The first two weekends of “The Last Dance” informed some and reminded many more that Isiah Thomas could be petty and cruel, that Larry Bird was an ornery cuss and that Michael Jordan was an unyielding son of a stiletto.
Which has a few folks longing for the days when NBA superstars brought a visible “edge” to the proceedings while simultaneously deriding the Kumbaya Crew of today.
Exhibit A: Steph Curry, the Warriors' undisputed leader.
Eleven seasons into his NBA career, having earned the highest levels of team and individual accolades on multiple occasions, some still tag Steph as Charmin Ultra soft. Elegant and meek, a lamb who’d be slaughtered by the lions of yesteryear.
These folks are not paying attention.
Or maybe they are unable to separate the cutthroat competitor from the humanitarian.
When Curry is on the court, he is a head-hunter. He lives for the kill shot and -- like MJ and the others -- is haunted by his misses. Don’t fall for the veneer, the displays of glee, the easy grin and the honey-colored skin. This genuinely joyful soul with scripture on his sneakers has spent most of his career as the league’s most prolific undercover executioner.
Over the past seven postseasons, Curry has beaten every MVP, or MVP candidate, that has beaten him. Only Kawhi Leonard, who as a member of the San Antonio Spurs played only 24 minutes over nine postseason games against the Warriors, can be argued as an exception.
Curry is 3-1 against LeBron James in The Finals and 4-0 against James Harden in the playoffs. He’s 3-0 against Damian Lillard. In the lone instance when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook represented the roadblock, Curry took them out.
Five of those six players account for all seven MVP awards from 2012 through 2018, with Steph and LeBron each taking two.
Curry has compiled 40 postseason games with at least 30 points. That’s more than Charles Barkley. Or Tim Duncan. Or Dwyane Wade. Or Allen Iverson. Or Harden. Each of those five is either bound for the Naismith Hall of Fame or already in it.
Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul, each with 13 such games, combine for a total of 26. Steph has exactly twice as many as Isiah’s 20, and is three away from Larry Legend’s 43. Among the noted firebrand champs of the 1980s and ‘90s, only MJ (109) is out of reach.
Warriors assistant Ron Adams showers praise very carefully. He has been a coach for 51 years, the last 29 in the NBA and the last six under Steve Kerr. Adams has studied MJ and Isiah, then moved on to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett before James and Harden. He coached Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen before moving on to Durant and Westbrook.
Adams has, in short, seen enough of Curry to develop a theory behind what disguises his internal inferno.
“He’s a human being who lives his life with great joy,” Adams said this week. “He plays with great joy. The way he does it -- and I’m not saying others haven’t or can’t -- is really unique. He’s an outlier. That’s who he is and how he lives his life. He exemplifies the things that a good human being should possess.
“But he is (on the court) guided by his will to succeed, his will to win. And, more than that, his will to do it his way. That’s not unlike Jordan and the other great players. Steph is playing in a different era, with different defensive rules, but the way he is wired, he would have adjusted to any time period. His drive is very similar to all the great players that have played the game.”
What Curry doesn’t do is belittle teammates, as the abrasive Jordan so infamously did. He treats them as equals while accepting his status as team leader. Whereas Bird swung his hubris like a sledgehammer, Steph’s is more subtle.
Kerr often compares Curry’s leadership style to that of Duncan, the Spurs’ alpha whose generally austere countenance masked his fangs. The insinuation is that Steph picks his spots to speak out, is more supportive than demeaning and is perceptive enough to realize individual personalities respond to different forms of dialogue.
Opponents, in the heat of competition, are another matter.
On the night he famously dropped Paul at Staples Center, after his group interview session, I asked Steph if he felt even a tiny bit of pity about planting CP3 on the floor. He grimaced and said, “No.” He then added a gratuitous, “None at all.”
So, those shimmies that often follow Curry’s rally-punctuating 3-pointers are no more expressions of his own delight as they are of his opponent’s misery. When he’s dancing, he’s enjoying the feel of his feet atop their vanquished bodies.
When Curry buried the Houston Rockets under a 33-point second half in the Western Conference semifinals last May, he was not satisfied with eliminating a rival. No, he approached the visitor’s locker room, with cameras and recorders rolling, and hit CP3 with a vengeful uppercut.
“Kick me off the court again, boy!” The reference was to the previous night, when Curry’s request to get in some practice shots at Toyota Center was denied because CP3 intervened at the last minute with his own request.
Eleven months after loudly shoveling dirt on a fallen rival, Steph joined CP3 for an Instagram Live conversation without a hint of animosity.
Curry’s appetite for destroying all challengers is no less voracious as those of Isiah, Larry and MJ. The difference is Steph is balanced enough to limit his greed to the minutes between tipoff and taking a postgame shower.