The Unseen Price of Greatness – Steph Curry

Sally Jenkins, Washington Post (

Maybe a kid on a tree swing somewhere is having as much fun as Steph Curry is. Every shot he puts up seems newly invented. He palms the basketball as if he’s never seen such a marvelous object before: This 9-inch orange sphere, it actually bounces! Off he goes on a hummingbird’s course, flits upward and stalls, just long enough for a frictionless shot off the glass. If you diagrammed his movement, it would be a W.

It’s a typical flight from the most counterintuitive star in the NBA, who has so revolutionized playmaking with his airy imagination that he has the Golden State Warriors on a vision quest to win more than 70 games in pursuit of a second straight championship, and he is on pace to shatter the league record for made three-pointers by more than a hundred. Curry’s still-exploding pyro-cumulus cloud of popularity is such that people arrive early to Warriors games just to watch his drills. In which he alternates an entrancing parabolic shooting form with a conjuring athleticism so shape-shifting and yet sweetly balanced that even legendary Warriors executive Jerry West, the sublime shot-maker whose silhouette is on the NBA logo says, “I’d pay to see him play.”

Curry throws down a dunk and hangs from rim. As the ball rebounds off the hardwood floor he catches it with his feet, still dangling, and taps it around with his insteps, soccer-style. Finally he hops down, and settles into more orderly, flat-footed routine. He moves around behind the three-point line in an ever-widening arc, sinking long distance shots so cleanly that the net seems to snap like fresh laundry in a breeze.

Curry shoots around 2,000 shots a week: He takes a minimum of 250 a day, plus another 100 before every game. It’s a counterintuitive fact that a player with the supplest shot in the NBA, whose overarching quality is feel, has the hands and work habits of a woodchopper. “My hands are actually kind of rough,” he says after practice at courtside. “I got a lot of callouses from the shooting.” He turns his palms up. The wrists and fingers are narrow and tapered, but the palms are gnarly and hardened, with flaking slabs of skin coarse to the touch. There’s a tub of hot manicure wax in the locker room, which some guys dip into for softening. “But it doesn’t do much for me,” Curry says.

It’s the day after his 28th birthday, and swathed in oversized sweats and slouching in a folding chair, Curry seems even slighter than he does on the court. He has the look of a fawn, with a narrow triangle chin and disconcertingly pale and steady hazel eyes. “He’s got that really young face,” West remarks. “He almost looks like a high school player.” At barely 6 feet 3, he’s so unexceptional seeming that you can hear the average spectator thinking: “He’s no bigger than me. Maybe I could’ve played this game.”

Curry’s inventiveness is less showmanship than necessity; he’s always had to do more with less of a body than other players. “I’m not an above the rim guy, so I’ve got to have creativity,” he says. Though he has pedigree, the son of NBA veteran Dell Curry, one of league’s great sharpshooters from 1986 to 2002, he has never had physique. He came out of high school weighing just 140 pounds. “He was really scrawny,” says his sister, Sydel .

It’s a well-known fact that the entire Atlantic Coast Conference passed on him, and even his father’s alma mater, Virginia Tech, offered him only a walk-on spot. Lots of great players experience doubt and rejection, but this was different. More insulting. “He was told he would get pushed around,” Sydel says. “That he would get trampled.” 

The snubs bred determination, and they also bred something else: radical experimentation. Curry didn’t just get better. He got loftier. “I think the concept of, you’ll never know what could happen if you don’t go for it, is what pushed him,” Sydel says.

It took awhile. Even after he went to Davidson and threw down 32 points in just his second collegiate game, and emerged three years later as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft, he was still a perpetual lightweight who by then only weighed about 165. Some people just couldn’t get past the incongruity, the idea that a guy with the build of a math geek could be a dominant NBA player. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on him, even though they needed a guard. A disinterested Nike all but dropped him two years ago, refusing to make a decent counter-offer and letting him go to Under Armour.

As a result, humility is his natural state. While the rest of the NBA slams, pounds and shouts, Curry is a whisperer, by all accounts an unassuming sort who “doesn’t believe his job is any more important than yours,” according to Warriors General Manager Bob Myers. Even his voice is sort of faint.

Just once since winning the 2015 most valuable player award and leading the Warriors to their first NBA championship in 40 years has Curry shown any hint of becoming an outsize ego. One day he walked into the Warriors’ offices wearing sunglasses, and didn’t take them off. Myers hates it when players wear their shades inside; it’s an immediate sign that arrogance is taking hold.

Myers said to Curry, “Really? Is that what we’re doing now? We’re doing this inside?”

