In the first two-thirds of his classic defense of liberalism, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls operates with what he admits is a “thin” and “formal” account of the good. Each person pursues his own good, which is “determined by the rational plan of life that he would choose with deliberative rationality from the maximal class of plans,” but behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance, no one knows what his particular good is. Blind to their own future social station, desires, and convictions, the founders design a just society that will protect everyone’s right to define his own concept of good.
Rawls knows his theory requires a thicker, substantive good, and eventually he enumerates “broad features of human desires and needs” and explains how life-plans “fit the requirements of human capacities and abilities.” We want food, drink, and sexual gratification, but we also want more. We’re motivated by what Rawls calls the “Aristotelian Principle”: “other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity.” We want to be fully ourselves, and we find intense pleasure in doing things we’ve become good at. Complex activities produce more pleasure because they “satisfy the desire for variety and novelty of experience, and leave room for feats of ingenuity and invention.” There’s satisfaction in suturing a cut; there’s deeper satisfaction in successfully completing a challenging ten-hour surgery. There’s satisfaction in finishing a 700-word column on time, but it’s nothing compared to the trembling joy of delivering an overdue manuscript to a waiting publisher.
As I read Rawls, my thoughts naturally turned to Stephen Curry, who plays guard for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Curry is the best shooter basketball has ever seen, with incredible range and an uncanny knack for squeezing the ball through a millimeter of space in a millisecond of time. He’s changed the face of basketball at every level; Steph-ball opens the floor, diminishes the importance of post play, moves the game to the perimeter. He’s the inventor of the “step-back three,” the man who taught a million Steph-wannabes to toss up thirty-foot shots on fast breaks, the man who revealed you can casually launch from the hashmark or half-court logo anytime, not just in the desperate closing seconds. Even today’s basketball giants have to be able to shoot from the arc. Everybody’s gotta “Be Like Steph.”
Curry is far more than a shooter. Though he’s sometimes sloppy, he’s one of the most inventive ball-handlers in basketball, and his success depends in large part on his Energizer Bunnyness. The man never stops moving, weaving in and out of other players, slipping behind a scrum and then popping up, wide open, on the far side of the court. In a recent playoff game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Curry did a square dance swing with Jordan Poole to launch him into an open space. Everyone knows Curry’s the best shooter on any court, but somehow he keeps finding ways to wriggle free.
In many team sports, individual athletes are absorbed into the team. Baseball players are shaded by their caps. Football players are faceless under their layers of armor. Soccer players are bare-headed, but they’re awfully far away. The faces and souls of basketball players are open to spectators who are close enough to smell their sweat. We see their scowls and grimaces, their disgust and anger, their dismay at the refs and their contempt for opposing players. Many professional basketball players forget they’re playing a game. Kevin Durant and James Harden never seem to be having fun. Touchy LeBron James is too burdened with establishing his GOAT credentials to let loose. Larry Bird enjoyed the game, but his joy was of a mean-spirited, bullying sort—fun at the expense of other players, especially Lakers.
No one bares his soul on the court like Steph Curry, and what we see most often is exuberant, childlike joy. When he makes a tough shot, he laughs, beats his chest and points heavenward, howls toward the roof, gestures to the crowd, counts off 1-2-3 with his fingers, shimmies and dances, and now and then re-enacts Michael Jordan’s famous shrug. From another player, it would be gloating. But from Curry there’s no malice, no taunting, no improper pride. His laughs and gestures and shimmies spring from delighted surprise at his own excellence. He’s the Aristotelian Principle incarnate.
On the court as in life, joy is infectious. The Warriors are entertaining to watch because they so thoroughly entertain themselves. Steph from deep—Splash! Klay Thompson hits a three—Splash! Splash! Now the “Splash Brothers” have a younger sibling, Jordan Poole, who has come to life in the 2022 playoffs. Splash! Splash! Splash! Steph grins and dances, then splashes some more. You don’t have to be a Warriors fan to feel the joy. Watch some highlights from the pre-championship years, when the Splash Brothers were first unveiled. Opposing crowds gasped, then cheered, every time Curry or Thompson did some new impossible thing with the basketball. To watch Steph’s Warriors is to enter into joy, because watching the Warriors makes us witnesses to one of the deepest wellsprings of happiness.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Photo by Keith Allison via Creative Commons. Image cropped.