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Long before they became the first pair of subsequent MVPs to play on the same team, Julius Erving and Moses Malone were two guys having an awkward introduction at Nassau Coliseum. Coming off his first ABA title in 1974, Erving was asked to welcome Malone in the young center’s debut in the NBA’s rival league despite having never before seen the kid play. Erving grabbed a microphone, stood next to the tall, skinny, 19-year-old kid fresh out high school and tried to offer some encouragement.
“[I] said, ‘Mo, it’s time to start swimming in some deeper water with some bigger fish,’ ” Erving told Yahoo Sports with a laugh as he recalled the story. “I said something corny like that, and from that moment on, we were boys.”
By the time they joined forces in Philadelphia eight years later, they were both established stars seeking NBA glory and needing each other to get there. Malone was so dominant that he became the first — and last — player to win MVP despite playing on a team with a losing record. Erving, a season removed from his final MVP award, had reached the NBA Finals in three of the previous six seasons but began to wonder if he’d ever win it all after again coming up short against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The pairing of Malone and Erving was daring and dynamic, as the 76ers interrupted the decade-long dominance of Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, practically going unchallenged while winning the 1983 championship with a 12-1 playoff run that fell just short of Malone’s “fo-fo-fo” prediction.
“They went ‘fo-fi-fo.’ We went, ‘fo-fo-fo-fi,’ ” Kevin Durant told Yahoo Sports, flipping Malone’s iconic quote about the 76ers’ postseason dominance to reflect what happened more than three decades later when the Golden State Warriors became the second franchise in NBA history to employ the previous two individuals to win the game’s top individual award.
‘Awards don’t mean anything’
The pairing of Durant and Stephen Curry has also been daring and dynamic but was much less universally accepted, considering how it altered the balance of power in favor of a Warriors team that had already proven to be special.
When he joined the 32-year-old Erving after a trade from Houston, the 28-year-old Malone was viewed as the necessary addition to a super-team precursor to halt two other dynasties in the making. That’s why when the 76ers crushed the competition that season, Malone repeated as MVP. “I had taken that Philadelphia team as far as possible,” Erving told Yahoo Sports. “Coming in second place, it had got old, believe me. We got Big Mo. We felt we could win every night, no matter who we played. We had a special team that you just couldn’t beat.”
Durant was viewed by detractors as the Warriors’ greedy expression of opulence who could elevate the franchise to something dynastic. The upside for Durant and Curry is that they will enter every season together for the near future in contention for a championship. The downside — which neither appears to be sweating — is that they will also cancel out each other when it comes to consideration for the league’s MVP award. “If that’s how it plays out, I think that’s an unfortunate circumstance,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “I think we’ll be plenty fine, winning games, winning championships. Really trying to figure out who is responsible for what, we don’t have time for that conversation. If that’s why we were playing, if we were chasing MVP trophies and not the ultimate goal, that’s where it might be a little contentious and create some unnecessary drama. But that’s not what we’re about.”
Despite finishing with the league’s best record for the third consecutive season, Curry followed a unanimous MVP vote by finishing sixth, while Durant came in ninth, his worst finish to a season in which he played at least half the games since 2009. This season, the Warriors remain title favorites even though their regular season has been relatively uneven. And one, or both, could again find himself outside of the top five in the MVP vote.
“Awards don’t mean anything, for one. You can still be an MVP-caliber player and not win MVP, in my opinion,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I know how good I am. Everybody in this league knows how good I am. All the fans know. No matter how much they try to deny it, or hate, or tell you anything different. They know when I step on the court, they fear me, as fans of the game. I’m not saying my opponents fear me, but when I get a wide-open shot, I hear the crowd. Before I shoot it, I hear. They all respect it. But obviously, the move that I made, people that — they enjoy competition, whatever they call that, or suspense in the basketball game — they didn’t like it. So anything to take a shot at me here and there, I knew it was coming. The MVP I got, I experienced that already. That’s what I’m about, I want to experience things. I experienced what that’s like. Let’s move on. What’s next for me?”
‘It’s always about respect’
Curry and Durant were always friendly but weren’t necessarily friends before becoming teammates. They had grown familiar with each other during the 2010 world championships in Turkey, but at no point had they concocted a plan to join forces down the road. Curry only became involved in Durant’s recruitment when it appeared the Warriors had a chance to lure him away from Oklahoma City. He left his basketball camp early to meet with Durant in the Hamptons in New York and assured him that he wasn’t concerned about who gets the praise or whose shoe sells more.
“I think we have a healthy perspective of what we do for a living, the opportunity for us to be historic players in this league, but it doesn’t have to be our way the whole time,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “We don’t have to control the narrative as much. We just play basketball, hoop and enjoy what we do. And there is a joy around that when we play.”
As Erving had done before him, Curry moved aside for Durant with the understanding that his presence could relieve him of the pressure that produced that postseason flameout following a record 73-win regular season. Durant wasn’t chasing a ring — or rings — but rather a desire to be a part of a brotherhood, a system and a culture built largely around Curry’s off-court humility and on-court hysterics. “It’s always about respect. We don’t do the same things. I don’t golf. I don’t have a wife and kids. I don’t have a family,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “If we had everything in common and I don’t respect him as a man, then we really don’t like each other. I just respected him as a man and enjoyed everything that he was about and that made our relationship better.”
