Stephen Curry Is Not Alone
Why We Love the NBA Star
After one NBA championship, an MVP, and a thus-far remarkable 2015–2016 season, Stephen Curry is the athlete of our moment. Scientists and ballet dancers expound on the unstudied precision of his shooting; poets celebrate the mystical joy of watching him play; President Obama imitates his signature horseplay.
He’s a superstar, no doubt, and secure in legend territory. But he is no solo act. What’s unusual about Steph is how he demands that the world see he is not alone.
I don’t just mean he’s a team player. Steph is shockingly inclusive, even radical in the way he uses his success to divert attention to others, including his teammates, family members, current and former coaches, Make-A-Wish kids, and the Bay Area community. This posture is remarkable, given the level of narcissism our culture pedals through reality stars, athletes, and politicians, who build depressingly predictable personal brands of exceptionalism.
Steph is exceptional as a player, but he doesn’t dwell on himself. Instead, he stays human, emphasizes his dependence on others, and creates an identity that transcends basketball stardom.
Steph maintains this other-centered image so naturally, one tiny gesture after another, that we might miss it if we don’t look closely.
In 2008, following a sophomore season performance that led the tiny, largely unknown Davidson College on an incredible run to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, Michael Kruse wrote a profile on Steph for Charlotte Magazine. Even then, before the NBA, while Steph was still a student athlete, Kruse noticed something different:
“Stephen points when he’s on the court. He points at his teammates when they pass him the ball and it leads to a score, he points to fans in the stands, he even pointed at his parents after he hit an important three-pointer late in the Gonzaga game in the tournament. What he says with the pointing on the court is something he actually told me on the phone one evening many months later.
‘It’s not just me.’…
There was “of”-ness…the relationship between the people in the stands and the kid wearing the No. 30 jersey was not one of wanton, arm’s-length idolatry. There was not the typical, expected separation.”
I graduated from Davidson in the spring of 2006, about six months before Steph arrived on campus as a freshman basketball player. By 2008, I was a graduate student living in London, and Steph was about to take his second turn at the Big Dance. An ocean away from Davidson, that March, I found myself in a sports bar near Trafalgar Square, where I watched basketball with strangers for three weeks. There, I witnessed Steph become this unstoppable force of play, drawing his teammates into a rhythm of one unexpected win after another — first over Gonzaga, then Georgetown, then Wisconsin.
By the time Davidson reached the Elite Eight, facing Kansas, I had noticed Steph’s pointing, too. Mostly I noticed him pointing to his parents. In the stands, Steph’s dad, Dell Curry, a legendary shooter and former player for the Charlotte Hornets, was always a draw for commentators, but it was Sonya, Steph’s mother, who gave the electric performances at each game. During tense moments, she would rise to her feet with her hands clasped together. Steph would get hot, the crowd would roar, and he would point directly at Sonya, the emotion on their faces mirroring one another.
Now, as a point guard for the Golden State Warriors, Steph still points. These days, the gestures to his parents aren’t always from the court, but come in the form of tributes — in interviews, during speeches and award ceremonies — to the “tone” they set in his life.
Dell plays the largest role in narrating Steph’s story to the world, actively downplaying any idea of Steph as an inevitable, natural talent. In Dell’s words, Steph is always primarily his son — a kid who faced the limitations of his body like any other kid. Now, he’s traded places with Steph, moving from court to stands, and their stories are intertwined, a story of two generations who’ve worn the #30. (If you’re looking for a good mid-afternoon cry, watch this reflection by Dell.)
While Dell represents his son to the world, it’s Sonya who’s particularly visible in instructing Steph to stay humble. Famously, Sonya has a rule that Steph isn’t allowed to wear sunglasses or headphones when interacting with fans. She’s explained her aversion to the two accessories, saying, “It says look at me, I made it. I’m going to let you look at me, but there’s no connection.” Steph’s deliberate contact with fans is no accident; he’s just following Mom’s rules.