Curry has never worn them indoors again.

“I don’t think that’s who he is,” Myers says. “That’s the beauty of Steph.”

Having taken so long to arrive at this unlikely prime, Curry is exploring new thresholds of implausibility. His ambition is to “leave an impression on the opposition every night,” he says. The main impression he has left is astonishment: it only took him to the end of February to break his own record for most three-pointers made in an NBA season, set just last year (286), and by the first week of April he was openly campaigning to hit 400.

“To go from MVP last season and to be glaringly better this season? That doesn’t happen,” says teammate Andrew Bogut.

Initially, Curry meant to take a long break after the Warriors won the title last June. “I told myself I wanted a month off completely and not touch a basketball, to kind of refresh,” he says. But his palms got itchy. “I think I made it two and a half weeks,” he estimates. One day he went into the Warriors’ facility for some treatment, and he couldn’t resist getting a handful of some leather. “I had to get some shots in for fun,” he says.

Instead of resting, he embarked on a concerted effort to improve his range and reactions. Practice is the alchemy that transfers effort into effortlessness “in the flow of the game,” he says, and he’s obsessive at it. During his shooting sessions, if he doesn’t make five of seven from each spot on the floor, he penalizes himself with extra shots. A free throw is not complete until he made “an absolutely pure, clean swish,” Warriors shooting coach Bruce Fraser says. His wife, Ayesha, says, “He can score 40 points, and he will come home and say, ‘Oh man, I missed that last shot. I should have hit it.’ ”

Curry is not only a habitual worker; he’s an innovative one. He spent the summer exploring methods with his trainer Brandon Payne that included wearing strobe-flashing, vision-impairing glasses, and a drill that required him to tap flashing lights against a wall while dribbling. “His drive is understated because of his personality,” West says. “You don’t necessarily understand how competitive he is unless you’re around him every day and watch him carefully.”

The outcome was that he upped his scoring average by fully seven points, from 23.8 to more than 30 . But what stands out more than anything is the sheer preposterousness of his shots, and the rate at which he is sinking the most far-fetched of them. The circus has become an every day, consistent event. In one stretch he hit a mind-expanding 67 percent between 28 and 50 feet.

“And they aren’t heaves,” notes his agent, Jeff Austin of Octagon Sports. “They’re shots.”

Against the New Orleans Pelicans on his birthday March 14, he hit a three-pointer from deep in the corner that defied physics. Curry caught a waywardly high pass and touched down on the toes of his sneakers, balanced precariously just in bounds. His spatial awareness told him if he set his heels down they would touch the out of bounds line, so without ever fully landing, he rose back up from his toes and launched a three that barely ruffled the polyester cords of the net.

When opponents extend their defense to try to stop him long range, he stings them on ankle-wrenching dribble drives to the basket. Lately he has demonstrated that in addition to being the purest shooter and most prolific scorer in the game, he is also ambidextrous, as good with his left as his right. Curry has so obliterated the usual dimensions of the court that he has astonished his own team. Coach Steve Kerr was asked if he’s had any influence on Curry’s shot making — a reasonable question since Kerr holds the NBA record for highest three-point percentage in a season. Kerr just laughed incredulously and answered, “None. Nada. Zippo. Nothing.”

Within the Warriors organization there is a consensus that Curry bears no relation to anything they’ve witnessed before. The interplay between Curry’s neuro-receptors and motor skills, the ability to read and react, might be the single fastest messaging system on the planet, Kerr says. “His hand-eye coordination is as great as anyone I’ve ever seen.” It’s a significant statement, since Kerr played with Michael Jordan in Chicago and watched Steve Nash as a Phoenix Suns executive.

The unanswerable but ever intriguing question, of course, is how much of Curry is self-made, and how much inherited physical genius was always housed in that unprepossessing slimness. Austin observes, “He had to develop tremendous strength in his wrists to shoot and maintain that form from 40 and 50 feet.” But strength may not mean as much as instinct. “I think the rhythm and feel have been there from an early age,” Fraser says. 

Like some people play music by ear, Curry was always adept with any kind ball, his father says. He was an immediately good golfer in high school, without taking a lesson, and has since become scratch. “He can shoot 66, and call the shots out before he hits them,” Dell says, like a pool shark.

Last season, Kerr decided to keep the team fresh by taking them bowling instead of working out. “How much would we really get out of practice?” he asked. As soon as Curry picked up a bowling ball and stepped into the line, he started throwing strikes. Then he started fooling around with tricky spinning hooks that also turned into strikes. “He was ridiculous,” says Fraser. At one point Curry needed to pick up a difficult spare. He tossed a ball with a reverse spin that neatly took out the last pins.

