The special challenge Steph Curry presents to LeBron James
Shawn Fury is the author of “Rise and Fire: The Origins, Science, and Evolution of the Jump Shot — and How It Transformed Basketball Forever.”
More than in any other team sport, singular individual talents dominate professional basketball. Superstars become not just the faces and marketing titans of the league, but often its champions. Over the past decade, no two players have controlled the NBA narrative like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. They are the winners of six of the past eight most valuable player awards, and their respective franchises have also reigned, with James’s Cleveland Cavaliers earning an improbable title over Curry’s Golden State Warriors in 2016, one season after Curry’s team defeated James’s in the finals.
In “Return of the King,” ESPN writers Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin observe: “James had dealt with young stars arriving to challenge him. . . . He’d found ways to manage them. But Curry, well, Curry was a different sort of challenge. There was a special edge growing there already.”
Until Golden State squandered a 3-1 advantage in the 2016 finals, Curry had supplanted James as the NBA’s darling. The 6-foot-3 shooting genius thrilled with his three-point theatrics and disdain for 120 years of conventional basketball wisdom dictating that players should avoid firing shots more than, say, 30 feet from the basket. James drifted, ever so slightly, out of the spotlight. That changed when he brought Cleveland its first professional sports title since 1964.
Neither player will win MVP in 2017, a season ruled by the freakish statistics of Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden. But when the finals start in June, James and Curry will probably fight again for league supremacy. “Return of the King” and “Golden” by Bay Area News Group columnist Marcus Thompson II detail the exploits of two very different players who took very different routes to the NBA, but are bonded by individual and team rivalries.
“Return of the King” focuses on James’s 2014 departure from Miami and his first two seasons back in Cleveland, the city left heartbroken when he fled in 2010. In their dishy and fun narrative, the authors divulge plenty of unflattering details about the book’s hero. While James conjured a storybook ending for Cleveland, early in his first season back, “he’d already become perplexed by his coach. . . . He was beginning to realize this was going to be a tougher job than he’d first thought, breaking this team of bad habits.” The James in “Return of the King” is a legendary player, shadow coach, wannabe general manager, sensitive essayist, obsessive locker room neat freak “miffed” by the “slobs” on his team, bullying big brother and petulant tweeter.
Readers, even those familiar with James’s every move from preps to pros, will relish this look at an athlete whose talents and weaknesses have been analyzed for half of his 32 years. But James’s former coach David Blatt should avoid the book, or at least have a trusted friend black out every passage that mentions him. A successful coach around the world who landed the Cavaliers job in 2014, Blatt became a winning NBA coach who still proved overmatched. The Cavs fired him in 2016, sparking outrage from coaching colleagues. At the time, Cleveland sported a 30-11 record and had appeared in the finals in Blatt’s first season.
When Tyronn Lue guided Cleveland to the title, it vindicated the move, but even if the Cavs hadn’t won, Windhorst and McMenamin make the dismissal seem unavoidable. The book documents every Blatt pratfall: He compared himself favorably to a fighter pilot after a near-crash-and-burn on the sidelines; his hands shook as he drew up plays; tone deaf to criticism and praise, he also missed the anger festering in the locker room; and, in one cringe-inducing set piece, Blatt annoyed James by asking for a one-on-one postgame conference while the coach wore nothing but a towel.
The authors sketch fine profiles of Cleveland’s supporting characters, including all-stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who sometimes struggled inside the king’s universe. But James dominates on the page as much as on the court, and the book fittingly spends the final 40-plus pages on the 2016 championship series, when Cleveland became the first team in league history to rally from a 3-1 finals deficit. With lively writing and rich anecdotes that reveal the struggles that made the triumph anything but inevitable, Windhorst and McMenamin provide the definitive account of the greatest accomplishment of one of the game’s greatest players.
Unlike “Return of the King,” Thompson’s “Golden” doesn’t follow chronological order. Instead the book darts around — in the same way Curry dances around the perimeter against confused defenders and ventures into the lane before dribbling back out for another three-point attempt — dropping in and out of Curry’s life, from his Golden State dominance to his younger days in North Carolina, to his emergence in college and back again to the pros.
While James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, Curry’s greatness snuck up on the league. His dad, Dell, carved out a successful NBA career, but the younger Curry, who looked more like a team manager than a future franchise savior, attracted little attention from college recruiters. “Though his skills screamed prodigy,” Thompson writes, “few could get over the slightness of his build. . . . He couldn’t make enough smart plays to ensure recruiters they wouldn’t look dumb for taking a chance on him.” He attended tiny Davidson and only emerged on the national scene as a sophomore, when he lit up the NCAA tournament.
Doubts about his size and skills persisted in the NBA. Thompson has covered Curry throughout his professional career, including the seasons when ankle injuries and shaky team management overshadowed periods of greatness. Ultimately the star Thompson labels the Baby Faced Assassin emerged and altered perceptions about basketball’s possibilities and strategies, thanks to unmatched shooting skills. “Though its aura as basketball’s magic trick has been washed away by a flooded market of shooters, Curry brought the marvel back to the 3-pointer,” the author writes.
Thompson deftly examines the influence of Curry’s wife, Ayesha — one-half of “the Kennedys of the emoji generation” — and his mom, Sonya, the family disciplinarian and former Division I volleyball player who had perhaps even more impact on Curry’s path to the pros than his NBA-playing dad. Stories about Curry’s perfect family and perfect jump shot fill the book, but an especially strong chapter focuses on “Curry Hate.” Curry’s popularity with fans — and the admiration of a media that made him the league’s first unanimous MVP — didn’t translate to universal love from peers. Some players resented his comfortable upbringing. Older legends believed he played in a soft era. Even his lighter skin — “a deep-seated issue in African-American life” — created suspicion.
“Golden” faces the same challenge confronting any biography of an active athlete: The ultimate ending remains unknown. Already in 2017, with Kevin Durant joining Golden State, Curry’s star has dimmed, in the regular season at least. Over the next decade he could enhance his reputation or retreat into the background on a star-laden roster. But a revolutionary player like Curry — whose three-point shooting altered basketball in a way similar to Babe Ruth changing baseball with the home run — deserves an in-the-moment book. And in the same way so many of Curry’s outlandish shots nestle softly into the net, so Thompson’s engaging and knowing biography successfully finds the mark.
By Brian Windhorst
and Dave McMenamin
Grand Central. 264 pp. $28
By Marcus Thompson II
Touchstone. 258 pp. $26