It happened about 1:15 a.m. last Friday night/Saturday morning. I was on the edge of my couch in Manhattan, about 3,000 miles from Oakland, watching a team I root for trying to survive against a player I root for. The team, San Antonio, was up nine with five minutes left at Golden State.
The player, Stephen Curry, flashed off a screen, caught the pass outside the top of the circle and pump-faked Danny Green off his feet. For a dizzy instant, I expected Curry to hit the 3-point shot while being fouled, make the free throw, rainbow two or three more 30-footers and kiss a lefty double-pump scoop off the glass. I'll admit it: I expected Steph to shoot the Spurs out of the gym as he had Feb. 22, when San Antonio led by 13 with 8:42 left and lost 40-21 the rest of the way, including overtime.
But as Steph planted to rise, his left ankle contorted over the edge of his shoe. Not his two-surgery right ankle, mind you -- his "good" ankle rolled. Down the court hopped Steph on one leg, finally having to intentionally foul Kawhi Leonard to stop play.
My emotions collided. Deflation defeated elation. In that instant, I knew the Spurs had won Game 3, but I also knew the NBA's most exciting young player -- the MVP of the playoffs so far -- appeared more than ever to be, in a basketball sense, tragically flawed. Steph Curry, known for "breaking ankles" with his crossover dribble, can't keep from injuring his own.
Steph has Achilles' ankles. "Tissue-paper ankles," as I've often called them on "First Take." Twice he has had ankle surgery, once to repair ligaments and once to clean out loose bodies. He has turned or tweaked his ankles countless times, sometimes while just dribbling half-speed. He has missed 54 games over four NBA seasons and has winced though many more.
He is in danger of becoming the point guard version of 6-foot-11 Bill Walton, who once played as audaciously as he speaks. Walton was an NBA MVP and a Finals MVP but limped through parts of 10 NBA seasons battling all sorts of foot and ankle injuries, finally winding up as (sad but true) a Sixth Man of the Year for Boston in 1985-86. Talk about what might have been. Walton had the skill, spring and Frisbee-chasing energy to dominate for two decades. But he needed ankle fusion after his career ended.
Please, not Steph. Not a young man whose basketball artistry is matched by his spirituality, whose shooting range is as deep as his character. Curry's Bible tells him that bad things do happen to good men -- that God can work in painfully mysterious ways.
Please, God, not this man. Give him ankles.
Four years ago, I gave Curry ultimate respect. I said on air that I'd take him No. 1 in the draft over Blake Griffin. I took a lot of grief. Griffin went No. 1. Curry went seventh.
At Davidson, Curry was the best college shooter I'd seen since Pete Maravich, and he had Steve Nash's handle, vision, feel and clutch gene. As a sophomore in the NCAA tournament, Curry pretty much by himself upset Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin and very nearly Kansas. Here was an even better chip off the block of one of the NBA's all-time best 3-point shooters, Dell Curry.
At Oklahoma, Griffin was a spectacular athlete who wasn't much of a shooter and didn't have much natural feel for rebounding, shot blocking or passing. Curry played taller than he appeared at 6-3. Griffin played shorter than his 6-10 height.
Of course, Blake Griffin leaped over a dunk contest car into a wealth of deadpan TV commercials. But my point remains: If healthy, Steph can lead you to a championship. Not even Chris Paul has been able to take Blake places in the playoffs.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, not prone to hyperbole, recently compared the beauty of watching Curry shoot to watching Michael Jordan play. No one has a quicker trigger. Few can create shots with such subtle, lull-you quickness. Yet here's the ultimate beauty of Steph Curry: The shooter with the NBA's greenest light is also one of the league's most unselfish players.
Never does Curry appear miffed when Klay Thompson or Jarrett Jack or Harrison Barnes heats up and starts volume-bombing. The same Curry who has shot 45 percent from 3 for his career, who this year set the NBA's single-season record for 3s with 272, who scored 54 at Madison Square Garden this season and who scored 22 in the third quarter in Game 1 at San Antonio, including a one-legged 3 … is averaging 8.3 assists this postseason!!
Imagine what Steph Curry could've done in his first four seasons on two good ankles.
He took an anti-inflammatory injection before Sunday's Game 4, then limped his way to 22 points on 5-of-10 3s. He set the deafening early tone. Then he helped spark the Warriors' stunning 25-7 close (from down eight with 4:37 left through overtime) with a couple of driving, hanging works of art off the glass -- one left-handed. Will-killers.
"He's not just a jump-shooter," Rick Barry said by phone Monday. "He can take it to the basket. He has a great left hand. That shot wasn't luck."
Barry, who rivals Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest ever Warrior, is the man I go to for talent evaluation. Rick, father of ESPN's Jon and NBA TV's Brent, has basketball genius and isn't afraid to critique with it.
"I do wish Steph would learn the difference between a good and a bad shot," Barry said. "He still throws up a lot of bad shots."
Yet Barry has always believed the Magic/Nash/LeBron ability to pass the basketball is a gift that can't be taught. "Steph has it, but sometimes he puts a little too much mustard on the hot dog and makes some silly passes … I still think he belongs at 2-guard because he wouldn't have to work so hard with the ball. You could run him off screens, pin downs -- forget it. He's as nice a shooter as I've ever seen."
Powerful words from Rick Barry.
But: "I just worry about his ankles."
Barry has encouraged Steph to wear a special shoe to better support his ankles, to no avail.
So now the chances of a team I've supported for nine years on "First Take" -- the "boring" Spurs -- hinge on Steph's ankles. Series tied 2-2, Game 5 tonight in San Antonio. Despite the Spurs' three surefire Hall of Famers -- Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker -- Steph Curry is now the best player on this floor …
… if healthy.
Ultimately, I'm rooting for Steph's ankles.