Sneaker Wars Part 5: Why Stephen Curry Can Potentially Make Basketball an Even Greater International Phenomenon

The Artistry of Stephen Curry_NYTimes
From the article, The Artistry of Stephen Curry, New York Times

Stephen Curry is 6 ft 3 (1.91 m) tall and 190 lbs (86kg) – above average tall, but kinda small for NBA standards. And yet, if he makes the US Men’s basketball team, and the US wins the gold medal in Rio this summer, Curry has the potential to stand on top of the international basketball marketing world.

After Curry’s Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship last May, and after the holiday shopping season, Curry’s jersey is the most popular. The only shoe more popular than Michael Jordan’s for Nike is Curry’s for Under Armour. This fascinating ESPN article explains, in fact, how Nike lost Curry to Under Armour in one of the great sports marketing signings of all time. According to sports marketing impressario, Sonny Vaccaro, the man who signed Jordan for Nike, Curry didn’t fit the mould, and was overlooked by Nike, which already had Curry under contract.

“He went to Davidson,” said Vaccaro. “He was always overlooked. He was skinny, he was frail, he was all the things you weren’t supposed to be. He never got his due. All of a sudden, like a bolt of lightning, Steph Curry is on the scene. And this is the hardest thing for Nike to swallow right now. What you’re witnessing is a phenomenon. This is like Michael signing with Nike in ’84. He’s going to morph into the most recognizable athlete. And why is he going to be that? Because he’s like everybody else.”

tall and short in basketball
The long and the short of it in basketball.

The average height of a human male ranges from 5ft7in/170 cm to 5ft11in/180 cm tall. So relative to the average height of an NBA player, which probably averages a foot taller, Curry is, well, short. And yes, he is an athletic freak whose body control is at a level of balletic precision. But more importantly, he is the greatest three-point shooter of all time. And while an NBA team loves the athletic big guy who can shoot threes (e.g.; Detlef Schremph, Kevin Durant), the three-point line is the realm of the guard, either the point guard or shooting guard, the shortest guys in the game.

Actually, the NBA has always had a love for the tall guy. There’s an obvious structural reason for that. When James Naismith created the game of basketball, he conveniently attached a peach basket to the rails of a running track that ran above the floor of the gym in Springfield, Illinois in 1891. Those rails happened to be 10 feet off the ground.

“That arbitrary decision to put the basket at ten feet caused the game of basketball to take shape around the tallest players,” said Roman Mars, in this fascinating piece called “The Yin and Yang of Basketball“, in one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible.

As the game developed, it became obvious that the taller you are, the easier it is for you to defend the basket, and certainly, to score. And in the 1960s, the slam dunk became popular, particularly among black players. As the 99PI podcast went on to explain, the dunk became a symbol of black power, and was seen as such a threat that the NCAA, America’s governing body for college sports, banned the slam dunk from 1967 to 1976.

While the NCAA decision was likely a racially-driven one, the slam dunk was also primarily the domain of the tall player. And at that time, the NBA was getting a bit boring as people basically threw the ball into the tall center, who would take a very high-percentage shot. The ABA, an emerging competitor basketball league, saw an opportunity to draw fans that the NBA could not: they introduced the three-point line in 1967. As ABA commissioner, George Mikan (a big man in the NBA himself) said, the three pointer “would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans.”

Twelve years later, the NBA also adopted the three-point shot, a radius some 25 feet (7.6 meters) from the basket. And while it was seen as a gimmick and seldom attempted in the early years, the three-point shot has become a strategic tool in the coach’s toolkit, and the basis of team philosophy in the minds of many modern-day general managers. More importantly, it has made the little guy, most of us in the world, a big part of the big man’s game.

“It’s more egalitarian,” said Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com in the 99PI podcast. “It’s the sense that, if I practice hard enough, I don’t have to be the most athletic guy on the court. I don’t have to be an incredible dunker. It’s something that when fans watch they think, ‘Oh, I can do that too.”

And now, when little Stephen Curry, best player on the best team in the NBA, hero of the little man takes center stage in the greatest international basketball tournament in Rio de Janeiro this summer at the Olympics, he has the potential to be as bright a shining star as basketball has ever seen.