On Nov. 10, 2006, in a four-team tournament at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Davidson College played Eastern Michigan in men’s basketball. Starting at shooting guard for Davidson was a freshman named Stephen Curry.
It was the first game of his college career.
Tripp Cherry, a Davidson grad, Class of 1999, was there. He took a picture at the tip. The place was practically empty.
Before he came out to the court, they were already in their seats, with their Stephen Curry jerseys, their Stephen Curry shirts, their Stephen Curry shoes. They were young and old, male and female, white, black and Asian. They were waiting for him.
This was last month, Madison Square Garden, the Golden State Warriors at the New York Knicks. More than an hour before this tip, Curry jogged from a tunnel and onto the court wearing a gray shirt, black shorts and yellow Under Armour high tops—“Steph! Steph! Steph!”—ready for his warm-ups.
People pointed their iPads and iPhones.
“Watch him,” a father said to his son. “Just watch him.”
Curry vigorously dribbled two balls simultaneously. He practiced underhanded scoops from the left and underhanded scoops from the right, floaters from the left and floaters from the right, one-legged runners and 20-foot bank shots, threes off the dribble and threes off feeds, from the corners, from the wings and from the top of the key.
And free throws, free throws, free throws: swish, swish, swish.
Hours later, after he scored a tame-for-him 22 points—eight of them, though, in the last few minutes to finish off the Knicks in the Warriors’ fourth game in five nights—and after the cameras crowded around him in the locker room, I walked outside into the cold. In the midst of the pace and the buzz of midtown Manhattan, in big, bright lights, there he was—larger than life on the side of a building, in a flashing, digital Under Armour ad.
The sign pulsed:
Stephen Curry’s first signature shoe.
The league’s most unguardable player.
Charged by belief.
He got the most votes from fans for this year’s NBA All-Star Game. He has the best-selling jersey of all NBA players so far this year. He’s the best player on the league’s best team. Sports Illustrated has called him “the man poised to surpass LeBron James as the best player in basketball.” In a recent poll that asked 1,400 millennials to pick their favorite athlete—not basketball player, athlete—they chose him.
It of course remains to be seen whether he will be this year’s league MVP—he’s on the short list of legitimate candidates—but what’s clear is that he would be the winner if fans got to make the pick. He’s the new face of his sport.
How did this happen?
Why is he so popular?
What do people see in Stephen Curry?
“That’s a tough question,” he told me in New York. “It’s kind of surreal thinking about it.”
So in New York, in Washington and on the phone over the last month—a span in which he scored 51 points in a game against Dallas, started his second straight All-Star Game and visited at the White House with President Barack Obama—I asked people these questions.
I asked his Davidson teammates and his Golden State teammates. I asked his college coach and his current coach. I asked people from the brands he represents. I asked people at the NBA. I asked his friends and his fans.
“He’s 6’3” and 185 pounds,” said Bob McKillop, his coach at Davidson. “He has what most people would perceive to be average size for an athlete. He doesn’t overpower you with slam dunks and with muscle. He overpowers you with an IQ that is extraordinary. He sees the game. And he just has an extraordinary capacity to make people say, ‘Wow, I’m rooting for this guy. I like the way he does things.’ There’s an identification with Steph Curry.”
“He looks like a normal guy out there with all these athletic freaks of nature,” said Bryant Barr, his teammate and roommate at Davidson, one of his best friends and the godfather of his toddler daughter.
“Not everybody can dunk like LeBron,” said Steve Rossiter, another Davidson teammate and one of his best friends, “but people can shoot threes all day and pretend they’re Steph. People see a little of themselves.”
“I think it’s that he could be any of us,” said Clint Smith, a Davidson classmate who’s now a champion spoken word poet and a Ph.D. candidate in education at Harvard. “It’s different than looking at a LeBron.”
“His game is pretty ‘everyman’ in the sense that he looks like anybody you could see on the street,” said Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president for social responsibility and player programs. “He doesn’t look like your typical NBA player.”
Let alone a superstar.
“He looks like he’s 13,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I think the vast majority of fans can relate to guards more than the big guys, and Steph is about as relatable as any player in the league.”