“How much have you bowled?” Fraser asked him.

“Not much,” Curry said.

That child-like pleasure in experimenting with a ball is visceral to the audience, which hardly cares whether Curry is more nature or nurture. West says, “Whatever he is, he’s a marvel.” He has soared in popularity, with his jersey sales rocketing up almost 600 percent since the Warriors’ title last season.

Sometimes that childishness can be his “kryptonite,” Fraser says, if it leads to turnovers or loose play. But the Warriors are more than willing to live with that, in exchange for his ability to uplift the entire franchise, imbue it with his adventurous, fearless-of-the-consequences long shots and float his teammates and the audience along with him. The Warriors have set 10 different records, including most threes by a team. “Watching us is like watching a video game,” West says.

The irony is that a player who is all about weightlessness is discovering that with every deep shot or corkscrewing move, the air around him gets heavier. There are burdens and responsibilities that go with being the league MVP. Things that can drag you down.

Inevitably, opponents have sought to bring Curry to earth. Defenses have sucked to him, making it harder to shake free. He gets picked up higher on the floor now, and grabbed, held and pinballed near the basket, and has to run in constant circles trying to find any small opening.

“Wherever he is, the floor gets very heavy over there,” Fraser, the team shooting coach, says. “It tilts.”

The tilt extends off the floor. There has been a steady escalation of sodium-lamp intensity around Curry, a leaning press of fans, media and sponsors that would knock even the most stable constitution off balance. “Things have come at him from left and right,” his wife Ayesha says.

Corporations have yanked on his sleeve, offering deals that were too attractive to turn down but which required time commitments that have sapped him. He spent much of the off-season flying around for State Farm, the Express clothing chain, and Play Station. There was J.P. Morgan Chase, Kaiser Permanente, Degree deodorant, and JBL sound systems. Opportunities his father had never even dreamed of.

At his height, the highest honor Dell Curry ever won was the NBA’s sixth man award. “I was never MVP status,” Dell says. “We hadn’t been to that level before.” Given the vast sums being offered, Steph felt obliged to accept the deals. But his family now feels in retrospect he took on too much. “It was hard turning things down and it got away from us,” Dell says.

On the day after his birthday, Curry sat for a photo shoot with ESPN magazine, did an interview with a Chinese social media start-up, and then had to fly to a sponsor appearance — and this was after a weight workout and a full Warriors practice.

In addition to all of that, he is the doting father of an infant daughter, Ryan, born in July, as well as his commandingly adorable 3-year-old girl, Riley. “There’s not much sleep around here right now,” Ayesha says.

The question is whether, or for how long, Curry can maintain his form with all of this weighing on him. Curry confesses that he is beginning to feel it. “Yeah, a little bit,” he says. “It’s a learning experience for sure. It’s a bubble we live in with the NBA, with all the theatrics around it and all the hype.” What he really wanted for his birthday was some peaceful routine with his wife, who he met at a church youth group when he was 14. He wears a tattooed ‘A’ on one finger, and a Hebrew Bible verse inside of one wrist: “Love never fails,” First Corinthians, 13:8.

“You want to keep things off the court, the things I love to do, the same,” he says, “and not let what happens on the court change me.”

There have been signs of late that he was tiring, and the Warriors along with him. The striving for dominance night after night, with a body that’s smaller than most, was perhaps bound to tell. On Tuesday, in a mystifying overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, he went just 7 of 25 (though he still had 21 points and 15 assists). The loss was the Warriors’ second at home in the span of five nights, and left them at 69-9, jeopardizing their quest to break the record for victories in a season set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls at 72-10. Thursday’s win over the Spurs, in which Curry scored 27 points, preserved their hopes, but the Warriors still need to sweep their remaining three games to complete the best regular season in history.

“It’s easy to get lost in all this stuff,” Kerr said. “We haven’t been very dialed in of late.”

Warriors management is highly cognizant of Curry’s dilemma, and is devoting some conversation to how to help him balance it all out. During a swing through Atlanta, Curry and West took a day to indulge in his favorite form of relaxation, golf. West told him, “You’re getting pulled on and tugged an awful lot. As we get to the playoffs, you need to have a cutoff date.” Curry assured him the cutoff was approaching.

Recently, Myers, the Warriors’ general manager, asked Curry how his father had handled his own NBA grind. Dell retired in 2002 as the Charlotte Hornets’ all-time leader in scoring, while also managing to be an involved father raising three extremely active kids. Steph’s younger brother Seth plays for the Sacramento Kings, and sister Sydel is a volleyball player at Elon College.

