LeBron James’s return to his home state Ohio reminds me of an author who pens a promising first novel and then becomes bereft for the topic of another. Steph Curry’s rise in the Bay Area reminds me of an underdog’s tale. Only one gets a historic and happy ending.
There’s something else to LeBron’s narrative besides the search for a title; it is this obsession with perfection.
When James left Cleveland in 2010 to re-purpose said talents for South Beach, he’d already changed the Cavs’ and the NBA landscape by being of lithe size, speed, talent and personality—not just a successor to Michael Jordan but an genetically engineered giant tomato postscript to the era of The Greatest.
Created by men in white coats and grown under fluorescents to later ripen to decay in the deadly rays of the Florida sun, LeBron’s legacy would have been well-suited to come a half-century or more after MJ; after his predecessor’s light and still-marketable silhouette had faded.
But it didn’t.
It’s not fair to the rest of the world and all of time that we had Paul and John birthed in the same era, much less the same country, province and, eventually, troupe—yet there they were in brief harmony. Jesus and Pilate in a different era would have been successive presidents. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal would prefer to have been born centuries apart, yet there they were simmering in one pot on Dick Cavett’s shag carpet.
In other words, it all comes down to timing.
LeBron’s long-time problem was being born too close in history to his idol, his mentor—the bearer of his number 23.
Too close in history yet not close enough. His Airness wagged his tongue at opponents for the final time in the 2002-’03 season for the Washington Wizards just as The Chosen One was being drafted number one as the “Air” apparent in his home state.
That MJ and LBJ set foot on this earth at the same time but never on a court together is probably for the best. A post-Space Jam lion in winter shouldn’t be batted around by the cub.
LeBron, regardless of zip code or rationale for it, has remained without peer for a decade. There have been others, other contenders for the throne: Kobe lives somewhere in the ether as a man who always needed help to hoist his trophies earning only the distrust of his teammates en route to dark-age NBA titles. Durant in any other era is the lankier version of an ideal, though his small flaws reveal more a man than legend. There’s the would-be contenders: Carmelo and Wade and Garnett and Dirk, but there just hasn’t been…that other one. The counterpoint.
Until this year.
Until Stephen Curry.
Curry, a point guard who is now The Voice of Point Guards Everywhere, has a game that can coerce opponents into asymmetric battle and at once lull teammates into a false sense of effortless winning. In prior seasons, under less capable coaching, good enough became just short of that.
The league was more than accepting, willing even to have Curry take his rightful place in accordance to his NBA lineage as a middle-tier star for a second-run franchise. A nice stopover on a West Coast swing to play one to the buzzer then head out for sushi.
But Steph kept going.
His hectic reserve seems to have no bottom and has broken or at least elevated the form of how we see a true point guard. Long distilled as the quarterback position on the hard court, there have been others: Iverson, Nash and Kidd—and even Paul and Westbrook—who fill out slideshows with trickery and resolve, punishing teams for opening seams with thickness the realm of a sheet of tissue paper.
But Steph is different.
Curry didn’t matriculate into the NBA as Who’s Next and he didn’t arrive with his game in his carry-on. It came to him with each bead of sweat that jumped back into his hand on the dribble drive. Six years of toil. Six years of turning the lights off in the gym eventually led to shooting the lights out of it.
Curry’s game has crossed over limbic heights, or perhaps depths.
It is cerebral and mortal, as he stands with no freakish height, weight or contract.
His image not cultivated, but earned.
In a league that requires one superstar per winner, Curry decided to appoint himself rather than waiting for the coronation. Curry helms the better team of this year’s finals, but it’s also Curry who has taken disparate talents and galvanized them—the essential, smothering defense of Klay Thompson; the lip smacking and bruising elbows of killer drone Draymond Green; the underachieving Jordan-esque repose of Harrison Barnes; the resurrection of Forgotten Number One Andrew Bogut—and made them his team. The team.
LeBron’s palette may feature dimmer colors and less-known names but he’s yet to shed the spotlight and let the viewer focus on space and shots created by a single harmonious group. That Curry wasn’t handed the scepter works to his advantage. The eager apprentice the one you’d least expect to snatch the crown from the king.
At 6 p.m. Pacific Thursday, Curry and his Golden State Warriors—a supporting cast of workers who haven’t yet realized their mereness on the court this playoffs—square off against James and his unlikely band of misfit Heat and Knicks cast-offs. It is the league’s finest finals match up since the Lakers/Celtics drove a bi-coastal basketball rivalry to international relevance in the spring of 1987.
James himself still dons the heavy headband, surveying all he can while eyes remain downturned, peeking intense and certain at the faceless and too-willing crowd.
What Lebron’s really eager to see this finals is whether reigning MVP Curry can match his intensity. Weather a tiny guard can dance from beneath the game’s biggest shadow.
Elements of Magic- and Bird-style destiny emanate from both with a dash more athleticism, stoicism, expectation and most importantly…patience.
Whether a generation too early, too late, or exactly of their time, LeBron and Steph are sculptors of a new brand for their respective franchises. This NBA Finals, an existential map of how the current era’s game should be emulated by generations to come.