How The 3-Point Challenge Reveals All-Star Weekend’s Real Issue

It was a celebration of basketball. Not men’s, not women’s … just basketball.
Photography by Bob Kravitz

My late mother, who was an ardent women’s libber and card-carrying member of the National Organization for Women back in her day, would have loved the Stephen versus Sabrina 3-point challenge Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Understand: My mother didn’t particularly care for sports—OK, she didn’t care at all—but she would have been focused on the TV Saturday night for this modern-day Battle of the Sexes. I still remember 1973, when female tennis star Billie Jean King took on an old hustler named Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome, and my mom was in her glory as King whipped up on Riggs.

She also would have been immensely proud that WNBA’s star Sabrina Ionescu, who plays for the New York Liberty, gave Golden State’s Steph Curry a run for his money, falling short by a more-than-respectable 29-26 score.

This was the unquestioned highlight of All-Star Saturday night, far superior to the (ho-hum) Skills Competition, the 3-Point Contest, and the Slam Dunk Contest, which were won by Team Pacers, Damian Lillard, and the G League’s Mac McClung, respectively. This is why we showed up and paid attention to the first-of-its-kind (and not the last) matchup between Curry, the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history, and Ionescu, who broke the all-time 3-point record (men’s and women’s) by scoring 37 points, including 25 of her last 26 shots, in the WNBA All-Star 3-point Contest last summer.

Ionescu, who used the smaller WNBA ball but agreed to shoot from the NBA distance of 23-feet, 9-inches (instead of the shorter WNBA distance of 22 feet, 1.75 inches), knocked down her first seven shots and put the pressure on Curry. Her 26 points equaled the number produced by the top shooters in the men’s competition, with four NBA players (including Tyrese Haliburton) moving to the second round with the same total. The eventual male winner, Lillard, scored 26 in the final round to win his side of the competition.

Photography by Bob Kravitz

But Curry being Curry, he rose to the challenge, got hot midway through his round and finished with 29 points, earning a gaudy, boxing championship–like belt festooned with the silhouettes of two goats.

It was all in good fun, an event that began organically when Curry and Ionescu, two friends, came up with the idea of a 3-point challenge. This wasn’t exactly King versus Riggs, which occurred during a time when the women’s liberation movement was finding its footing.

Riggs wanted to embarrass King and show the world that women’s tennis was not worthy of our attention. The sexism was overt. Riggs insisted that women were the inferior gender and belonged in the kitchen, whipping up casseroles for their husbands.

But we live in different times now, and the challenge between Curry and Ionescu was a sign of mutual respect between two hoopers, two friends who both happen to be elite 3-point shooters.

They wanted to be inclusive, to show that, as Curry said Saturday morning, “basketball has no gender.” It was a competition, sure, but it was a celebration, too. Of the game—not the men’s game, not the women’s game—just the game.

“Just knowing Steph wanted to do this, as well, in terms of just respecting another shooter, I think it’s going to show a lot of young kids out there, a lot of people who may not have believed or even watched women’s sports, that we’re able to go out there and put on a show,” Ionescu said. “It was really exciting to finally be able to do this.”

That’s not to say they weren’t trying to beat each other, though.

“I was shooting on the practice court a little while ago, and Steph was booing me,” Ionescu said, laughing, a few hours before the competition.

When Ionescu hit her first seven shots, the fans at Lucas Oil were buzzing.

“I saw the first rack,” Curry said of Ionescu’s hot start. “I was having flashbacks of watching this summer [at the WNBA All-Star Game]. She set a really great number. It added a lot of pressure, for sure. I just wanted to get off to a good start and settle in. Thankfully, I made enough to get over the top, but that was perfect. It made for great entertainment, great shooting on both sides.”

It happened organically, the two friends needling one another about settling the score.

“Credit to them,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “I wish it was the league that came up with this idea.”

This doesn’t mean the sporting world’s tectonic plates have somehow shifted, that the WNBA will suddenly stand toe-to-toe with the NBA, but it showed that in certain competitions, women can hang—and even beat—the men. This is not a small thing.

To read the full piece, check out Musings of An Old Sportswriter, Bob Kravitz’s Substack blog.