claimed were impossible to make under the pressure of the finals—felt poetic, the realization of a dream first conjured years earlier.

Curry has managed to win at an astonishing rate while also breaking the limits of what was formerly imagined possible in the sport. Without the titles and MVPs, his shooting accuracy could be dismissed as a novelty act, the most skilled player in history hampered only by his small stature. But now he is the giant of his era. At their peak, Curry, Thompson, and Green provided a nightmare of shooting, passing, and movement that was near impossible to defend. During this year’s finals, Green’s age and Thompson’s injuries made clear that it was Curry who was the true animating force behind the team’s success, and that he could do even more.

In that pivotal Game 4, Curry made seven three-pointers, clinching the game by rattling in a transition three with under two minutes left. But to me the most breathtaking shot of the night came in the first half. Crowded and prevented from shooting in the corner, he drove along the baseline and then jumped both sideways and backwards at the same time, kicking his legs out for balance, then lofting the ball above the outstretched arms of shot-blocking genius Robert Williams III. It banked off the highest point of the backboard, far above the white square coaches teach children to aim for, before dropping straight through the net. It looked like witchcraft. I sent it to friends the next day asking if it was real. Give any one of us a basketball in an empty gym and eventually we will make a lucky shot from forty feet away. I am unsure who else in the world could have executed that improvised leaning banker.

Such shots are a reminder that Curry, among the game’s stars, relies on a singular comparative advantage, his superhuman touch. At six foot three, he has never dunked on anyone in an NBA game. Big wings like James, Durant, and Luka Dončić come into the league projected to win multiple MVPs and titles. Even when Curry started winning those accolades, he was rarely afforded commensurate respect.

Media coverage of this year’s finals seemed bifurcated into two mutually exclusive realities. Either the Celtics were “more talented” and “the better team,” who could only lose if they “beat themselves” by “playing stupid”; or, the Warriors could actually do something about it with their own strategy and skill. To the end, many writers accepted that Boston had lost the series but continued to rate them the best team. I concluded the only possible rationale for this position was the inability to overcome the sharp visual contrast between Curry and the taller Celtics stars Tatum, Williams, and Jaylen Brown.

Rather than height or leaping ability, Curry creates spatial advantages by simply shooting from farther away than ever before. To prevent taller defenders from closing the distance, he speeds up his shot and increases the arc without losing efficiency, simulating the play of someone much bigger and bouncier than himself. He has collected an arsenal of different shooting forms: going left or right, backward or forward, shooting over or underneath defenders, off one leg or two, spotting up or off the dribble. It only works because of the dexterity and control of his fingertips, providing airtight ball handling abilities and freakish accuracy.

Such talents are precarious. Unlike strength or height, they cannot be counted on every night. Sometimes Curry’s shot is 5 percent off, and the consequences for the team are disastrous. So much is riding on such thin margins. Given the degree of difficulty, his consistency over the past decade has been remarkable. But every game represents a new test: will he continue making the hardest shots in the entire sport at historic rates? Most observers are skeptical. The physics appear too daunting. Easier to bet on the big wings: Durant, Tatum, or Leonard. But Curry has a much more sustained track record of success, leading more teams to greater heights than anyone else but James. Being a Curry fan means taking a leap of faith that no matter how ugly the bad games can look, he will somehow figure it out when it matters.

The NBA is a product of—and is an ideological crystallization of—the market reality in which we live. This is why professional sports resonate so deeply with fans who share no personal connection with the players. In our quotidian lives, we suspect that our system of private wealth and exchange is in fact deeply corrupt, structured by monopolies and riven by nepotism. But deep down, we still recognize the ideal type of the perfectly competitive market, the rational kernel of a meritocracy in which the best rise to the top. Professional sports are far from pure, but they seem to me a more rational system of reward than, oh, I don’t know, the academic job market.

A few days ago, ESPN commentator Brian Windhorst pointed out that Golden State had an overall payroll and luxury tax bill that dwarfed all other teams, calling the team’s Game 5 victory a “checkbook win.” His comments were widely panned, achieving the impressive feat of garnering public sympathy for an ownership group led by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and a Hollywood producer. Joe Lacob and Peter Guber are far from the richest NBA team owners—Steve Ballmer owns the Los Angeles Clippers, after all—but they have mapped out a distinctive revenue model based upon constant returns to their massive investments.