That word is the start of the answer.
Curry doesn’t look like he should be able to do what he does. And yet he does it. And he keeps doing it.
And it’s always been this way.
I’ve been thinking about this since before most people knew his name.
I once called him “a skinny, unafraid, 19-year-old kid who could end up being the most important player in the history of Davidson basketball.” That was in the fall of 2007. Six months later, that’s what he was.
“He did things,” I wrote in March 2008, “to put little Davidson in the Sweet 16”—and then the Elite Eight—“that were unbelievable even to those of us who have been trained to just about expect the unexpected with him.”
“What Stephen became in March,” I wrote that November, “was the face of an increasingly elusive guilt-free fan experience. ... It wasn't that long ago, after all, that Stephen Curry was only quasi-known just around Charlotte, and then mostly as the short, scrawny son of former Hornet and overall good guy and community man Dell Curry.
“At Charlotte Christian, Stephen was 5’6” as a freshman, 5’8” as a sophomore, 5’11” as a junior. His jersey hung on his slender shoulders as if on a wire hanger in the corner of a closet. It wasn't that long ago, either, that he showed up at Davidson for freshman orientation with a microwave, his laptop, four duffel bags and a red, white, and blue quilt he got from his grandmother as a graduation gift.”
This gets to the next part of the answer.
Curry went to Davidson, one of the smallest schools that plays Division I sports, because Davidson recruited him. ACC schools didn’t. SEC schools didn’t.
By the end of his first season, he was the Southern Conference’s Freshman of the Year. By the end of his second season, he was scoring 40 against Gonzaga, 30 against Georgetown, 33 against Wisconsin and leading Davidson to within a shot in the air of the Final Four.
LeBron was showing up to “see the kid.” And by the end of his third season, he was a first-team All-American and “one of the most popular college basketball players of this generation” in the estimation of The Associated Press (via ESPN), with red No. 30 jerseys staples in the stands everywhere Davidson played.
After that junior year, when he decided to leave for the NBA, it was the same thing. Not big enough. Not strong enough. Not fast enough. Since then? Almost 70 30-point games, eight 40-point games, two 50-point games, two straight All-Star starts and so many Curry jerseys sold—again, now just white and yellow and blue.
Last month in New York—before he won the Three-Point Contest by hitting 13 in a row, before he hit the shot of the night in the All-Star Game—Under Armour unveiled the Curry One, his first signature shoe. The ad dubbed Curry “the patron saint of the underdog.”
“I’ve known him for nine years, since our freshman year, and he just continues to prove people wrong,” Barr said. “He just keeps doing what people say he can’t.”
“He and I and his dad, we just smile at each other,” McKillop said. “We have this smile that we share—‘Do you believe this?’ We go back a long time. And look at what he’s grown up to be.”
“You dream big, and you work hard,” Curry told me in New York. But still. "Who would’ve thought?”
What do people see in him?
People see possibility.
Bobby Knight once said on TV that Curry, one of the best three-point shooters in NCAA history, was also “as good a passer as has ever played college basketball.”
Jay Bilas once told me Curry’s one of the smartest players he’s ever seen. “Not just in college,” Bilas said. “Period.”
Before last year’s All-Star Game, in an interview with Charles Barkley, President Obama called Curry “the best shooter I’ve ever seen.”
Later that week, at the All-Star Game, Kevin Durant reiterated that but said it as if it weren’t even a matter of opinion. “Steph Curry is the best shooter ever,” he said, with sort of a startling certainty.
Curry is the fastest player ever in the NBA to get to 1,000 three-pointers, doing it in 369 games, 88 fewer than the next-fastest player, Dennis Scott of the old Orlando Magic. ESPN The Magazine last year called Curry’s shot “sports’ perfect 0.4 seconds.” And no player who can shoot as well as he can shoot has also been able to dribble and pass as well as he can dribble and pass. Ever.
But it’s not just that he’s good. It’s how he’s good.
It’s not just his play. It’s his style of play.
“Fun and exciting,” said Kris Stone, Under Armour’s pro basketball director of sports marketing.
“Skill and flair,” Warriors teammate Klay Thompson said.
