Stephen Curry has arrived at the penthouse of this profession unexpectedly and unconventionally.
He was the small and skinny teenager who couldn’t even get a full ride at his father’s alma mater and had to play at a speck of a basketball school instead. This is now sports lore, the story that will be repeated to boys and girls sitting on their grandfather’s knee for generations to come, much like Michael Jordan getting cut from the high school team.
From there, he made it here, winning the Kia MVP award for the second time, and becoming the first to do so with a unanimous vote, and so you can understand why his skin is blotchy and blood red from all the self-pinching.
“I never expected to change the game,” he said. “I never really thought that would happen in my career.”
But wait, it gets better. Not only does Curry help win an NBA championship for a franchise that hadn’t done so in 40 years, and then lead it to a record-breaking 73 wins in a season, and turn the Golden State Warriors into the premier team in basketball, he does it without the baggage that often comes with superstardom.
Curry does not ask his employers to eradicate the green M&Ms before handing him the bowl. He’s coachable, approachable, low maintenance and refreshingly likable. He’s a global basketball icon — yes, a member of that exclusive club now — with the diva act of a ballboy. In this sense, his demeanor away from the court gets another unanimous approval, both from those who know him and those who wish they did.
“He’s a dream,” said Bob Myers, the Warriors’ general manager. “Totally a dream.”
If the NBA must be represented by one face, then the choice is easy. It’s the one with a smile — apparent even after he wrist-snaps another 30-foot jumper in the mug of the poor soul assigned to guard him. The league is lucky to have him because he’s producing at a high level, and entertaining the masses, and driving TV ratings, and sending kids to the playground working on fundamentals, and doing it with boy-next-door charm. Curry checks all the boxes, and isn’t that what a sports league and sponsors and parents and aspiring players could ever hope for?
He was handed the MVP trophy during a ceremony Tuesday, and his sense of timing was Swiss-like. Less than 24 hours earlier in Portland, he scored an NBA-record 17 points in overtime of a playoff game, turning basketball fans into insomniacs, on a night where he came off the bench after missing two weeks following a knee scare. Not that we needed any further confirmation about Curry and where he stands in the game right now, but he gave it anyway, because that’s what the greats do.
“He has an unwavering confidence in his ability in the big moments,” said Myers. “In that situation, a lot of players shrink up. He raises his game. He never fears the moment. He embraces it. Great players don’t operate on fear.”
The season he just had was historic, for him and the Warriors. Curry shattered the record for 3-pointers made in a single season with 402, a total that seemed unfathomable back in B.C. (Before Curry). He averaged 30.1 points a game while playing less than 35 minutes a night and sitting out entire fourth quarters. Coaches began to gameplan for him, then scrapped those plans because they didn’t work and instead just penciled him in for his 30 and shrugged. It was the season that put him on first-name-only reference: Steph.
“The common denominator between the truly great players, the Magic Johnsons, Larry Birds, Michael Jordans and many others and Steph, is the burning desire to get better every year,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “The fact that he won the MVP last year and came back better is amazing. His numbers are all greater. And there’s no ulterior motive, that he’s got to get better to get more endorsements, or got to get better so he can win the MVP. He just wants to be better. That’s who he is, constantly striving to improve with no agenda.”
Curry opened doors for himself. He became a golfing partner of President Obama. Athletes in other sports turned into star-struck Curry fans, pleading for time. And the sponsors, they came running. Curry sells sportswear, cereal, energy drink and water — water! You can’t reach this level of public approval on playing ability alone. There must be something else, a magnetism, a reason to make people flock, a level of respect that’s created. Curry managed to do this by — get this — being himself. And what you see, from those who know him best, is really what you get.
“He doesn’t leave here and become someone else,” Myers said. “People want to deal with people who are genuine in life. He’s genuine. He was that way before, he’s that way now. He hasn’t changed with success, so I think this is who he’ll be.”
There’s every indication that his reach extends to multiple generations, cultures, financial classes and races. But it’s not by design — Curry stays true to himself and that’s the appeal. He has chosen a conventional lifestyle that makes him somewhat unique in today’s society, especially among young athletes who gravitate to the clubs and find their way to TMZ. He got married first, then had two children, and has stayed married to the same woman, Ayesha. He often mentions his faith. No one can remember him cursing. He’s respectful to those who aren’t important to him, the true test of character for the famous. As the demand for his time begins to grow, Curry simply makes more time.
“He’s amazing around kids, and as you can imagine, everyone wants a piece of him,” said Kerr. “He’s never rude. He’s so easygoing with fans and the public. I often wonder if it gets too much for him, but if it is, he doesn’t show it. I’ve never seen him complain.”
You name the cause, Curry is good: Make A Wish, local churches in Oakland, community centers, etc. He’s currently headlining an attempt to fight malaria in Africa. And remember, he has a toddler and a newborn at home, along with a wife. And a gym, waiting for him to arrive, practice and improve.
“People see the impact he’s making with the fans, he’s become one of the most popular athletes in the planet,” Kerr said. “People relate to him. They enjoy watching him play. They admire his humility and the way he carries himself. At heart he’s a big kid who plays the game with joy, unfazed by the pressure or the chaos around him. I think all of that stuff factors in.”
He is simply a product of his environment, meaning, he was obviously raised well, and his humility is rooted in early basketball rejection. In some ways Curry is still the kid who couldn’t get a callback from the major colleges, and was thethird point guard taken in the 2009 Draft.
It is why he practices relentlessly on his ballhandling and shooting, drills that now draw many fans before the game, both home and on the road. Curry is changing the game in that sense, making it realistic for normal-sized kids who otherwise would see a basketball ceiling above them.
“There’s nothing he was given in life that would make you think he’d be unanimous MVP,” said Myers. “He’s not 6-8 or 6-9, wasn’t a high school All-American. Nobody anointed him the second coming of anything when he came into the league.”
Curry received an injury scare when he sprained his knee but, after scoring 40 against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 4 on Tuesday in his return, all is well now. The NBA playoffs, sluggish at times without him, just felt an uptick. The Warriors are complete again, one victory away from advancing to the next round, five wins from returning to the NBA Finals.
“My goal all along was to get back there and get the trophy again,” he said. “It just so happened that I got another (MVP) trophy along the way. It’s a lot of hard work. Everybody can take the ball and dribble and shoot it. You’ve got to put in the work. That’s how I got here. I worked hard and got the most out of my ability.”
The Most Valuable Player in the NBA has once again decided not to settle, and this is part of the swelling appreciation for him, and fueling the demand for more from him. Curry is healthy, his skills are breathtaking, and the regular season has given way to the playoffs, where the level intensifies. If the postseason brings out the best among the greats, then that must mean the best of Curry is still to come.
“I get asked a lot about Michael nowadays,” Kerr said. “Michael never wanted to take a night off. He never wanted to disappoint a fan in the stands. Steph’s the same way. He feels a responsibility to show up and compete and show what he can do every night.”
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.