As Bay Area sport fans, we've been privileged to be able to watch some of the greatest athletes of their, or any, era: Rickey Henderson, Joe Montana, Tim Brown, Will Clark, Klay Thompson, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young, Draymond Green, Barry Bonds and Buster Posey among others. Two of the very brightest in the pantheon are Jerry Rice and an athlete we still get to watch play live, Stephen Curry.
Coming from different eras and different sports, they don't necessarily have a lot in common in playing style. There are no easy comparisons, as one might make between Julius Erving and Michael Jordan or Tim Hardaway and Kyrie Irving. However, there are a few, arguably much more fundamental, similarities that link them across time and sport.
The first and most obvious is the "normal guy" perception. I say "perception" because it's a deceptive image. Rice, while putting up an ordinary 40 time, actually possessed great long speed. He didn't have a great first step, but he had an outstanding final 10 yards and that burst once he got going created miles of separation over the course of his career and led to him rarely getting caught from behind in his athletic prime. He also had outstanding body control, allowing him to make difficult, contested catches seem routine and even boring. Similarly, Steph Curry doesn't test like an athletic freak, but while his first step also isn't remarkable, his short area quickness in navigating screens and finding holes in the defense to burst through to the rim, is. Like Rice, he also has tremendous body control, which has led to some of the greatest degree of difficulty layups and flip and scoop shots.
So while these are obviously not two normal human beings, neither had the visibly freakish athleticism of the Randy Mosses, Calvin Johnsons, Michael Jordans or Kevin Durants of the athletic world. They didn't succeed on that sort of spectacular athleticism--they wove what great traits they did have together with consummate skill and, as we'll touch on in the next point, work ethic.
"Work ethic" alone isn't sufficient to describe either man. Virtually all successful pro athletes have tremendous work ethic. But what work ethic means to Julio Jones or James Harden probably amounts to catching an extra hundred balls a day or getting up a hundred extra shots. What it meant to Rice and Curry is building a stamina second to none, a stamina that allowed them to run all day and still have their legs for an overtime. A stamina that meant that they never seemed to get tired, running routes or running defenders through screens as crisply in crunch time of the fourth quarter as in the opening minutes of the game. Still having the energy late in games to go up and snag a touchdown pass over a defender or fire another three-pointer with perfect form over the desperate contest of a defender a step slow.
Rice, of course, was legendary for how he built this stamina. It was hard to be a football fan (of any team) in the 1990s and not hear about the hill running he did, a run that other professional athletes in seemingly optimal shape tapped out on halfway through. Curry is maybe less famous to casual fans for his fanatical endurance training, but here's another, recent example of his thinking on it, courtesy of an interview with Marcus Thompson III at The Athletic:
"At this point, I mean, understanding my physical stature – still 6-3, still a buck ninety – there’s not much to add in terms of how I do things," Curry said. "It’s all just about being as efficient as possible, with how I move, how the ball moves and where I’m getting my shots at. So I’ll say I just try to do what I’ve been doing even better. That’s always been the kind of approach to the work that I do over the summer. And a lot of it is the mental work, for sure. … trying to anticipate what the season will look like based on the team, and the style of play you want to kind of bring to life. And for me, it’s always conditioning. That’s the biggest thing. Like, I have to, as you get a little older and older in this league, that’s the hardest thing to maintain throughout the summer. So you have to work a little bit smarter every year, especially the way that I play. ‘Cause I cover a lot of ground on the court. It is my superpower out there, to be able to just outrun guys night after night. So that’s the unlock for me pretty much every year – how can I elevate that part of my game as I get older?"
Efficiency of movement and the conditioning to run opponents into the ground--that's probably the best descriptor of how each player approached the game. If you remove the part about "getting my shots" and replace the mention of a court with a field, that quote could easily have come from Jerry Rice as he moved past the age of 30 himself.
The last, and least important, thing that connects these two is how quiet and business-like each was. No one could accuse Rice of being humble--if he was asked directly where he felt he ranked, he'd be quite blunt about being the best receiver in football. I'm sure Curry has a similar confidence in his abilities. Both are or were fiercely, fiercely competitive. But they also didn't talk a lot, they largely let their performances speak for themselves. Curry rarely engages with those who try to diminish his ability or impact and you get the sense that if the Twitter era extended back to Rice's prime, he probably wouldn't have been a very prolific tweeter. He spoke to interviewers who asked him questions, but he didn't go out of his way to get his face on camera or promote himself. I'm not one who thinks it's a bad thing for athletes to promote themselves or their brand, which is why I consider this the least important similarity, but it is a similarity nonetheless in how they went about their jobs as celebrity athletes.
Both men towered above their eras--Rice for many years got acclaim as arguably the greatest football player ever (generally along with Jim Brown--now Tom Brady probably eclipses both in the minds of most) and Steph Curry is the one player who actually competes with LeBron James as the iconic player of the era and is credited with changing the game into an all out aerial assault from three-point range. We can love them for what they meant to our local teams and admire them for their pure dominance--but there's more that links them than being local legends and brilliant athletes.