He’s a superstar made for the social media age.
He’s YouTube candy.
And when he hits one shot, a second shot, a third and a fourth, texts get sent. Twitter chatter surges. TVs turn on. What’ll he do next?
“I think he’s become that guy” in the NBA, said Brendan McKillop, one of Bob McKillop’s sons, who played with Curry at Davidson, that “you don’t want to miss when he does something special.”
During the March 2008 Davidson run, sports columnists called him “hypnotic” and “more appealing the closer you get.” “It’s impossible,” wrote Michael Arace of The Columbus Dispatch, “to take your eyes off him.” Now, as a pro, even The New Yorker has called him “mesmerizing.”
Oracle Arena, the Warriors’ 19,596-seat arena in Oakland, has sold out for more than 100 straight games. Season tickets are capped at 14,500. There’s a waiting list of some 8,000 people.
Add that to the list of reasons for Curry’s broad-based popularity.
The next word?
“People saw that in March, they felt that, and not just Davidson people. He was a part of his team,” I wrote back in November 2008, “and his team was a part of his school, and his school was a part of the town. … He was a star and everybody knows a star when they see one, and yet he was very clearly ‘one of,’ not ‘the one.’”
In a game in Davidson on Nov. 25, 2008, Loyola of Maryland used two guys to guard Curry wherever he went on the court. So Curry went to the corner. It was his idea. He just stood there. The rest of his team played four-on-three for the whole game.
Curry, who had hit for 44 earlier in the year against an Oklahoma team led by Blake Griffin and was averaging 35 a game, that night scored zero points. Barr hit six wide-open threes. Davidson won by 30. It stands in retrospect as a bizarre footnote in Curry’s college statistics. But at the time, for his teammates, it was an affirmation.
“Steph never puts himself over anybody else,” Barr told me last month.
“He really is so humble,” Rossiter said.
Those are his Davidson teammates.
And his Golden State teammates?
“I’ll tell you what,” David Lee told me in New York. “He’s an even better teammate and person than he is a player. He’s an easy person to rally behind.”
“I think the chemistry of that team is special, and the way they play together, the way they move the ball, the way they score,” Behrens of the NBA said of the league-best Warriors. And Curry? “I think he fits in a team-first environment.”
Davidson people know this because they know him. Same goes for his Golden State teammates. But the average fan? Somehow, this comes across even on TV.
“What is it about him?” Barr said. “I think one thing that really comes across on TV is that it’s very much not about him. It’s about the other people around him. It’s about his team.”
Curry points at his teammates. He points at them when they make shots. He points at them when they make good passes. When he was at Davidson, during the tournament in 2008, he pointed at his parents in the stands.
And he points up. He points up when he hits shots. He points up when he doesn’t. He points up just before tip when he runs out onto the court.
The people who care about this notice. They notice that he does it. They notice how he does it. He always does it quickly, but he always does it.
“He’s a believer,” said the Rev. William Robertson, who graduated from Davidson in 1975 and roots for the Davidson team and for Curry. “Evangelical types, they may really see him as a person who is carrying the flag into a world of unbelievers, and I don’t mean the NBA—I mean the world in general. I think these folks love to see a public Christian. But I actually like the fact that he doesn’t play it up more than one should.”
John Kuykendall, a Presbyterian pastor and the former president of Davidson, once told me Curry plays basketball with something like “grace.” He makes all those shots, Kuykendall said, but “he doesn’t hang around and say, ‘Golly, wasn’t I good?’”
At Davidson, he used to write in Sharpie on the sides of his sneakers a portion of the Bible verse Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things…” He still does. Now, too, “4:13” is incorporated into the design, on the tongue, of his Curry One Under Armour shoe.
Charged by belief.
It can mean different things to different people.
Q Scores measure not just whether a person is known. They measure whether a person is liked. Curry currently has a Q Score of 26. Only Durant and Tim Duncan have higher Q Scores (29) among NBA players. For athletes, the average general Q Score, indicating awareness among the wider population in addition to just sports fans, is 15. Curry’s is 19.
Which is to say authenticity.
“I think people see through BS,” Under Armour’s Stone said, “and there’s no BS about Stephen.”
