The ultimate defensive stopper — last name Time, first name Father — has added lines to Michael Jordan’s face and pounds to his paunch. Sitting in the Charlotte arena Wednesday evening, watching hometown darling Stephen Curry reach his level of eminence in hoops-heavenly North Carolina, Jordan surely indulged in a fantasy like the rest of us: How would his Chicago Bulls have fared against these Warriors in a seven-game throwdown?
It’s a issue that isn’t going away, perhaps to be asked for years, as Curry and the Warriors continue to crash the pro basketball pantheon. They’re 20-0 now after their 24th straight regular-season victory since April, a 116-99 throttling of the team Jordan owns, the Hornets, in the heart of the Southern town owned by Curry and his family. On a night when his father, Dell, was honored as an original Hornets star and current broadcaster, a joyful son did just what his father had feared.
“Don’t spoil my night, man,” Dell pleaded beforehand on TV.
“No promises,” Steph said.
Given the son’s dramatic flair, no one should be surprised that he performed his own tribute to his father after the halftime ceremony. He exploded for 28 points, including 24 straight, in the third quarter — the fifth time this season he has scored 20 or more in a quarter, last done by Jordan himself — and ended with 40 while sitting out the fourth. This after he left the locker room and watched the ceremony on the court with his mother, sister and relatives, all shedding tears for a revered figure in Charlotte and throughout the NBA.
“It was a cool atmosphere to play in, especially on top of my dad’s ceremony,” Steph said. “It was nice to be out there at halftime and hear his speech and stanf with my mom, my sister, my aunts and my grandma. It was a good night. I can’t ask for more. To play like I did and get the win was special.”
And 20-0? “It doesn’t even sound right,” he said, blurred like the rest of us.
Jordan, who is reclusive and attends games in a skybox, sent his top executives to honor the elder Curry. But he knows full well what’s happening here with Steph and the Warriors revolution. Jordan’s Bulls cooly swatted away pressure in winning 72 games in the 1995-96 season and six championships that decade. The Warriors are far from those milestones, but their sustained dominance this season is such that the questions are inevitable. What’s amazing is, Curry feels no stress, even as the planet’s most acclaimed and popular sports star.
“We don’t feel any pressure,” Curry said. “It’s an awesome streak to have going, and it’s awesome to have started out the season the way we have. But every game is different. That’s kind of the strength of our team. We’re able to stay in the moment and not really focus on what number we’re on. It’s about who we’re playing and how we’re going to play, and that’s what we’ve been able to do night-in and night-out.”
OK, I’ll ask. Who wins, Bulls or Warriors? Jordan would have seen the Bulls winning, of course. Just as I, having covered both teams, would have seen the Bulls winning. Steve Kerr, who played for those Bulls two decades ago and now coaches these Warriors, refuses to choose a winner, yet even he might acknowledge privately that: (1) Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the most intimidating duo of athletic fusion the sport has seen, more devastating defensively than offensively in epic moments; and (2) it’s kind of pointless to have this debate when those Bulls won six NBA championships and these Warriors are just pursuing No. 2.
Not that we’ll ever get a definitive answer unless you believe in high-tech simulation, which Jordan assuredly does not. Besides, the game is played differently now, with more pace and grace and less aggression. Today’s rules ideally cater to the three-point showers of Curry and his bombing teammates and wouldn’t allow the feral physicality of Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman. What we do know is that the Bulls were the best of their era, the only team to win 72 games in a season. And what we do know is that the Warriors, assuming they survive the Spurs and Cavaliers and Thunder when the league’s best current competition arrives beginning later this month, appear to be the best team of this era. Comparing eras is cool when you and your bros are holding craft beers at 1 a.m., but like anything else that happens after midnight, it gets you nowhere.
Jordan only goes there when asked about individual matchups, projecting himself in his prime against the 21st-century elite. If this represents bulletin-board material for Curry, so be it, but it’s no shock that Jordan prefers to face a 6-3 guard, even one who’s the greatest shooter of all time, than an 18-wheeler like LeBron James. “If I was in my prime, could I beat LeBron James in a one-on-one game? No question. And he’s going to say ‘no question,’” Jordan said. “I’d [rather] go against Stephen Curry because I’m a little bit bigger than him so I could back him in. LeBron’s a little bit too big.”
Hypothetical babble aside, it’s good for Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber that the opposing owner, Jordan, doesn’t talk to the media when Curry returns home once a season. That way, nothing is mentioned about an obvious potential story line: Curry being courted by Jordan in the summer of 2017. So far, though woefully underpaid at present as the team’s fifth highest-paid player, Curry has stonewalled any talk of leaving the Bay Area, saying most recently at a golf event, “As I am thinking right now, free agency isn’t really appealing to me because I love where I’m at, love the organization I’m playing for and the Bay Area is home for me and my family.” Lacob is too smart to pull a Jed York, use a transcendent difference-maker (Curry/Jim Harbaugh) to get a new building constructed, then let him flee. By then, when the TV-booming salary cap is $120 million, Curry will be rewarded with the league’s biggest contract.
Oh, Jordan could offer him home, no small package considering Curry’s devotion to his family and roots. And he could be close to his favorite NFL team, the Panthers. Again, as he did the other day, Curry suggested the Warriors and 11-0 Carolina both could be unbeaten when Super Bowl 50 arrives in Santa Clara. Asked which team will lose first, he told a flock of reporters, “My answer to that is: Us, but not until like February. That means the Panthers get that Super Bowl win, and we make it through that.”
Realistic? “Who knows? Nobody thought we could start 19-0,” Curry said. “Why not keep it going? There is a lot of great talent in this league, and obviously, we’re probably not going to go 82-0. But you want to approach each game that way.” Back in September, Curry participated in the ritual pounding of a drum at a home game. On Thanksgiving Day, while wearing his Cam Newton jersey, he posted a video shouting “Luuuuuke!” and “Pick Six!” after Panthers star Luke Kuechly returned an interception for a touchdown.
And Jordan could offer him the charms of Charlotte, which he can enjoy until Friday thanks to a three-day pitstop. “I appreciate the schedule-makers for hooking that up. We get another day and half before we head up to Toronto (on Friday afternoon). I already got Bojangles’ (a local chicken chain) and Chick-fil-A is next.”
But Curry surely knows there’s a Chick-fil-A in Walnut Creek, which might be one reason he’s moving the family to a bigger, pricier house there from his current Orinda digs. And while Jordan can offer him an improving young team, does anyone really believe Curry would leave Draymond Green and Klay Thompson just to eat at Bojangles’?
He always can go home without moving home. That was apparent when he visited his high school, Charlotte Christian, and watched in the stands as his alma mater, Davidson, placed a 109-74 whipping on rival Charlotte after he arrived Tuesday. A guard named Jack Gibbs made his first 14 shots and scored a career-high 41 points, making 6 of 7 from three-point land. Sound familiar?
“Sometimes a shooter gets in a zone. and with Baryshnikov in the stands there, Jack had a little bit of inspiration,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop, one of Curry’s strongest life influences. “The players knew he was there. That kind of inspiration can be magical.”
Though he knows Curry remains grounded as a global sensation, McKillop still was amazed that he’d get off a plane, go through a quick practice and immediately come to the game. “I’m a great believer that the two greatest gifts we have are time and love. He gave us those two gifts tonight,” he said. “How lucky are we?”
As lucky as we are.
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.