Back in July when Barcelona were in San Francisco for a pre-season tournament also featuring Manchester United, the two biggest trophies in all of world club sport came side by side.
Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets had brought with them to a local college campus the Champions League trophy, only to momentarily swap it for the silverware bequeathed to the winners of the NBA, the league in which everyone who plays the world’s second biggest sport dreams of playing in.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy — named after the son of a couple of west Cork immigrants who would become the Democratic Party chief whose Watergate offices were famously trespassed — now resided in the Bay Area for the first time since 1975, the same year O’Brien was appointed commissioner of the NBA.
It had been brought along by a delegation from the Golden State Warriors, led by their starting forward Harrison Barnes.
Both parties would shoot the breeze as well as some hoops between swapping trophies and posing for photographs. As staged and stilted as that meeting-of-champs photo opp was, the pairing was a highly fitting one.
Not only are Barca and the Warriors the two most fun teams to watch in sport right now but nobody in pro sport seems to be having more fun playing their sport either.
In a year when we were regularly reminded just how cynical and corrupt big-time sport has become and how precious and po-faced and sheer joyless high-performance sport and its practitioners can often appear to be, here are the two teams excelling in the world’s two biggest sports that constantly put a smile on your face while playing with a constant smile on their own.
That childlike joy and enthusiasm is best personified by the leading face of not just their respective franchises but sports: Lionel Messi’s trickery and brilliance is something that we’ve all known for close to 10 years now.
Steph Curry has only become a worldwide phenomenon the past couple of seasons, and if you’re still unfamiliar with him and his game, then the best way to describe him is that he’s basically Messi on the hardwood.
At 6’2”, he might be over half a foot taller than the Argentinian, but this is basketball we’re talking about, a sport if you were to read David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, you’d be better off not wasting your time playing unless you were bordering seven foot.
Entering college, Curry was barely 6ft, and that lack of height and athleticism is why all the top-ranked colleges passed on him and he was only picked up by Davidson, the same mid-major college that recruited Sligo’s own Michael Bree.
He still wouldn’t have the build to play midfield with any self-respecting Gaelic football county team.
Unlike astonishing physical specimen like LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo, there’s a pizza-eating, boy-next-door vibe about Curry, but that’s why America and the world have fallen for him. Just like Messi, your loveable, down-to-earth little cousin is dazzling and stumping the bigs with his skills.
Curry and Messi didn’t get to meet that time Barca were in the Bay Area last summer, their visit coming when Curry and most of his teammates were on vacation having just won the NBA playoffs, but the pair have a definite mutual appreciation society going on.
Last month when Messi reached 30 million followers on Instagram, Curry sent him a signed Warriors No. 30 jersey which Messi promptly showcased on the same social media.
“We both have a creative style, where it’s just about a feel when you’re out on the pitch or the court,” Curry would tell reporters.
“I try to do some fancy things out there with both hands, making crossover moves and kind of have a certain creativity and flair to my game.
“And that’s definitely the style Messi has in his matches. I love watching him play. I’m a big fan. You never know what he’s going to do at any particular moment. When he’s on TV, everybody is glued in because, as soon as he gets a touch with the ball, something special could happen.”
It’s for much the same reasons why every second night all of America and millions far beyond tune in for the latest fun and brilliance brought to you in association with Curry and his chuckling brothers that are the Warriors.
Just when you think you can’t be amazed anymore, he and his teammates will WOW! — with an exclamation mark — you some more.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen anything like it really,” Doc Rivers, the coach of the LA Clippers has observed.
“We’ve seen great shooters in the league. We’ve seen great ball-handlers in the league. He’s both and I don’t think we’ve seen a combination of what he can do.”
On the eve of the new season in early November, the consensus was that the Warriors would struggle to retain their NBA crown and improve on their regular season 67-15 record.
Their response was to win their opening 24 games; no side in the history of American pro sports has had a longer winning streak to start a season.
Curry has taken his game to another level.
When he won the league MVP for the 2014-15 season, he was ‘only’ averaging 24 points a game.
This season he’s averaging 32 a game – despite being able to sit out several fourth quarters as the Warriors roll.
