Space, Time, and the Art of Stephen Curry

Thursday, April 20, 2017
by

Curry flicking a three

JUST WHEN IT SEEMED that no one could or ever would assume the mantle worn by Michael Jordan, along came a boyish, brittle-boned phenom named Wardell Stephen Curry II.

Talk about spicing things up, Curry has single-handedly ushered in a new NBA era with his breathtaking three-point shots and the panache with which he unleashes them. So electrifying is his long-range target shooting that he has transformed the game at all levels—NBA, college, and high school—making derring-do allowable and little men as much, if not more, of a threat than big men.

Fans adore Curry’s speed, fluidity, and grace, and his knack for when to knock down a shot. But most of all, they come to see him hurl improbable lobs from way behind the “arc.” His three-pointers have a demeanor all their own the way they loop to the basket with uncanny, unflappable flair and such pinpoint precision that they inflict serious psychological hurt on opponents’ momentum and confidence.

Thanks to Steph, the three-point shot has become more thrilling than the dunk. So much so that maybe we should rename the three-pointer the “Curry.” Or, better yet, add a second arc—the Curry arc—and introduce the 4-pointer into the game. The only reason this may not happen is that fans could not bear the tension, especially at the end of games.

Curry’s circumnavigating heaves have also rejuvenated the game because, absent the surgical ruthlessness of Larry Bird, the court wizardry of Magic Johnson, and the other-worldly athleticism of Michael Jordan, the NBA was spiraling into a slugfest, dunkfest, and personality quest. The league’s stature was growing but the game was not improving until Goliath got seduced by the daring of a David named Steph.

I recall watching a game when Curry was still at Davidson and the TV commentator was Bob Knight. Curry didn’t do anything spectacular that game, but Coach Knight kept pointing out the little things that make him unique: alert vision, polished passing, nifty footwork, ability to accelerate, and keen sense of the court as a chessboard. Even though Curry had an off-night shooting, he displayed his talent for finding the right shot without pressing for it, and his resolve to take aim when few others would.

Today, when Curry launches a three, much is said about him as one of the best shooters in the history of the game. That may be true. More true is what Coach Knight emphasized: that behind Curry’s gifted shooting is an arsenal of skills that make it possible. Ask any great shooter and they will tell you that success is about more—physically and mentally—than just lofting shots.

Curry’s brilliance also reveals that part of what makes basketball so exhilarating to watch is how it alters our perception of space and time. Take, for instance, the dunk which, for all its thunder, captivates us with the sight of a person defying gravity, rising, floating, and gliding through the air. The higher, longer, and farther, the more astonishing it seems.

Julius Erving soaring

A good dunk can cause the game itself to disappear for seconds at a time while humans gape at the spectacle of one of their own soaring through space. There are also different kinds of dunks. Most familiar are the two-handed hammer and the tomahawk. Both are performed “with authority” and typically followed by a primordial scream or stare down, as well as the now fashionable display of unabated, unabashed self-aggrandizement—which, come to think of it, also makes the game itself completely disappear for moments at a time.

Much less frequent is the dunk born of high-flying, long-soaring, unfettered grace as personified by the likes of Julius Erving, David Thompson, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Vince Carter, and most recently Zack LaVine and Aaron Gordon. These athletes comprise a rare group who rearrange, and even play with, space as they sail through time.

To be sure, there are other gifted dunkers such as LeBron James and Russell Westbrook who dominate with powerful, searing throw downs, but their dunks crush rather than alter natural laws. LeBron, for example, is akin to a faster, nimbler, meaner Karl Malone. He literally pushes the atmosphere out of his way en route to ramming dunks from a great height that comes from exceptional jumping ability and the full extension of a 6’8” frame way the hell up in the air. In LeBron’s hands, the basketball is also what a soccer ball is for most of us and he wields it as a weapon of merciless destruction.

Russell Westbrook attacks the rim with similar intensity as he ramps up his acceleration and takes off, but his dunking exhibits a different kind of dominance, fueled by noticeably more aggression bordering on hatred. Atmospheric molecules also pose no obstacle to Westbrook, but it is his mindset more than his flight to the basket that gives his dunk its unique signature.

