Sports are played by the numbers. There will always be one metric that decides the result. If you perform better in that metric, you win. As such, the importance of numbers in sports cannot be understated. Even a sport like gymnastics, where there can be no definite objective metric, has quantified performances. Ditto for skateboarding and dressage. Surely these examples would put sport squarely in the bracket of science.
The scientific nature of sport can be seen in sports writing too. All too often athletes are “machines” with “unerring accuracy” and a “high sporting IQ”. This bag of clichés is easy to pull out while describing a Rafael Nadal or a LeBron James, who could win matches by sheer power of will.
And yet, for some players, the mechanical approach just doesn’t work. For them, sports writers must dive into art and other more human disciplines to find descriptions that might encapsulate what these athletes are able to achieve. An excellent example is David Foster Wallace explaining Roger Federer as Religious Experience. For there are things that athletes such as Federer can do which can stir up faith in the most atheistic of individuals.
Another athlete capable of something similar is Stephen Curry. The greatest three-point shooter in NBA history is a tremendous athlete in his own right. His shooting, his movement without the ball, the astonishing strength he packs in a (comparatively) diminutive 6’3” frame, are all truly remarkable. And he has the numbers to back up his insane ability.
But leave aside all of that for a moment. Forget the records and the numbers. Concentrate if you will, on one particular play that Curry has perfected: the pump fake.
The pump fake entails the player shaping up their body as if to shoot, but not actually going through with the shot. Since the better defenders in the NBA are hardwired to anticipate the attacker’s moves, a well-executed pump fake will entice a movement from the defender that leaves them off balance and opens up space to shoot.
Curry, as you might have guessed, does the pump fake rather well.
The unenviable task of marking Curry
Imagine yourself in the Nikes of the elite NBA basketballer who has had the misfortune of being closest to Curry in this particular play. Maybe your coach has you marking Curry all game, in which case well, you have my complete sympathies. Or maybe you picked him up off a pick-and-roll. In either case, your best-case scenario is that you are close enough to keep a hand in his face and prevent an open three. But our hypothetical is not the best case scenario. Here Curry has the ball. And space. And is standing in the corner (where the distance to the basket is shorter).
Well, you can’t not close him down. Curry has a career three-point shooting percentage of 44%. And that is when he is making shots like these. You want to let him shoot an uncontested corner 3? Good luck explaining that to the coach.
So you run to close him down. You raise your hand high and make an almighty leap. In your heart, for a fleeting second there is hope. Maybe you’ll reach him just as he releases the ball and swat it into the crowd. You can anticipate the fans roaring their approval. The video editors will give this play replays even in the highlight reels. The people who decide the Defensive Player of the Year better take note. Your time has come. You reach him in time, there is no way he can take the shot.
And he doesn’t. He just pump fakes.
Your leap was too powerful. Your momentum carries you into the crowd. And as you land on your behind, Curry has all the time in the world to measure that shot. He doesn’t need it. The man’s complete shooting action takes less than half a second for Chrissake. He drains the basket, nothing but net. And you sit wondering where it all went so wrong.
The pump fake is a useful weapon during most plays, but Curry especially loves to bring it out when he actually has that sliver of time to take the shot. In those 50/50 situations, he could choose to shoot and maybe the defender doesn’t reach it in time. But if he sells the pump fake, the shot is practically a free throw.
Curry makes 90.4% of the free throws he takes.
More than the points, though, it is the sheer humiliation that is heaped on the defender that makes the pump fake so sacrilegiously delicious. Even as he lines up the shot, Curry spots the defender rushing to him from the corner of his eye. He gets ready to shoot but never raises the ball to his shoulders. He also never takes his eyes off the basket. Only after watching the defender fly in, and out of his eyesight does Curry reload and take the shot. The entire effect is almost as if Curry uses the Force to pick up the defender and send them flying. And who doesn’t love watching a highly paid athlete go tumbling to the floor.
The pump fake is only one of Curry’s many delightful talents. But in terms of egos shattered and fans elated, it comes pretty close to the top of the most-entertaining list.