Things: Stephen Curry and the Joy Revolution
On Thursday night, Stephen Curry tallied 34 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in Game 6 to deliver the Golden State Warriors their fourth NBA Finals title since he joined the team in 2009. But Curry’s championship masterpiece of a series against the Boston Celtics wasn’t just the capstone of the Warriors’ shooting revolution — the running, whirling, cutting, and rocket-launching shots that made them the league’s most imitated franchise. It was a vindication of their other revolution, too: The joy revolution.
When Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green first burst onto the NBA’s upper tier around 2014, basketball’s standard-bearers weren’t taught — or allowed — to play with exuberance. Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and LeBron James’ Miami Heat were stoic, businesslike, given to celebrating with chaste hand signals and lidding their emotions, good or bad.
Curry isn’t like that, even in the fury of a game: He shimmies when he hits big shots, dances up and down the floor on dead balls, lets his eyes light up when he finds a teammate’s actions cool, or if he thinks a ref’s call is ridiculous. Even the way he plays — those atmospheric three-point shots from 30 feet out, the dancing ballet of dribbles that get him past defenders and to the basket — feels like an extension of that happy, carefree soul, and his joy has had a way of rubbing off on the rest of his team.
Not everyone loves the way Golden States rolls, though. NBA player-turned ESPN commentator Richard Jefferson called Steph “historically disrespectful.” Zito Madu wrote for SB Nation that Curry and the Dubs got “away with on-court behavior that other teams wouldn’t.” (Madu didn’t think this was a bad thing, per se.) They’ve even gotten involved in on-court altercations: In 2017, a Washington Wizards player decked Warriors center JaVale McGee when McGee launched a three-point shot with the game well in hand.
Even the world seems like an inappropriate place to play with joy, from time to time; the night after these Warriors clinched their first title, a gunman murdered nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and their win in the Western Conference Finals came just days after a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. It’s no secret that Golden State’s head coach, Steve Kerr, has been a leader among NBA coaches when it comes to speaking up about important issues, but it’s also no secret that basketball games — like any sporting event — happen against the backdrop of those same issues, threatening to steal eyebrows and interest from things that could impact our actual lives.
But that might be the thing that makes the Warriors’ revolution of joy perfect. Every sport, no matter which one, is a distraction in its own way. For two or three hours — a day, a week, a month, a year — it’s possible to lose yourself in a whole other world, one that’s built on a game and the people who make it matter. Sure, every minute you spend watching Steph shoot, or Draymond Green defend, or Kerr coach, is a minute you could spend brooding about some real-world problem. But you’re spending it on a shared joy instead: Shared with people who might practice a different religion than you (if they practice a religion at all), or vote differently, or live and love in ways you wouldn’t understand or even witness otherwise.
The prism through which we illuminate each other’s souls is getting darker and narrower with each passing year, as we lose our reliance on our collective institutions and allow our realities to splinter into shards that are exclusively ours. In case you haven’t noticed, that trend hasn’t made us more unified, or allowed us to accomplish more in the way of justice. It has made the world less empathetic and far more dangerous than we’d even imagined possible in this day and age. (As if we haven’t learned anything since Nuremburg, a new ethnic group is facing rising instances of hate crimes and racial prejudice, both in crime statistics and opinion polls. Rising! In this day and age!) Even if we lose our religion, or any hope of a shared reality, we still need spaces we can share with people who are nothing like us if we want to survive and thrive.
For opposing players on the court, Stephen Curry and his mannerisms might feel like an excessive addendum to the task at hand: Shooting hoops, winning games and moving on. In society at large, sports teams as magnetic as the Warriors might feel like a distraction from the world, and all we can — and should — do to change it for the better. But what are we to think of moments like Thursday night, when Curry, and Klay, and Green, and Kerr found themselves back on top after two years of losing and futility? What are we to do when they ask us to get lost, for three hours a night, in one of the few places where we can still lose ourselves in the glow of a common goal?
Yes, the world can be a rough place, a place that conscripts our eyes and sends our attention to awful, dark places? And, yes, some basketball franchises are graveyards of bliss, drowning administrators in cries of mediocrity if they don’t go 82–0 in their first season. Doesn’t that make it all the more important to accept Steph’s tearful invitation at the end of Game 6, as he cried at all he’d been through and all he’d done in spite of it?
Doesn’t that compel us to join the joy revolution?