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POOR ANDRE ROBERSON. Through furious hard work, the 24-year-old had become the Thunder's best wing defender, nightly hustling after a who's who of high-scoring All-Stars all over the court. Typically he ends up looking good.
Until Saturday, Feb. 27, when Roberson played defense the way it has always been coached, and somehow became the crash-test dummy in Steph Curry's Electric Highlight of the Year. Roberson's crime: He didn't see it coming. And by "it" we mean something that had never happened before.
With the clock running down in overtime and the game tied, Roberson was marking the Warriors' MVP guard -- the man who had already made 11 3-pointers that night alone, one off the NBA record. The man who earlier in the game had broken his own single-season record for 3s. The man who was casually bringing the ball up as the clock ticked off the game's final six seconds.
Then, with almost three seconds left, before Curry had arrived at what would normally be considered a place to play offense, he rose and fired -- precisely one dribble past half court, in line with the edge of the Thunder's center-court logo. The NBA would later measure it as 37 feet from the hoop. That's 13-plus feet behind the 23-foot, 9-inch 3-point line, which itself was once considered a difficult shot.
The sport of basketball was 1,490 months old as the ball sailed through the air. For 1,489 months, 29 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, 54 seconds of that history, smart defenders let 'em have that dumb shot. But over these YouTube-melting six seconds, in this brave new NBA, there was no one to blame except the gods of basketball -- or Roberson. Most chose Roberson. Coaches flapped their arms on the sidelines, Jeff Van Gundy tut-tutted on the telecast. How dare he set up in a defensive position a mere yard outside the 3-point line?
The Warriors are knocking on the door of 73 wins with a team loaded with everything: top-to-bottom organizational embrace of 3-pointers, the valuing of open shots, the most effective pick-and-rolls in the game, Draymond Green's epic defense and sneaky punishing offense, and all the applied lessons of stat geekery. Must they also be cash-money from 37? As the epic game-winner splashed through the net, Steph skipped, grinning to the far end of the court, and -- before an audience of stunned Thunder fans -- danced on what little was left of basketball conventional wisdom.
Funny things are happening at Harvard. Just ask Kathy Delaney-Smith, who has been head coach of the Crimson's women's team since 1982. In 34 years, she has seen a lot. But this year she's seeing things she has never seen before. She found one of her assistants and several players engrossed in YouTube for an hour, rewinding again and again, breaking down YouTube footage of a one-handed Steph ballhandling series that ended in a crazy tough shot. "I found myself thinking, 'Well if you've got a spare hour, I know some things you could be working on instead,'" Delaney-Smith says.
"Instead of everyone going their separate ways, we have one spot we can go and just enjoy each other's company. It just continues to build the camaraderie that you need to be successful from year to year."
The disease of Stephitis has spread far beyond the Ivy League. It's so immensely tough to average four made 3-pointers a game over a full season that, just 11 years ago, not one high school boy in the whole country managed to do it, according to Max Preps. This season, 30 players did it.
On Twitter, in March, I asked if people had noticed players outside the NBA "doing Steph Curry things." The replies were immediate and unanimous: Wrote Dan Shanoff: "I coach 4th-graders and all they want to do is shoot extra-long shots (and, when they make them, tap their heart and point up)." Eric Johnson supervises recess at Ashland Elementary in rural New Hampshire. After Curry's big game-winner over the Thunder, recess became all about making that shot. "What surprised me was that they never stopped shooting the shot ... for 40 minutes. They each had to hit it. They talked about the game the whole time."
Stephitis cannot be quarantined. LeBron James may have had his exhausted heart broken by Curry's Warriors in last year's NBA Finals, but LeBron's 8-year-old son, Bryce, still wears No. 30 in honor of Steph.
It's not all that unusual that, with tons of time on the shot clock, Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody recently used a fancy dribble combination into a step-back to score against Mississippi State in the second half. What's a little strange is that he did so at least 8 feet behind the 3-point line.
