Today, it is Stephen Curry who is the best player in the world. And it’s nice to know that he readily agrees now, every time he’s asked, further muting the June boasts of LeBron James. That is when he proclaimed, in a futile attempt to overpower the NBA Finals like an 18-wheeler chasing a pack of Bugatti Veyrons, “I’m the best player in the world.”
He isn’t saying it anymore, nor are many others. Instead, James is a slave to the global mania that Curry has created, staying up into the wee hours like so many fans in distant time zones and watching the Warriors burn more rubber during their record 27-1 start. Except, LeBron isn’t marveling at a modern basketball miracle like the rest of us. Seems he’s stalking Curry and the Champs, consumed by their joy and hunger, wondering how he and the grinding Cleveland Cavaliers, even with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, can prevent a turbo-fueled hoops ballet from winning another title or two or four.
It’s quite smug of James to say in an ABC interview, airing today, that he doesn’t see himself in competition with Curry. “There’s not really a direct correlation between myself and Steph, other than we were both born in Akron, Ohio,” he says of the birthplace quirk. “You know, you always kind of compete against guys in your same kind of position or in boxing, weight class.” He mentions the likes of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and emerging Kawhi Leonard as his direct rivals, as if dismissing Curry as a jumpshooter.
Get this, LBJ: The bantamweight is kicking the heavyweight’s butt.
Curry’s only concern before tipoff was a sore calf. He said he’ll be fine. Think he’d miss this?
It will be more evident to James on Christmas Day, in a prime-time rematch expected to produce megaratings, that Curry has eclipsed him by every measure. Having a championship ring, an MVP award and a telegenic 3-year-old daughter only reinforces increasing public sentiment that he is eminently more relatable to a common person than is James, who is “6-9, 260 pounds,” as Curry points out when discussing his own appeal. In a sport long dominated by big men and skywalkers, Curry is ruling his domain as a laser-shooting showman who is a comparative wisp at 6-3 (maybe), 180 (possibly). The ultimate underdog has won, you see, with Curry having overcome the lack of supreme physical gifts and early-career disrespect to conquer the orange, pebbled-leather planet.
In turn, the masses have fallen in love with him. He’s the one selling jerseys and merch in record numbers. He’s the one who appeals to all demographics, toddlers to grandmas, because he’s accessible, always cool and comfortable, liable to show up at your local In-N-Out Burger with his wife and Drake, and one of the least likely people alive to end up on a police blotter. When he could have spent a triumphant summer simply devouring all the new adulation and laughing at Doc Rivers and the critics, he arranged for ample time with personal trainer Brandon Payne, to “keep getting better.” Anyone who ever has shot a ball in a driveway can connect with Stephen Curry, and rather than settle on being one of the greatest shooters ever, he extended his astonishing range — last week, he hit five straight from 40 feet before a game — to halfcourt, if not the entire floor.
He says he wants to be better than Michael Jordan. He says he wants as many championships as time will allow. Yet the manner in which he voices superlatives, in a respectful soft tone, has us rooting for him instead of resenting it.
“Why not think you’re the best?” Curry says. “That’s a confidence that any player has to take onto the court, that self-belief.”
There isn’t a smidgen of phony in any of it. When I first arrived in the Bay Area, I sat down with him and heard him say, in that same voice, “I sort of want to be perfect.” It’s a comment that reflects his very essence. He strives to be the G.O.A.T., but he doesn’t want to sound like Muhammad Ali, Shaquille O’Neal — or Draymond Green — in saying so. It’s no surprise when he tells Time magazine that his favorite athlete is Jordan Spieth, impressed by how the golf phenom “handles himself’’ at age 22. In that sense, Curry is an old man at 27.
But that is prime time for a prominent athlete these days, in a complex era when we cry out for admirable, gracious sportsmen who do incredible things. The world was pretty much sick of sports and scandals until a smaller package arrived from the gods. How perfect, to use his word, that Curry and the Warriors will be showcased again this afternoon to one of their biggest audiences yet.
