LeBron James and Stephan Curry, a former MVP and the current one, will compete for the NBA Championship later this week. Both will take the floor as the best player on his respective team.
Basketball fans and writers have generally regarded LeBron as the sure thing, the prep school prima Doña who couldn’t fail. LeBron has been King James almost as long as he has been the Chosen One. Curry’s crescendo has been quieter. The collective basketball consciousness has always been suspicious of Steph and his chances of success. Steph has been the prepubescent, angelic kid for as long as we can remember. His school was too small, his ankles too weak, and his height too short for the NBA.
The basketball kingdom deified LeBron and doubted Steph. LeBron didn’t need to play college ball, while Steph could barely get recruited. We expect LeBron to be in the Finals every year, we never expected Steph to be here, and we certainly never expected the Angel to be favored against the King.
What if I told you to take a step back, and look at these two players with a wider gaze? Would it surprise you to see, with this new perspective, their fates reversed?
What if I told you that Steph was Goliath and LeBron was David armed with a jump shot instead of a slingshot?
What if I told you that King James had to steal his crown while Steph was born into basketball royalty, long before he even touched a ball?
- - -
When Steph takes flight in Game One of the NBA Finals, he will propel himself from the solid foundation of the Curry family and its generational stability. LeBron will rise, instead, like a phoenix from the unstable ashes of a family torn apart by economic stagnation and racial oppression.
Steph learned how to shoot a basketball on the same hoop that his dad did. A recent Beats by Dre commercial shows a bulldozer dismantle LeBron’s childhood home. The commercial didn’t mention that LeBron only lived there for a few years, until his grandma died, and his family could no longer afford to pay the heating bill.
Many years ago, Steph’s granddad, Wardell “Jack” Curry nailed a backboard into an old utility pole and hung a net upside down to occupy Dell Curry, Steph’s dad. David Flemming writes eloquently about this mythic hoop in his April profile of Stephen Curry. Flemming even includes a photo of the hoop, standing resolute in a field and framed against the forests of the Shenandoah Mountains.
LeBron doesn’t have any heirloom from his dad or granddad. King James didn’t receive a hoop from his father, let alone a basketball legacy. Growing up, the man LeBron called his dad was in jail, and the true identity of his father was a mystery.
As a fourth-grader, LeBron would miss 100 days of school and move a half-dozen times. LeBron has said, “I just grabbed my little backpack, which held all the possessions I needed and said to myself what I always said to myself: It’s time to roll.” LeBron, however, wasn’t going to see grandma or grandpa. He and his nomadic mother were moving in with another friend and were going to sleep on another couch.
Steph has said, “I always felt like the love and the lessons of that hoop got passed down.” Grandpa Jack passed away when Steph was two, but the hoop remains as a testament to the resilience with which he led his life. Steph inherited the hoop from his grandfather, and the generational stability it represented.
Steph’s childhood stability thrust him towards the NBA; LeBron’s childhood was situated on a slippery slope with a gravity that pulled him towards poverty.
LeBron may have lived on Hickory Street, but it is Steph who embodies the blue-blooded basketball tradition of Hickory, Indiana depicted in the movie Hoosiers. Steph was practically born in a varsity jacket; LeBron didn’t play organized sports until the fourth grade. Steph grew up in NBA arenas; LeBron didn’t play with a team or for a coach until he was nine. And, even then, his coach had to pick him up from a string of apartments because his mom didn’t stay in one place for long and couldn’t reliably get him to games or practices.
Son Steph could follow his father’s footsteps to the NBA. Who was Boy LeBron supposed to follow?
- - -
Steph always had a family, and he eventually found a jump shot. LeBron grew up with casual parental supervision, and parleyed his athletic ability into a new family, a new school, and infinite opportunity. We tend to obsess about basketball success in a vacuum: we wonder how many titles did a player win and how many points per game did he score.
What if we consider the context, rather than the arena, in which a player competes? What if we respected the possibility that basketball success were more likely to emerge from a stable family, and an affluent household? What if we widened our gaze and deepened our appreciation for our athletes?
From a young age, Steph and LeBron played sports in different paradigms. Win or lose, make or miss, basketball or football, Steph always will be the son of a professional basketball player. More recently, he will always be a graduate of Charlotte Christian High School and Davidson College. It has never really mattered if Steph made the shot or missed it. The same is not true for LeBron.
Last year, Eli Saslow wrote about the Lost Stories of LeBron: LeBron will speak to students and muse motivationally about the year that changed his life. He tells kids about fourth grade. Between 1993 and 1994, LeBron moved a half dozen times, and missed 100 days of school. His shooting percentage last season eclipsed his fourth grade attendance rate. As a teacher, I was required to submit a social worker referral if a child missed 10 days. LeBron missed 100.
