He doesn't pass the eye test. He never has. I know this about him going in—the coaches and scouts who dismissed him because he didn't play right, didn't act right, didn't look right. One early scouting report reads like a series of taunts from the Bully of the Beach in the old Charles Atlas comic strips: “Far below NBA standard in regard to explosiveness and athleticism…extremely small…needs to add some muscles to his upper body, but appears as though he'll always be skinny…not a natural point guard that an NBA team can rely on to run a team.” I know how wrong his doubters proved to be. I know the truth: that he's the first unanimous MVP in NBA history, that he's the best shooter ever to lay hands on a ball, that he's changed the fundamental geometry of the game itself. There is a generation of kids, from the college level on down, who are imitating Steph's moves, throwing up Curry-style half-court shots while chomping, Curry-style, on their half-expectorated mouth guards. And yet when I meet the man this spring, at the Golden State Warriors practice facility, my eyes tell me what they tell me and I think, like so many before me, and quite stupidly: Uh, I thought Stephen Curry would be bigger.
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As I lurk behind the goalpost, dazzled and half hypnotized by the shhhick!…shhhick!…shhhick! (a sound sibilant and crisp and, somehow, grinning) as he sinks 35 three-point shots in a row, the nay-saying thoughts about Curry and the Goliaths he's going to meet in the playoffs assert themselves. His vertical leap is a whole foot shorter than Russell Westbrook's.… LeBron James outweighs him by 60 pounds.…
Even Curry is not immune to such doubts. “Would I have told you my rookie year, ‘I'm gonna be MVP someday’? No way,” he says. “I didn't know what the ceiling was.”
Does he now? Do we? Curry knows he has unfinished business to attend to this season before any question about his ceiling can be addressed, just as he knows the world is watching and wondering. Yet in practice he radiates nothing but balletic ease. (His record for consecutive threes is 77; he considers any day in which he sinks fewer than 80 out of 100 to be an off day, an ugly day.) The display is impressive, of course, but it's also quite beautiful.
Curry himself, even before he gets a basketball in his hands and starts to move, is a beautiful human being. And “beautiful,” not “handsome,” is the correct word here. Teammates and opponents both used to describe Michael Jordan as a hard man, and he looked and acted the part: cut from stone, built for combat. Curry, on the other hand, is a Warrior who looks nothing like a warrior. He's 29 but still baby-faced, with soft sunny features and bright green-gray eyes. There's an optimistic cast to his face—he looks like he's smiling even when he's not. Or, as Warriors head coach Steve Kerr says, “Steph looks like he's 12 years old.”
But it's the sight of Curry in motion that hypnotizes. The 100-shot progression resembles an étude rather than a drill. One assistant coach, Nick U'Ren, places himself under the hoop, secures each ball after it shhhicks the net, and distributes it to another assistant coach, Bruce Fraser—known as the Curry Whisperer—who fires passes to his shooter from different positions, constantly varying angle, speed, and arc. Curry remains in perpetual motion, releasing every three seconds or so, slowly tracing the half orbit of the three-point arc from one corner to the other. The exactitude of his footwork—the way the tips of his Under Armour sneakers depart and land exactly an inch from the arc with every shot—creates the impression that he's negotiating a tightrope, not a painted line.
He doesn't achieve much air on his jump shot. The question that raises (Why aren't half this guy's shots blocked?) gets answered with every ball Fraser feeds him: The hands! The speed with which Curry can receive a pass and transition it into a shot is simply astonishing—to the naked eye he often seems to be volleying, rather than catching, the ball.
“I've always suspected he has extra nerves in his fingertips,” says U'Ren. “His ability to manipulate and adjust the ball in a fraction of a second, to transition the angle or arc of his shot in response to what a defender is doing, is unlike anything I've ever seen.”
“Steph has an almost superhuman ability to micro-self-correct on his own,” Fraser adds. “But then if one of us says, ‘Try this,’ he's able to process the change faster than anyone I've ever seen. He's the most educable player I've ever known—both in terms of his willingness to listen and in his ability to absorb and execute.”
