If Stephen Curry and LeBron James line up next to each other, it looks like Marty McFly standing beside the Incredible Hulk, which, oddly in a way, works in Curry’s favor.
Curry obviously is a player with stellar skills and during the playoffs, he has continued to demonstrate his worthiness as the Most Valuable Player, which he won for his play in the regular season. With an average of 29.7 points in 16 games, he ranks second in scoring behind only New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, who played only four games.
NBA fans have discovered what Golden State fans have felt for awhile now – it’s easy to be a Curry superfan because it’s easier on one level to relate to him than it is to James and the other physical marvels – think Dwight Howard – in the league. At 6-3, 185, Curry is taller and weighs more than the average American male, but he looks diminutive on the court. Yet he is one of the best players in the world.
Curry’s public stature has increased in the playoffs and the NBA Finals not only because of the way he has played, but also because of the way he has carried himself. Those of us who covered Dell Curry, Steph’s dad, are not surprised. Dad was a great shooter, but also a great locker room guy – always approachable and always classy. Steph has some good genes.
Although some members of the press have complained about it, Steph has also endeared himself to fans by bringing his 2-year-old daughter Riley to interviews. Here is this guy, slightly built, who leads his team to 67 wins, is the MVP, stands three games away from a championship and, well, he’s also America’s Dad. And right now, he is America’s Player.
LeBron, however, is still the best player on the planet and I think something special is happening to him in the playoffs.
Actually, it began last year when James decided to return to Cleveland after four years in Miami. He was clearly a different person than the one in 2010 appeared on “The Decision,” where he provided several bits of news, such as he hadn’t been biting his fingernails as much as he had in the past and, by the way, he was leaving the Cavaliers to play for the Heat.
When the Heat made it to the Finals that year, they were known as the Evil Empire. Two players – James and Chris Bosh – had abandoned teams in Cleveland and Toronto, thus showing no loyalty. The reaction in Cleveland had been particularly harsh with fans hatefully burning LeBron jerseys, owner Dan Gilbert calling James’ decision “cowardly.”
When the Mavericks managed to defeat the Heat in six games and win the title, it was a popular victory. As Wilt Chamberlain said, no one loves Goliath.
LeBron was still respected for his talent, and when the Heat won two titles, he received proper credit as a champion. But there was always something ugly about the way it happened. And critics were constantly picking at LeBron – for example, last year in Game 1 in San Antonio when the air conditioning system failed and LeBron had to leave the game – ultimately a loss – with cramps.
Would Jordan have left the game? Magic? Bird?
But now, in 2015, even with Curry at his mesmerizing best, LeBron’s image is different. There is no question he has more fans than he’s had in awhile simply because Cavs fans who disliked him no longer do. When he chose to return to Cleveland, he publicly forgave the owner, said how important Ohio was to him and throughout the year has been the essence of a leader and teammate.
In Game 3 against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals series with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving out with injuries, James played 47 minutes, took 37 shots, had 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in an overtime win and was so spent at the end that he dropped to his hands and knees on the court.
What’s not to like about that?
He now stands to gain much more respect because he will become the tragic hero figure. Irving was brilliant in Game 1 with 23 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, but now he’s gone for 3-4 months with a broken kneecap. Love has been out since the first round. The group of three elite players is now one, and the Cavs-Warriors now is about as even as Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid vs. the Bolivian Army.
No doubt that if the Cavs go on to lose, nitpickers will point out that LeBron has been in six Finals with only two rings. Michael, you know, has six. As always, the who’s better argument misses the point. It doesn’t really matter if LeBron is better because he’s in the neighborhood. And it’s a very small one.
The irony of this year, however, is that in losing, because of the way that it has happened, LeBron has suddenly become the underdog. And because of the way LeBron has and will handle adversity on the floor — we are, no doubt going to see more 40-point games, and maybe 50 — he is going to earn more respect than he did in winning two titles.
It’s a different type of respect – one that involves the heart and not the ring finger. But it is something he never earned in Miami.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.