"The WHAT? How?” asked Stephen Curry, almost incredulously but with a hint of a smile as he finished his media session at the United Center Wednesday, slightly surprised but a little intrigued at where the conversation was going.
The NBA’s reigning MVP and odds-on favorite for a repeat was given an observation, that his team, the champion Golden State Warriors, was the cockiest team in the NBA.
“Does “cocky” have a good connotation?” The Best Shooter Ever fired back to CSNChicago.com, already knowing the answer.
Of course it doesn’t, particularly for African-American athletes in society where everything is under the microscope, but when Curry pulls up from the end paint of an opposing team’s logo to confidently swish a 3-pointer, the word “cocky” can float around in one’s head.
Curry, when elaborating, slightly relented.
“I would call it “extreme confidence”,” he said. “People I’ve talked to when it comes to the mental aspect of the game, coaches, great minds of the game, they always talk about the great line between confidence and cockiness.”
Curry read the list like a basketball rolodex, champions in different ways, from different eras and perspectives — Don Nelson; Davidson coach Bob McKillop, the man who allowed Curry to blossom when he couldn’t get scholarship offers from the major schools; Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who led Curry’s pre-draft workout with the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2009; Curry's current coach Steve Kerr; and the Greatest of All-Time, Michael Jordan.
“Cockiness almost to me makes you feel invincible and it’s a trap,” Curry said. “We’re confident to the fact that we know if we play the way we’re supposed to play, we should win most of our games and be the best team in the league. But we’re not invincible, where we can show up, psyche a team out, play any way we want to and come out with victories like it’s not, we won’t cheat the game like that.”
At 38-4 and nipping on the heels of historical proportions by way of challenging the 1996 Chicago Bulls for the most wins in a single season, it shows the Warriors aren’t cheating the game, but there’s something more to it than a dogged dedication to the pursuit of excellence, or at least it appears to be something more, visually.
Curry doesn’t deny there’s a mental edge they have that all champions acquire through greatness, where a team can take the air out of the other team before the ball is tipped, and no deficit is insurmountable.
“We might impose our will and throw a big haymaker punch early and eliminate any hope,” Curry said. “But for the most part this season and majority of last year we were getting everybody’s best shot.”
Curry often leaves his flicked right hand in the air when long triples swish harmlessly into the net, and when he beats you for a backdoor cut to finish with a left-handed layup, it’s held in the air, almost letting everyone know it was the off-hand that did you in.
In a game where such displays used to be met with a good shot that lands one to kiss the hardwood, no one dare challenge the Warriors — because the league isn’t like that anymore and they take full advantage.
“I’ll take that, if that’s what they call us,” said Draymond Green, the man whose versatility and toughness makes the Warriors just as special as Curry’s unlimited shooting range makes them dangerous.
His snarl, bred from his days in Saginaw, Mich. and Michigan State University, is the perfect counterpoint to Curry’s child-like smile.
“(But) No. I think everybody has confidence in themselves. If you don’t you can’t win. You gotta believe in yourself. We’ve been real confident.”
When asked if the Warriors have more motivation for validation due to wanting to shut up a vocal segment who believe they had some fortuitous bounces go their way through the Western Conference trek to The Finals, such as the then-champion San Antonio Spurs being eliminated in Round 1, Green just shrugged.
“Hmm? We’re gonna have our attitude regardless of what people say,” Green said. “Ain’t nobody softening us up or making us tougher. What they say isn’t gonna make us play harder, what they don’t say ain’t gonna make us play soft. We hold ourselves to a standard. We don’t need what other people say to make us move either way.”
But when you look at it, from Green’s constant verbals to Curry launching from anywhere to their outright dismissal of competition, the word “arrogant” would be tagged to just about any other champion in recent memory.
Somehow, they’ve magically escaped that perception thus far.
“They’re confident,” a Hall of Famer told CSNChicago.com “If they weren’t champions, they would be arrogant because of their false belief of superiority. However, because you’re a champion your superiority is validated. When you’re the champion, arrogance and superiority are brothers.”
Partially, it’s because Curry is so easy to like and absorb. It doesn’t seem like it, but he’s a long and lanky 6-foot-3, although he’s treated as if he’s Muggsy Bogues height-wise.
And on the day it was announced his jersey was the best-selling in the league, he tried to explain.
“I’m not sure. The main thing I think about, I guess, is stature and the way I play,” Curry said. “It’s something that most people who play the game of basketball, go to the YMCA, city leagues and stuff, everybody wants to shoot. It’s something you want to work on, to have that creativity with the dribbling and stuff.”
It’s not that he strays away from controversy, as he spoke out about gun violence in a PSA that aired on Christmas Day, and made the hilarious comment about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ visitor locker room before their meeting Monday, saying “Obviously, walking in that locker room, it’ll be good memories. Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne."
But Curry hasn’t caught any criticism — and nor should he — especially when he backs up the harmless comment with a destruction of the Cavaliers where their once 40-point lead was only matched by the distance from which Curry was trying to shoot, almost as challenge to himself.
“We stick with the preparation for how we get ourselves ready for those games,” Curry said. “Nobody takes days off, nobody cheats shootarounds and practices. Once that changes, your identity changes. You can’t allow your success to make you forget how you got there. That’s what we’re pretty good at, is staying within ourselves.
“Yeah, Draymond is gonna talk. He’s gonna play hard, get into it with somebody. I’m gonna have confidence shooting all over the floor, Klay is gonna have that look ‘no matter where I touch the ball, it’s going up and it’s going in’. That’s who we are but how we prepare for those games, there’s gotta be consistency there.”
Opinion varies on Golden State’s “confidence or cockiness”, depending on who you ask.
“They’re confident,” one league executive texted.
“They’re cocky because they’re confident,” another league executive texted.
“They’re both,” said a retired player from a championship team of the last decade.
“They’re confident,” a player from an opposing team said. “They took a lot of (stuff) from this summer from a lot of people, and other teams. ‘Cocky’ is LeBron saying Miami would win eight rings. They’re 38-4, they’re like Drake on his ‘back to back’ diss track.”
The player was referring to the popular rapper who took an unwilling rival to task a few months back, putting out consecutive songs that had the music world buzzing as much as it laughed at a lack of response—similar to what Golden State appears to be doing to the rest of the NBA at large.
But whether confidence or cocky, Andre Iguodala said it doesn’t come from an individual standpoint, but a collective — which could explain how the Warriors come at you in waves.
“I’m not a cocky guy, I don’t think I’m all-world but my teammates think that of me,” said Iguodala, who comes off the bench but could be their most important player. “So when I get it going, they’re behind me. When Steph shoots, we feel the same thing. When Klay shoots, we think it’s going in. We have confidence and we’re trying to have fun within the game.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
When Iguodala talks, it sounds like he’s describing a cocky team but he makes the point to draw the line, to a degree.
“I like using the word confidence,” he said. “We have that belief in each other so strongly. When we went through tough times people said we’re not that good. Confidence is fragile, especially when dealing with the media.
“Confidence is fragile if you’re a fragile being. So in order for us to combat that, we always support one another, we always (give) positive feedback (to) one another.”
When Iguodala was playing for the 76ers early in his career, he ran across his share of teams that he described as “cocky”. He wouldn’t name them but said: “There were teams, but none of them were championship teams. That’s why I stay away from that, you gotta be humble and have your confidence.”
When asked why he wouldn’t name them, the veteran smiled and said, “They’re Irrelevant, they just didn’t win. They weren’t winners.”
Sometimes arrogance is good for the soul.