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Monday, February 8, 2016

Golden State Warriors

According to NBA schedule, the match between GSW and Washington Wizards on February 3 was the last (only?) game of the 2015-2016 season to have GSW in the Verizon Center. Thus it was no surprise that the ticket prices reached a height for the Wizards franchise not seen in the past 6 years, surpassing even the Eastern Conference semifinals in the past 2 seasons. When Mr. S and I arrived at the arena before the door opened, the lines were swarming 7th Ave between F and G Streets.

"Everyone's a Warriors fan now," said the middle-aged man in the seat to my right. "It's like a teabag. Just dip it in hot water and you get tea, every time." Hmm ... He was no new fan, as he lives in Marine County, across the Bay from Oakland. 

I'm one of those freshly brewed Warriors fan, swept onto the Stephen Curry bandwagon only a couple of months ago, after over a decade of indifference to  NBA. I did watch the televised playoffs for a few years in the 1990s, when Michael Jordan was approaching his first retirement. Perhaps it was the resignation in a sports commentator's voice I heard on NPR, when he talked about Curry. The tone brought up the memory of how people were talking about Jordan, implying something like, "Here comes a mad genius. What can anyone do but lie down and be trampled?" 

And trample he did. In the game against Wizards, Curry scored 51 points. I must say that Wizards fought hard and played especially well. John Wall scored 41 points. Nene almost hit every free throw. GSW nevertheless won by 13 points in the end, but the match was, at one point, only a 2-point game. It was in the middle of second quarter, I said to the man from California, "If something should happen to Curry, where would the Warriors be?" He thought about it and agreed, "Yeah, they'd be a middling team." 

Beyond marveling at the impossible speed of the play --- I tried to catch a glimpse of formations and ball movement, but the only thing I saw was a few picks and rolls --- I wondered about what is the so-called "star quality." What is the quality that makes a team build their strategy around one player, so that he makes or breaks their success over a whole season, or several seasons? How does this shape the interpersonal dynamics and motivations of the non-star players in a team setting? Do they envy him and resent him while also depending on him? I used to think that individual sports, like figure skating and tennis, are more psychological than team sports, like football (soccer and basketball). But I might be wrong there. 

The Californian man said, "The other guard, Klay [Thompson], is actually as good as Steph, he just doesn't believe it." 

I was reminded of Scottie Pippen. All those years ago I had a very low opinion of Pippen. I thought Jordan was hitting all the crucial jumpshots and layups in the last quarter, while Pippen was missing them. He was just riding on Jordan's coattail. Only now I saw my error. There can never be two Jordans in one team. Why? I don't know. It was no small feat for Pippen to remain a good player, steady and uncomplaining at Jordan's side. 

At the next game, Curry shot rather poorly and scored only 26 points. Oklahoma City Thunder nearly won the match. Near the end, the teams were tied at 104. And yet, Curry either scored or assisted and was responsible for a string of successful offense efforts in the final few minutes. GSW won 116-108, despite Kevin Durant's 40 points. What makes a player so ... clutch? So deadly that his teammates mentally rely on him? I am convinced this is more than physical talent and superhuman effort. A key ingredient must be psychological.

Stars like Jordan and Reggie Miller and Kobe Bryant, now Curry, have been described as "cold-blooded" or having "killer instinct." It is not that they lack mercy while mere mortals are unconsciously reluctant to defeat the rivals. Rather, the mere mortals are inhibited by something other than mercy --- perhaps an anticipation of victory and all its spoils and associated fear of losing all those by one's own failure. I think the ancient Indians had it right --- only when one detaches himself from the fruit of his action, be it bitter or sweet, can he find the courage and focus to do what he must do now. And the effect may be even stronger on others around him.  

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