Haters gonna hate

We build people up just to knock them down, and Steph Curry is next

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By all accounts his heart is as pure as his jump shot, evidence of which was on full display during his speech in late May accepting the 2014-15 NBA MVP Award. In addition to heartily thanking the Warriors’ head of security and the team’s longtime equipment manager, Stephen Curry said this:

First and foremost, I have to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for blessing me with the talents to play this game, with a family that supports me day-in and day-out. I’m his humble servant right now. I can’t say it enough: how important my faith is to how I play the game and who I am, so– I’m just blessed and I’m thankful for where I am.

I love playing basketball; there’s no doubt about it. It’s something I’ve been doing since– what, mom and dad, two? With Fisher Price goals. My grandma’s here, we were talking about it yesterday. She used to be my commentator. She used to be Bob Fitzgerald for me counting down the scores, I hit a game-winning shot or whatever, and I’d stumble over and give her a high five, stuff like that.

Leading off your speech thanking God and Grandma is what good guys do. And there appears no one more humble, more down to earth, more deserving of life’s riches than Steph. This makes his imminent and necessary teardown seem particularly harsh. Unfair even. But make no mistake, it will happen. Why? Because that is what we do.

Someday most of us will hate Steph Curry without really even knowing why.

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When perusing the Internet and social media it becomes clear that finding anything negative about the seemingly ethereal Golden State point guard is a nearly impossible task. In fact, 120 Sports has Curry at the top of their index for 2015, determined by “exclusive research, conducted in conjunction with Ranker, Millennials’ Athlete Index reveals the athletes mattering most to its target audience — Millennials.”

But our insistence on eating our own, on schadenfreude, on our inevitable pivot from adulation to despising greatness has always fascinated me, and Curry will not escape. No one ever does. To make matters worse, our pleasure in exacting a pound of flesh seem to have grown exponentially with the proliferation of social media—whose sole existence seems a vehicle for us to show how much better our lives are than everyone else’s.

Television cameras are always, always present to film the President of the United States as he descends the steps of Air Force One. Is it for some grand purpose, to capture a nation’s pride and patriotic fanfare directed at the leader of the free world? No, the cameras are there because Gerald Ford tripped and fell on the steps in 1975. So today every step is filmed just in case the President trips and falls again, and the image can be instantly transmitted around the world.

Our fascination with those that accomplish great things and our joy in watching them fail is why a man with a noticeable absence of flaws; with a profound, humbled sense of self; a ruthlessly competitive nature and a simple passion for the game will someday be torn down. Sadly Steph Curry will someday be hated.

We will grow tired of his effortless style of play and family friendly persona. From Michael Kruse in BleacherReport:

Last year, after the rapper Drake included within the explicit lyrics of a song called “0 to 100/The Catch Up” a nod to Curry — I been Steph Curry with the shot, cooking with the sauce, Chef Curry with the pot, boy — Curry responded with a short, G-rated spoof video set to the Drake beat, showing Curry and his wife in the kitchen of their home literally cooking curry in a pot. Even their toddler daughter made an appearance. It felt very Stephen Curry. Street cred but family-friendly.

We will grow tired of the legend of the 77 straight 3-pointers, the way he incessantly chews his mouthpiece during breaks in play and of the tales of his unselfishness — of lifting up all boats. Again, from Kruse on a unique in-game strategy of his own making while at Davidson:

In a game in Davidson on Nov. 25, 2008, Loyola of Maryland used two guys to guard Curry wherever he went on the court. So Curry went to the corner. It was his idea. He just stood there. The rest of his team played four-on-three for the whole game.

Curry, who had hit for 44 earlier in the year against an Oklahoma team led by Blake Griffin and was averaging 35 a game, that night scored zero points. Barr hit six wide-open threes. Davidson won by 30. It stands in retrospect as a bizarre footnote in Curry’s college statistics. But at the time, for his teammates, it was an affirmation.

