Saturday, May 1, 2021
The state-mandated 20% maximum capacity crowd at Toyota Center buzzed in anticipation. In just a few minutes, they knew they were about to witness a definitive top 10 player to ever play the game and one of its greatest point guards.
No home court advantage or hostile playoff environment can quell the hypnotic effect that Stephen Curry has on fans and the game itself. The collective gasp that a crowd takes as a 30-footer from No. 30 dances across the air is nothing short of euphoric. I’ve had the privilege to participate in such euphoria on two different occasions.
The first time was at a packed Phillips Arena in Atlanta, GA. Curry and the Warriors were riding as high as can be in the midst of their eventual 73-9 campaign. Hawks fans’ mood towards Golden State was split with a blend of incessant heckling and an insatiable desire to see Curry work his magic with their own eyes.
I enjoyed my time at the Atlanta game, but it wasn’t the game itself that fascinated me most. My mom and I arrived about 30 minutes before tip-off, and to our surprise, about 75% of the arena was already filled. Why? At one baseline, the seats were nearly empty. At the other, a frenzied mob of children and adults alike were already settled to watch Steph Curry warm up.
The entertainment at hand was just a simple off-balance shooting drill with some dribble pull-ups mixed in. That’s it. Part of me was puzzled by how locked in all the viewers were. But the other part of me understood it completely. All it took was a few seconds of watching and you could see the confidence, charisma, and charm oozing from the 6’3″ guard. Fans cheered for his makes like they were game-winning buzzer-beaters. After my night in Atlanta, Curry’s cult following no longer confused me.
Five years later, I found myself watching Steph Curry in an away team’s arena again. For obvious reasons, this time was much different. Houston only allows 20% capacity in the Toyota Center and my guess would be that they didn’t even meet that number. There was no pregame crowd this time around, and when his number was called during the player introductions it wasn’t met with as much fanfare as I expected.
However, once the ball was tipped off, everything became normal again. Curry’s gameplay elicited all eyes at all times. The attention put on him actually seemed to be backfiring in the first half. By his standards, Curry struggled. He threw a couple of errant passes and rushed more than a few possessions. The lowly Rockets even led 55-49 at halftime!
Despite the somewhat disappointing play, the fear that Curry evoked remained the same. Houston fans and players trembled whenever he touched the ball. It was an uneasy energy that you couldn’t help but feel.
In the third quarter, that fear became a reality. Steph grabbed the game by the horns and gave the biggest beatdown in Houston since Jon Jones vs Dominick Reyes at UFC 247. (Reyes still won that fight in my eyes, you can’t convince me otherwise)
The Warriors outscored the Rockets 39-12 in that quarter and turned the game into a runaway. Every part of that 27-point discrepancy came from Curry’s brilliance. He was scoring, rebounding over bigs, and distributing to perfection. With each three-ball, the ghosts of past playoff performances groaned louder. We’ve lost track of the number of nightmares Houston has experienced at the hands of Curry. The home crowd cheered louder for him than they did their own team. It was as if there were two separate games going on, one being Houston vs. Golden State, the other being Steph Curry vs. the expectations of Steph Curry.
It almost seemed like Curry knew he only needed a few minutes of basketball wizardry to put this game away; like Yoda summoning his lightsaber only in the direst of circumstances. He looked like a player who was just going through the motions in the first half. In the second, he looked like the greatest point guard to ever play the game. His awareness of how he can affect the game and at what points to attack is in the upper echelon of sports intangibles.
If this piece is nothing but a love letter, so be it. That being said, I’d like for it to instead serve as a checkpoint for the special times we’re living in. Few athletes will ever be as captivating as Stephen Curry, and even fewer will be as great. Appreciating that greatness can break down the barriers of fandom and maybe, just maybe, be something we can all agree on.