Pitted against each other in the last two NBA Finals, Stephen Curry and LeBron James have developed a personal rivalry without equal in today’s league. Called the world’s two best basketball players by both Slam magazine and ESPN, these two champions join the long NBA tradition of rival superstars—following rivalries like Wilt Chamberlain versus Bill Russell and Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson.
That being said, the narrative between James and Curry has developed differently from that of their predecessors. From the time they were drafted, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were paraded as equals; Chamberlain and Russell experienced a similar phenomenon. The basketball world has never treated James and Curry equally. By the age of 15, James looked destined to succeed. However, for Curry, an undersized and unheralded college prospect, failure seemed inevitable. To basketball fans, their rivalry has become emblematic of the underdog versus the favorite—two opposite champions, ironically born in the same hospital, clashing at the end of each NBA season.
However, this is not the full story. On the surface, James and Curry’s rivalry might seem the prototypical David and Goliath story, but a deeper look will show that both players have an equally compelling case for the underdog label. Ultimately, the case of James and Curry exposes a broader trend. The narrative linking these two superstars, along with many other narratives in the athletic world, has been edited and simplified in an attempt to fit its events to a more convenient story.
The Little Guy and The Giant
Standing 6 feet 3 inches and weighing 190 pounds, Curry’s normalness is somewhat extraordinary. In a league where most players can’t fit through a door without ducking, Curry’s prepubescent looks and stature are exceptional in their own right. Over the past two years, the “baby-faced assassin” experienced an enormous upsurge in popularity. In fact, he might very well have supplanted James as basketball’s most popular player—he became the first player to be unanimously named NBA MVP, and for the second straight season his was the league’s highest selling jersey.
Curry’s meteoric rise in popularity can best be explained by once again considering the differences between him and James. Basketball fans are used to watching athletic feats they themselves could never hope to equal. Whether it is a chase-down block to clinch the NBA Finals or a jaw-dropping dunk, James’ athleticism allows him to play in a way the average person couldn’t even attempt. Curry, by contrast, is a shooter. While it is true Curry’s shooting prowess is in some ways as extraordinary as James’ athletic ability, Curry’s game resonates with fans because, as he himself said, “everybody can take a ball and shoot.”
Furthermore, Curry has won supporters with his perseverance. College basketball’s major programs declared Curry too small and too slow to compete, leaving him to play for the unheralded Davidson College. And despite a phenomenal college career, he found himself nagged by the same criticisms on draft night. So the story goes: from the time he was in high school, Curry’s talent was underappreciated by scouts and recruiters alike; however, through grit and hard work he has refined his abilities and is now running circles around competition one could call more naturally gifted than he.
James, by contrast, never worried which college he would attend; instead, he worried which NBA team would he join. When he was only a 17-year-old high school junior, Sports Illustrated dubbed James the “Chosen One” and described him as “so good that he’s already being mentioned as the heir to Air Jordan.” Standing six feet eight inches, weighing 250 pounds, and possessing unbelievable athletic ability, James stands in stark contrast to Curry’s underdog story.
The Story Retold
Although this is the story the world knows, it lacks the depth afforded by a different perspective. After all, when James and Curry were born in that same hospital on the edge of Akron, Ohio, they were in very different positions. Curry was born into wealth, privilege, and a loving home; LeBron found himself familiar with “drugs, guns, killing,” but not his father. Curry was coached by his dad, 16-year NBA veteran Dell Curry. James lived with his coach as well, but only because often he had nowhere else to stay. While Curry shot hoops with his father’s NBA teammates, James practiced at an old Salvation Army gym.
For both men, success was overwhelmingly unlikely. However, only for Curry was failure survivable. To LeBron, fatherless with hardly a cent to his name, failure meant succumbing to the cycle of urban poverty. Curry quickly left Akron while LeBron stayed behind to become Akron’s champion. Perhaps Curry is the underdog on the basketball court, but LeBron was the underdog in pretty much everything else.
Even Curry’s role as the basketball underdog is to some degree exaggerated. While Curry may be skinnier and slower than most of his competition, he was born so genetically inclined towards the game of basketball that all three male members of his immediate family play or have played in the NBA. Indeed, it’s possible that Curry’s shooting ability is as genetically determined as LeBron’s ability to dunk—his skills so far exceed that of any shooter in history that extra practice can hardly explain the difference. While he may appear scrawny, Curry is remarkably strong—his 400-pound maximum deadlift is more than any player on last year’s Warriors team besides the 6-feet-11-inch, 255-pound Festus Ezeli.
Narratives in the Sports World
If the narrative of James and Curry is deceptively complex, one has to wonder why it has been simplified to the point of cutting half the tale. Ultimately, this phenomenon points to a larger trend. Perhaps the reason people are so captivated by athletic contests is because events in sports are often married to simple, archetypal narratives that are uncommon in the real world. However, true athletic narratives are rarely so simple. NFL fans will always remember Peyton Manning retiring as a champion, but few will mention Manning throwing 17 interceptions and only nine touchdowns in his final season. Fans will readily recall Michael Jordan’s unblemished NBA Finals record, but few will mention Jordan falling short time and time again in the Eastern Conference Finals against the “Bad Boy” Pistons.
Perhaps this phenomenon is the fault of the sports media as a whole. To outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, there is an obvious incentive to peddling a simple story. When vital details are omitted, the resulting plot often takes on a storybook character. Individuals find themselves resembling archetypes and the narrative as a whole becomes more poetic. In search of mass-market appeal, movie and television directors often omit complexity from their scripts—it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the sports media exhibits the same logic.
Or perhaps fans themselves are the guilty party. In a world where negativity sometimes prevails, it is easy to see the comfort a simple story can bring. Every day, news outlets overflow with reports on terrorism, homegrown protests, and political divisions. Sports, by contrast, can offer an uncomplicated and uplifting outlook. When Curry crosses over a bigger competitor, the American public sees an underdog making an indelible mark on the world around him. When Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game, the fans that followed him for two decades could wistfully declare that the “black mamba” still had a little venom left in him. At some level, such incredible athletic exploits have a reassuring quality. Fans may be inclined to ignore certain details in order to assure themselves that black and white heroics exist in the real world. For an instant, fans are given the chance to escape life’s confusion and blissfully return to naiveté.
Today’s True Underdog
Ultimately, branding one of these two men as the real underdog isn’t important. The important thing is recognizing that even this little guy narrative—which has enveloped Curry and allowed him to be paraded as the quintessential underdog—is, in fact, far too one-dimensional to do justice to his story. The claim that success was gifted to James in the form of tremendous athletic ability is equally flawed.
While it is unclear exactly who is pushing for simpler narratives in sports, the phenomenon implies is that such stories have value. Whether it is a comforting nature or a broad appeal, something has allowed these stories to cut through the truth and plant themselves firmly at the forefront of the discussion. However, while it might be tempting for fans or the media to embrace a catchy story, doing so undervalues the rich literature dwelling in the truth. LeBron and Steph are two of the most dominant basketball players the world has ever seen—it is unfair to both men that their stories be misrepresented.
The odds are substantial that the Warriors and Cavaliers will meet once again in the NBA Finals—the two teams ranked first and second on Las Vegas’ opening championship odds sheet. If and when that day comes, the collision of basketball’s two greatest stars won’t be the collision of David and Goliath. Instead, it will be the collision of two very different, but equal men.
Image source: Flickr/keithallison