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Justin Landon on "Hamilton and Steph"

Hamilton by Jess Taylor

Hamilton has transcended musical theater, illuminating issues of inequality and success in new ways. Stephen Curry has transcended athletics, redefining what it means to be the best. This duo came to a head in February. Hamilton made its television debut during the Grammys, and Stephen Curry dazzled in Toronto at the National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Game. In these moments, we had front row seats (metaphorically, I mean who can afford those?) not just to history, but to an apotheosis—an apotheosis of genius, challenged by the bright lights of cynicism, triumphing. Greatness, in the form of Hamilton and Curry, is looking into the face of a hyper-connected, hyper-critical society and surviving.

How lucky we are to be alive right now.

I should begin by declaring that I am a pseudo-intellectual. My wife often gets mad at me when, after leaving a perfectly capable film, I immediately pick apart the fifteen things it did wrong. As a book reviewer, and now editor, I have trained the part of my brain that finds faults in things and tries to see how they could be better. Mind you, I'm no great shakes at this particular skill, but it's there nevertheless. I am also this ways with sports. I was raised in Southern California and baptized in Lakers blue and gold. This doesn't stop me from pointing out all the things the Lakers do wrong. I despise their defense coverage schemes. I despise their offensive sets. In other words, I treat basketball the same way I treat fiction--academically. This means that very rarely do I find myself swept away by something, willing to forgive its faults or unable to see them at all.

To suggest I'm unique in this, I believe, would be the height of silliness. Today's default communication is about the things we hate. Social media and the internet in general have broken down many social contracts to the point where there's no guilt for skewering something for its horribleness. Commentators will look a creator in the eye and say, your intellectual property blows bro. The default response being positive is as divorced from the norm as Donald Trump is from reality.

So we come to Hamilton the musical and Stephen Curry the basketball star. Two icons who refused to live in the box society assigned them.

Stephen Curry and the eponymous Alexander Hamilton could not be more different. Curry, born to once NBA starter Dell Curry, was a child of wealth. He spent his childhood in NBA arenas, shooting with his father’s teammates before games. He is tremendously good looking. He could be a professional golfer. In other words, if Stephen Curry had not become the best player in the NBA, his life would not have devolved into an after-school special.

By contrast, of course, Alexander Hamilton’s journey is quite different. In him, we have the quintessential expression of the foundational myth of the United States. Through hard work and talent even the most disadvantageous of beginnings can be overcome. To quote Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and composer of Hamilton:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Over the course of the show we come to realize it’s quite obvious—because he never stops. He never accepts mediocrity. He just keeps grinding. It’s in this that we begin to see a merging of the two—Curry and Hamilton.

Stephen Curry, despite the ease of his childhood, was not bestowed the obvious gifts necessary to become a professional athlete, much less the best shooter in the history of the game of basketball. He’s of middling height, thin as a rail, lacking any particular athletic prowess relative to the men against whom he plays. He was not heavily recruited out of high school and ended up playing at Davidson, a North Carolina school of no great athletic repute. No one thought he would play in the NBA. He was drafted seventh overall, but doubt remained whether he would be a starter or merely a useful piece.

Five years later, he has won two consecutive Most Valuable Player Awards and an NBA Championship. He is now considered the greatest shooter to ever play and is arguably the best player in the world. Even more significant, he has become a front-runner that people don’t hate. In fact, they love him. He has become the basketball fan’s patronus—the thing which saves us from encroaching darkness. Where his contemporaries like Kobe Bryant (accused rapist), LeBron James (traitor), James Harden (lazy), Russell Westbrook (selfish), and Kevin Durant (too perfect?) are all maligned for something. Or, at the very least, fail to inspire those outside their direct spheres to an act of love. Curry is someone everyone outside of San Francisco should hate. And yet… we don’t.

How does a pampered, petite, son of a teacher and a
Superstar, dropped in the middle of a
Wealthy spot in the Carolinas by privilege
Empowered, in comfort
Grow up to be a hero and a baller?

Why is it Curry and not LeBron James, a media empire all his own, who engenders such affection by fans the world over? For the same reason Hamilton inspires unbridled love. Curry, unwilling to accept his station as a NBA rotation player, forced the league to conform to him. He reinvented the game, fundamentally altering the geometry of a basketball game. Rather than accepting the limitations the game placed on him, he changed the rules. He thumbed his nose at the idea that three point shots from five feet behind the line were inappropriate. He denied the idea that he couldn't shoot three pointers off the dribble. He challenged the notion that behind the back passes were absurdly flashy. In other words, Stephen Curry wasn’t throwing away his shot.

Just like my country
I’m young scrappy and hungry

Hamilton is the story of one of the United States of America’s founding fathers, mind you one that many Americans have only passing familiarity with, cast entirely with people of color and performed as hip-hop. It has shout outs in it to Black Lives Matter and call backs to the legends of rap music. It's raw and subversive and does not give a shit whether or not you're uncomfortable. Embraced by fans of musical theater, hip-hop, white America, black America, and people the world over, Hamilton works because it reflects that same audacity to force the change it wants to see.

In both we are witnessing the American story we tell about ourselves—that we can be exceptional no matter what. Of course it's ridiculous to call this an exclusively American aspiration. People across the world want these things for themselves, they want to see their hard work and talent recognized for what they are, what they can be, and so Hamilton and Curry have reached a worldwide audience hungry to see themselves in the narrative.

Whether it is a true narrative or not doesn’t matter. Because of course it isn't true. The fact that Hamilton is cast entirely with people of color underscores that in the same way that Curry's privileged upbringing does the same. But, through narrative, Hamilton and Stephen Curry have touched people. They have transcended the cynical default of modern society and brought joy and hope to millions of people. It is not merely that they are objectively overwhelming in their greatness. They are rare in that regard, but hardly unique. Curry and Hamilton are unique because they are simultaneously an everyperson. Aaron Burr and LeBron James had talent in spades, but neither had it in them to go to New York to be a new man. Yes, they were great, but they didn't change the world. They just excelled in it. Here in lies the difference. Here in lies the mystery that surrounds the universal appeal of two things that by every right should be hated if for no other reason than they are popular.

They succeed because in them we see ourselves. Something I cannot imagine ever saying about LeBron James or Cats.

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Justin Landon is a former blogger who now edits books and records podcasts. He does most of his work for Tor.com Publishing. He's been nominated for a few awards and even won one. Feel free to send him your manuscript. He'll tell you if it's any good.

Art by Jessica Taylor

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