Stephen Curry – the virtuous superstar

How he's changed basketball and become an irreproachable role model in an era of checkered athletes. 

Tony Avelar/AP/File
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry takes a shot from the perimeter – his unofficial office – against Houston Rockets center Clint Capela during a game in Oakland, Calif.

On a typically joyful, raucous evening at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., the Golden State Warriors are in the early stages of another demolition of an opponent. Tonight’s victim is the Orlando Magic, but their identity hardly matters. With the exception of just a few teams in the National Basketball Association, the Warriors are so far superior to their opponents that their games, especially the ones in their home arena, often become more performance than competition. 

After winning the NBA championship last year, the Warriors began this season with 24 straight victories, the longest season-opening streak in the 70-year history of the league. Their giddy fans have come to consider victory such a foregone conclusion that at times they seem almost unconcerned with the score, losing themselves in anticipation of those sublime moments when their team pulls off a particularly spectacular piece of basketball choreography.

Those highlights usually involve Stephen Curry, the wispy Warrior point guard who, despite his height (6 feet, 3 inches) and the tuft of light brown hair on his chin, looks like a middle-schooler who has wandered onto a court with grown men. Mr. Curry, age 28, is a baby-faced maestro with a basketball, both dribbling it and especially shooting it, which he does with remarkable accuracy from previously unthinkably long distances. Even though he has only been in the league for seven seasons, there is a growing consensus that he is the best shooter in the history of professional basketball. “There is a three-point shooting revolution going on in the game of basketball,” says Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “and Steph Curry is leading it.”

Stephen Curry (middle) laughs with teammates as President Obama speaks during a ceremony honoring the 2015 NBA champion Warriors.

Powered by Curry’s three-point heroics, the Warriors will begin their march to a likely second straight title as the playoffs begin this week, after a regular season in which they set the record for the most wins (73). His marksmanship not only leads to championships, it has so thoroughly changed the concept of what is possible for a shooter that even his teammates sometimes get caught up in admiring his artistry, as on this night against Orlando. Andrew Bogut, Golden State’s 7-foot center, mishandles a pass and several Magic defenders swarm him, trying to steal the ball. Mr. Bogut manages to tap it away from them to Curry, who is standing, momentarily and unforgivably unguarded, a step beyond the three-point line. 

It is important to note here that one of the first lessons players of Bogut’s size and position are taught is always to expect a shot to miss. Normally, it is second nature to Bogut to turn and anticipate the rebound as soon as a shot goes up. But playing with Curry can change everything. This time, Bogut throws a fist in the air in celebration and begins running to the other end of the court to get a head start on playing defense. That would have been fine, except Curry hasn’t even released his shot yet, much less made it.

No matter. The ball swishes cleanly through the net, rewarding Bogut’s faith. It takes a slow-motion replay for most observers to realize just how unusual his premature exhilaration had been. Watching the game on television, writer Shea Serrano tweeted, “i just want someone to believe in me the way andrew bogut believes in steph curry.”

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Bogut isn’t the only one who believes so deeply in Curry, of course, nor is it just Curry’s teammates, or Warriors fans – who, as often happens with wildly successful teams, are suddenly popping up all over the United States. “I swear, I don’t think Steph has ever been booed,” says Warriors forward Draymond Green, one of Curry’s closest friends on the team. “No matter how great a player you are, sooner or later you’re going to get some hate from other teams’ fans. But not Steph. People love him so much they root for him over their own team.”

But this isn’t just about love, it’s about faith. Almost everyone seems to believe in Curry, which is a very different thing from just rooting for him, or being amazed by his skills. “He could run for mayor in any city in America,” says Sacramento Kings coach George Karl, “and he’d get everybody’s vote.”

Or maybe he could set his sights on an even higher office. The nation’s fractures and divisions have never been more apparent than they are during the current presidential campaign, but Curry transcends all boundaries, political and otherwise. He is a uniter, not a divider. “People trust that he won’t let them down,” says Jarrett Jack, a former Warriors teammate. “It’s not just about what he does on the court. It’s who he is away from it. He’s never going to do something that makes you regret being a fan of his.”

