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2019 NBA Playoffs

Why is Steph Curry still dissed so much? He doesn’t fit the stereotype of NBA greatness

Even with three rings and two MVPs, he still gets dissed

Powered by his magisterial long-range bombing and his gravitational pull on the court, Stephen Curry, whose Golden State Warriors are down 3-2 ahead of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, has elevated himself into the best point-guard-sized player in NBA history.

Why, then, does he receive slander as if his dominance remains in question?

No other star NBA player who has amassed such a bounty of success — three rings and two MVPs, one unanimously — faces criticism like Curry. After Game 3, for instance, when he scored 47 points with three of his best five teammates injured, NBA Twitter troglodytes ascended from their pits to impugn his greatness. True, other top NBA players suffer from online roasting when their teams lose. Despite being perhaps the league’s most popular player, Curry, though, seems to be the one all-timer whose very greatness is constantly being relitigated, leaving those who appreciate his brilliance bewildered.

“Whenever Steph has a bad game,” Sam Esfandiari, who co-hosts the Warriors-focused Light Years podcast and Warriors World radio show with Andy Liu, told me, “people compare him to players who are just not on [his] tier.” Russell Westbrook. Damian Lillard. Kyrie Irving. Chris Paul. Liu believes Warriors fans grasp that basketball observers consistently undervalue Curry: “To us, it’s slander because they don’t see the impact, don’t see the way that Steph has changed basketball, and so we’re always going to think he’s underrated.”

The answer why so many refuse to put him in that class relates to why Curry enjoys so much fan support in the first place: He has reached the apex of the sport despite lacking the prototypical superhero stature.

Some of this slander originates from other NBA players, particularly superstars. As The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson II has written extensively about, Steph’s out-of-nowhere superstardom and popularity brewed a resentment stew from which other stars feast. “Steph was not supposed to be this guy, but he was,” Liu notes. “And he usurped and leapt over Chris Paul, even LeBron James … and a lot of these players are not happy about that.”

Other times the slander sprouts from media personalities. Fox Sports 1’s Nick Wright tweeted during this year’s NBA All-Star Game that “someone should tell Steph it’s the All Star Game and not the Finals,” the clear implication being that Curry underperforms when the championship hangs in the balance. Sports personalities understand that heckling elite athletes gets attention. “With how great Steph is,” Liu says, “people latch on to [that and] slander [him].”

But a lot of slander comes from NBA writers and regular basketball fans who find Curry overrated. “If you’re a 30-year-old [or] even in your 20s and you watched basketball a certain way, you’re going to be skeptical of this guy who isn’t a 6-7 wing,” Esfandiari says.

“Like Kawhi [Leonard] is prototypical of what we think of as a superstar. Kevin Durant. LeBron James. So there’s always a level to that where he’s so abnormal. Everyone acknowledges he’s good, but people don’t want to put him in the class of those guys.”

The answer why so many refuse to put him in that class, I think, relates to why Curry enjoys so much fan support in the first place: He has reached the apex of the sport despite lacking the prototypical superhero stature — he’s the elite basketball player whom the rank and file can identify with. “He can barely dunk,” Liu says. “He looks like a normal guy on the street.”

Curry articulated this well to Daniel Riley of GQ in 2015 when explaining his swelling ranks of NBA fans: “I can’t jump the highest. I’m obviously not the biggest, not the strongest. And so they see me out there and I look like a normal person.

But people, perhaps Curry too, fail to appreciate that his looking like “a normal person” can elicit the opposite reaction as well. The same reason that some can love Curry — he doesn’t look like he should be capable of such greatness — is the same reason that some can hate him — that he’s capable of greatness despite looking like a normal person makes other normal people uncomfortable because they haven’t achieved greatness themselves. His excellence gives some hope but forces others to reckon with their own mediocrity.

People can look at James and understand why he dominates like Zeus among mortals — he’s 6 feet, 8 inches and 270 pounds, and can hit his head on the rim and swat away the competition as one would a gnat. His ruling the basketball kingdom doesn’t threaten anyone’s self-perception because his manner of domination isn’t replicable for anyone not gifted by God with his figure and athleticism.

Curry’s dominance, though, seems achievable. Those who aren’t dominating their respective fields see in Steph a reason that they should be able. Steph doesn’t wield the traditional tools of greatness, yet scaled to the summit anyway. What, then, explains their lack of production? Not to mention Curry’s shimmying and dancing after his triumphs, the motivations behind the Curry slander zoom into focus.

The exceptional must make the unexceptional comfortable with their exceptionalism or face the wrath of angry average folk. No one can make the average feel worse than the one who rose to unexpected and unlikely stardom. Thus, the average try to pretend that Curry doesn’t belong with the all-time greats all in an effort to make themselves feel better about their inability to squeeze greatness from whatever they were born with. Curry hate is actually self-hate.

Liu and Esfandiari believe that Steph might have to wait until his career concludes to receive the credit he truly deserves.

“Try to imagine Draymond [Green] in any other situation,” Esfandiari says. “He’s a good player. He’d still be a good player. But he’s not getting that kind of space to operate if two people aren’t jumping at Steph to give him space to operate with the ball. You can even go to Klay Thompson. It’s all about the amount of stress Steph puts on the defense. It’s an indirect thing. And it’s different than how we look at superstars. But over time, it will start to wear people down.”

“People love playing with Steph,” Liu says, “and he maximizes everyone around him. People won’t ever understand that until he retires.

“It will take time for Steph.”

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.