That soft touch, that combination of finesse and pliancy of temperament—it's Curry's singular gift, but it's also the source of all the talk over the years that he's, well, soft. It's instructive (and unavoidable) to compare Curry in this regard to his nemesis. LeBron James, the league's other generational talent, is an unstoppable blunt-force trauma of a player, but he has none of Curry's silkiness and grace. There's something dancerly about Curry's athleticism. He's one of the few players in the history of the game capable of producing the illusion that he can change the direction of his body after leaving the ground.
“The one downside to Stephen Curry, if you insist on looking for one,” Fraser says, “is that he sometimes loses focus.” It's true: Throughout the drill, Curry's eyes are everywhere. Draymond Green is 40 feet away, telling a reporter that despite the double technical he landed the week before, “I am not a bad boy, I'm just Draymond!”—and Curry chimes in, “S'right, Dray! Tell 'em!” Kevin Durant is down the floor practicing pirouettes, ball in hand, to improve his balance and core strength—and Curry finds the time to chirp, “Dance, KD, dance!” The three-point arc no longer evokes a tightrope so much as a satellite dish with which Curry insists on receiving every stray transmission in his environment.
Fraser says there are two reasons for Curry's distractibility: “One, because everything is so easy for him. And two, because he's got this childlike quality, which can cause him to lose focus more than some of the others. The thing is, even though this ‘kid’ in him sometimes hurts him, it's also his best quality, because it makes him joyful. And when Stephen Curry is joyful, he is an assassin.”
It's a revealing observation, given that the Warriors ended last year's season with what was arguably the greatest loss of focus in NBA history—becoming the first team to blow a championship series after leading three games to one. “I gave it a lot of thought, and it was like a recurring nightmare for a while,” Curry tells me. “But then, you know, you live your life and do your thing.”
As the Warriors head toward a seemingly inevitable third championship series against the Cavs, the question is whether Curry doing his thing is going to cut it. Can finesse and joy, no matter how fine, no matter how joyful, ever again be enough to take down the big bully in the east?
On paper, Stephen Curry's last two seasons have been what statisticians term “just straight-up stupid.” In 2015, he won his first ring and MVP honors after setting an NBA single-season record of 286 three-point shots. He then doubled down in the off-season (those Cirque du Soleil drills where he dribbles a basketball with one hand while juggling a tennis ball with the other!) and returned staggeringly better in 2016, repeating as MVP while contending for the league's most-improved honor. To stick some metrics on it: Curry bettered his points-per-game average by 6.3 while going Bob Beamon on his own three-point record, raising the tally from 286 to 402. Four hundred and two.
Yet the numbers, garish as they are, can't speak to the full Curry effect. Truly great basketball players, the kind that come around only two or three times a decade, have the ability to decide, usually in the fourth quarter, when their team is down and it's now or never, to flip a switch. Magic, Bird, and Jordan could do it. LeBron can do it. Curry can, too—but, as is so often the case with him, in a new and different way. With LeBron, the thought balloon above his head invariably says one thing: It's up to me. I'm taking over. The level of ego is as colossal as it is justified.
When Stephen Curry takes over, the moment presents differently. Sometimes, he puts himself in the captain's seat, as in Game 4 of last year's Western Conference Semifinals against the Trail Blazers, when he scored 17 points in the five-minute overtime period—another NBA record. (After the game, Charles Barkley, a frequent Curry critic, described what he'd just seen perfectly: “That. What I. That. That was a. That. That was on.”) Other times, Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant or Draymond Green is for all appearances the one taking charge—although it's unmistakably, if indescribably, clear that Curry is the one engineering the takeover. It's as if there's a hive mind at work, with Curry the first among equals. At times, the Warriors' choreography becomes so much faster than the speed of thought, so intricately loomed, that the score almost—almost—seems besides the point.
