The Toronto Raptors created history on Friday, with the Canadian basketball side clinching the NBA Championship with a 114-110 Game 6 win against reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
Basketball, like all sports, is a series of equations. It is a game of angles, of timing, of mass and acceleration.
The motion of shooting a basketball is the game’s purest and most tantalising equation. It looks so simple.
When you look at the mechanics of Stephen Curry’s jump-shot it looks so uncomplicated and effortless that it’s not difficult to think that you could recreate the motion yourself. But perfection is not replicable.
Curry has solved the equation of how to shoot the basketball. That’s over, and it has been for some time. He’s the greatest shooter we’ve ever seen, but we’ve known that for a while now.
What Curry has done over the past year goes beyond shooting – it’s starting to look like he’s solved basketball. He’s reduced the game to ‘one’, a step-back three at a time.
Last week Kevin Garnett compared Curry to Michael Jordan and nobody batted an eye-lid, which is basketball’s greatest compliment. Curry’s numbers are preposterous, the most absurd the game has seen since Wilt Chamberlain, but the box-score doesn’t begin to do justice to his nightly performance theatre.
I wasn’t around for Jordan, but I’ve been here for LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. Curry is playing offensive basketball right now at a higher level than any of those players have ever reached, and the first guy on that list might eventually go down as the greatest basketball player of all-time.
Curry is basketball’s answer to Lionel Messi and Roger Federer. He is a beautiful assassin, someone who only needs a quarter of a second and the faintest opening of space to end your life. He is the most uniquely unguardable player in history.
You couldn’t guard Jordan or peak LeBron either, but there were methods you could use to delay your own death. There is no lesser evil with Curry. He is a choose your own ending children’s novel where you die quickly every time.
The moment he crosses half-court he is a threat.
If you cramp his space his handle is so pristine, his understanding of movement so immaculate, and his sleight of hand so delicate, that he will make a fool of you and create space for himself. If you give him a driving lane he is one of the game’s best finishers at the rim.
Double-teaming him is the only real option, which would be fine if he wasn’t one of the best passers in the league. There is no way to stop Curry. There is only the hope that his genius will confuse itself for a night.
LeBron and Kobe were Curry’s predecessors in basketball transcendence, but both had their drawbacks. Kobe’s shortcomings are just as well detailed as his strengths – he was always a character clouded by ambiguous intentions.
LeBron’s basketball genius rivals Curry’s, and his passing is even better. But James’s devastation at his peak came through athletic mayhem – he was so imposing and intimidating that he was almost extra-terrestrial.
There was always an element of unfairness in LeBron’s domination – as though, through no fault of his own, he was a 21-year-old playing against 12-year-olds. Watching Curry, all 84 kilograms of him, destroy the league with skill, timing and artful deception instead of a heavenly physique is somehow infinitely more special.
Curry is a playground jazz musician, dancing around the court with contagious energy, sprinting around screens with an infectious smile on his face, as though he knows what’s coming next (and he does).
When the great ones get in the zone, they start to swagger around the court – there is a hop to their step, a glimmer in their eyes, and an ever-widening grin on their face. Steph Curry is always in the zone. He is swagger in perpetuity.
But there is not a slither of arrogance in his brilliance. There is no bravado, no posturing and no proud demonstrations of faux alpha masculinity. There is only joy. Curry is the manifestation of Michael Jordan’s shrug, only if the shrug was sympathetic and had nothing to prove.
With the golden era of television seeing some of its finest programs reach their finales, Curry is prolonging the glory. He is a mad man breaking the league with the ball on an elastic wire, bringing a zombie apocalypse to opposition stadiums on a nightly basis.
Simply put, Curry has lost his freaking mind. He is hitting threes when the ball is getting knocked out of his grip mid-release, making buckets as he falls over and hitting shots from Nashville when he’s playing in Memphis.
“Good if it goes, and of course it does,” mutters the commentator on the final shot, a phrase which may go on Curry’s headstone. And by the way, Curry hit those last two shots within two and a half minutes of each other. We have never seen anything like this before.
Curry is appointment television every single time Golden State takes the court because, like all the great ones before him, every night there is the very real chance that he’s going to do something that no-one in history has ever done before. Perhaps that has been the greatest consequence of Curry’s incandescent start to the season – that he makes history seem so insignificant and unthreatening, and so easily overcome.
For the past decade the debate in the football world has been ‘Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?’. To me it’s never been a question, because despite Ronaldo’s athletic transcendence there has always been an intangible magic that has eluded him yet found Messi so naturally.
Before Novak Djokovic came along to crush and complicate the party, tennis had its own magnificent aesthetic versus athletic dichotomy of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Like Ronaldo, Nadal was more athletically remarkable, more powerful and more aggressive, and yet undeniably always less enchanting than Federer.
There is a type of person who values the athletic supremacy of Ronaldo, Nadal and LeBron James above everything, and there is little argument against them. These athletes represent the peak of human physical capability.
But Messi, Federer and Curry exist in the abstract, forming a different argument – they teach us that physical capability is diverse and beautifully unknowable, and that it has no peak; it is boundless.
If we’re lucky, an artist like Federer comes along once a generation. But then sport gave us Messi, and now it has given us Curry. Greatness fades however, and while transcendence is eternal in our memories, it is finite in reality.
Federer’s dominance has been gracefully blunted by age, and approaching 30, Messi’s majesty is succumbing to injuries for the first time. Right now though, Curry is succumbing to nothing.
An athlete’s peak is always special, and even more so when it cannot be quantified. In so many ways, Curry is unquantifiable right now – there is no metric for flames – and what he’s doing is a gift that should be savoured.
Almost a decade ago, David Foster Wallace described in vivid detail the experience of seeing Roger Federer at Wimbledon. He spoke of the inspiration Federer provided Wimbledon’s juniors and how the poetry in his game – the drop volleys, mixed spins and off-speed serves – was becoming wonderfully evident in their games.
Most memorably, Wallace wrote that to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and, in a fleeting, mortal way, reconciled.
While Wallace wrote those words about a shy bloke from Basel, he might as well have been writing them about a 5″7″ Argentinian or a stick figure with an impossibly quick release plying his trade in the Bay Area. Federer, Messi and Curry – the sports are different, the religion is the same.