The days of the supposedly virtuous sports superstar seem a hazy memory, gone the way of corner pay phones and manual typewriters. Whether that’s because today’s stars are less well behaved than their predecessors or because media scrutiny has led to a more informed, cynical public is open to debate. What’s clear is that in an age when stories of domestic violence, drunken driving arrests, use of performance-enhancing drugs, and other misdeeds by athletes are so common they’re no longer surprising, Curry is the rare scandal-free superstar who appears likely to stay that way. He is “blowing up,” as Mr. Green puts it, not just because of his brilliance as a player, but because he has made the concept of the star athlete as role model seem plausible again. 

Stephen Curry attempts a free throw while chewing, in signature fashion, on his mouth guard.

This isn’t to say that Curry is some bland cipher. He has tattoos, but one of them is an A for his wife, Ayesha, that he had inked onto his ring finger because he can’t wear his wedding ring during games. Another is the “TCC 30” on the underside of his left wrist, for trust, commitment, and care, along with his uniform number. “I think it’s important to be true to yourself,” Curry says. “It doesn’t work to try to present yourself as something you’re not. I just try to be honest about who I am, and if people like that or identify with that, I’m very honored by it.”

His across-the-board appeal has translated into huge dollars for Curry, with the promise of even bigger paydays to come. When his $44 million contract expires after next season he will likely re-sign with Golden State for roughly quadruple that amount, but even that is small change compared with the advertising income he generates. The most lucrative of his many deals – State Farm, Muscle Milk, and JBL headphones among them – is his contract with Under Armour sporting goods. Financial figures for his contract, which runs through 2024, have not been disclosed, but the agreement includes an ownership stake in the company, which generated $3 billion in sales last year.

He won the league’s MVP award last season, but Curry also deserves the award for “Most Valuable Person” in sports, according to Andy Dolich, a sports business and marketing expert and former executive with the Oakland A’s and Memphis Grizzlies. “The amount and value of Curry commerce is an IPO that everyone would want to jump on,” Mr. Dolich says. “It would be impossible to put a monetary value on the euphoric feeling that Curry creates every time he orchestrates another jaw-dropping play. There’s no other player in sports today that is any more golden in making fans feel great. Trying to put a dollar value on that is impossible.”

•     •     •

The public clearly can’t get enough of Curry. Even his pre-game warm-ups have become must-see events. To keep his ball-handling skills sharp, he goes through an intricate series of dribbling drills before games, bouncing the ball between his legs and behind his back with dizzying speed, which is impressive enough, until he tops himself by doing the same thing with two basketballs at once. Then he moves on to shooting, draining jumpers from increasingly long distances until he is almost at the half-court line, about 40 feet away.

Shots from that distance would be impossible heaves for the average person, and even for many NBA players. But Curry takes them with remarkable ease, just a flick of his wrist. These are the kind of shots that most players would feel happy to hit once in every 20 or 30 attempts. Curry is disappointed in himself if he makes fewer than half, which rarely happens. 

More than 90 minutes before a Warriors game in Minnesota in March, thousands of fans were already in the arena to watch Curry go through his pre-game routine. In Boston in December, a local station live-streamed his pre-game drills on its website. “He’s become like Barry Bonds in batting practice,” says Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “People are showing up early just to see him. All the great shooters have a set routine that’s interesting to watch, but what makes Steph’s unique is there is a lot more rhythm and flow and ball-handling – all of the things that make him so unique as a player.”

The entertainment value of his warm-up sessions is secondary to Curry. As always, he is a showman who isn’t trying to put on a show. “You probably can’t tell when you watch it, but I’m very competitive with myself,” he told reporters before the Minnesota game. “I try to get through it as quick as possible. I have certain [shots] that I have to get to. I don’t want to be on the court for too long.”

On days without games, though, Curry is known for the long hours he puts in on the court. It’s not unusual for him to take as many as 1,000 practice shots in a day, a devotion to his craft that has led to him setting the record this year for most three-pointers in a season – breaking his own mark, which he set last season. He’s not just a great shooter, but one with a flair for the dramatic. Curry’s clutch late-game threes have broken the hearts of many an opponent, especially in the last two seasons. 

