Plato, a truly veteran scribe, once said that mere exercise makes a beast out of a man. What he meant, I think, is that those of us gifted with enormous athletic talent have an affirmative obligation not only to develop that talent but to share it with the rest of society. Or maybe he just couldn’t get a cardio machine one day at the xystos and was in a lousy mood. I prefer the first explanation, which is why I never could understand why people insist on putting limits on the amount of showmanship we allow our greatest athletes to put on display. Back in Plato’s time, athletes competed naked, so modesty in athletic performance is a fairly recent—and fairly dismal—development.
Consider what’s been happening recently with Steph Curry. He is putting together one of the greatest individual seasons in a team sport that anyone ever has. (More on that in a moment.) Consider the physical effort behind only one statistic: Curry is on pace to make more than 400 three-point shots this season. Most people I know couldn’t shoot 400 three-pointers in a week without having their elbows turn to oatmeal. (This, by that way, has always been the best answer to the occasional idiotic suggestion that we raise the rim. You will penalize jump-shooters far more than you will the big folks down on the blocks. Ever shot at a 15-foot rim? It feels like you’ve been driving railroad spikes with your biceps.)
It has been argued, stupidly, that what Curry does takes less athletic ability than it appears to take. This, you may note, is the same thing that many of the same people say about dunking, as if watching a human being fly was something you could see every day. Perhaps this dumb strain of thinking has to do with the fact that Curry so manifestly enjoys what he’s doing to the rest of the league. Recently, he put one in the air against Phoenix, and, before the ball even had reached apogee, he did an about-face and headed down the floor again.
Of course he did that, because Steph Curry is a great showman. Of course the ball went in, because Steph Curry is a great athlete. Imagine all the huffing and blowing that would have ensued had the ball not gone through. (Yes, just imagine that, Nick Young.) Curry showed himself willing to risk even that to entertain the crowd. Plato would have been dabbing in the cheap seats all night long.
The fact of the matter is that it is more fun to watch Steph Curry play basketball than it is to watch almost anything else on television at the moment. He has struck a perfect balance between athletic skill and athletic performance.
These sorts of seasons don’t come around that often. I remember as a kid watching Bob Gibson in 1968, when he made National League hitters look so ridiculous that he ended up with an ERA of 1.12, and they lowered the mound the next year so Gibson wouldn’t look so much like a runaway train bearing down on hitters. Through June and July of that year, Gibson gave up two runs over 99 innings, which is preposterous. On the mound, his slow, uncoiling menace was the performance within which his athletic skills were on display. Take either one away, and the year is not as compelling, nor anywhere near as much fun.
A few weeks ago, Jay Caspian Kang came up with a few such examples from this day and age. Randy Moss made catching touchdown passes absurd in 2007. On one occasion, he went up in the end zone against two Miami Dolphins, and the dudes just fell away from him like leaves from a big tree.
I am told that Barry Bonds was quite a show in 2001, although that season is so encrusted with ex post facto moral posturing at this point that the fun has been drained from the historical memory of it almost entirely. (And, on a related subject, the 1988 Olympic 100-meter final between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson is still one of the most breathlessly compelling sporting events I ever saw, all subsequent developments be damned.)
But the closest thing to Steph Curry this season that I can remember is the year that Pedro Martinez put up for the Red Sox in 2000. His ERA was 1.74, better than Gibson’s, if you figure in how the game had been reconfigured for offense in various ways, including the pharmaceutical. His WHIP—walks plus hits allowed per inning pitched—was 0.74, which is downright silly.* He was in the middle of a six-year run in which he probably was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. But, he was so much more than figures in a scorebook. He was a show like no other.
First of all, Pedro was tiny, so there was a trompe l’oeil thing going on every time he took the mound. Second, his command of his pitches was so absolute that you could see him carving up a hitter during a single at-bat, as though sculpting something different out of each opponent. It seemed that he never threw that killer change-up except at the perfectly correct dramatic moment. And, despite the obvious differences in their size, he was every bit as fearsome on the mound as Gibson was. For example, on Aug. 29, he began the game by nailing Tampa Bay’s Gerald Williams, which touched off a considerable hooley. (The Rays and the Red Sox were always fighting in those days.) Martinez responded by throwing a 13-strikeout, one-hit shutout. He was so compelling that he even broke down the last foul remnants of the Red Sox’s sorry-ass racial history. On the days he pitched, Fenway Park was alive with Dominican flags. He was a walking carnival, he was.
*Correction, March 23, 2016: This article originally misstated that WHIP is walks plus hits allowed per nine innings pitched. It is walk plus hits allowed per inning pitched. (Return.)