By now there have been reams of paper printed and gigabytes of text written about Stephen Curry winning the NBA’s MVP award this past week; as likely as not, there’s little more that can be said about that event that’s novel in any way.
But I would like to chime in with an observation on the matter–one idea that, of all the things that have been said about Curry, just might have gotten most thoroughly overlooked in all the hoopla and hype:
Curry winning the MVP in back to back seasons–unanimously, in the latter case–comes as something of a big surprise.
No, it’s not a big surprise at this point in time for any of us who watched these last two seasons. To see the surprise, you have to travel back in time, so you can remember just where Curry came from to get where he is now.
While it is true that Curry came into the world of prominence with a lot of pedigree–he is, after all, the son of Dell Curry, a guy who spent 16 seasons in the Association–it is also true that there were questions about the junior Curry almost every step of the way.
Curry, unlike James or Durant but very much like you and me and almost everyone else in the world, has had to live under the shadow of doubt.
For all the juice Curry should have gotten from his pedigree, after high school it only got him as far as Davidson–not exactly an NCAA Division I powerhouse. Curry’s brilliance at Davidson got the Wildcats into the Tournament, including a trip to a regional final where it took a #1-seeded Kansas team to (barely) beat them.
That result may have helped propel Curry into the NBA draft lottery, but only up to a #7 pick. It’s worth noting, in the wake of Curry’s unanimous selection as MVP, that the two most recent MVPs to win the award with anything close to a unanimous vote–Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James, who both fell one vote short of full consensus–were both #1 overall picks. Other recent MVPs like Kevin Durant (#2 overall) and Derrick Rose (#1 overall) also opened their careers ranked ahead of Curry. (Kobe Bryant, as a #13 overall pick, was the last player to win the award who entered the league outside the top ten.)
So coming into the Association, not everyone was sold on Curry. That state of affairs grew worse early in Curry’s career, when repeated ankle injuries kept plaguing him. His ankle problems were troublesome enough that he missed most of the 2011-12 season, and led many to wonder if Curry would ever be the player the Warriors had hoped he would be. Indeed, it was something of a shock when the Dubs signed Curry to a contract extension in October of 2012; they seemed to be paying a lot of money for damaged goods.
Of course that extension looks like a bargain now.
Even last year, when Curry was the focal point of a Warriors team that won the championship, there were still plenty of voices willing to cast aspersions on the achievement. The Warriors were considered “lucky” in a way that no team led by James or Bryant or Tim Duncan ever was. It was only this season’s steamroll performance by Golden State that validated everything that came before it–including, it seems, the status of their star player.
Add all of this up and what do we see? How can you describe what Curry has overcome to get to the pinnacle where he now stands?
Here it is in a word: Doubt.
Curry has overcome a ton of doubt, which is something few others on his level have had to face. James, O’Neal, Durant, Rose–when you’re picked #1 or #2 overall, there’s no clearer sign that you’re considered a sure thing. Nobody doubted any of those guys, at least when they were coming into the league.
Rose, after his own injury struggles, has faced a massive amount of doubt these last few years–and he has yet to overcome it in any significant way. His case throws into sharp relief just how extraordinary Curry’s accomplishment really is. Where Rose has buckled under the weight of everyone’s doubts, Curry has shrugged off the questions that surrounded him and just gotten better and better.
I suspect that, ultimately, this is the reason why everyone in the world has gone so insane for Curry–best-selling jersey in the league, ultra-high demand for him for endorsements, even people going out of their minds over his family (including his cooking show wife and precocious daughter). Curry, unlike James or Durant but very much like you and me and almost everyone else in the world, had to live under the shadow of doubt. And he overcame it, in the biggest way imaginable.
It’s not just his seemingly normal size–it’s only by comparison with the other players that Curry seems small; he’s 6’3″, more than average height–that makes the folks in the stands relate to him so well. Nor is it his personable, “good guy” character; nor his lack of tattoos (that makes him abnormal today); nor his skill set, which comes across as both otherworldly yet strangely achievable at the same time. All of those things enter into Curry’s enormous popularity, to be sure.
But it’s the way he has slain the dragon of doubt–that monster that gnaws at almost all of us–that, I believe, has helped Curry achieve this apotheosis and become, perhaps, the single most popular athlete in the world. We’ve seen him fight the same fight we all must face, and he has shown us that the beast can be slain. Given how we all face that dreadful doubt monster, his example of how to win that fight may prove to be what makes Curry most valuable of all, not just on the NBA court, but everywhere to everyday people all over the world.