Hell, some have even grown tired of the sheer audacity he displays when bringing his young daughter Riley on the podium with him after playoff wins.

So the question is why? Why do we come to loathe sustained greatness but also take so much pleasure when greatness stumbles?

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In 1956, social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl published a seminal study entitled Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance in the Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. In it the two describe in great length their hypothesis of para-social, or one-sided, relationships. The idea that our society at large creates and nurtures fictional relationships with celebrities they don’t actually personally know. From Horton and Wohl:

One of the striking characteristics of the new mass media — radio, television, and the movies — is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer. The conditions of response to the performer are analogous to those in a primary group. The most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers; the same is true of a character in a story who comes to life in these media in an especially vivid and arresting way. We propose to call this seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer a para-social relationship.

Now this is not meant to present myself in any way a scholar, or that before last week I could have identified Horton and Wohl as anything other than characters from a Dr. Seuss short story. But, because I love to party, I spent a few days researching the two and the subsequent studies spun-off from the original thesis. Of particular interest is the idea that we build imaginary bonds with performers (athletes or otherwise) and project onto them often unrealistic expectations hoping to fill some sort of void in our own lives. If they stumble, we tear them down. But, more interestingly, if they are too successful in some arbitrary way, we will also tear them down.

Perhaps that’s where Curry’s conundrum lies: He’s as relatable to basketball fans as Michael, Jim or Pam from The Office. And his style of play is relatively new, in an old sort of way. Precision passing, sublime ball-handling and knock-down 3s are new again, particularly for a younger generation who only know basketball as a game played by giants that can somehow fly. Curry’s style is refreshing in the way Michael Scott looked into the camera for the first time and made viewers feel like they were in on a secret. The para-social connection, the relatable style of play is fun to watch. Playing below the rim is…exciting?

A few weeks ago Bill Simmons had WNBA star Diana Taurasi and Jalen Rose on what turned out to be his  final Grantland Basketball Hour to discuss among other things Steph Curry. All three agreed that he has the “best WNBA game” around. “Below the rim,” Taurasi said before pointing presumably to the crew and cameramen. “Step back 3s, there’s probably like … every guy in here could do that.”

It’s partly that level of sameness and how mere mortals can identify with Curry that help make him the most popular player in the NBA. Few can jump out of the gym like Blake Griffin or LeBron James, but many can stroke a jump shot now and then. Few can hit a drive as long as Tiger Woods but on occasion we can flush a six iron. Sure, Curry does it with much greater regularity, and better than almost anyone else on the planet, but that’s no matter. We can relate. “He looks like he’s 13,” his coach Steve Kerr said. “I think the vast majority of fans can relate to guards more than the big guys, and Steph is about as relatable as any player in the league.”

Curry’s identifiable persona, along with his smooth (admittedly anything but normal) style of play has elevated him to the point of being the leading vote-getter for this season’s All-Star Game, which is no small feat in a league full of verified mega-stars. But at some point we will get bored. We get bored with television shows, regardless of their uniqueness, and we will get bored with Steph.

And fans’ willingness to associate with Curry won’t carry him unscathed if he doesn’t bring home the real hardware (meaning a championship) that elevate him, and thereby those that relate closely to him, hyper-para-socially in this world of memes and vines.

His star was already tarnished after a maddening disappearance early in this year’s Finals. LeBron James and the Cavaliers showed up to the party ready to play rugby in the mud while Curry and his teammates seem to be dressed for a nice afternoon of croquet on the south lawn. If Cleveland pulls off the unimaginable, Curry will shoulder much of the blame and we’ll knock him down a few pegs. The “Baby-Faced Assassin,” should’ve been tougher, more grizzled, a better leader, a “bring your lunch pail everyday kind of guy.” He should’ve been more like … LeBron, we’ll grumble.

On the flip side, if he does bring a championship to the Bay Area his national exposure will increase. He’s currently a bit player in the already tired State Farm twin commercials among a few others, but as his popularity grows so will the endorsement opportunities. And we will get tired of seeing his face. We will get tired of him selling us stuff; tired of Steph Curry telling us what to do. He can’t win, even if he does.