Beyond his parents, Steph regularly signals his connection to other pillars of support. He recently designed signature Under Armour shoes as a tribute to his high school, Charlotte Christian. Steph also remains close with Bob McKillop, the Davidson men’s basketball coach, who would lay claim to the title of Biggest Curry Fan. Even though he left for the NBA before graduating, Steph has always returned to Davidson — during the 2011 NBA lockout to earn more course credits; as an MVP to open the new basketball facility he helped fund; as the permanent star of Davidson’s most watched rap video.
Davidson friends and former teammates stay tight with the star, more than spectators to a guy they once knew. His involvement in Nothing But Nets, an effort to eliminate malaria by distributing protective nets to families around the world, originated with the interest and encouragement of his Davidson roommate. That roommate, who is also godfather to Steph’s daughter Riley, accompanied Steph on his first visit to the White House, where they discussed the fight against malaria with President Obama.
Of course, the people who lay the most claim on Steph are his wife, Ayesha, and his two daughters, Riley and Ryan. Steph appears at ease in the role of family man, drawing his wife and daughters into nearly everything he does. When Ayesha recently found herself in a Twitter debacle over her comments on modesty, Steph defended her in an utterly non-defensive way, posting a picture of Ayesha with red hair, tagged “My woman…#theinstigator.”
During last year’s NBA Finals, Steph took the stage at the post-game press conferences with toddler Riley in his lap. He let her babble into the microphone and interrupt his answers to help her put a bracelet on her wrist. When members of the media and the public complained, Ayesha wrote an op-ed for Time. She said, “I believe you should let your children be children, and don’t be afraid to be a parent, regardless of who’s watching.” In other words, Steph is a dad first.
And it’s this role as a parent that gives Steph a position of moral authority to speak to issues far beyond the basketball court. In his charity work, Steph consistently relates to the needs of families as a father of two daughters. Most notably, he takes a lead in the NBA’s new campaign against gun violence, placing himself in the shoes of victims as basketball player and father. He says, “I don’t know what I would do if I got a call or if, you know, my daughter’s gone. No parent should ever have to go through that.”
At the end of Kruse’s 2008 profile, he told a couple stories of people beginning to treat Steph like a celebrity — of a Davidson parent taking to the internet to recount how Steph helped his kid move into the dorms, of freshmen snapping pictures from a distance on their phones. Kruse asked the then-junior in college how he responds to these kinds of situations, and Steph gave a simple enough answer. He said “he introduces himself.”
Of course, now, it’s impossible for Steph to introduce himself to every picture-snapping fan or star-struck bystander. But he still tries to close the gap. He steps forward, moving towards instead of away.
A Killeen boy fighting an inoperable brain tumor met his favorite NBA star in September. Taliq Davis, 10, met Golden…www.kwtx.com
And he introduces himself to the world as more than just a basketball player. He is Dell and Sonya’s son, graduate of Charlotte Christian, product of the Davidson basketball program, teammate to Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, husband to Ayesha, and father to Riley and Ryan.
When he returned to Charlotte to play the Hornets this past December, he made the usual rounds to visit his old coach at Charlotte Christian, attend a Davidson basketball game, and speak to local media about another team he follows, the Carolina Panthers. While he had his own game to play, he once again shared the spotlight when his father, Dell, walked onto the court at halftime to be honored for his career with the Hornets. Steph was on the court too in that moment, an athlete at his peak who was also still that kid watching his dad play the game.
Steph has built a striking counter-narrative to the tough exterior that places the basketball player on an unreachable pedestal of demigod celebrity. By repeatedly pointing to his past, to his story, and his roots, he reminds everyone of where and who he comes from. Which makes him accessible, more human, one of us. As Reggie Miller said, “Every kid looks at Steph and thinks: I can shoot and dribble. I can do that.” In an age of unparalleled narcissism, Steph draws everyone closer, into his flow. And it’s the reason we love him.