Today’s sporting world offers the public virtually continuous entertainment and diversion. On rare occasions, the viewing public is treated to sublime performances in sport that touch the very perfection that athletes continually strive to achieve. Such performances are long remembered by those within the sport and those of us on the sidelines who are fortunate enough to glimpse them. Most fortunate of all are those privileged to have witnessed the event in-person.
Today is game four (best of seven) in the first round of NBA championship play. The Golden State Warriors are up three games to zip over the Denver Nuggets. In the second quarter of game two, a few days ago, I witnessed on my television screen what can only be described as pure, poetic, basketball “magic” on the court as the Warriors steamrollered the Nuggets throughout a full quarter of perfect team basketball to take an insurmountable lead.
I have witnessed many a basketball game during my eighty-one years on this earth, but never have I seen such brilliant play by five-on-the-floor. Only one other time have I been similarly impressed watching basketball, and that was in the late nineteen-sixties while witnessing, via television and Chick Hearns’ legendary game commentary, John Wooden’s great UCLA teams garner their many NCAA championships by virtue of nearly perfect play-execution that left even formidable opponents flat-footed on the court.
This year’s version of the Warriors features the all-star nucleus that carried the team to their previous NBA championships: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Curry and Thompson remain all-time/all-star shooting guards while Green continues as one of the greatest passers and defensive talents in the history of the NBA. All that in addition to his key role as team spark-plug and floor leader.
Amidst the overall excellence of the Warrior’s roster, one player stands out, and that is Steph Curry who has brought to NBA prominence the three-point shot – often from far-afield. Curry is already the career leader in three-point production; in recent years, he has led the NBA in free-throw percentage (approximately 92%) in addition to being a formidable ball-handler and lay-up artist. I do not know of any finer shot in basketball than Curry’s fluid free-throw stroke. When he launches the ball, it arcs toward the hoop like a guided missile honing-in on its target. It is always thus, whether the Warriors are comfortably up by twenty-points at the time or whether the basket must be made to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Steph Curry is a hall-of-fame player already, well before his career is over.
To coin the infamous television commercial offer for some handy kitchen gadget: “But wait, there’s more!” The “more” for the Warrior roster comes in the person of young Jordan Poole, playing his first year as an NBA starter. This young star is already playing at a skill-level that equals that of his team-mentor, Steph Curry. A significant portion of the recent game-two magic that I described earlier in this post came from Poole. Young Jordan has proven that anything Curry can do on a basketball court, he can do at least as well – and, sometimes, even more spectacularly. Poole even recently wrested the league free-throw percentage leadership from Curry. In the span of just this one, current season, Poole has morphed from a talented young, but inexperienced player off the bench to a polished all-star starter. He makes plays that require the television viewer to resort to a rewind/replay of the game recording to fully comprehend “just how did he do that?” The only thing left for Poole to prove is that he can become the go-to player over multiple seasons who consistently comes through when the game is on the line; that is the special Curry attribute that truly separates Steph from other extremely talented players in the NBA, past and present. Reports have it that Curry has generously taken an interest in mentoring young Poole; the similarities in their game, their mature attitude, and their work-ethic convince me that those reports are true. Poole already plays like a Curry clone, but consistency over time and demonstrated accomplishment like an NBA championship or two are needed to complete the picture.
I recently told my twelve-year-old grandson, Luke, how lucky he and older brother, Matthew, are for having seen Steph Curry play basketball for the Golden State Warriors. They and their parents have attended at least two Warrior games in person within the past year or two and have long been faithful fans. Linda and I caught son-in-law Scott’s enthusiasm for the Warriors several years ago and have also become faithful fans, although we have never been to a game in person.
I would ordinarily say that it will take some time for the likes of a Steph Curry to come along again except for the fact that Curry may already be playing with him when Poole takes the court. Time will tell.
I will remember Steph Curry for a long time (I may have only several years left at my age!). I recall when he first surfaced with the Warriors some years ago. He seemed a promising young player, but I recall no early superlatives. I do recall that he had weak ankles which led to a few very disabling ankle-sprains that sidelined him for significant periods and seemed to threaten his future. I recall thinking: “too bad this young kid may not be able to establish a career for himself!” Imagine that.