I ask Curry what it feels like to orchestrate something like that, and his answer is characteristically modest: “Me and Kevin were talking about it on the bench during the fourth quarter yesterday,” he says, referring to the 50 points the Warriors scored in the third quarter against the Clippers. “There was a moment where me and him took over. It wasn't forced. There was a flow to it. There are times when it happens with this team with more than one person, and sometimes all five. I don't know what it is, but it is very…unusual.”
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In no small part, it's his selflessness, both temperamentally and athletically, that confounds old-school critics like Barkley, who continually find ways to discount Curry's accomplishments on the court as something other than, or less than, “real” basketball. At one level, Barkley's objections—most notably, the claim that NBA enforcers of yore would have shut Curry down—can be understood as an attempt to make sense of a player who has no precedent. Curry is The Man who never thinks of himself as anything other than a man, one of five. It would never occur to him to dub himself King Curry, à la LeBron, or to refer to his teammates as his “supporting cast,” à la Jordan. James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated while he was still in high school and soon thereafter had CHOSEN•1 tattooed across the top of his back in a 400-point Gothic font. Curry graduated from North Carolina's Charlotte Christian High School and was passed over by every major college basketball program; his signature tattoo is a small cursive A on his ring finger, to remind him of his wife during games, when he's unable to wear his wedding ring. You will never hear Stephen Curry refer to himself in the third person or see him hold forth from a dais about where he may or may not take his talents when he becomes a free agent after this season. (Who's fooling whom? The Warriors, who want and need Curry as the face of the franchise as they get ready to move across the Bay to new digs in San Francisco come 2019, are all but certain to sign him to a five-year deal worth north of $200 million.)
“A lot of people who become celebrated athletes were groomed and raised to be in the position they're in,” Curry's wife, Ayesha, explains. “But that didn't happen with Steph, and so he never became that stereotypical athlete that people expect—the one who always gets whatever he wants.”
The consideration of others, desirable in most human beings, questionable in a world-class athletic talent, was a lesson Curry learned early and often. Curry's mother, Sonya, told me she didn't let Steph date until he was 16: “I always wanted him to understand that dating is a privilege—that when you date someone, you become responsible to that person. I told him, ‘You may be a star athlete, but I am not gonna let you go through girls. No.’”
Sonya enlisted Curry's father, 16-year NBA veteran Dell Curry, to teach Steph and his brother, Seth, who plays for the Dallas Mavericks, how to treat women. “All of this was based on the idea of responsibility. We would ask, ‘Are you being responsible with your worship at church and at home with your family? Are you being responsible with your schoolwork and your athletic discipline?’ Only when the answers to those questions are yes can we then think you're capable of being responsible with another human being.” (Not incidentally, Stephen and Ayesha Curry first met in the youth group of Charlotte's Central Church of God, when he was 15 and she was 14.)
It's not too much of a stretch to say that this training in responsibility helped Curry reshape the Warriors after Durant joined the team this season. All great players elevate the play of those around them; few, if any, have ever done it as Curry does—without the need to establish and maintain alpha-dog status. “You might expect a guy in his position to guard his throne, do anything he could to make sure he got his touches,” says Draymond Green. “But he's not like that, and that sets an example.”
“Steph's selflessness makes his teammates not only better but more self-sacrificing,” says Bruce Fraser. “Perfect example: Draymond Green. His defensive play and basketball IQ have gone off the charts this season because of the example Steph set in welcoming Kevin Durant onto the team. The way Steph didn't set out to prove ‘This is my team’ trickled down to all the other players. Steph knew he'd be sacrificing stats and points. But it was all about the team. If anything, Steph overly tried to make it easier for KD. There were some growing pains when Steph was trying to make KD comfortable and KD was trying to make the whole team comfortable. And instead of both being natural, they were both thinking too much, trying to overly please. That's what you have to understand about Steph. You've got a pleaser there. And pleasers are always trying to please.”
The notion that the greatest shooter in the history of basketball is a pleaser rather than the CHOSEN•1—it is, like Curry himself, quietly, politely radical.
