Bad boy Jordan would love to have Curry for dessert
Brutal conditions in which Jordan thrived now a thing of the past in sanitised NBA
Michael Jordan: when the NBA finals start next week, it is hard to imagine Jordan not seething at the idea that a figure like Steph Curry is the contemporary ‘him’ of the NBA. Photograph: Mike Powell/Allsport
In March, the NBA commissioner Adam Silver invited basketball’s global audience to pause in their nine-to-five daily grind to consider, for a moment, the existential loneliness that comes with being an elite multi-millionaire basketball star with a fan base spanning time zones.
“What surprises me is when I meet them, they’re truly unhappy,” Silver said of the best and most handsomely endorsed generation of players in NBA history.
He portrayed the glamorous league as a house of melancholy loners with nothing in common beyond their explosive athleticism and 40 foot-plus shooting range which has transformed the aesthetics of the game in the last decade.
“Players are isolated and have their heads down,” he said of the behind-the-curtains reality of the glamorous television show on shiny hardwood floors.
Silver is regarded as an exceptionally enlightened and empathetic commish’ so his observations provoked scathing responses from the previous generation of stars, with the garrulous Charles Barkley loudest in his disdain.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard a commissioner say. These guys earn, 20, 30, 40 million a year. They work six, seven months a year. They stay in the best hotels. They ain’t got no problems.”
Easy to hear a lot of ‘amens’ to that reply. But it is impossible not to think of Silver’s words when you consider the current plight of Kevin Durant who is maybe the best individual talent in the world right now. At 6ft9in and a 7ft5in wingspan with his arms outstretched, Durant represented a new breed of player when he came into the league in 2007: a big man with supreme ball handling skills, brilliant passing vision and breathtaking athleticism.
He was to basketball what Michael Phelps was to swimming except that the gold medals would not come – Durant endured years of frustration in trying to win an NBA championship with Oklahoma Thunder before literally crushing the self-esteem of that city by opting to join the already talent-laden Golden State Warriors in 2016.
The move caused both derision and disquiet. Along with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Durant gave the Warriors an array of attacking talent that seemed simply unfair and the Warriors, for decades an unfashionable NBA stalwart, have won back-to-back championships and are awaiting this weekend to see who will face them in their fifth consecutive NBA finals appearance, a feat exceeded only by Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics when LBJ was in the White House.
The only blip in the Warriors play -off season was that Durant injured a calf muscle in game one of the 4-0 sweep of Portland and has been out since.
But the frightening thing for everyone, including, one presumes, Durant, was that the other Warriors didn’t seem to miss him at all. They simply kept on winning, with the other pre-Durant players like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala easily filling in the void and enjoying more playing minutes.
Plus, the phenomenal long-range shooting ability of Thompson and Curry has become spectacular again because they don’t have to worry about getting Durant the ball anymore. It’s clear they are having fun; none of the Warriors have explicitly come out and said that it feels like old times again but their body language is enough.
Durant is soft-spoken and sensitive to criticism and we can only guess what might be going through his mind, all alone and watching his team-mates whooping it up in his absence.
It wouldn’t take a paranoid mind to be convinced that, even though he was contributing 30 points a game and had become the team leader, the others didn’t truly need him; they just accepted him, nurtured his talent and allowed him to flourish so he got his NBA rings.
In Durant’s absence, Steph Curry, the small, slight point guard whose stunning ball-handling skills and preternaturally quick shooting from absurd distances have changed the way youngsters around the world think about and play basketball, has become the alpha dog of these play-offs. If unhappiness is the prevailing emotion in the NBA, then Curry is the exception. He’s clearly loving it all.
Exuberantly chirpy, Curry’s compulsive mouth-guard chewing, combined with an increasing bravado, his impromptu on-court dance celebrations and his capacity for making killer shots has a tendency to grate on the nerves of other players and fans.
But Curry has been brilliant, cold-hearted and clinical and, it would seem unstoppable. Just this week, his team-mate Andre Iguodala ranked him the second best player in NBA history – behind Michael Jordan.
This is where Sliver’s comments are interesting. Jordan is notoriously silent about most issues but you know that privately he would scoff at the idea of the NBA’s elite stars suffering from angst. In his decade-long playing career, Jordan partied and socialised with the same fury with which he played the game.
In a rare public appearance this year ahead of the All-Star game, Jordan was asked about two contemporary stars, James Harden and Russell Westbrooks.
Both put up phenomenal numbers and both could be classified as fairly eccentric characters. Jordan was asked whether it is tougher to average 30 a game, like Harden, or average triple doubles (double figures in any three of scoring, passing, rebounding or steals per game) like Westbrook.
And as a league owner, he said all the right things for a while, explaining how proud he was of both players for their performances in the league before pausing and getting to the point: “As to which is tougher . . . I would say: six championships, by all means.” Jordan was bringing the subject back to his prevailing obsession: himself, and his perfect record of six NBA titles in six finals appearances with the Chicago Bulls.
When the NBA finals start next week, it is hard to imagine Jordan as anything other than contemptuous and seething at the idea that a figure like Steph Curry is the contemporary ‘him’ of the NBA. That’s not to say he doesn’t admire Curry as a shooter and scorer. But as the NBA’s dominant figure? You can just hear the bourbon-and-cigar laugh coming from the blackness.
You only have to go back and look at the highlights of the Bulls-Knicks series of 1992, say, to understand any reservations. That series was essentially a series of hard fouls, bodies hitting the floor, confrontations, spite and more fouls. Those were the conditions in which Jordan and his contemporaries had to thrive. It was brutal. And it is impossible to visualise Curry playing in that environment without getting hit and hurt time and time again.
Under Adam Silver and his predecessor David Stern, the NBA has changed: the hard fouls and rough-housing, the fighting between players and fans, the general brawls have been eliminated with the threat of long suspensions. The rules were changed to give the attacking player all the advantage – the game has been sanitised and rebranded into the slick, global commodity which Curry now fronts.
You can bet that privately Jordan believes that, in his prime and when the conditions of the game were rawer, he would eat Curry without salt, muscling up on him in the security that even if Curry eluded him with those dazzling ball skills, he’d have citizens like Denis Rodman or Charles Oakley lining up to hit him as hard as they could when he came near the basket.
Time’s a goon so Jordan has no way of proving this and he can’t even say it publicly without sounding bitter.
But you can imagine Jordan in his darkened palace watching, on a gigantic screen, Steph in the NBA finals – chewing his mouthguard much as toddler plays with a soother and slinging those long range bombs– and begging the gods for just one; just one more night where he could wear the red shirt and be wolf again and demonstrate to the world just what basketball as he played it was all about.
One-on-one with Michael Jordan glaring evil at you – now that’s loneliness in the NBA.