With the Warriors trailing by three points in a playoff game against the New Orleans Pelicans last season, Curry tied the game with a jaw-dropping three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left. He was deep in the corner, nearly falling out of bounds as he sank the shot, with the outstretched arm of 6-foot, 6-inch defender Quincy Pondexter hitting him a split second after he released the shot. Photos revealed that just before the ball left his hand, Curry’s eyes were closed. “Were they?” he said afterward. “I didn’t realize that. But that’s what practice is about. If you shoot enough of those shots in the gym, eventually when you need to do it in a crucial situation, you just have a feel for where the hoop is. The muscle memory is there.”

Curry isn’t as matter-of-fact about such plays when he is on the court. He often celebrates with little hops, skips, and shimmies when he makes a big shot, and his three-pointers are usually accompanied by a quick pounding of his chest and pointing to the heavens as he runs back down the court. But he somehow escapes the criticism for being a hot dog that many other athletes draw. “Steph is never trying to make fun of anybody or rub it in their face,” says Green. “Maybe that’s why it’s OK with people. He’s not putting anyone down. He’s just having so much fun that he can’t keep it all inside.”

Perhaps because he looks like a kid, Curry’s displays come across as childlike joy rather than mockery of an opponent. Whereas star players like LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 6-foot, 8-inch, 250-pound forward, play with an intensity that is almost frightening, Curry plays with a joy that is endearing.

There have been other stars in various sports who have performed similar late-game heroics and been adored by fans. Michael Jordan. Tom Brady. Kobe Bryant. Derek Jeter. Curry’s appeal threatens to equal or perhaps even surpass theirs because his performance is combined with a persona that gives him a nearly universal cultural appeal that even the biggest celebrities, in or out of sports, are hard-pressed to match. 

Mr. Curry chats with his father, former NBA great Dell Curry, before a game at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.

Curry is in many ways the perfect sports star for these times. He is the modern version of what it is to be all-American – the product of a mixture of cultures and ethnicities. His African-American father, Dell, played 16 years in the NBA, and his mother, Sonya, who is of African-American, Creole, and Haitian descent, met Dell when they were both Virginia Tech student athletes. (Sonya was a volleyball player.)

Growing up, Curry was exposed both to the privilege that comes with well-to-do parents and a suburban upbringing in and around Charlotte, N.C., as well as to players who were products of the inner city and much more hardscrabble backgrounds. “It was faith and family first when I was a kid,” Curry says. “Then came sports and other interests. My parents never let us forget that we were blessed to be able to live comfortably, and that not everyone was as fortunate.”

Even Curry’s speech seems a mixture of influences – not quite a Southern drawl, not quite the rhythm of urban playgrounds, not quite upper-middle-class suburban, but with hints of all three. It’s undoubtedly at least part of the reason he is as comfortable schmoozing with high-rolling season ticket holders as he is debating the merits of various hip-hop artists with middle-schoolers during his visits to inner-city Oakland public schools. 

Curry is a man of balance. He finds the middle ground in almost every area – and this is important – without having to search for it. He makes no secret that he is a devout Christian without making constant references to his faith. His modeling gigs for men’s clothing illustrate his effortless cool, yet there is a warmth in the way he goofily lip-syncs songs from Disney movies with his wife and releases them on social media.

Curry is at once childlike, zipping around on the court with his mouth guard hanging out like a child’s pacifier, and impressively mature, showing himself to be a devoted husband and a doting father to his two daughters, Riley, 4, and Ryan, 10 months. When Curry brought Riley to a post-game press conference during the playoffs last season, she quickly upstaged her dad by sliding under a table and poking her head out at the reporters and generally acting like a precocious tyke. The scene so endeared both Currys to the public that when a few reporters complained in print that Riley’s presence made it difficult to conduct a businesslike press conference, the public backlash made them look like humorless grinches.