In the first volume of Capital, Karl Marx explained how the peculiar, epoch-making logic of capital distinguished itself from the more general phenomenon of money:

[W]hile the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.

It is unlikely that Marx, writing in 1867, could have foreseen a future in which the Los Angeles Lakers were run by the Buss family on the cheap. Still, he surely would have agreed that it is the other petty NBA owners egging on Windhorst—Phoenix? Houston? Milwaukee?—who are the real capitalists gone mad, misers who simply extract rent without spending. Capitalism has its faults, but feudalism is even worse. Fans intuitively grasp this, as do commentators, which is why many national writers defended the Warriors against the league-wide trend of cutting payroll and burdening stars with inexpensive, underperforming rosters consisting of Grayson Allens and George Hills.

Ironically, it was the Warriors’ own super team era, with Durant, that seemed to signal that the NBA had exited the phase of relative parity and entered the stage of monopoly capital. It was far less fun to watch.

Following the NBA requires a certain faith in fair competition. But when the Warriors added Durant, they no longer felt like an enterprise but a conglomerate. Fans made the mental connection with the amoral Silicon Valley giants located down the block, whose employees sat courtside on TV draped in obnoxious luxury fashions. The games themselves were spectacular and thrilling to watch, but they were almost boring to talk about. So much of the NBA’s appeal is its stories of steady improvement and upward mobility, from bench player to starter, from lottery team to playoffs contender: the same kind of struggle that allows working- and middle-class fans to identify with celebrity athletes.

We want our champions to succeed in the fashion we hope, one day, to succeed ourselves. By being tested by peers and made better by our setbacks. There was no bildungsroman with the super team Warriors, though, who were pushed only by themselves. Numbers aside, neither Durant nor Curry played their best basketball during those years. At times it seemed their main motivation was simply to see how badly they could beat the Portland Trailblazers if they tried. By contrast, in this year’s playoffs, Curry became the fully optimized version of himself. He had become stronger through training, making him less of a defensive liability. On offense, he knew how to attack any scheme, playing on-ball or off-ball, against blitzes, switches, drop defense, or any other permutation. This Curry, in the finals, is what we have wanted to see all along.

Over the years, there have been many trenchant social criticisms of the Warriors. When Curry first threatened James’s dominance over the league, Michael Eric Dyson wrote an essay on colorism and the belief among critics that Steph’s popularity was rooted in his lighter complexion (Shaquille O’Neal still jokingly calls himself “the Black Stephen Curry”). To me, the accusation was resonant only because it was reinforced by surrounding racial and class dynamics. The Warriors’ famously loud and loyal, multi-ethnic Oakland fanbase—Black, Latino, and Asian—was gradually displaced by wealthy, white Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Curry and Thompson’s singular skill, long-distance shooting, has always been associated with white players from the suburbs. Many on the team grew up as privileged sons of ex-players, including Curry, Thompson, and now Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II. Head coach Steve Kerr, the white son of a famous academic, is a media darling whose liberal politics can smack of condescension. Curry emerged as a post-racial figure in the image of Obama—his golf buddy—but at a time when many began to question the value of elite multiculturalism. Still, social criticism of the NBA often strikes me as a bit of genre confusion. The league’s appeal is not that it points to a better, different society than our own but rather that it homes in on and distills its spirit of ruthless maximalization.

It is a peculiar existence to spend your day refining a critical analysis of capital in the morning and afternoon then watching NBA basketball after dinner. But true criticism is dialectical. Marx and Engels admired the bourgeoisie for developing the world market and industry, abolishing the feudal nobility, and creating a world after its own image. Market competition pushes human activity to new heights, creating historic levels of material wealth. But in proportion to gains in productivity, in the same proportion “the burden of toil increases,” laying the basis for the system’s own negation.

NBA fandom itself means temporarily letting go of the dialectic and allowing yourself to simply admire the achievements of modernity. Sports are an awesome experiment in physically maximizing competition and specialization. What if someone just took a thousand jump shots every single day? Along the way, many are broken, but the stars truly are super-humans. Curry has trained to play professional basketball since he was a child, messing around on NBA courts in Toronto and Charlotte while his father Dell practiced. Such conditions bred otherworldly skills universally recognized as revolutionizing the sport. The shots he has now normalized, the thirty-five-foot pull up, were literally unimaginable when I started watching and playing in the fourth grade.