David Thompson aloft

In terms of unalloyed agility, Julius Erving set the standard with his heavenly float and infinite glide, during which he seemed to casually wait for arrival at the inevitable. David Thompson displayed similar aerobatic majesty as his legs, thrusting him ridiculously high, seemed to dangle from a torso that “swam” with ease to the basket.

Then came Michael Jordan with his superlative blend of physical prowess, athletic poise, unbridled confidence, and fierce competitiveness. He not only flew to the basket, he knew that no one could stop him or measure up to him in the way he did it—which is why he sits on the top shelf of legends where it looks like he’ll be staying for a while.

The game post-Michael has seen players with parts of his unique skill set, but no one with all of it. There have been fewer stratospheric superstars, more very good players, and a much less artful dunk. The dunk today is mostly about exerting power, intimidating opponents, and showing off. As its physicality and personality have evolved, its artistry has not.

Fortunately, there are exceptions such as when Zach LaVine or Aaron Gordon take to the skies and exercise their gift of defying—nay, destroying—gravity longer than most humans have ever been allowed to do. The marvel of slow-motion video reveals just how incredible are their feats of getting into the air and what they are able to do while in the air. Zach LaVine in particular exhibits such aplomb and nonchalance while afloat that he could adopt the name Zach FeLine.

Michael Jordan flying

For the most part, however, dunks in both the NBA and college, while impressive, have become more routine and less spectacular. Not for lack of trying to invent new dunks, but because athletic artistry cannot be just invented or imitated.

The same is true of a superb pass during the flow of a game. Try as you may to imitate or be tricky about passing, the ability to aim, shoot, and deliver a pinpoint throw in full stride amidst heavy traffic is an art form unto itself. Due to the blistering speed of the game, the maze of movement on court, and the seeming lack of corridors to throw a ball through, great passing has acquired its own measure of magnificence.

The intrinsic beauty of a good pass stems notably from the era of Magic Johnson who was renowned for his court vision, selflessness, and no-look pizzazz. Magic was not a threatening dunker and not even a great scorer, but his remarkable anticipation and deceptive motion produced passes that were equal to the dunk in one special way: they ripped a hole in space the same way hang-time shreds time.

Magic somehow threw the ball where there was no place for it to go—or so he made it seem. His no-look and look-away added to the illusion and dizzied crowds the same way dunks dazzle them. Mesmerizing passes by Magic—and later Jason Kidd and a few others—helped the dunk keep the game exciting. But due to a dilution of superstars, and despite an abundance of good athletes, the NBA was losing its luster.

Then along came Steph Curry whose flash, moxy, and skill have electrified the game in an unexpected way. Suddenly basketball is again about the purity of shooting the ball, this time from inordinate distances.

The wonder of Curry’s three-point missiles is not just that they go in from so far away and so often, but how high they travel and how long they take to span the gap. While his shots are in the air, time is suspended, held in abeyance by a palpable force of expectancy in the crowd. Even opposing players are prone to pause and gawk, wondering if “this” one is going in, too.

Curry from behind the arc

Curry’s shots arch so high and stay aloft so long that they stretch the rubber band of time. When will it come down? Will it or won’t it swoosh through the nylon? When his rainbows do finally burst through the rim, they sting the net with such tremendous force of “drop” that it sucks all air out of the room and creates a split-second vacuum before hurling oxygen back into the lungs of giddy believers on the one hand and head-shaking opponents on the other.

As if space and time were not enough for Curry to conquer, his shot-making also shatters the sound barrier. When he stutter steps, brings his meticulous dribble to a controlled halt, lifts himself in the air, and releases the ball with a flick and flop of the wrist, auditoriums of anywhere from 12 to 20 thousand people suddenly go quiet as one voluminous breath—united in silence—awaits the outcome. Soon after comes the sonic boom.

A Curry strike can also happen so swiftly as to breach space, time, and sound simultaneously. It is a mixed marvel never before seen with such regularity on the basketball court. But the true wonder of it—that for fractions of seconds at a time holes get punched in various other dimensions—can go unnoticed by viewers due to the barrage of sights, sounds, and motion that immediately engulf us again.

Yet this is why, even if he is not the biggest, best, or most valuable player in the league this year, Stephen Curry is still its most transcendent figure (MTP). Like only a handful of players before him, he makes basketball far more than just a game.

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