His workday finally done, he stopped shooting, flopped into a folding chair and explained what he aspires to achieve in basketball. “I sort of want to be perfect,” Stephen Curry told me that spring afternoon, his eyes as steely as they are hazel.
He has sort of been perfect ever since, wouldn’t you say? From a Most Valuable Player trophy to an NBA championship, from a fawning President to an adorable and beloved daughter, from nightly Vine and YouTube addendums to his leading role in a controversial ad campaign seeking to end gun violence, young Wardell hasn’t missed much in his quest for flawlessness.
And who were the people blessed to watch Curry and the Warriors break through, up close in their intimate old arena, where the decibels were exceeded this year only by the victory meter?
Epicenter isn’t a cool word around here, I know. My intestines have been wiggly since 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, when, sitting in the upper press box of Candlestick Park, I was No. 61,987 in line to run for my life had the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed the ballpark before Game 3 of the World Series. So I wil not use that dreaded word today, even if it’s the perfect way to capture how the Bay — best known through time for innovation, flying one’s free flag and chronic weirdness — became the quivering hub of American sports in 2015.
And not all the elements were of a conquering nature. As known by legitimate media — not the charlatans who lead cheers, perform public relations for franchises or refer to themselves amateurishly as “Sports Guys” — dysfunction sometimes makes for fascinating material. That’s the most polite way to term the 49ers and their pathetic prince of pathos, CEO Jed York, who took a numbing, unprecedented 16-month tumble from NFL royalty in a sparkling new stadium straight into the gutter of irrelevance and putridity.
Nor does the drama have to be on the field. While the Raiders made a quantum leap toward long-sought respectability with an array of young stars, there, too, was calamity: Would the franchise be returning to Los Angeles? Fans who waited a decade-plus for a hint of real improvement in the Coliseum finally saw progress, only to realize owner Mark Davis was trying to cut L.A. deals only hours after vowing to stay in Oakland.
Like father, like son — though Al never ate every day at P.F. Chang’s or drove a souped-up 1997 Dodge Caravan SE.
Though it’s not as vital to the collective local psyche to win as it is in perspective-challenged places — see: East Coast, Midwest, Chicago — this region was blessed to host the most compelling sports figure in the world and his championship troupe. The Warriors used to be that cute team in Oakland that never won but was always fun, with Nellie (Don Nelson, not the rapper) rolling out the ball and urging his players to jack it up at their leisure. Now, the new-age Warriors were employing similar offensive strategies, but unlike Nellie Ball, this was a triumphant assault on the senses, appealing to all demographics. Month by month, they rose to become the most compelling, mesmerizing spectacle in sports, led by the deadeye everyman who, shockingly, is genuine and humble and scandal-proof in an industry of too many bad guys and goons. And when the Warriors answered critics who’d made bitter and foolish cracks — lucky, one-and-done — by winning their first 24 games this season without their ailing head coach, well, welcome to a hoops rock show not seen since Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
The difference being, these guys are lovable in their dominance. That includes a now-legendary warmup routine that Curry proudly performs in public, to the shrieks of fans who record this slice of history on their phones and have made an early arrival at Oracle, or any NBA arena, a must-see event in the bigger experience. “It’s like he’s a zoo animal,” said interim coach Luke Walton, who, like boss Steve Kerr, often finds himself enjoying the entertainment more than examining the game.
“This year,” Curry said, “has taken it to another level.”
It is a mania that won’t subside, not when Curry has made dramatic improvements to his game with the use of technology and a tireless offseason regime with personal trainer Brandon Payne. Draymond Green is better and will make the All-Star team. Klay Thompson, having recovered from injuries, is shooting with the confidence and explosion once channeled into a 37-point solo quarter. Andre Iguodala should be an All-Star, also. Their four matchups with the primed-and-loaded San Antonio Spurs should provide more hints of their title-encore readiness. It won’t be easy facing a possible postseason gauntlet of Oklahoma City, the Spurs and the Cavaliers, but know this: The best place to be in May and June will be Oracle Arena.
The same can’t be said for Levi’s Stadium, advertised as the most technologically advanced stadium in the world, which is home to the most dysfunctionally haunted football team in the land. York dumped the only smart hire he has made in six years as a boy-blunder boss — Jim Harbaugh — and compounded the mistake by hiring Jim Tomsula, who is less equipped to coach a pro sports team than anyone in recent memory. The only smart people in the building, it turns out, were the ones who got out: Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Chris Borland, Anthony Davis and the rest.
The best football on this side of the Bay may have been played by a college squad, at Stanford, where David Shaw is too smart to pull up stakes and work for Jed when a national championship is coming. He came within two botched fourth-quarter snaps and a missed two-point conversion of reaching the College Football Playoff this year, but Shaw did introduce his own virtual-reality gadget. His name was Christian McCaffrey, aka The WildCaff, and rather than compare his numbers to Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry of Alabama, maybe the parallels should have been drawn to Curry.
McCaffrey was that breathtaking. The only people who could catch him were the Heisman voters, many of whom were asleep back East when seven of Stanford’s games were played on Saturday nights. In a makeup call, he became the first non-Heisman winner in six years to be named Associated Press Player of the Year, a worthy honor after setting an NCAA record with 3,496 all-purpose yards, breaking Barry Sanders’ 27-year-old record.
“You can say he had the best year in the history of college football,” Shaw said.
And guess what? The WildCaff says he’s capable of much more. “I’m not satisfied at all with the season, my personal season,” McCaffrey said. “All the great players you ask always expect greatness. There’s definitely a lot of work to be done. A lot of room for improvement.”
All you need to know about 2015, a most eventful year in the Bay, is that I don’t mention the Giants until here. It was an odd-numbered year, after all, though injuries don’t excuse them for not being more active in acquiring a front-line starter in July. The A’s? Billy Beane may be cheap with the payroll, but he lets waters flow uncontrollably — amid a historic drought — at his East Bay home.
Oh, and did I mention that one of the top picks in the next NFL draft will be Cal’s Jared Goff? He should be available for the 49ers, 11 years after they passed on a Cal quarterback named Aaron Rodgers. Which means, of course, that Jed and Trent Baalke will trade down and draft more tight ends and punters.
That’s life in the Bay. When losers lose, they set new lows for reeking. When winners win, they sort of want to be perfect … and just about are.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.