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The weekend before the Warriors leave for nine days on the road, I meet Curry at a restaurant he frequents in Walnut Creek, California. He tells me about how, during away games, other franchises have begun opening their arenas early for fans who want to catch—and often cheer—Curry's famous pre-game warm-up routine.
“That turned out to be a test for me,” Curry says. “When thousands of people show up early, that starts to feel like the game. I've had to learn to control my emotions and energy, because you get going, you make a couple long shots in a row, there are some oohs! and the next thing I know, I'm in a full sweat. One time in Memphis, I made three 40-footers in a row. Our fans were going crazy. Then I missed one, and all the Grizzlies fans started going crazy: You suck! Can't hit four 40-footers in a row!” (By the way, how does a lightly muscled guy like Curry fire from 40 feet out with a leisurely flick instead of a whole-body discus heave? “It's a connection from the floor up,” he says, “how you maintain that energy flow all the way through.… There's no wasted energy. No wasted motion.”)
So how does Steve Kerr feel about those long threes, both in warm-ups and during the game?
“I'm sure that Coach Kerr never thought he'd be cool with letting somebody shoot from 35 feet out without thinking about it,” Curry says. “But he respects emotion, and he's made playing with joy one of our core principles as a team.” (Kerr confirms this, saying, “From the beginning, I wanted Steph Curry's joy, and the individuality that represented, to spread throughout this organization.”) Which brings us, again, to the trade-off between Curry's irrepressible joy and his focus.
“Yeah, my coaches will tell you that my focus can be a problem,” he admits. “During time-outs, I'm always watching the other team, looking for my parents and friends in the stands, looking at everything. But I'm not spacing out. It's my way of locking in on…everything. I would love to have an experiment where someone puts a camera on me from the time I step into the arena to the time I leave, so I could see where my eyes are, where my attention goes.”
Curry's longtime friend Chris Strachan has thought about those wandering eyes. “I think he does it in order to take himself away from ‘work.’ It helps him to enjoy the game the way he always has. He feels God put him on this earth to play, and he never wants to forget that that's what it's all about—play.”
Though the restaurant's owner has given us our own room, and Curry is sitting with his back to the street, every passerby who glances our way instantly realizes: him. More than a few feel inspired to come on in, offer a few words of encouragement and gratitude, spend a minute or two telling him about the time they met his dad in a Safeway parking lot, and so forth. In each instance, Curry isn't just gracious; he seems genuinely pleased to make the acquaintance.
Don't these encounters, cumulatively, exhaust him?
“I'd be sorry if people didn't feel moved to come up and share a little bit of themselves with me.”
Is this patience of his a Christian thing, a church thing?
“Yeah,” he says, with a little tilt of the head. “That would be a church thing.”
His everyday nice-guy quotient remains immoderately high throughout the meal. At one point, he offers up the fact that he's a night owl, and that “at ten o'clock, when there's nothing going on, that's when I have the most energy and get stuff done.” Such as? “Oh, man, this is embarrassing. But one of my favorite pastimes is organizing the garage. That's when I get in my zone. Just doing the shelves, putting shoeboxes here, moving athletic equipment over there, everything in its place. That's my zone. That's my arena.” He gazes off, picturing those shelves just so, and smiles. Something his mother told me comes to mind.
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“In the NBA, a lot of people play with a chip on their shoulder, and that's what motivates them. They need to feel disrespected. But Steph has always been fueled only by the love of the game. He doesn't need to be angry. In fact, I think he discovered a long time ago that anger distracts him from his own self, and anything that distracts him from his self prevents him from playing his best. I also think this has created confusion. A lot of people along the way have expected and even needed him to have a hard edge, to be more of a nasty person.”
Curry assures me that he has the heart of an “assassin”—his word, not mine—beating just as surely as the kind Christian heart sitting next to it. Both were on display in February, when he sparred publicly with Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour. In an interview with The Mercury News, a reporter asked Curry if he agreed with Plank's assertion, on CNBC, that Donald Trump was “a real asset for the country.” Curry responded that “I agree with that description—if you remove the ‘et.’ ” (Shhhick!)
