There’s Levels To This

by November 18, 2013
Stephen Curry SLAM Magazine


Originally published in SLAM 173

by Marcus Thompson / portraits Ahmed Klink

It’s after 9 p.m. A day-long photo shoot in the gym at Alameda (CA) St. Joseph Notre Dame is winding down, but Stephen Curry is still being Stephen Curry. Working the room. Dishing small talk. Schmoozing with workers. In between, when he gets a break from the cameras and the discussions, he steals moments with his wife and toddler daughter. Curry’s now been smiling and shaking hands with crew members and privileged spectators for the better part of four hours.

It’s hard not to be enamored with Curry. His boyish looks, his disarming smile, his down-to-earth demeanor. He has that rare ability to make you walk away after a brief encounter feeling like you just went fishing with a celebrity. “He’s an even better person than he is a player,” teammate David Lee says often.

But that’s not why Curry is on the cover of this magazine. That’s not why he’s one of the most exciting players to watch in the NBA. You know who he is because of the other side of him, his alter ego. Stephen Curry is a striking dichotomy in that sense. Off the court, his humility makes you feel warm and fuzzy about pro athletes. On the court, he completely betrays that disposition. He is merciless, a showman who preys on defenders in the pursuit of amazing.

People have been trying to coin his alter for years. Spicy Curry. Effin Stephen. The Human Torch. He says his favorite is The Baby-Faced Assassin.

“I like that one,” he says. “It was my first legit nickname from college. That was back when I really did look like a baby, so it has sentimental value.”

It’s that side of him that captivated the basketball nation this past spring, that has Warriors fans feeling like it’s finally their time. Sure, Curry’s outside shot is prettier than Meagan Good, thanks in part to the genes inherited from his sharp-shooting father, Dell Curry. And though his athleticism is wanting, he makes up for it with conniving handles to get where he wants on the court. If that’s not enough, he’s got a point guard’s IQ and underrated court vision.

But what breathes life into those skills, elevating him from a solid player to a star, is that other dude. Inside the boy-next-door is a roaring lion in search of prey. Inside is an ambition to destroy, fueled by years of being doubted and overlooked. This universally beloved nice guy with scriptures on his shoes and a playfully dangling mouthpiece gets off on conquering his opponents.

“I loved that about him even when he was a young kid and I watched him in the gym,” says Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who did battle with the adolescent Curry after Toronto Raptors practice when he played with Dell. “He wanted to be great even at that age. You won’t find a better person, but he has an edge to him. He wants to harm you, hurt you and defeat you.”

Curry is expecting to call on The Baby-Faced Assassin even more this season. He spent most of last year terrorizing defenses to the tune of 22.9 points and 6.9 assists per game.

To be sure, Curry’s been producing legendary moments for years. Remember, this is the same dude who put Davidson on the map in 2008, totaling 103 points in three straight NCAA Tourney upsets of Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin. The same dude who, as a No. 7 Draft selection in ’09-10, had five 30-point, 10-assist games and once blasted Portland for 42/9/8—rookie feats that had been accomplished only by Oscar Robertson.

Still, Curry remained a relative stranger to the larger NBA audience. Insiders knew the slight, 6-3 guard had a bright future. But he was trapped in the shadows of fellow rookies Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings, and obscured by the storm cloud that hovered over the Warriors’ franchise for decades. On top of that, his ankles’ propensity to sprain left his flame flickering for the following two seasons. No one was sure if Curry’s career would fizzle out or rekindle.

It caught fire.

Last season, in addition to dissipating that pesky Golden State cloud and setting a new record for three-pointers in a season, Curry outed his inner beast when the world was watching. He went NBA Jam on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in February, scoring 54 points—50 coming in the last three quarters as he knocked down 11 of his last 12 treys. He gave the Lakers 47 in April, more than LeBron James, Kevin Durant or any other active player has scored in a visit to Staples Center.