Under Armour, the upstart company based in Baltimore, has been good for Curry, but Curry also has been good for Under Armour.
“It’s been about 50, 100 times more than we could’ve expected,” said Stone. “Things like this happen maybe once in a lifetime for a brand. His shoes are flying off the shelves right now.”
Under Armour’s footwear net revenues went from $299 million in 2013 to $431 million in 2014. Fourth-quarter footwear net revenue went from $55 million in 2013 to $86 million in 2014.
Stone credits Curry.
“Everything he touches,” he said, “turns to gold.”
It’s not just shoes.
Two years ago, Curry was the most notable All-Star snub; last month, he was “the marketing face of NBA All-Star Weekend.”
He’s being paid to pitch Degree deodorant, Express clothes, Muscle Milk protein shakes, State Farm insurance and Kaiser Permanente health insurance, undoubtedly with much more to come.
“Derek Jeter,” McKillop said, “is the name that quickly comes to mind.”
Curry, Andre Iguodala, his Golden State teammate, told me last week in Washington, appeals to both “the fans who buy the courtside seats and suites” because “he speaks well, he doesn’t ever get in trouble, he’s a family man. … He plays golf” and to “the urban community” because of “the way he shoots the ball and the way he handles the ball.”
“He’s got it all covered,” Iguodala said.
He’s been in this respect a chameleon. He always could walk into any gym because of who his dad was and then because of who he himself started to become. He’s at home in the basketball world. He’s also at home, though, at a place such as Davidson, a private college in the suburbs.
Last year, after the rapper Drake included within the explicit lyrics of a song called “0 to 100/The Catch Up” a nod to Curry—I been Steph Curry with the shot, cooking with the sauce, Chef Curry with the pot, boy—Curry responded with a short, G-rated spoof video set to the Drake beat, showing Curry and his wife in the kitchen of their home literally cooking curry in a pot. Even their toddler daughter made an appearance. It felt very Stephen Curry. Street cred but family-friendly.
“I’ve been watching him for a really long time,” said Will Sweeney, from Towson, Maryland. This was last week, in Washington, before the Warriors’ game against the Wizards. Sweeney is 12. He was five when Curry and Davidson made their run in the tournament. “I saw something in him,” Sweeney said.
So did Tudor and Samuel Shelton, 16 and 13, brothers from Sterling, Virginia.
“I saw him when he was at Davidson,” Tudor said.
“It was like he didn’t miss,” Samuel said.
They’ve been watching ever since. What’ll he do next?
That night in Washington, they saw Curry tally 32 points with eight assists and no turnovers in a win.
In Section 118 was Bryant Barr. They were roommates starting as freshmen at Davidson. In May 2008, just after finishing their sophomore year, Barr and Curry were in Myrtle Beach, at a Fuddruckers hamburger restaurant, when kids with their dads recognized him and showed up at their table to ask for Curry’s autograph. They both say it took them by surprise.
“It was the first time it happened outside of Davidson, outside of Charlotte,” Curry told me. “The first time it felt much bigger,” Barr said. Now, in Washington, not quite seven years later, Barr and Curry were scheduled to go the next morning to the White House to talk about their continued efforts to fight malaria in Africa. They would meet President Obama.
During the game, though, Barr watched his former roommate and best friend use a flurry of points in the last few minutes of the third quarter, including a drive on the right baseline that ended with an impossibly high-arching floater. The crowd erupted in cheers.
The Warriors were on the road at the Verizon Center in Washington, not at home at Oracle Arena in Oakland, but it didn’t matter. They were the loudest cheers of the night. It’s how he made Belk Arena sound. It’s how he made gyms around the Southern Conference sound. Now it’s how he makes NBA arenas sound. It’s oohs and aahs, but it’s more. What is that Stephen sound? What’s the word? Impressed isn’t quite right. Entertained isn’t quite right.
When the game was over, when he jogged into the tunnel heading back to the locker room, people lined the railings and called his name—“Steph! Steph! Steph!”—and one young man chanted something else. “MVP! MVP! MVP!” Curry heard him. He looked up. And he did what he does. He pointed.