Curry spent an entire day on the phone with various Under Armour personnel, “pursuing clarification about what was going on” and “making sure everybody knew where everybody else stood on the issue.” By which he meant, as he tells me now, “If I had come to the conclusion that the leadership of the company was not in line with my core values, and vice versa, I would have jumped off that platform.” That is to say, Curry would have walked away from his most prominent and lucrative corporate endorsement—reportedly worth $32 million through 2024.
Under Armour quickly issued its “clarification,” distancing itself from Trump's more noxious race prescriptions while stipulating that by “asset,” Plank had only meant to say that the new president would presumably be more business-friendly and tax-averse than his predecessor. Curry considered the explanation satisfactory. His mother, though, had a bone to pick with her son: “I told you never to swear!” Curry responded that he hadn't said the word, only implied it. Mother and son agreed to disagree.
“Even then, I was worried that I had messed up—that having a playful attitude had detracted from the serious point I felt I needed to make,” Curry says. “I'm not gonna pretend that I have some long history as an activist. But I'm definitely in the camp that when it comes to athletes, whoever has a microphone in front of their face, they ought to use it.
“You know,” he adds, “I did get a lot of feedback from other believers who were disappointed in the aggression of my statement. They thought it was un-Christian of me to call [Trump] a name. Now, I understand that Jesus probably wouldn't have used that term. But He was in that temple going crazy, flipping tables.… I think that sometimes, you have to remember who you are and what you stand for and not be ashamed of that.”
One wonders: What would Michael have done? Or one doesn't wonder, actually, given that the answer is obvious: Nothing—because in his day, Michael Jordan assiduously avoided doing or saying anything that might compromise his corporate branding. (“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” he supposedly quipped.) On the court, Jordan emblazoned himself on the cultural imagination as a transformative black athlete; off the court, he effectively recused himself from the politics of race. Curry reverses that equation: On the court, he's a transformative athlete whose race is rarely foregrounded; off the court, he's willing to signal his own black consciousness with $32 million in the balance.
Not so soft, after all.
A week later, I get to see Curry's sense of joy, his selflessness, and his Christian forbearance put to the test. In the opening minutes of a game against Washington, one of the Wizards goes MMA on Golden State's wondrously named center Zaza Pachulia while boxing him out, launching him into Kevin Durant's left knee. The resulting sprain will sideline Durant for weeks.
When I talk to Curry the next day, at an event at Liberty University—a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Seth Curry played his freshman year—Curry seems shaken. “We still don't know what to call the injury, still don't know what it means,” he says, more to himself than to me. He is, quite uncharacteristically, not fully present; this is the only instance during our time together that he fails to make eye contact while answering a question. “We're gonna have to remember how we worked as a unit before KD came on board.”
Onstage, while making no mention of Durant's injury, Curry testifies passionately about the gratitude he feels to God for his talent and the platform it provides for him to “shine a light.” It's difficult not to think of the looming six-foot-eight wall of will—that is, LeBron James—threatening, now more than ever, to eclipse that light come June.
After his speech, Curry poses for pictures before being whisked away to Chicago (where the Warriors lose, 87–94). Watching him go, I recall how plainly hobbled he was during last year's championship series by the ankle and knee issues that had sidelined him earlier in the playoffs—and how he never used those injuries as an excuse or explanation. And then I remember Ayesha's take on that subject.
“As great an athlete as my husband is, one of his greatest gifts is his ability to keep losses in perspective,” she says, emphasizing—as Curry himself does—that this is a product of his faith. “Last season could have devastated some people, changed their being, their whole personality. Steph was down for a little bit, and he wanted to reflect on how things could have been different. But by ‘a little bit,’ I mean two days—three at most. Steph wants that championship as much as anybody ever could. But he doesn't need that ring to complete his own sense of who he is and what he's worth. Win or lose, he's the same happy guy.”
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