Then, with all eyes on him, Curry used the NBA Playoffs as a pulpit to announce his ascension to greatness. In the first round, he went off for an extra loud 22 points in the third quarter of Game 4 against visiting Denver. He did it again in Game 1 of the next round, at San Antonio, en route to a how-did-he-do-that 44 points and 11 assists.

“There is no better feeling than being in that zone,” Curry says. The NBA’s best long-distance shooter, from a standstill but especially on the fly, is well-spoken when it comes to his fantastic feats. “Sometimes, all it takes is seeing the ball go in a few times. Sometimes, I feel like it’s time for me to make something happen, like my team needs me. But sometimes, cats get to talking and I’m like, OK, I got something for you.

“It’s not about arrogance. The NBA is full of great players and I love the rush of competing against the best. I love going up against all these guys who I admire and respect, and the challenge of trying to get the best of them as they try to get the best of me. We go at each other out of a sense of respect for the game and for each other. There is no question I am looking to make my mark in this great League.”

Seth Curry, Steph’s younger brother who was in training camp with the Warriors, is chatting at the shoot with onlookers about some of his big brother’s performances. The conversation veered to what it’s like to be on the receiving end, experience Seth has in spades.

Not everyone takes kindly to The Baby-Faced Assassin. It’s annoying enough trying to defend the guy. His range effortlessly extends beyond 27 feet, his release rivals a Nikon’s shutter speed and he can drill ’em spotting up or off the dribble or on the break. “He shoots something like 50 percent on transition threes,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “Think about that. That’s insane.”

To add salt to it, the other side of Curry likes to rub it in. In a home game against visiting Brooklyn last November, he knocked down a three-pointer and got the foul. He followed by turning to the Oracle crowd and counting to four on his fingers—before stepping to the line for the free throw. In January, in a tight game against the visiting Clippers, he hit a late three-pointer (as part of a 16-point fourth quarter) and galloped down court after the Clips called a timeout. Two nights later, he got by Russell Westbrook and dropped in a floater off the glass with the foul. He shimmied from his knees.

In his 54-point MSG game, Curry famously did a zombie apocalypse version of the shimmy after knocking down his 10th three-ball. (Seth does a funny impersonation of that one.) In the first round against Denver, video replay shows him taking a corner three in front of the Nuggets bench and turning to give them a stare while the ball was mid-air.

Curry says it’s all in good fun. He says he’s an emotional player and his celebrations and banter are not meant as disrespect. It’s just exuberance exploding to the surface from his inner love of the game. It’s hard not to believe him based on who he is off the court. But no doubt it still stings when you’re his victim…which makes his brother Seth wonder.

“Think what it would be like if he played in the ’90s,” the rookie out of Duke says while dribbling a ball on the sidelines. “I mean, teams try to rough him up now, so you can imagine what the Knicks or the Bad Boy Pistons would have done to stop him.”

Curry’s coach is an OG from that era who could also show off with the best of them. Jax confesses his gameplan to stop Curry would be to rough him up, be physical with him. He says today’s stars definitely benefit from the hands-off edicts in this era of flagrant fouls. “I’m not going to have him jam me down from the three-point line with my wife and kids watching time and time again,” Jackson says, breaking into a smile as the New York City point guard in him creeps to the surface.

Both Curry and Jackson are expecting even more touchy-feely-grabby defense this year. Golden State heads into this season with its highest expectations in decades. The Bay is whispering about 50+ wins and the Western Conference Finals, and that rides largely on Curry having a monster year. Opponents know this. The book on Curry is to body him when he’s on offense and try to take advantage of his suspect defense.

He says he is preparing for this new reality by improving his ability to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line, where he’s a career 90 percent shooter. The Warriors signed Andre Iguodala to join Lee, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut and in helping take the pressure off Curry. Nonetheless, the heat will be on. Because the word is out: No. 30 will shame you.

“He makes you change your defense because there isn’t one way to guard him,” says Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who knows something about torching defenses. “He has unlimited range, crafty handle and he has the ability to hit tough shots. And his teammates want to see him get off. That’s a wicked combination.”