That respect made it possible for the Warriors to withstand some early growing pains for the experiment, many of which were felt by Curry. After a two-year run in which he ascended to face-of-the-league status, on par with LeBron James and drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan for being a transformative figure, Curry had to make the most difficult adjustment as the Warriors worked to make the new guy comfortable.
While Durant struggled early on with the negative backlash to his move and some of the intricacies of the offense — such as knowing when to set screens for Klay Thompson — Curry was having a hard time trying to find himself. Durant had replaced Harrison Barnes at small forward but demanded more touches and attention than his predecessor, which meant someone or a few someones would have to take a step back to accommodate the change. Curry kept any complaints to himself, but the frustration came to a head following their first Christmas Day game together. Kerr had to acknowledge that Curry wasn’t being utilized properly or as prominently as he should have been.
“You can’t just roll the ball out and be like, ‘Go play. Y’all are talented. Y’all will figure it out,’ ” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “For three years, we had been grinding with a certain roster, and a way of playing, and that all changed and you’ve got to adjust and K especially brings a different level of play but we had to figure out how to balance it all. We had some ups and downs. We won some games, but it wasn’t as smooth as we wanted it to be. And I think we were overthinking it too much, early on. Hit a little stumbling block, talked our way through it, figured our way out of it and we’re better for it.”
Curry began to recreate the fun that fueled his unexpected rise to uber-stardom after Durant went down with a knee sprain last season. He engineered the Warriors toward a strong finish until Durant hopped on a moving freight train of destruction to own the NBA Finals with a career-defining performance — and unforgettable Game 3 shot — against James.
“Last year, they showed what it’s all about,” Erving told Yahoo Sports about Durant and Curry. “Durant, he played better than he’s ever played. Curry was Curry. And even though he deferred to Kevin, the fact that they were together with Klay and with Draymond Green, that’s a dynamic on a team because each guy understands his role so well. … This is three seasons in a row that they’ve gone to the championship round. Can they do it four, five or six or whatever? LeBron has done it seven times in a row, going to the Finals. It’s the state of the game. It’s the Warriors’ to lose. Even though they’re not first in their conference right now, they are the odds-on favorite because of what they’ve shown they can do at playoff time. But they still have to do it.”
‘We understand that the game of basketball is bigger than just one person’
Erving and Malone never made another NBA Finals, together or otherwise, after their first season together. Over the next three seasons, the 76ers were upset in the first round, lost to Boston in the conference finals and lost Malone to an orbital fracture as they went down in the conference semifinals against Milwaukee. The partnership was worthwhile if only because it freed both players from a burden that could’ve haunted them long after they retired. “It’s deeper than just that one season,” Erving told Yahoo Sports of his time with Malone, who died in 2015. “It’s just the validation of the career. Are we going to be like the handful of iconic players whose names I won’t even mention who didn’t win the title? People tend to slide it in that they didn’t win the title, like it’s the end of the world. And it’s really not the end of the world because I don’t look at life in terms of winning and losing. I look at life in terms of succeeding and not succeeding. And even in a non-success situation, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to be gained. I think you only lose when you quit.”
Unlike Malone and Erving, both Curry and Durant are both in their respective primes — Curry turns 30 next week, Durant does the same in September. They could and perhaps should win another ring or two before the rest of the league can catch up to a Warriors team with two MVPs and two more perennial All-Stars. They have avoided discord, with the only somewhat controversial exchange since winning the title coming during Durant’s championship media blitz, when he stated that “nobody wants to play in Under Armour.” Durant, a Nike endorser, downplayed the effect of that situation on his relationship with Curry.
“I think more so than anything, everybody else made it a big deal. We joke about Under Armour and Nike all the time,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “Everybody else is just looking for something to beef about. So it’s, ‘Oh, did you see what Kevin said about Under Armour? That’s Steph’s company. They don’t like each other.’ I had to explain to him what I saying and he understood. He didn’t take it too personal. It’s all love. And like I said, I respect everything Steph does. I want him to have everything. I want him to get everything he deserves. I want him to have it all in this world.”
Durant had no problem stepping aside last summer to allow Curry to be the face of the franchise and finally assume the position as the team’s highest-paid player. He later admitted that he wasn’t suited for the typical leadership role, deferring to Curry once again. “It’s personalities that mesh. It’s a willingness to sacrifice a bit and still keep what makes K who he is and what makes me who I am,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “I think we understand that the game of basketball is bigger than just one person and winning is fun, but it’s great when you get to play with guys that actually care about the game in a genuine way and put the time in.”
The Warriors are unlikely to duplicate their impressive run toward a title in the first year of Curry and Durant, with the Western Conference getting stronger as teams — such as Houston — attempted to create a Golden State antidote this season. But their two most accomplished players continue to benefit from each other’s presence and manage to still thrive while the other is out. This wasn’t totally unexpected. Durant was open to change. Curry welcomed him. And they’ve been determined, through all of the adjustments and sacrifices, to make it work.
“It wasn’t like I just got to know Steph when I came here. I knew what his DNA was already, so that was a plus. I wasn’t surprised with his spirit, his energy. The way he played,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I studied him. I study all these players I played against. I kind of knew Steph because he’s one of the best in the league, so I just wanted to see how hard he works on a day-to-day basis. And once I saw that early on, I was like, ‘He’s my type of guy.’ Somebody that I enjoy being around. Somebody that I enjoy learning from and working with. I feel like we’re teaching each other a bunch of stuff about the game. Iron only sharpens iron, so I want to be around the best when it comes to getting better as a player.”
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