John McGrath

John McGrath: The Warriors and Steph Curry chase history

By John McGrath

jmcgrath@thenewstribune.com

Golden State’s Steph Curry (30) shoots over Toronto’s Corey Joseph on Saturday. Curry finished with 44 points.
Golden State’s Steph Curry (30) shoots over Toronto’s Corey Joseph on Saturday. Curry finished with 44 points. The Associated Press

The Golden State Warriors won for the 21st time in 21 games Saturday. Even for those of us who no longer care about a league that tossed the Seattle market into the compost bin seven years ago, the Warriors are difficult to dislike and impossible to ignore.

Take their head coach.

Er, head coaches.

Steve Kerr holds the title. The mastermind whose lineup and rotation tweaks helped propel Golden State to the 2015 NBA championship, Kerr would be the first to tell you he’s had minimal influence on the 21-0 record.

Complications from two back surgeries have turned Kerr into a kind of part-time consultant. The Warriors still run his system, and he interacts with the team as much as he can when it’s at home in the Bay Area, but most of the duties associated with the head coach have fallen to interim coach Luke Walton.

If not for back problems of his own, Walton might have been spending this season in the wind-down phase of a long and unremarkable pro career. But he was forced to retire in 2013, enabling him to become the first person with a 0-0 record honored as a coach of the month.

As in Major League Baseball, which doesn’t recognize the managerial marks of bench coaches who fill in for the boss when he’s ill or out of town on a family matter, the NBA’s stance on wins and losses is that they belong to the head coach — even if the head coach happens to be 3,000 miles removed from the action.

Anyway, Walton, who in the eyes of the NBA has yet to win a game, is looking like the league’s next star coach. At 35, he’s both young enough to relate to the players and mature enough to recognize that his record — whether it’s 0-0 or 21-0 — is a byproduct of a talented roster anchored by the phenomenal Steph Curry.

I think back to the first NBA game I saw in person — 1971 Western Conference semifinals, Game 6 between the Bulls and Lakers at the Chicago Stadium — and recall Wilt Chamberlain’s captivating presence. Chamberlain was past his prime as an unstoppable offensive force in ’71, but something in the way he moved, that nonchalant fingertip roll he used, whispered to me: An all-time great is in the midst.

I got my first glimpse of Michael Jordan as a sophomore at North Carolina, and had the privilege of working as a Chicago sportswriter when he led the Bulls to the first of the six NBA titles they won between 1991 and 1998.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Isiah Thomas: I’ve seen ’em all from a courtside seat on what once was known (oh, those were the days) as press row.

But if asked to identify the basketball player I’d most want to watch for one game, or one quarter, or one possession, it’s Steph Curry. Which is crazy, because the closest I’ve come to seeing him is on a cable-sports network wrap-up show, when he pulls up and drains a 30-footer as casually as a stadium vendor returns change from a sawbuck.

Thanks to Curry’s ridiculous performance the other night against the Hornets at Charlotte — he scored 28 points in the third quarter — the Warriors tied the record for best start to a season by a North American pro sports team. Baseball’s St. Louis Maroons also went 20-0, but that team’s distinction as a trailblazer is dubious.

St. Louis belonged to the Union Association, a short-lived league organized in 1884 and disbanded before 1885. The Maroons were owned by Union Association founder Henry Lucas, a St. Louis millionaire determined to stock his team with accomplished players but indifferent to rest of the league.

While the Maroons were on their way to finishing 94-19, Milwaukee went 8-5 before disbanding. St. Paul went 2-6 and then, poof, same thing. The Chicago franchise relocated to Pittsburgh in August. There was nothing major about this major league.

The Golden State Warriors, on the other hand, compete in the world’s premier basketball league. And while I’m incapable of caring about a business operation that continues to exploit Seattle as leverage for inciting struggling franchises to build new arenas — see Kings, Sacramento — sometimes you’ve just got to admire a team making, and chasing, history.

The Warriors won’t go 82-0 and shouldn’t aspire to go 82-0, if for no other reason than maintaining perfection over six months isn’t exactly chicken soup for the soul. They took a 13-point lead Saturday on the Raptors at Toronto, and ended up surviving one of those final-minute grinds that last 45 minutes because of all the fouls and timeouts.

But don’t bet against the Warriors breaking the Bulls’ all-time best NBA regular-season record of 72-10, under the direction of a coach destined to finish 0-0.

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