It helps that all of this is wrapped up in a relatively unimposing physical package. Curry has filled out a bit from the scrawny rookie who arrived at Davidson College in 2006 with arms so thin they could have doubled as jump ropes, but he still has a frame to which the average 20-something male could reasonably aspire. “That’s part of what grabs people,” says Mr. Jack. “You couldn’t look at Shaquille O’Neal overpower people with his 300 pounds of muscle and relate to it. You couldn’t watch Michael Jordan fly in for a dunk and think you could ever do the same thing. But you watch Steph with his normal size, and you think, ‘Yeah, that could be me.’ ”

The slight build that now attracts admirers caused recruiters from major college programs to underestimate him even though he was a high school star at Charlotte Christian School. To be fair, it was hard to envision a 5-foot, 8-inch, 150-pound high-schooler blossoming into a great college player. “He was such a late-bloomer,” his mother told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He didn’t look the part. We heard the negative comments. ‘He’s not big enough, he can’t dunk.’ ” 

Curry was hoping for a scholarship offer from Duke, but Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski passed. Virginia Tech, his father’s alma mater, was also high on his list, but despite his bloodlines, the Hokies weren’t willing to offer Curry a scholarship. They wanted him to pay his own way and sit out his freshman season as a redshirt. Once he had been there for a year, they would decide whether he was worth a scholarship. It didn’t exactly make him feel wanted. This time, Curry passed. 

Finally, he received a scholarship offer from Davidson College, a “mid-major” in college hoops parlance, which is to say, a program without a famous enough name or glamorous enough basketball history to attract the most highly sought-after recruits. Coach Bob McKillop had known the Curry family since Steph was a little boy, and he sensed that Curry’s skills, combined with his competitiveness and work ethic, would make him a more successful college player than most coaches envisioned. 

He was right. Mr. McKillop made Curry the starting point guard from the first game of his freshman season, and he became the top-scoring freshman in the nation with 21.5 points per game. He led Davidson to a 29-5 record and an NCAA Tournament berth. From there, as would become his habit, Curry simply kept improving. He led the Wildcats on a memorable tournament run as a junior in 2008, when they upset Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Georgetown and came within a game of the Final Four.

Curry pumps his fist next to the championship trophy during the Warriors 2015 celebration in Oakland while his wife, Ayesha, and daughter Riley look on.

It is the perfect origin story for a superhero – the lightly regarded afterthought, so physically unimpressive that he is hardly noticed, develops extraordinary powers and those who ignored him come to adore him. But no hero, comic book or otherwise, escapes criticism completely, and Curry is no different. He has faced a small, but noticeable backlash in recent months, mostly from retired NBA stars who think he wouldn’t have been as dominant in previous eras as he is today.

In a February ESPN radio interview, Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson suggested that defenses of his era would have been better able to contain Curry. “He’s shot well because of what’s going on in basketball today,” said Mr. Robertson, a former MVP who retired in 1974. “In basketball today, it’s almost like if you can dunk or make a three-point shot, you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. When I played years ago, if you shot a shot outside and hit it, the next time I’m going to be up on top of you. I’m going to pressure you with three-quarters, half-court defense. But now they don’t do that. These coaches do not understand the game of basketball, as far as I’m concerned.”

This kind of “in-my-day” grousing hasn’t done much to slow the tidal wave of adulation toward Curry, though he does admit that he finds it “kind of annoying.” It comes with the superstar job description, as does other scrutiny he will face as his fame grows.

At some point Curry’s social conscience will be judged in the same way that those of most superstar athletes, particularly ones of color, are judged. It was one of the few areas in which Mr. Jordan, who was famously neutral on matters of race or politics, was often criticized. Mr. James has spoken up more, posting a photo of himself and his Miami Heat teammates all wearing hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin in the wake of the shooting death of the young African-American teenager, and wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt after the death of Eric Garner in a confrontation with a police officer in New York. 

It’s clear that Curry could have a powerful voice outside the world of sports if he so chooses. “He’s believable. He’s credible,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the San Francisco Chronicle when he attended a Warriors playoff game last season. “He’s a caring person beyond the court. That’s what makes him special.”

Athletes who transcend their sports make statements either by their actions or lack of them, and Curry will find that he will be judged, no matter what he says or does. Will he make the right choices? Everything Curry has done on and off the court indicates that he will. Some hesitation is understandable, because so many heroes have burned us before, but with every move he makes, Curry makes it easier to keep the faith.  

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