Several hours from now the Golden State Warriors will play the Cleveland Cavaliers in a rematch of last year's NBA Finals. The Cavs are much better equipped than they were last year, when a spate of injuries left them without two of their three best players (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love), forcing Lebron James to shoulder even more of a Herculean responsibility than usual and even sending one of its players to the hospital because of exhaustion and dehydration. Unfortunately for the Cavs, they're facing a Warriors team that just completed the best regular season in NBA history and is supremely battle-tested after scratching and clawing and shooting their way back from a three games to one deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Of course, the Warriors are led by Stephen Curry, the NBA's first unanimous MVP and the man many believe has replaced Lebron as the NBA's best player. This (whether Steph is the best basketball player on Earth) is arguable. What's inarguable is that he's generally seen as far more likable than Lebron, a status partially due to the love-hate relationship sports fans generally have with Lebron but mostly due to Steph's aesthetically pleasing game and his relative everyman status. In a sport that's usually dominated by unambiguous genetic anomalies (Lebron, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, etc), Curry stands out because he's one of the few NBA players who wouldn't stand out in a crowd of regular people. At 6'3 and a wiry 180 pounds, he's roughly the size as my 15-year-old nephew. And the guy who made the tuna salad I ordered yesterday from the deli on my block.
His stature, his skateboarder-next-door looks, his career at the relatively small Davidson University, his particular type of skills (he's the best shooter in basketball history and also one of the best ball-handlers), and even his complexion (he's the fairest-skinned Black man to ever win MVP) has enabled people to project a certain underdog status on him. With the latent belief that while someone like Lebron was born with his gifts and basically gifted into NBA superstardom, Steph made himself into a star by perfecting skills anyone could have perfected with hard enough and smart enough work and dedication. Basically, while none of us ever had a chance to be like Mike (or Lebron), we could conceivably be like Steph.
This is, for lack of a better phrase, wrong as fuck.
Now, did Steph work like hell to make himself into who he is today? Yes! As I've written before, his ascent from all-star to unanimous MVP has been unbelievable. I don't know if I've ever seen an already marquee player improve as dramatically as he did in such as short period of time.
And yes, he improved on skills (shooting and ball-handling, specifically) that anyone can improve on with enough practice.
But you sitting there reading this on a train in Manhattan or while in line at a Chipotle in Charlotte have about as great of a chance of shooting 1000 shots a day and turning into Steph as you would have of doing a hundred squats a day and jumping like Lebron or Russell Westbrook. Basically, you have zero chance. It will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever happen. You know that burrito you just bought from Chipotle; the one with the fajita veggies, the brown rice, the pinto beans, the shredded chicken, and the guacamole? You and that burrito have the exact same chance of being Stephen Curry.
Although Steph doesn't appear to be an athletic anomaly, it's beyond wrong to assume that he isn't as gifted as Lebron or Russ or Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin. His gifts just present themselves in different ways. Perhaps he doesn't have the type of conspicuous natural attributes (a defined musculature, a high vertical leap, etc) we often associate with world-class athletes, but possessing the type of Jedi-esque balance and hand-eye-coordination and touch and creativity and stamina and ambidexterity he does is just as rare.
And, as Vox's Brian Resnick articulated earlier this week, how your muscles and your skill level respond to and improve from practice is also determined by genetics.
A new meta-analysis in Perspectives in Psychological Science looked at 33 studies on the relationship between deliberate practice and athletic achievement and found that practice just doesn't matter that much.
More precisely, the analysis found, practice can account for 18 percent of the difference in athletic success. Put another way, if we compare batting averages between two baseball players, the amount of time the players spent in the batting cage would only account for 18 percent of the reason one player's average is better than the other.
Even more simply: Some people are just better at sports than others, and the difference cannot be made up by practice alone. There was a reason I lagged behind my peers on the lacrosse field. They probably had a natural advantage on me.
"One important thing — that's easy to misunderstand— is that this is looking at variance across people, not within an individual," Brooke Macnamara, the lead author of the new paper, tells me. "So if a person practices, they will get better. Almost across the board, practice should improve one’s performance."
But it also means that for the same amount of practice, some will end up being better at sports than others. "Essentially, learning rates vary," Macnamara says. "Some people improve very quickly with less practice, while others require much more practice."
Also, as I stated before, Steph would lead any reasonable list of the best shooters in NBA history. You know who else would be on that list? His dad, 16-year NBA veteran Dell Curry.
Which means Steph…
1. Was taught how to play basketball by one of the 300 or so best basketball players in the world
2. Spent countless hours as a kid in NBA practice gyms, locker rooms, and arenas and around other NBA players, providing him a first-person view of how NBA players play, practice, and train
3. Has been rich his entire life
Of course, nothing is wrong with any of this. It's great that he was able to be born into this type of situation. But none of these are qualities associated with being an underdog. In fact, this is the very antithesis of it. He is an anti-underdog. There's a reason why there are no Hallmark stories or iconic sports movies about the rich and privileged scion of rich and successful and famous parents growing up to be richer, more successful, and more famous than his parents. He's not an everyman. He's Batman.
To be clear, I'm not saying he's not deserving of the lauds and praise he receives. His background shouldn't prevent you from being a fan. And I'd never suggest that kids from less stable backgrounds (like Lebron) are more deserving of your fandom than kids from privilege. If you root for Stephen Curry, please continue to root for him! Don't stop!
Just realize you're not rooting for an underdog. You're rooting for the iPhone.