There’s been much more to the Warriors’ continuous success and improvement than Curry, as much as he best personifies it. Fun. It begins with culture and values, terms we commonly hear associated with the All Blacks, especially after the publication of James Kerr’s Legacy.
As well read as that study of rugby’s most dominant team has been by coaches in this country, perhaps they would benefit even more by taking a page out of Steve and not just James Kerr’s book.
Steve Kerr has been the head coach of the Warriors for the past 18 months and exudes a confidence and integrity and authority not dissimilar to Joe Schmidt, someone who physically is not unlike him either.
Kerr has yet to actually coach the Warriors for a game this season because of surgery to his back, but his stand-in Luke Walton leaves no one in doubt as to who is still the boss.
“Everything we do is based on what Steve has set up here,” Walton said.
“We have core values and he put them up on the whiteboard before we started shootaround [to remind players] how proud he was watching them because we’re hitting all four of those values.”
And the first of them?
Probably the most important, according to Walton.
“Joy. He wants us having fun. It’s a long season. ”
“The start of practice is a complete circus,” says Draymond Green, whose own unlikely upward trajectory has mirrored that of his team.
“Basketballs are flying everywhere. You have coaches trying to kick it in from half-court. You have Steph throwing the ball full court, trying to make it in. Guys are getting hit in the head with the ball. Then it’s down to business. Kerr’s always telling us: ‘Be loose, be gunslingers, but disciplined.’”
Achieving that delicate, magical mix can be attributed to a visit Kerr made to then Superbowl champions the Seattle Seahawks the same 2014 summer he was appointed coach of the Warriors.
Observing Pete Carroll and his set-up, he was taken by how the Seahawks were simultaneously loose and disciplined and how Carroll turned everything into a competition.
And so competition would become another one of the Warriors’ four basic core values.
You don’t just scrap practice and go bowling; you turn the bowling into a two-on-two tournament, as the Warriors did before a regular-season game against the Minnesota Timberwolves (don’t you know, Curry’s team won).
You don’t just swap basketballs for footballs in your warmup; you turn it into a passing game.
You might have music playing at the start of training to energise the place, but you’ve to win a challenge to decide which music gets played. Even when Curry and Kerr playfully engage in a game of free throws after practice, there is something deeper going on below the surface, the Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard has observed.
On Kerr’s way to winning five NBA championships as a player, he became recognised as one of the greatest spot-up shooters in basketball history.
So when he and Curry play a game to 10 — shooting 10 free-throws a time where each make is worth a point but a swish is worth two – Kerr wants to win.
One day Kerr sank 84 of his 85 free-throws — and still only won one of the 11 games with Curry, because, as he said, “Steph swishes them all”.
However, that Kerr is willing to put himself out there and publicly lose to a player in a challenge observed by members of the group and reporters on the beat, indicates a man totally at ease.
In an era when every Premiership and inter-county manager and team feels it must stonewall the cameras following them into an arena, Kerr has trolled a corridor reporter on national TV by playfully rolling his eyes and sticking out his tongue.
Last month ESPN asked Kerr to contribute to a piece on how his current Warriors team would stack up against the immortal Chicago Bulls side he played on that won 72 games in the 1995-96 season. It would be the kind of piece Brian Cody and Jim Gavin and any other county manager you can think of would baulk at.
However, Kerr went with it, conjuring up images of a Draymond Green versus Dennis Rodman match-up, and remarking since he himself would have had no chance of guarding Curry he’d have to pass that assignment to a combination of Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper.
The pragmatist and professional in Kerr would pull the reins when asked who would actually win — “I refuse to comment on the score of a hypothetical game that would never happen,” he’d say — but why did he contribute at all to such a speculative piece that could be interpreted to invite unnecessary pressure and comparisons on his team?
“I love this stuff,” he’d say. “It’s so fun.” That word again: Fun.
Want more proof of just how cool and self-assured Steve Kerr is? Well, take the role of his 28-year-old personal assistant, Nick U’Ren.
The previous five years he’d been an assistant video coordinator with the Phoenix Suns where Kerr was a general manager. Kerr brought him along to Golden State, thinking: “Rather than have a 45-year-old woman behind a desk answering mail as your assistant, why not instead use that spot to add another young basketball mind to the staff?”