“You turned out pretty well,” Myers pointed out. “How did he do it?”

“My Dad’s life was the NBA and family,” Curry replied. “There was no other thing.”

But Steph Curry’s challenges are vastly different. There is only so much counsel his father can give him, given that they have very different experiences and backgrounds. Dell was the son of two General Electric plant workers in Grottoes, Va., a rustic little spot not near much except Shenandoah National Park. He learned to shoot outdoors at a bent rim nailed to a pole. Steph grew up a child of privilege in a six-bedroom home with a swimming pool and a lighted hard-court in the back yard in Charlotte. “He practiced at NBA facilities,” Dell says. “I didn’t have that pleasure.”

Dell and wife Sonya, a Montessori School educator, made sure their three kids understood just how hard-won it all was. They tried not to spoil the kids, to give them “everything they needed, but not what they wanted,” Dell says. There were chores, and no TV on school nights. Still, it was hard to ignore the privileges that went with being the children of the Hornets’ most recognizable go-to scorer. The most obvious being house seats at Hornets games.

In order to spend more time with his kids, Dell brought them to the gym for his practice sessions, and in the summers he carted them to his shooting clinics. Dell also gave them firm lessons in how to maintain an essentially sane and modest outlook amid stardom. He told them, “Be nice when you go to the grocery store.” Their family was no different from the other families shopping there, even though some shoppers might ask for Dell’s autograph. “Look them in the eye and say hello,” Dell said. “More times than not, that’s all they want. They’re busy too. Look at them. Recognize them.”

Curry has found himself adopting the same coping mechanisms. When he was swamped with demands after the Warriors won the championship last June, he insisted Ayesha, Riley and Ryan come on the road with him to his appearances, though his youngest daughter was just a newborn. “It was a whirlwind and he had so many obligations, but he wanted his family with him,” Ayesha says.

Curry has dramatically scaled back his commitments. The offers still come in “on an almost daily basis,” Austin says, but mostly, the answer is no. His deals with State Farm and Express recently concluded, and he won’t renew. Instead, going forward Curry has prioritized a few lucrative contracts that feel true to him and bespeak a clean message. There are no candy or fast food commercials; instead he endorses Brita water filters. And of course Under Armour, which renegotiated to give him equity in the company and a royalty-cut of his sneaker sales. If he takes on anything new it will be something that offers him a stake, and doesn’t require a lot of appearances, or photo and video shoots.

“Honestly right now his priority is on staying balanced,” Austin says. “Our goal is to get his life back.”

The trick, Curry says, is to maintain the fine equilibrium that allows him to play the game as just a game, instead of making it too much work. It all seems so fragile, not just the physique, but the mysteriousness of his play. Maybe there will come a night when Curry goes completely cold — so far there never has been. It feels like a magic spell, an ephemeral wonder that could wear off at any second.

“I know there’s that cliché statement that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” Curry says. “I kind of live by that. I feel very grateful to provide for my family by playing basketball and doing what I love to do. So I hope that I’ll never — if you look at me, and watch me play, and say he’s out there not enjoying what he’s doing, that would be a drag. Every single day, to play basketball and to live that way, a drag. That’s what inspires what I do on the court and how I play.”

According to Curry, the ultimate balancer in his life is Ayesha, who he credits with providing the sanctuary and “a breath away” from the NBA. “I’m very protective and what you’d call routine oriented” when it comes to his home life, he says. They have a rule that no matter how busy he is, they share at least one sit-down, home-cooked meal a day.

She is a dedicated foodie who has a segment on a local Comcast Sports pre-game show, “Cookin’ With the Currys,” and she also is working on a family cookbook, “A Seasoned Life,” to be published next fall.

It’s a household in which the real luxury has become time. There is no routine more reassuring for Curry, or more certain to pull him off the pedestal into the ordinary world, than his time with the children, “He does Daddy duty when he comes home, just like I did,” his father Dell says. Ayesha confirms that he more than “pulls his weight” as a father, and by way of example, supplies a vision more astonishing than any wild shot Curry has taken.

“He’s not afraid to put on dress-up clothes with them and have a tea party,” she says.

Playing, of course, is what Curry is best at. So when his 3-year-old says Daddy, please put on a tiara, he puts the spangly little toy on his head. And when she says sit down, he bends himself compliantly in two, and sits down in a teeny tiny little chair, with his knees three feet higher than the very small table. And when she pours the invisible tea, and hands it to him, he drinks it. “Sipping from a little two-inch cup,” his sister says, choking on her giggle.

For once, Steph Curry looks big. He looks like a giant.

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