In quiet moments, I often fondly recall other great athletes who I have seen in person. On December 8, 1957, my father took me to my first big-time athletic event: the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Baltimore Colts led by all-time great Colts quarterback, Johnny Unitas, and receiver Lenny Moore. Y.A. Tittle was the 49ers quarterback along with Joe “the jet” Perry and peerless Hugh McElhenny as running backs. Tittle was knocked silly at the end of the game, and Stanford rookie quarterback John Brodie came in to throw a winning touchdown pass to McElhenny who took it into the left side of the end-zone with only thirty seconds left on the clock as the stadium erupted. That wonderful first exposure to big-time sports took place at the old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. I can still visualize that winning touchdown in my mind’s eye as if it happened yesterday. The above photo captures that game-winning moment at Kezar stadium almost sixty-four years ago (in case my memory ever goes bad). Note the fans on housetop roofs!
In 1958, I was learning the game of tennis, and I saw Pancho Gonzales play Lew Hoad at San Francisco’s Cow Palace arena, up-close-and-personal. At that time, Gonzales was undeniably the best tennis player in the world, and Hoad was Australia’s best amateur-turned-professional challenger that year on Jack Kramer’s famous pro tour. I also remember that event as if it were yesterday – especially the fury and power of the tennis played by the enigmatic Gonzales. I still have the signed program from that event: I’ll never forget how I got Pancho’s autograph that evening. During the preliminary match between Aussies Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper, I noticed a tall, man with swarthy complexion dressed in slacks and sport coat standing in the open aisle behind our seating section. He stood there, alone, as any number of people walked by, intent only on their destination. I watched him for a full minute thinking that this man bore a resemblance to the pictures I had seen of Pancho Gonzales. I finally mobilized great courage, got out of my seat and worked my way to where he stood watching the match. I asked, “Are you Pancho Gonzales?” He nodded, so I handed him the tennis ball I had foolishly brought along in hopes of a possible autograph. He frowned at the fuzzy ball and murmured, “Bring me something I can write on.” I hustled back to where my father and I were sitting and grabbed my event program. I handed it to Gonzalez, and he laid a fine signature on his full-page picture and handed it back to me. In a minute or two he was gone, most certainly to the locker room to ready himself for the featured match with young Lew Hoad during which he dominated play while methodically dispatching Hoad. I have no doubt that Pancho was attuning himself to the vibes of the arena during that preliminary match. Apparently, I was the only person to identify him and pierce his anonymity. Time has not dimmed my memory of that evening one bit.
My sport in high school was track – specifically, running the high and low hurdles. I was also fascinated with the high-jump, although not good enough to compete in that event. In 1960, I took a date to the well-attended Olympic Trials Meet held at Stanford Stadium. I felt privileged to witness a world-record high-jump of seven feet, three and three quarter inches by John Thomas. Two years later, in 1962, my father and I attended the legendary U.S.A. / Soviet Union track meet also held at Stanford. Valery Brumel raised the new high-jump world record to seven feet, five inches at that meet – another unforgettable sports milestone I was privileged to witness along with eighty-thousand cheering fans in packed Stanford Stadium!
In 1988, the Calgary Winter Olympic Games featured one of ice-skating’s greatest competitions, ever. The local favorite from Sunnyvale, California, Brian Boitano and Canada’s Brian Orser were evenly matched in the men’s competition and Germany’s Katerina Witt was the odds-on favorite for the women’s event. Boitano made skating history that night by skating a perfect and stirring performance while winning gold. Only a very slight slip by Orser separated his fabulous performance from Boitano’s. The intriguing Ms.Witt took gold for the women with another memorable skate. Several weeks afterward, the entire Olympic ensemble of skaters toured the country showcasing the exact skating routines performed in Calgary. Linda, I, and our two young daughters had tickets for the show at Brisbane’s Cow Palace arena, south of San Francisco. I recall the excited anticipation we had as we drove north up highway 101 that evening. We were not disappointed. It was magical – virtually an encore performance of that memorable Calgary competition featuring some of skating’s all-time greats, at their very best. We drove home that evening bathed in the realization that we had been privileged to see, in person, such combined athleticism and artistry; we knew then that we would never forget what we had just experienced, and we never have!
There were other, similar occasions involving sports figures and memorable performances over the years, many from our years of following Stanford football – some fabulous players and memorable games in the eighty-thousand seat confines of the old Stanford Stadium.
Ninety-nine percent of all that we experience from the world of sports quickly fades from memory, and rightly so. Some small portion of the remaining one percent will stay with us, indelibly, whether it be in the form of great athletes themselves or great athletic performances. At the age of eighty-one years, I have seen many athletes come and I have seen them go, but I will never forget the truly great ones and their finest exploits. To have watched them over the years via the miracle of technology is a most satisfying experience. To have witnessed them in person is, indeed, no less than a rare privilege.
Steph Curry resides within that one percent category of indelibly memorable athletes. Go Steph, and go Golden State Warriors!