So, on a typical day, U’Ren might book Kerr’s travel, then help compile video to analyse.
Or in the NBA finals against LeBron James, help come up with the strategy that would turn and win the series and world championship.
At one point in that series the Warriors were two games to one down.
Then, Kerr decided to take his rim-protecting centre Andrew Bogut out of the playing rotation altogether and go with a much smaller line-up, catapulting Andre Iguodala into the starting line-up and having Green at just 6’6 anchoring the middle. All because U’Ren suggested it.
You can just picture some prominent intercounty managers threatened at the notion of someone outside him and his selectors suggesting a tactical adjustment.
“What?! That’s not your domain! Worry about your own job!”
Not Kerr. “Whoever has the idea, it doesn’t matter,” he’d say after the Warriors won the next three games and with it, the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“And [Nick U’Ren] brought me the idea.” (This in a franchise where the previous coach railed against his assistant coaches receiving any credit in the media and forbade them from talking to the press.) Kerr’s the same with players.
At the end of his timeouts, he will often ask the team if they’re seeing anything he isn’t. One night reserve Leandro Barbosa suggested a late-game play. Kerr used it.
Right away, it struck them how much he was prepared to listen and engage with them.
Upon his appointment, he flew all around the world to meet each of them individually, regardless of where they had taken their vacation.
He flew to Australia to meet Bogut, down to Miami to meet with Barnes.
“That was big, actually making the commitment to fly out and see guys,” Barnes would say. “It would’ve been easy for him to fly and meet Steph and just call everybody else.”
Barnes was coming off a terrible season under former coach Mark Jackson.
He wasn’t starting, and then with the second unit he was expected to score out of isolation plays. Kerr diplomatically broke how things would be different in 2014-15.
The best players in the league only shot twenty-something percent on isolation plays, he’d inform Barnes. “Any idea how well you shot?”
Barnes grimaced. Lower than that? Kerr nodded. “I don’t think you were used last year in a way best for you. But if you buy into what we’re saying, you have a chance to be successful.”
Curry was similarly and skilfully challenged by Kerr and his coaching staff. Prior to Kerr’s appointment, Curry had a reputation for being all offence — defensively he was viewed throughout all the NBA as a liability.
Adams though felt there was no such thing as an innately poor defender.
“I don’t think you’re a bad defensive player,” he’d tell Curry, “but you don’t play enough possessions well.”
He wasn’t sugarcoating Curry when avoiding saying straight out that he was a lousy defender. He was telling him he could be a good one with the right level of commitment and concentration.
Now, the Warriors are one of the best defensive teams in all of basketball because of their ability to force teams into committing turnovers.
Curry has led the league in steals. The same fast hands he uses to stump opposing defences are now seen by him as a way to also stymie them at the other end.
What makes it all the more remarkable is this isn’t a franchise like Barcelona which has a winning tradition.
The Warriors’ winning percentage in the 20 seasons preceding the 2015 title was among the three worst in the NBA over that time span.
On top of that, they work in a league with a salary cap. It wasn’t like they could go out and buy a Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin the way Barca could splash the cash to get Neymar and Suarez to play alongside Messi.
None of their core players were drafted any higher than seventh in the NBA draft.
That was as high as Curry went in 2009; Barnes too in 2012. Klay Thompson was only an 11th pick; Draymond Green, 35th.
What the Warriors front office understood though was those players all had size and character. They were humble, ready to work — and they had long limbs to go with those big hearts..
So it’s meant the same town that invented Moneyball now hosts a team that has championed and mastered Smallball.
This season, whenever the Warriors have gone with a lineup of Curry, Thompson, Green, Barnes and Iguodala — none of whom are over the league average height of 6’7” — they’ve had an offensive rating of 154.7 and a defensive rating of 84.8, meaning they’re outscoring opponents by an incredible 70 points per possessions.
That lineup is simply too versatile on defence and impossible to stop on the other end because of their spacing, passing and shooting.
The only thing is as of December 18 they’d only played 64 minutes together this season.
They’re holding things back for later in the season.
Think about that. They can get better. And they still have Kerr to come back.
The player, team and coach of 2015 could be all that and more in 2016. And hopefully, as they continue to win and laugh, the rest of sport will catch on as to why.