Entertainment reporter Tirdad Derakhshani argues, “When celebrities sell us commodities, they are in fact telling the public how they should live their life.” And in a subsequent article he argues, “Perhaps what’s most dismaying is that so many consumers have become sophisticated enough to know they are manipulated, yet choose to remain passive.”

Now, after a perfunctory glance at Derakhshani’s work, I can tell that I don’t necessarily agree with his abiding views on capitalism, but I do agree that seeing LeBron James taking a nap in his Kia is both annoying and patronizingly unbelievable. Perhaps James’ continued exposure in so many commercials adds in some part to the negative feelings he invokes in so many.

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It happens to the best of them. LeBron. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Tom Brady.

Either by their excellence, exposure, or at times a combination of the two, all went from upstart to superstar; superstar to quasi-pariah. Sure, some the best suffered from self-inflicted wounds. James’ Decision, Jordan’s gambling, Brady’s various “gates” and Bird’s general hick-ish aura of superiority made them beloved locally but despised almost everywhere else. But Peyton Manning, Tim Duncan and Troy Aikman have more than their fair share of detractors, for no other reason other than presumably being really, really good at their jobs.

Curry hasn’t reached the tipping point where he’s either a slit-your-throat champion or the-guy-that-can’t-get-it-done-in-the-clutch, but he’s close. Through three games in the NBA Finals, Curry is looking more like the MVP not ready for prime-time, but he still has time to rip out the hearts of every person in Cleveland. As of now he’s only doing that to the fans in yellow and blue.

His subpar performance in Game 2 that carried over into the first three quarters of Game 3 was overshadowed by James’ mastery, but the combination of both left Cavs’ fans with more than just a glimmer of hope. And Curry will most certainly be the villain of Ohio if he regains his All-Star form and finds his effortless shot in time to save this series for Golden State.

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His decline in E-scores won’t happen all at once but will rather start one city at a time and the disdain will spread from there. His appeal this summer in New Orleans, Memphis and Houston has presumably declined, and if he can bounce back in the next few days, the entire city of Cleveland will follow suit. As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller pointed out in the aptly titled You Will Come to Hate Stephen Curry, sports-hate is borne in the cities of teams a superstar brings to its knees in defeat.

Most importantly, though, villains and legends are made in the playoffs. LeBron is reviled in Boston, Chicago and Indiana because of what he’s done to those cities’ teams in the postseason. MJ is hated in Salt Lake, Seattle, New York and Cleveland because of his triumphs. Kobe is booed in Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix and Portland because he won. And long before Durant had detractors nationwide, he was not well-liked among basketball fans in Memphis, L.A. or Texas.

Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but call it the General Sherman effect. While Bill was an otherwise charming and handsome man, you’d be hard pressed to find any fans of his in the state of Georgia.

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The NBA has had an incredible run of luck in their most recent MVP. Despite the fact that LeBron James decided to play a few years in Miami, and concurrently pissed off millions, he’s a really good man. And though Kevin Durant flirted with a persona makeover last winter, he’s a good man, too. Now Steph Curry is in a position to out good them all, on and off the court.

But in this world where we are conditioned to hate Johnny Manziel because he’s so bad while simultaneously hating Tim Tebow because he’s so good, Curry’s run as the most popular sports figure around will be surely, and confusingly, short-lived. In the end it doesn’t matter how good or bad the character is, it’s how quickly we get bored with his job performance; it’s how quickly we get tired of him telling us what to do. And most importantly: it’s how quickly we get tired of him kicking our favorite team’s ass, or in his failure to do just that.

However we get there, we’ll find a damn good reason to hate Steph Curry long before the next good/bad phenom comes along to sell us a new Kia and squash our wildest sports dreams. Because sadly, that is what we do. Just ask the grizzled leader bringing his lunch pail to work these days in Cleveland.