Steph Curry, the diminutive NBA superstar and reigning two-time most valuable player, has another championship title in his reach after a miraculous come-from-behind victory by his Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder – which has inspired another “little engine that could,” Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sanders was in attendance Monday at Oakland’s Oracle Arena when Curry began raining down three-pointers and brought his team back from the brink of elimination. Just days earlier the Warriors (despite a historic 73-9 regular season) were getting routinely written off by many sportswriters, after falling behind three games to to one in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals. But they managed to do what only two other modern NBA teams have done in the playoffs, win three straight to get themselves out of the hole to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
“They turned it around,” Sanders told reporters. “I think that is what our campaign is going to do as well; a very good omen for our campaign.”
The Vermont lawmaker, and perpetual thorn in the side of the Democratic establishment, was almost certainly referring to the June 7 California primary, which had appeared to be a surefire victory for front-runner Hillary Clinton just a few weeks ago, but has now emerged, in Sanders’ words, as “the big enchilada” – a tightening race, where the results could dramatically shape the narrative of the nomination fight.
Clearly, Sanders and his supporters are looking to have a finish not unlike Curry and his Warriors, but that is not where the parallels end. The Warriors are an unconventional championship team. They lack a strong inside physical presence, doing most of their damage making improbable shots from the outside. Sanders, a 74-year-old socialist who just started identifying as a Democrat last year, has totally changed the way mainstream campaigns are run from a fundraising perspective, accepting no corporate donations and eschewing super PACs completely.
Curry enjoys one of the most squeaky clean images in the NBA; he is beloved by both fans and the press. Sanders, while occasionally dinged for a lack of substance and his age, has largely not had a glove laid on him this entire election season. He has not been the subject of much in the way of negative advertising, and if anything his Republican foes have egged him on, since his broadsides against Clinton could damage her as a general election candidate.
Both men somehow manage to own the mantle of underdog – even though, in Curry’s case, he is on the deepest team in the league talent-wise and is coming off a NBA Finals win last year; and, in Sanders’ case, he has by far raised (and spent) the most money this election cycle and in recent months has rattled off victory after victory in major primary states, including a few where early polls initially had him trailing in double digits.
This leads to another similarity between Curry, the Warriors and the Sanders campaign. They finish strong. The data has shown late-deciding Democratic voters overwhelming break toward Sanders. And anyone who has been following the NBA playoffs this year can attest to the fact that the Warriors have won many games they had no business winning. The Oklahoma City Thunder had a solid fourth quarter lead not once but twice against the Warriors in the conference finals, with ample opportunities to put them away, but Curry and the Warriors, not unlike Sanders, never let up.
Of course, the big difference between Curry and Sanders is that there are no super-delegates in the NBA to put the Warriors star over the finish line – Curry has to win outright. At this point the senator from Vermont has been pretty much statistically eliminated from winning via pledged delegates, and must place his hopes on a California victory to persuade party elites what he has long argued – that he is the best candidate to take on Donald Trump in the fall.
In this scenario, Clinton would be LeBron James. Think about it. Both are cast as villains, perhaps unfairly, and almost because of their dominance. They are both perceived as having victory all but sewn up – even though their track record in that regard is not the best. Sure, James is appearing in his sixth straight NBA finals (something only eight other players have ever done), but he’s lost four of them – including his last two – and he lost another prior to that in 2007. Although Clinton was the front-runner heading into the 2008 Democratic campaign, she still lost to Barack Obama. And this year, despite most of the party’s establishment deeming this year her time, she has still struggled to make the sale with some Democrats.
James’ fans and the city of Cleveland are desperate for some kind of championship victory. The city’s sports teams have gone win-less in big games for 50 years – and the loyal fans feel it’s due. Of course, there has never been a female presidential nominee, let alone president, which many feel needs to be rectified.
When James and the Cavaliers faced the Warriors last year, their team was severely hobbled – injuries left them tired and depleted, and they only won two games against the eventual champs. In 2008, Clinton was competing against an Obama juggernaut, whose campaign combined grassroots enthusiasm with a tech-savvy, micro-targeting approach which was brand new to politics at the time. This year, Clinton’s campaign is better organized and has been able to beat back challenges from Sanders with ruthless efficiency. Can she deliver a knockout blow in California?
No matter what occurs, it promises to be a hell of a match-up.