Sports, like movies and music and all eternal popular entertainment, are about fantasy. We watch because we imagine ourselves out there. We try to light our cigarettes like James Dean. We try to dance like Michael Jackson. We try to jump-step in the hole like Derek Jeter. We mumble like Bogart, we strut like Jagger, we strike like Ronaldo. We're watching them out there, but we're really watching us.
It's why these art forms -- and they're all art, from cinema to music to athletics -- have such a hold on our imaginations. When we're shooting baskets at the park, or listening to music on our headphones, or just posing in a mirror before a big night out, we need a model for our best selves. This is where we look.
A lot of these personifications are local and deeply personal. When I was 8 years old, I could impersonate the batting stances of everyone in the lineup of the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. Ozzie Smith did the Joe Morgan elbow flip back then; George Hendrick had his stoic posture; Darrell Porter looked like he was hanging out the window of a moving car. (It will never stop delighting me that Batting Stance Guy exists to make this vivid and real.)
But most of the personifications are more universal and, more to the point, generational. Ninety years ago, Babe Ruth was so ubiquitous and massive that Japanese soldiers used to taunt American POWs by besmirching his name. The idea of a home run trot didn't really exist until Ruth perfected it; every home run trot since has been a variation of his. You saw him, and you wanted to be him. As the years went along, we all found our own heroes to emulate. Mickey Mantle's follow through. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook. Barry Sanders' juke move. (Or O.J. Simpson's, for that matter.) They are the frozen-in-time logos of their sports. If you were in a country in which you did not speak the language but needed to convey "baseball" or "football," these are the movements you'd make. They signify sea changes in their sports, evolutionary leaps forward. They don't just represent their sports. They are their sports.
For roughly three decades, in the world of the NBA, this has been almost exclusively the domain of Michael Jordan. Every kid -- and every player in the NBA -- was Jordan in their backyards. Maybe it was the tongue. Maybe it was the shrug. Maybe it was the celebration after the Craig Ehlo shot. Maybe it was any of these. But it was probably this:
You can sum up 30 years of sports history in that dunk. Athleticism, showmanship, the isolation of individual achievement. It's what we all did in our backyards. That right there was the fantasy.
But it's not that anymore. It's going to be this.
Stephen Curry has changed so much in the last 18 months of his emergence from "fragile crowd pleaser" to "the most thrilling athlete many of us have ever seen," but I think the fundamental, foundational difference he has made is on the playgrounds. Driving the lane -- something Curry is really good at, by the way -- or throwing down a monstrous dunk suddenly don't seem like as much fun. A game that had organized itself around principles of aggression and masculine one-upmanship, about asserting dominance over other men, suddenly is a lot more chill than that. It's a guy with a quick crossover to lose a defender who's half a foot taller than he is -- who happens to be a future Hall of Famer -- and tossing up a shot from near half court like he is swatting at a fly, or hailing a cab, or scratching an itch on the top of his head. He just tosses it up like he's barely thinking about it, like he just happens to be here, and it falls in, no big thing, swish of course swish.
And then there is not fury, or domination, or aggression. There is simply joy.
The Golden State Warriors are headed to their second consecutive NBA Finals, and I mean no offense to the Oklahoma City Thunder or their fans when I say thank goodness. What Curry and the Warriors have done to the NBA, and basketball in general, over the last 18 months has been cleansing and revolutionary. It has been a bloodless coup. They've taken all those old storylines -- James vs. Durant! James vs. James! Heroball vs. Analytics! -- and dispatched them through the simple loveliness of their play and of, mostly, that shot. To have that ended before the Finals -- to have this record-breaking season snuffed out, like that -- would have felt like a defiling of living history. The Warriors and Steph had to follow this all the way through. This couldn't be truncated. They have done too much for the story to be over.
You transcend the sport not by mastering it, but by changing it. Tim Duncan is one of the greatest basketball players any of us have ever seen, but no one wants to be Tim Duncan. (How would you even impersonate Tim Duncan in your backyard, or at the playground?) LeBron James is maybe the best basketball player I've ever seen, but there is no LeBron move to emulate, no new generational pivot. People want to be LeBron, but, you know, in general. You want to be Stephen Curry in that second. You want to do that.
That's what Curry and the Warriors have given us: The simple pleasure of watching someone do something we've never seen before, and do it with such ease and exultation that it seems like the most natural thing in the world. What kid wouldn't would to be that guy? What human wouldn't?
The NBA Finals begin Thursday, and it is the best possible matchup. Curry and his Warriors -- the glories of Klay Thompson, the old-school spice of Draymond Green -- against LeBron and his Cavaliers, now, at last, finally seeming built to his specifications. As The Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay wrote in a terrific column, the Cavaliers are their own wonderful story, and a championship for them might be an even bigger breakthrough than if the Warriors win. Every game is going to be a delight. But this is still the Warriors' story. The kids on the playground -- and, more crucial, the future NBA players some of them will become -- will be Steph. The Warriors have been the most delightful, remember-this-is-all-supposed-to-be-fun story in sports for two years now. I'm so relieved it isn't over yet.
I think I'm gonna go shoot some hoops like Steph right now, actually, and I'll hear Mike Breen's call in my head every time I make one. (Which won't be often, but who cares?) We want to watch Steph, sure. But we at last have a new model. We want to Be Like Steph.
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