After one touchdown during that year, LeBron’s mom chased him down the sideline to congratulate him. One of his coaches says, “that was their first taste of success.” That athletic success opened doors - - to the house of one coach, then to the house another, and eventually the figurative window of opportunity. None of those doors would have opened if LeBron didn’t score so many touchdowns that first season.
Steph also speaks about a pivotal period in his life, a tough summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school. Dell Curry realized that Steph’s high school shot, while good, was not great. His release was too low, and the act of shooting too long. When school let out for summer, Dell deconstructed the mechanics and rebuilt them from scratch. Dell coached his son as a no-nonsense nurturer just as his dad had coached him and Steph hated every minute of it. “We called it the summer of tears,” Steph’s sister says. “Dell became Jack, Stephen became Dell, and it was Stephen who shot a lot of shots with tears in his eyes.”
Keep in mind: Steph shed his tears on the perfectly smooth court, sandwiched between the stucco garage and the manicured lawn.
As a child, when Steph missed a shot, his dad grabbed the rebound and passed it back to him. His life has been full of extra shots, and second chances. LeBron had one chip to play, and he has been doubling down his entire life.
When LeBron races down the court with the ball in his hand, doesn’t it seem like he is still running from the fourth grade? When Steph nestles into the cozy left corner behind the three-point line, doesn’t he seem warmed by the embrace of a loving family?
- - -
I taught Earth Science to sixth graders in College Park, a suburb south of Atlanta. Almost all of my students received free or reduced lunch because their parents’ income fell below the poverty threshold. My job was incredibly difficult, but not for the reasons you would expect. My students couldn’t read on grade-level and couldn’t focus for longer than a few minutes at a time. They shouted out, and couldn’t connect a cause to its effect. These deficits were tricky, but not defeating.
What made my job almost impossible was the pervading lack of trust in the building - - between teachers and parents, between teachers and administrators, and, most of all, between teachers and students. To teach effectively, I first had to cultivate a culture in my classroom around achievement, and that required trust, and a lot of it.
Henry Abbott and David Thorpe apply psychology research about delayed gratification and trust to success in the NBA on a recent TrueHoop TV episode titled, “The Power of Trust.” Using contemporary research, Abbott pushes back against the purely analytical revolution that is sweeping the league.
Current research inverts the data, and the implications, of the infamous marshmallow test: what happens when you give a kid one marshmallow, but promise three if the child can wait fifteen minutes? We now understand that it isn’t as simple as we previously imagined. A new experiment dismisses the notion that rich, successful kids wait and triple their snack, while poor, less successful ones eat the single marshmallow.
Instead, trust matters more than affluence alone. When kids trust the adult in the room, they wait for more marshmallows. When the kids don’t trust the adult, however, they don’t believe that more marshmallows will ever come. This second set of less trusting kids eat the original marshmallow and call it a day.
Of these two sets of children - - those who trust adults and those who don’t - - to which does Steph belong? How about LeBron? How does this influence how they interact with their respective coaches?
Most assumed that LeBron would resign with Miami Heat this past off-season. That is, until Pat Riley, the Miami General Manager sat down at a press conference and pontificated: “You have to stay together, if you have the guts. You don’t find the first door and run out of it.” LeBron has tons of guts. But he grew up getting kicked out of the door, and didn’t find a home until a coach opened a new door to him and his mother.
During LeBron’s first stint with the United States Olympic team in 2010, he played for Coach Mike Krzyewski, one of the most respected men in basketball. At this point, LeBron hadn’t won a title. At one of the first practices, Coach K was speaking and LeBron turned his back.
This year, LeBron unexpectedly agreed to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not knowing that the King would return, the Cleveland front office had already brought in a new coach, an outsider, Israeli David Blatt. LeBron seems to prefer his own leadership to that of Blatt.
The Golden State front office put Steph in a difficult position: they fired his old coach who had empowered him and turned him into an All-Star. Even after Steph backed his coach, Mark Jackson, the Warriors replaced him with first-year coach, Steve Kerr. It became a contentious issue throughout the NBA season: watch Chris Rock wish Mark Jackson a happy birthday. Instead of participating in the drama, Steph respected his coaches and his employers and stayed above the fray. Steph always supports his coach, for no other reason, than coaches are in charge.
When the referee tosses the ball to start the game on Thursday night, LeBron and Steph will run and jump and sweat in much the same way. They will don different uniforms and shoot at opposing baskets, but their similarities will seem to dwarf their differences.
That is, until we remember everything that has happened before tipoff.
So, when you watch Steph and when you watch LeBron, remember that one of them has been on a parabolic trajectory that was always going to go through the hoop, and win the game. The other, however, has been on a more precarious trajectory, one that bounced and ricocheted and hung on the precipice of the rim, before finally tumbling through the basket.