Stephen Curry’s Beautiful Basketball and the Catholic Sacramental Imagination

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In his unforgettable essay “Federer as Religious Experience,” which appeared in the New York Times’ tragically short-lived Play Magazine in 2006, David Foster Wallace reflects on watching the all-time great Roger Federer play tennis. “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments,” he writes. “These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

In my family’s house, this year has brought a handful of extremely similar experiences, but they’ve come during televised basketball games, not tennis matches. You could call them Stephen Curry Moments.

Here’s one: tied at 118 with the Oklahoma City Thunder with about 5 seconds to go in overtime, Curry picks up the ball in the backcourt, calmly dribbles over the halfcourt line, pulls up about 35 feet from the basket, and launches:

(I have trained myself to not yell after moments like this, as they often come after my infant daughter has gone to bed for the night. I do pace wildly around the room, though.)

For all human beings on Earth except Curry, 35 feet is a crazy distance to shoot from. For all human beings on Earth except Curry, a shot like this would be pure desperation. The crazy thing watching this live was that, for the 1.7 seconds the ball arced through the air, I was sure it was going in. (Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter, on the bench at the time, agreed, throwing up a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ before the ball found the net.)

I was sure it was going in because Curry is the greatest outside shooter of all time, and it’s not particularly close. That alone would make him worth watching. But he also has perfected inside shots, gracefully flipping the ball high over taller defenders and watching it nestle gently into the basket, time after time. He is also a brilliant passer and ball-handler and will even snag you a steal or two on defense.

Oh, and he is the reigning league MVP and NBA champion, and he guided the Warriors to a league-record 73 wins this regular season, capping off the historic run with 10 three-pointers and 46 points against Memphis in Wednesday night’s finale. He’s a lock to repeat as MVP this year, and some media folks who cover the NBA have been arguing that he should also win the league’s most improved player award as well, since he went from really great last year to can’t-believe-what-I’m-watching great this year.

Watching Curry this year reminds me of another passage from David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war,” he writes. “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty.”

This is one of the biggest reasons why I love the NBA. It is full of raw, improvisational, gravity-defying, gobsmacking, kinetic beauty. No other sport provides such consistent opportunities for dazzling displays of athleticism. And while Curry’s individual achievements this season are beyond description, the Warriors wouldn’t have become the best team in history without their balletic passing and cutting and their stifling defensive rotations and their deep collection of secondary players each doing exactly what was required of them. The most beautiful basketball is always team basketball, a collection of individuals working together as one seamless unit.

Beauty is a key ingredient to what’s called the Catholic “sacramental imagination” – a way of seeing that finds God in all of creation. The Church’s seven Big-S Sacraments all require tangible stuff and our physical senses: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands. God comes to us through these signs.

This way of God reaching out to us doesn’t stop when we walk out of the church doors, though. Formed by the Big-S Sacraments, we can find small-s sacraments all around us, most easily in those places, people, and moments that we find beautiful. My favorites include my daughter’s wide-mouthed smile; certain instants when my wife and I make knowing eye contact when something is hilarious but the decorum of the time and place prohibits laughter; the sudden explosion of flowering trees that marks the beginning of spring here in the Mid-Atlantic; music by the band Wilco; a few slices with peppers and onions at DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies of Robbinsville, NJ; and, yes, the exquisite basketball choreography of the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.

When I find myself zoning out at Mass or otherwise spiritually lethargic, I do a quick mental check-in on small-s sacraments: Have you gone on a good long walk recently? Have you listened to any good music? Have you spent enough quality time with your wife and daughter with your cell phone turned off? Making time and space for beauty in my life helps me connect more deeply with the Eucharist. It’s not such a leap of faith to believe that God comes to us in the form of bread and wine at Mass when I’ve been finding God in other everyday objects and moments.

So if you tune in to watch the Warriors during the playoffs, which begin this weekend, don’t get mad at yourself for being lazy. It’s not vegging out! Instead, consider it a mini-retreat on the theme of kinetic beauty and the sacramental imagination.

(Yes, I think that’s exactly what I’ll say to my wife on Saturday afternoon at 3:30. It’s worth a shot.)