By Paolo Uggetti / @PaoloUggetti
One of them prances from half-court to half-court with a facetious gracefulness, a seeming innocence that quickly turns into deadly sharpshooting never before seen. The other propels himself from first down to first down with strength and agility that transcends the presupposed limitations of a body his size.
Stephen Curry and Cameron Newton: Their geographical connection to North Carolina is but one of the threads that stitch them together. After all, both of them are not just performing at the top of their respective sports, but in the process of doing so, they are transforming the preconceived notions of peak athletic performance.
They are one-of-a-kind in their play. They are one-of-a-kind in their way.
Before swaths of kids were donning Under Armour sneakers in blue and gold or sporting “The City” jerseys with the number 30 plastered across the back, the NBA was a league that saw shooters as merely another piece in the puzzle, a position with a defined role that only had a limited effect on the game.
Then came Steph Curry.
Point to Reggie Miller or Ray Allen, and you can boast a prominent example of a player who embraced the three-point shot. But if the aforementioned two embraced it, Curry is the one who owns it.
Curry already has the record for most three-pointers in a season and is on pace for 390, a number that would break his own record in this year’s campaign. The efficacy in his scoring is what jumps off the box score, but his ability to shift and contort the game by the force of his own gravity speaks far louder volumes to his transcendence.
“He has a ridiculous shooting range, so it distorts the whole chessboard,” said Steve Kerr about Curry’s ability to change the game.
To opposing coaches and players, the chessboard must feel more like a field of land mines. Take one step in the wrong direction and Curry will slide along the baseline to drain a three from the corner, needing only milliseconds to pull the trigger. Go under a screen and he will make you pay from 30+ feet. Double team him at the top of the arc and he will whip a picture-perfect no-look pass to the shooter you’re not covering. Give him space as he crosses the half-court line and you have officially opened the door as a welcome sign to his shooting range.
With Curry, covering all your bases is not enough. You might as well try to hide them altogether.
People have associated Curry’s popularity with many things — his likability, his charm, his success, his free-flowing spirit. The way he makes them feel like they can — by some irrational and implausible amount of practice — do what he is doing. After all, Curry is not finishing alley-oops with force, but rather swishing shots with finesse. Even his dunk attempts elicit sympathy among viewers who recognize they are watching something both relatable and impossible at the same time.
Watch Curry on a game-to-game basis and you’ll notice the other paradox in his play. It’s the looseness, the affability and the simplicity that pervades his every step. The smile that makes more appearances than the growl. The grandiose celebrations that are inherently joyful amid a hyper-competitive environment. By the stroke of his shot and the cadence of his play, Curry makes the biggest stage in the game his playground. He takes the serious and makes it jovial, the impossible and makes it possible, the professional and makes it casual.
We still preside in the presence of a sports culture that has tried to set metaphysical parameters on a form of entertainment, a rabid sports population that has attempted to inject morality into a mere contest. The characteristics and traits assigned to, or associated with, athletes at the top of their game have become cloyingly repetitive: focus, seriousness and discipline. Integrity, class and respect.
This is where Cam Newton, master of the touchdown dance, the on- and off-the-field panache and the magnetic smile, interjects. Not as a fault of his own doing, but rather as a victim of the systematically false belief that an athlete can only succeed if he comports himself with a certain type of concentration on his game, never being allowed to dabble in anything deemed over-the-top or extracurricular.
The thinking here being that an athlete doing anything other than investing all physical and mental capacity to the craft is a waste of time and talent. Dig deeper and you’ll find many who take it as an affront to their perceived right to demand 110 percent from the athletes who owe nothing to them.
Newton, who, unlike Curry, manifests himself with more blunt force than gracefulness, is having the best season of his life and is headed to the Super Bowl. This, after some draft analysts preferred Blaine Gabbert over him, declaring him a bust before his first snap. This after being considered merely average, a talent who would never reach the ability to a carry a team his inferior.
Newton isn’t just proving those who doubted his skills wrong. He is also making those who indicted him on the basis of his character look foolish. In the process, he is gleefully doing it all in his own way, showcasing his joy in the game, while simultaneously irking those whose faulty claims for class and respect are simply weak attempts at covering up racial tendencies with shallow platitudes and clichés.
From the post-game quotes likening the team’s progression to slow-cooked collard greens and not quick grits, to the dabbing after every first down and score, to the dancing and stunting on defenders who try and fail to bring him down — Newton is the greatest show on television. To those who recognize and enjoy the refreshing nuance he brings to the game, it’s must-watch TV. To others who have their qualms with his supposed disrespect of the game, it’s just another sitcom they cannot help but hate-watch.
Curry doesn’t venture out onto these murky, controversial waters. Instead, he showcases an enjoyment of the game that runs counter to the forceful and focused attitude LeBron James displays on the court or the drab consistency Tim Duncan has lived by. The ability Curry has to do things with efficiency while also doing them with unmitigated joy is a balancing act that nixes the perception of keeping play away from work as the only formula for success.
And one would think that success would be the priority for sports fans so obsessed with winning. One would think that in a results-oriented society, success would trump all. Think again.
In this world of the obsessive sports fan, athletes are not only held to a higher standard in their performance, but they are also affected by a double standard that demands from them a robotic temperament and demeanor that cannot stray from the overly cautious precedent set by guys like Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning, who supposedly play the game “the right way.”
For Curry, his likability funds his paradoxical tendencies. It affords him the ability to display a near sense of carelessness as he pulls up from other zip codes for three more points. For Newton, the context around him disallows him that same acceptance; the nonsensical hatred behind him overpowers his sensibilities and renders his “behavior” an insult more often than it renders it a triumph.
Yet, it’s their respective success that brings them once again to common ground. One is vying for a Super Bowl ring, the other looking for a repeat championship and a shot at history. Both are an oxymoron in their professions, which they treat more like the game they love to play than the job they have to do. In different, but similar ways, they are representative beacons of what sports are supposed to convey but sometimes cease to be: fun.
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