Of course, the extra attention on Curry just might bring out The Baby-Faced Assassin even more. He’s lean, at 185 pounds, but his teammates and coaches know him as nothing short of tough and feisty. It was that spirit that helped him through career-threatening ankle issues. It was that mindset that gave him strength to carry his team with 23.4 points and 8.1 assists in the Playoffs despite averaging 41.4 minutes on a bruised hamstring and sprained ankle.

Curry says he is comfortable when the odds are stacked against him, having hurdled numerous obstacles to get to this point. These days, he speaks about his slights over the years as a source of pride. But the sting of being dissed is what berthed his alter.

Despite dominating prep play at Charlotte Christian, his fragile frame left him scarcely recruited. He didn’t get a sniff from the Carolina basketball powerhouses. Not even Virginia Tech—where both his parents starred—recruited him to become a Hokie.

Curry wound up at Davidson, partly because of their high education standards, a priority for his mom. But he hadn’t yet given up on his NBA dreams. And even when they were realized, after he led the nation in scoring, he was greeted with doubt before he played an NBA game. If it wasn’t teammate Monta Ellis saying he couldn’t win with Curry, it was a host of doubters chiding him for poor defense and turnover problems. Many called him overrated, a glorified spot-up shooter worthy of a sixth man role, even after a dominant rookie season.

And then came the ankle issues. That troublesome right wheel was the biggest reason he signed a bargain four-year, $44 million contract extension last Halloween—which is now seen as one of the best deals in the League. In three years, he sustained dozens of sprains on the same ankle and had off-season surgery twice. It cost him 52 of 230 games, 40 in the lockout-shortened season. It cost him even more hours of sleep.

“That second ankle surgery was the lowest of the low,” Curry says. “Going into it, we didn’t really know how damaged my ankle was. And then everywhere I turned, I had people telling me I was going to be the next Grant Hill story. All the time. They even still say it. It’s the easy answer, to say I’ll never be the player everybody thought I was because of these injuries.”

Curry played most of last season without ankle issues. And by early February, Golden State was 13 games over .500 and well on its way to a Playoff bid for the first time since 2007. Curry was the catalyst for this Golden State resurrection, but it led to an All-Star snub. The latest in a litany of slights. Food for The Baby-Faced Assassin.

In the 30 games after the break, Curry averaged 26 points on 47.6 percent shooting with 7.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds. He rained 123 three-pointers in that span. That’s an average of 4.1 per game, and he did it at a 46 percent clip. But it wasn’t just that he made shots. It was how he made them. In bunches. With hands in his face. After yo-yoing a defender with a crossover.

“It makes it so much sweeter,” he says, “when you work so hard and succeed with the people that believed in you and helped you along the way.”

As he has reached the game’s upper echelon, exposure has started to follow. You’ll see Curry in several national ad campaigns in the coming months, and you’ll see his new sneaker brand, Under Armour, do tons with him. Stephen, who signed with UA as we were going to press, is the best player the brand’s ever worked with, and the folks there cannot wait to work with him and make his profile even larger.

As the clock approaches 10 p.m., Curry rebounds for his wife, Ayesha, as she chucks three-pointers from the top of the key in the house that Jason Kidd built. Chris Pondok, the athletic director and girls’ basketball coach at Saint Joseph, challenges Curry to make a trick shot off a beam in the rafters. Despite his obvious exhaustion, Curry accepts the challenge. His first few attempts are playful efforts and don’t come close. But then something changes. It’s almost instantaneous, but suddenly you get the sense he wants to make it. His grin fades, focus sharpens.

With his back to the basket, he heaves the rock toward the rafters. The ball caroms off a beam, falling back toward him. It bounces in the paint—right where the dotted line would be—over Curry’s head, then banks off the glass and rattles in. He raises both arms in celebration as onlookers cheer. That’s how The Baby-Face Assassin rolls.