We gravitate to teams and athletes for different reasons, but I think mainly we want to see what happens next. What innovation or talent will mark a new phase in the league’s record books? In the academy, historians are far past the days of Whiggish triumphalism, the belief that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Within the artificial constraints of a basketball season, however, linear progress feels absolutely possible. Curry’s consecration last week only reinforced my belief in the rationality of history, or at least the NBA’s version of it. Sports project a vision of collective progress far more hopeful than the actuality of late capitalism. We should never consume it naively, but I am not so sure that we can afford to let it go either.

I grew up a Seattle Supersonics fan in Everett, Washington. After the team was stolen and taken to Oklahoma City in 2008 (long story), I wasn’t sure whether I still wanted to watch the NBA. The compromise was granting myself free agency to become a bandwagon fan of whichever franchises I found most compelling that year, paying attention only to relevant stars and contenders. In subsequent seasons, I cheered for the Lakers, Celtics, Suns, Mavericks, and Heat.

I had been a fan of Curry since his electrifying rookie season in 2009, but the Warriors as a team only became relevant enough to adopt in 2014, the start of their first title run. That same year I began commuting twice a week to Philadelphia, where I had gotten a position, from New York, where my partner worked. I had survived the job market but only after being rejected for everything else I applied for. Rationally, I knew this was to be expected, but still it was humbling. I typically made it home from Penn Station just in time for Warriors home games, which started around 10 PM. Watching Curry and Thompson fly around and shoot transition three-pointers into the early morning provided a temporary psychic salve as I adjusted to the work-discipline of full-time employment. I had held jobs before, but this was supposed to be the start of a career, which I felt ambivalent about. Looking back I must have felt, subconsciously, that both the Warriors and I were just beginning our respective ascents toward whatever we were going to become.

The Warriors postseason run this year was ultimately a commanding one. Until the finals, they had never even trailed in a series. Still, every setback hit me harder than I expected. When they lost a close game to Memphis in the second round, I had the gnawing feeling it was the beginning of the end. After regaining control of the series 3–1, they dropped the next game, not surprisingly, but in humiliating fashion, falling behind by fifty-five points in the second half.

I joked to friends that these losses bothered me so much because they forced me to confront my own mortality. I thought it was miraculous that the Warriors had made it this far, but I was sure that they would lose by the third round at latest, closing the book on their dynasty. I was reminded, absurdly, of my own aging process in the intervening years: graying hair, parenthood, professional advances and setbacks. My life had unfolded in predictable ways in my thirties, both good and bad, but this only further stressed me out that the passage of time would be impossible to stop. But so long as Curry, Thompson, and Green continued running around the court and wreaking havoc with their unique chaotic synergy, I could still pretend there was time left to accomplish everything I—we, everyone—once hoped to.

I have been thinking recently about the long horizons of professional life. My job in the classroom moves in yearly increments, but I am also continuously making advance plans in my head for writing, research, travel, and parenthood years down the road. I sometimes feel like I exist simultaneously on four or five distinct, intersecting planes of time-space. When I was a child, I digested the NBA on a season-by-season basis. Every spring would bring a new champion, then by the fall our memories would be wiped clean. But this past month, it felt intuitively clear to me that while Curry and the Warriors were going to battle against Ja Morant, Dončić, and Tatum in the present, they were also boxing with the ghosts of past playoff failures.

Stephen Curry just won the 2022 finals MVP for beating the Boston Celtics and shooting the shit out of the basketball. From my living room, I processed it through watery eyes as the culmination of more than just this season or a three-year rebuilding process since 2019. Curry was finally completing his quest from the 2016 season, the last time he was seen as the unquestioned best player on the best team in the league. In that year’s Game 7 disaster, the Warriors were really only a few minutes away from finishing off the game and the title. Getting back to the same point took him another six years.

Now that the Warriors are champions again, pundits have begun projecting them as next year’s favorite. I am not there, because I remember the last time we made the mistake of taking titles for granted. From here on out, Curry enters a new phase in his career, unburdened by the ghost of the 2016 finals. At age 34, he is no longer young, at least for an athlete, but the future suddenly looks interminably bright. It is never too late to finish what you started.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author