Stephitis exists in the NBA, too, of course. If it seems as if the entire Association is suddenly shooting from super-long range, it's because everyone is. According to Basketball-Reference data, Steph is averaging more than one made shot from at least 27 feet per game; no other player can touch that. But wow are they trying. In 2009-10, NBA players attempted a grand total of 1,880 shots from 27 feet or longer (excluding end-of-quarter heaves). This season they're on track for 3,067.
There's a delightful freedom to all of this, and two hard truths. The good news is that 3s, once viewed as "bad shots" by closed-minded coaches, have taken flight on the wings of advanced stats, and they are winning. Anyone with a pulse can feel the joy in that, and the excitement in watching super-talents explore the limits of their abilities. Eighty-footers, anyone?
The hard truth: The NBA has long been dominated by the toughest men, tested on win-or-go-home playground courts. Rich kids from the suburbs have mostly been ancillary in the league. Their advantages were things that used to matter less: lonely gyms, entire racks of balls to themselves, private shooting coaches, and free time to dial in the form. Steph, son of Dell, was born into all that, like a Kennedy. And the more he succeeds, the more he inspires kids like him, the more an influx of 3-point shooters, like foreign players before them, will cut into the career prospects of those who earned NBA work through grit and toughness.
But the other hard truth comes with a solution: hardly anyone else can actually do that. Steph has made the 27-footer a good shot ... for him. It's still a bad shot for most everyone else on the planet. The gap can be filled only with work. It just happens to be work that anyone can attempt.
Millions of youngsters, with joy in the hearts and Steph on their minds, are surely on the way. Sheer odds predict some of them will also have qualities like Steph's incredible handle, balance, hand-eye coordination and diligence. This goes some way to increasing skill and a long way to teaching love of the game.
"Youth basketball has a problem," Delaney-Smith says. "Kids are pressured so much, and it has stopped being about fun and passion for the game. But now freshmen can't leave the gym because it's so fun. That's passion, and that's probably exactly how Steph learned to do those same things."
A couple of weeks before Steph's 37-foot game-winner in Oklahoma City, the NBA convened an invite-only, off-the-record Tech Summit in a fancy Toronto hotel.
There were issues to address. Chiefly, research shows kids now spend more time than ever on screens and less time doing things like shooting hoops. This extracts worry from the warm hearts of parents and the cold, hard calculations of the league's bottom line; in the past, the league has cited internal research that playing basketball when you're young predicts a lifetime of NBA fandom. (One pillar of the NBA's long-term China strategy is simply to get lots of people playing basketball -- that they'll become NBA fans follows naturally in time.) How, worried the finest brains in the game, could we get kids to prefer playing the game to noodling on their phones?
The answer could be Steph.
Because as much as there are big names in basketball who get people to watch it on a screen, or even to buy a ticket, there's nobody like Steph to get kids excited to play. The very tall and strong have always had permission to imagine themselves as NBA champions. Steph's every on-court action screams that scrawny little folks can play the game, too. "That's kind of the new swag," Shane Battier said on TrueHoop TV. "Not everyone can dunk, but everyone can pull up from 30 feet."
Many titans of hoops -- "the Jurassics," they're now called behind their backs -- are wishing it would all just go away. Phil Jackson may be the best coach ever, and is the proud, highly paid top executive of one of the league's most popular teams. But it was not a year ago that he famously test-drove a Model T of a theory that 3-reliant teams couldn't succeed in the playoffs.
In doing so, he popped the balloon of his own relevance. Since then, the Warriors rode 3s to a title over LeBron and are knocking on the door of Jackson's own 72-win record, and the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis, a big man known for abnormally deep shooting range.
To be fair to the Jurassics, it's true: Most game-changing innovators aren't actually innovative. For every White Chocolate or Vinsanity, there's an old-timer harping that Bob Cousy used to make those moves or Darryl Dawkins used to dunk like that. The basketball gods have seen it all. The game doesn't tilt on its axis every time the wind blows. Of course, that thinking is smart, until it's not. Sometimes, the world really is changing. Curry is to hoops as armed drones are to war. The range. The unpredictability. The inescapability. He's destroying defenses that don't even know it is time to play defense.
And now that we know this exists, it's difficult to imagine the future could possibly look anything like the past.