And it’s no coincidence that he will be front and center, as well, in a bold NBA public-service campaign that uses Curry and other stars in a plea to end gun violence. You will see him respond to the shooting of a 3-year-old by saying, “My daughter Riley is that age.”
Then you will see him as the final image on the 32-second, heavy-rotation spot, concluding, “We can end gun violence.”
Is it any wonder President Obama has glommed onto him? When Curry says his one fear is not being recalled simply as a basketball player, might he have a political future as someone we actually can trust?
All of which makes us want to ask, LeBron Who?
When last we left James, amid the stink of champagne at Quicken Loans Arena, the thinking was widespread that he would have won his third ring, instead of losing his fourth Finals, had Irving and Love been healthy. Now, with the Warriors obviously better than last season and about to kick it to another level when coach Steve Kerr returns, a more likely scenario has James losing his fifth Finals — placing his legacy closer to Peyton Manning than that of Jordan, who went 6-6-6: six NBA Finals, six titles, six Finals MVPs. Curry cannot replicate that — Andre Iguodala was Finals MVP — and, in fairness to James, the Warriors are more talented than some of LeBron’s supporting casts.
But since he was a teen, when Big Media caught on to his skill and size, James has been anointed The Chosen One. While he has more than met the hype as a solo maestro, he doesn’t want to be known for losing five or six Finals. Next week, he turns a basketball-old 31 — also the number of the Warriors’ home winning streak — and having already logged more career minutes than Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, his long-term health will become an issue.
A wealth of possibilities seems ahead for Curry. As for James, his best stuff may be in the past. His son is 11 and being contacted by college recruiters. The most attention he received this season was when he chased a loose ball and crashed into the wife of golfing star Jason Day, sending her to the hospital. Yeah, he was funny in a movie, “Trainwreck,” and he’ll be a show-biz mogul someday. But losing every year to Curry isn’t what James has in mind. After all, he kind of discovered Steph, sitting in the stands in Charlotte and later at the Elite Eight in Detroit when a comically skinny Curry was launching rainbows for Davidson.
With his team 19-7 this season — but also 35-3 when Irving and Love join James in the starting lineup, as they will today — LeBron was in no mood to overhype the rematch. “The memories will come back as soon as we walk into the building. But also understand it’s one of 82 [games], and I’m not gonna put everything into this game,” he said, sounding put off by it all. “It’s a great opportunity for fans to have five games (on TV) on Christmas, but for us as a team, this will not be the end of our season, like it was in June. We play Saturday and then Monday and Tuesday. We want to play well against a great-caliber team, but it’s not like our season ends if we win or lose.”
Said coach David Blatt, who didn’t impress many in the Finals: “There’s a lot of good teams in the league. Certainly, Golden State is one of the best, but they’re not all we talk about.”
Perhaps following the lead, Luke Walton and some of the Warriors also downplayed the stakes. “It is what it is,” Green said. “We want to win, but it’s another game.” But that’s Draymond playing a mind game.
“It’s going to be a big game,” Andrew Bogut acknowledged. “Look, we know it’s huge for them to come here. We’re undefeated at home, and they obviously want to make a statement to us, and we want to do the same. I anticipate it being one of the classics that hopefully we can all watch in 10 or 15 years. You want to set a tone that if we meet them again, they know what they have to face.”
Oh, they know. All James and his Cavs have to do is check out the substantial media coverage, which includes Warriors-basher Charles Barkley, who said, “If you put LeBron on Golden State, they’d be 28-1. I don’t know if Cleveland would be 28-1 if you put Steph on it.” Typically, Charles got his facts wrong (27-1). As an equalizer, the Wall Street Journal unearthed a stat that might say it all about the divergent paths of the sport’s greatest player and once-greatest player. During the Finals, on rare occasions when James was guarding him, Curry made 6 of 10 shots.
And when Curry was guarding James?
Zero for 9.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.