OAKLAND, Calif. -- Stephen Curry looks tired. His shoulders slump a bit, and he leans back in toward his locker, and his voice barely rises above a whisper. He looks like a boxer who has gone 10 rounds. Only this is before the basketball game. And he is not tired. He is conserving. This is how you make it through a long and draining NBA season. You recharge when there are a few spare moments. You save what you can save, when you can save it.
There is a reality gap in the NBA, a gap perhaps larger than in any other sport. Basketball is a fun game to play. Little kids play it on the playground when they heave the ball to the basket with all their might. Middle school kids play it in their driveways, bouncing basketballs over pebbles and ice, shooting with their gloves on. High school kids play it in the gymnasium during PE. College kids play it in front of raucous crowds and leaping cheerleaders and pep bands. Adults play it in YMCAs, weekly games, one guy everyone calls Gunner because he never passes, another who wears goggles like he's Kurt Rambis, another who wears knee braces on both legs and is just one mistimed cut away from blowing out his Achilles. Again.
But NBA basketball is not a game, not like that. It's a job. It's night after night, 20-foot jumper after 18-foot jumper, hard pick after hard pick, baseline turnaround after baseline turnaround -- deafening music pounding and dance team dancers shaking and halftime acts jumping off trampolines and people dressed as animals or characters shooting T-shirts into the crowd -- and it's back to the 20-foot jumper, fight through another pick, back down another big man. This is not to say it isn't fun. Maybe it is fun. But fun isn't at the heart of things. Fun isn't Cleveland tonight, Milwaukee tomorrow, New Orleans on Tuesday. Fun isn't that constant pounding beat of a long NBA season. No, winning is at the heart of things. Execution is at the heart of things. Defense is at the heart of things.
And then, get on a plane, go to the next town, and make 20-foot jumpers all over again.
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Steph Curry is the most fun basketball player that I have ever gotten the chance to watch live. I have heard stories about how much fun Pistol Pete was in his day, how much fun Ernie DiGregorio was when he was firing 40-foot behind-the-back passes, how much fun Calvin Murphy was when he was scoring a bajillion points at Niagara. I've heard lots of stories. I've been lucky enough to see a lot of fun players through the years.
But there was something utterly and uniquely joyous about Steph Curry at Davidson. It was the junction of so many wonderful things. Davidson is such a cool place. The team was such a cool team. Curry had been thoroughly overlooked as a prospect -- the underdog thing was strong in him -- even though his father, Dell, was a scoring machine in college and the NBA, and the son shared the same shot as his father. He LOOKED smaller than everyone else out there, even if he wasn't (he's 6-foot-3). He looked thinner than everyone else out there, too, even if he wasn't (one defender calls him "wiry strong"). He played with this bounciness, this happiness. Being able to express joy through your play … that's something you’re born with, I think. Tim Duncan might be having the time of his life out there, but, MAN, does he look miserable when he's playing. Steph Curry always looked like he was having the time of his life.
There's something else: Ten times a game you'd see Curry do something and wonder, "Now, how did he do that?" It was like a magic show. I mean, we all know how amazing LeBron James is, but how often does he SURPRISE you? Every now and again, maybe, he will chase down a guy on a breakaway and block his shot or drive into the lane and finish some improbable three-point play, but generally when LeBron is on the court you figure anything's possible.
But Curry was different. He'd have the ball, the defender would be all over him, and then suddenly the ball was in the air and it was swishing through the hoop. And you'd think: "How did he even get that shot off?" You'd see teams double-team him, think there was no way he could even get the ball, much less get it, find the basket and score. But then somehow he'd get an inch of space, gettheballandshootitinonemotion, and the ball would go through. It helped that he had the quickest release I ever saw. It helped that he had this astonishing level of confidence and verve.
And it helped that he had this amazing energy level -- not just in how he much he moved but in how locked in he was for entire games. He was the star, the player everyone watched, the player everyone concentrated on, and that can wear you down mentally, physically, emotionally… every way. But he didn't wear down. He just kept playing at this wonderful -- almost miraculous -- level of joy.
And when he went to the NBA, I wondered: "What will become of Steph Curry?"
"It's different here, no question," Curry says. "You have to find energy wherever you can find it."
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Steph Curry is having a wonderful season. He's averaging 19.9 points and 6.3 assists -- both career highs -- for a Golden State team that is playing shockingly good basketball. I mean shockingly good. The Warriors have made the playoffs once in the last 19 years. I'll repeat that: The Warriors have made the playoffs once in the last 19 years. As I write these words, they are 17-9 -- those 17 victories are only six fewer than they had all of last year and as many as they had in their dreadful 2000-2001 season, when Marc Jackson (not current coach Mark Jackson) was the pseudo-starting center, and 22 different players got on the floor over the season. Stephen Curry is probably the biggest reason for this surprising turn.
