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How Steph Curry is the new Roger Federer

It isn’t simply that Curry is among basketball’s greatest ever, or plays in an aesthetically stirring way, or is admirably sportsmanlike, or is an NBA champion multiple times over. It’s more of a vibe. As it was with Federer and tennis in recent years before he got hurt, there’s a public urgency around Curry, to drop everything to watch him play basketball, because you’re not quite sure you’ll ever see anyone play quite like this again.

On Sunday, amid a crush of NFL games, Curry scored 33 points in a road victory against the Los Angeles Clippers, a win that improved the Golden State Warriors’ record to 18-2 heading into Tuesday’s shiny showdown with 17-3 Phoenix. Curry did his usual Curry: 3-pointers from separate area codes, a dewdrop floater in the paint, a wicked, no-look, behind-the-back pass to cutting teammate Draymond Green that tricked everyone on the West Coast besides Green. Curry also got uncharacteristically furious, earning a fourth-quarter technical foul after getting thumped on a drive to the basket and yelling at a referee who didn’t blow a whistle on the play.

The rare T only riled Curry up, and he unleashed a final flurry to finish off the Clips. After hitting a dagger 3 from the corner, Curry paused and made the technical foul hand gesture himself.

“Open for interpretation,” Curry said dryly, when asked about it later.

As Curry was pulled from the game, fans in the Los Angeles arena stood and gave him an ovation.

This is becoming comically routine. Not long ago, during an allegedly huge road game with the Nets, the Brooklyn crowd instead rained “M-V-P” chants upon Curry as he outdueled his former teammate, Kevin Durant. The same happened two nights later in Cleveland—rowdy MVP chants from a city that Curry and the Warriors denied two rings in the prior decade.

Curry flies above the cloud line, in his own airspace of universal appeal. He may not always be the most dominant NBA player in the league—on a given night, that title can alternate among Durant, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dallas’s Luka Doncic, Denver’s Nikola Jokic, and even LeBron James, still going hard for the Lakers despite injuries in his 19th season. While those players are marvels, all of them are routinely assigned the villain’s hat. Curry is not. He’s the most popular player in every room he’s in. Otherwise hostile crowds urge him to play at his absolute best, even when it’s against their self-interest.

Curry’s heard “M-V-P” chants on the road before—years ago, fans in opposing arenas started turning up early to watch him take pregame shooting practice—but now the goodwill is constant, because it was unclear if we’d get this version of Curry again. The Warriors are roaring once more, but it wasn’t so long ago that the Bay Area dynasty scraped the NBA’s ocean floor—Durant left, Klay Thompson got hurt, and Curry himself was shut down with injuries. The bleak bummer stretch, which included a detour to the lousy team lottery, only bolstered Curry’s precious appeal. To lose Curry being Curry and the Warriors being the Warriors was a reminder that nothing in sports is forever, and it has added a layer of appreciation to this rebooted run.

Federer reached this point, too. Early in his career, the Swiss right-hander was a dominant champion, collecting titles to the point of boredom. It wasn’t until Federer got roughed up—repeated, heartbreaking losses to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic; a long, fallow stretch between major titles from Wimbledon 2012 to Australia 2017—that he became fully rendered as a warm character. Federer proved to be human, too, and it widened the circus around him—the “Fedhead” pilgrims who turned his matches into rock concerts as his 40s beckoned. Anyone pitted against Federer in the past decade knew they would be playing one-against-two: against Roger, and also the crowd.

Of course, like Curry, Federer is also a visual wonder—no one’s played the power modern game with such balletic grace, to the point his matches felt like watching a masterpiece painted in real time. Federer is hurt again, with serious doubt he’ll ever return to the mountaintop, and while it’s melancholy for the sport, it’s satisfying for anyone who saw him: a player like Fed will likely never happen again.

Curry is there. His coach, Steve Kerr, has made his own Federer comparison in the past. As the Journal’s Ben Cohen has written persuasively, Curry’s added marginal improvements and greatness to his greatness, but the time to see him is now. Curry is 33—not ancient, but not promised five more years of it, either. If you’re not a basketball fan, or you’ve been holding out for some reason, I recommend reconsidering, and adding the Warriors to your life. Start Tuesday versus Phoenix. What the 6-foot-2 wonder from Davidson is doing is historic, but also historically beautiful.

Like Roger Federer, to deny yourself Steph Curry is to deny yourself joy.

 

 

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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