Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors was recently named the AP Male Athlete of the Year, and it was well-deserved. He’s the front-runner for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, and that, too, will be well-deserved. Curry is not just the best and most-compelling basketballer in the world, with a skill no one before him has possessed. What really makes him special is how he rose from relative obscurity to where he is today.
For a guy whose lineage had NBA stock –Curry’s father Del Curry had a long, solid career as a sharpshooter off the bench– Curry’s still as much of an underdog story as we’ve seen from a transcendent superstar since perhaps Tom Brady.
He’s not very big. Curry barely’s 6’3. He’s not overly fast or explosive. Curry wasn’t highly recruited out of high school and had to settle for a scholarship at Davidson University. Even while he was setting NCAA records and taking his school to the Sweet 16, there were still enough doubters that Curry slipped to seventh in the draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves had the fifth and sixth picks, took two point guards, and neither was Curry. He fell to Golden State a franchise that’s been around far longer than the T-Wolves, but was regarded as even more of a laughingstock. Most figured Curry would have a pro career similar to his father’s, a shooter who can be a sparkplug as a reserve, but too slight to hold up defensively and not enough of a playmaker to be a starting point guard.
Instead… well you see the instead.
The thing is, as Curry is to the Warriors, the Warriors are to the sports world as a whole. They’re the team. They’re the story. The NBA regular season can be an interminable, predictable bore, with five loaded teams at the top, five wretched ones at the bottom and 20 in the middle jockeying for position but really just treading water. The elite teams mostly float along, just throwing their talent on the floor and knowing that most nights they can go through the motions for three quarters and just turn it on in the fourth to win.
The Warriors changed all of that. They were the strangers to the party. Coming into the 2014-15 season, only ESPN.com’s Ethan Strauss picked them to win the title, and he’s their beat writer. Most figured that they would improve slightly with Steve Kerr taking over for Mark Jackson and modernizing the offense, but the second round would probably be their ceiling.
They won 67 games, were atop the standings wire-to-wire, posted the seventh-best scoring differential of all-time, were a couple tenths of a point from finishing first in both offensive and defensive rating as a team and were never taken to a seventh game in any playoff series en route to capturing their first championship since 1975. They led the league in most passes and most assists. Curry broke his own record for most three-pointers and then destroyed Reggie Miller’s mark for most threes in the playoffs. He defeated his four fellow “teammates” on the All-NBA team, besting Anthony Davis’ Pelicans, Marc Gasol’s Grizzlies, James Harden’s Rockets and LeBron James’ Cavs on the way to the title.
Golden State is the Team of the Year not just because they’re the most fun, the must-watch, and the one that most captures the imagination. They deserve the honor because unlike their contemporaries in the other sports; they were the gate-crashers to the party. Think about it, who else won a championship that no one saw coming?
In the NFL the Patriots won their usual 12 games the past regular season and then prevailed over the Seahawks –the 2014 champs– to win their fourth Super Bowl of the Brady/Bill Belichick Era and it was their sixth trip to the big game since 2001. They go in as favorites every season and are universally despised outside of Massachusetts.
In baseball, the Royals overcame the Mets to win their first World Series since 1985. They weren’t a big money powerhouse like we think of the Yankees or the Dodgers, but they weren’t much of a surprise champion either, since they were in the previous World Series as well, losing to the Giants in seven games in 2014.
The Blackhawks coasted through the NHL regular season and then went on to win their third Stanley Cup in six years. Hockey is not as popular as it once was, but Chicago has built the closest thing we’ve got to a modern dynasty with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith.
In soccer, Barcelona won the Champions League and La Liga, Jose Mourinho and his cynical Chelsea won the Premier League (before imploding this season) and the U.S. women destroyed Japan to win the World Cup. Favorites and juggernauts all. None of them shocked the world. They were the best, but they were expected to be.
The truly exciting thing about the Dubs is that we’re witnessing the dawn of a new era. This wasn’t a fluke or a one-time deal. This is Wayne Gretzky in the mid-80’s with the Edmonton Oilers, only with a more popular, more accessible sport where every game is watchable through League Pass. The Warriors have been even more dominant this season, starting 29-1 and may well obliterate every team record there is.
We’ll grow to hate and resent their success eventually. It’s what we do. But for now, the Warriors are a pretty sweet deal.
They’re the team of the year.