But it isn't because he's the miraculous and brilliant little player he was at Davidson. No, that was a different game. Stephen Curry came into the NBA ready to score. First season, right off, he attempted 380 three-pointers, averaged 17.5 points a game, and made enough good passes to open eyes around the league. He was first-team All-Rookie, along with Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings and all that. He understood the NBA game, having grown up around it -- that's part of what separated him in college -- and the next year he averaged 18.6 points a game while shooting a league-leading 93.4 from the free-throw line.
But there was something missing. He felt it. That amazing energy level of college … well, he didn't feel that every night in the NBA. There were so many games. His wiry strength wasn't quite enough to keep up with the pounding. He would get down on himself and express frustration on the court. He was named a co-captain, but the title doesn't make the leader. Then, in the 2011-2012 season, he struggled with a painful and unstable ankle all season … it made the whole season utterly miserable.
"I thought about a lot of things in the off-season," he says. He had some cleanup surgery done on his ankle. Mark Jackson talked with him about this being his team and about how great he could be as the leader, the guy who gets the ball in the hand of the hot teammate, the guy who takes over games when the moment's right, the guy who is mentally strong enough, night after night, to overcome the slog, the physical punishment and the frustrations.
And, already this season, there have been numerous examples of Curry taking all that to heart. The ankle has held up, and everyone talks about a game against Dallas in November when he turned on his ankle and was having a cold shooting night then went on a scoring spree, almost singlehandedly pushed the game into overtime, and kept scoring in leading Golden State to victory. Or the 20-point, 10-assist game he had against Denver in leading Golden State to victory despite trailing by 15 midway through the third quarter. Or a punch-in-the-gut four-point play he had against Brooklyn.
"I wouldn't say my confidence was down before," Curry says. "But it was hard. This is a tough league. … In college, you can kind of circle a game on the calendar. Coaches tell you that you shouldn't, but we did anyway. And tournament time, that's just two weeks, and you're ready for it.
"But here, you have to get up all the time. You have to find different ways to get your energy level up. Everything is about getting that little extra edge, that little bit of energy that separates you from the other guy."
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Well, sure, it's different. The NBA game moves at a different pace. The enthusiasm emerges in different ways. There's no pep band, put it that way. And the eyes don't naturally follow him like they did at Davidson -- not with so many other gifted players on the floor. He's not just the free-wheeling scorer he was in his sophomore year at Davidson, when he captured the nation's imagination and prompted LeBron James to sit courtside and watch. He's working steadily on his whole game -- the ball-handling, the distribution, the defense.
"He can be an elite defender in this league," Mark Jackson says, and it's those kinds of quotes that spur a flurry of stories about how much Golden State has improved defensively. The Warriors are allowing fewer than 100 points per game for the first time since the 2005-2006 season.
But Jackson is quick to say this: If he is given the choice between a guy who can score and a guy who can defend, he will ALWAYS take the scorer. "That's the unique skill in our game," he says. Jackson says he will find a way to get enough defense through pacing and help and various other tricks you learn being around basketball at the highest level. In other words, he wants Curry to grow in all these other ways, absolutely, but he doesn't want Curry to lose that thing that makes him special, that thing that made him brilliant in the first place.
Curry hasn't lost that thing. I watch him often, and he remains great fun to watch play. But it's more subtle now. His release -- still breathtakingly quick -- beats even the best defenders’ hands into the air. He still has the quickest catch-and-shoot around. He can go on these amazing shooting rolls where he makes four or five in a row from all over the court, no matter who is covering him … but that's rare. The experience of watching Steph Curry now is a more muted thing -- a great pass here, a brilliant shot there, a wonderful bit of anticipation on the defensive side.
I remember back in 2008, watching Steph Curry in an NCAA tournament game pour in 33 against a Wisconsin team nationally renowned for its defense. It was amazing. Michael Flowers -- one of the best defenders in college basketball -- chased Curry all over the floor, especially early in the game, but Curry knew sooner or later that Flowers' spirit would be broken. After the game, Curry said: "It's hard for a defense to sustain itself … eventually you'll find yourself open."
I ask Curry if that's true in the NBA.
"It's a lot harder, obviously," Curry said, and then he flashed that smile. "But yeah. Eventually."