Unassuming Warriors star Curry driven to higher levels 

click to enlarge Stephen Curry, the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game and an MVP candidate, has led the Warriors to a historic season so far, but he knows he must step up in the playoffs. - MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP File Photo
  • Stephen Curry, the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game and an MVP candidate, has led the Warriors to a historic season so far, but he knows he must step up in the playoffs.

In the otherwise angelic, scrubbed life of the impossibly adorable Stephen Curry, there is one wretched vice. He cannot shake the habit of allowing a mouthguard, a $100 piece of amorphous plastic, to dangle cockily around his chin in all its tooth- tattered, saliva-smeared glory. It does not gross us out during games as much as it gives us pause: Behind the baby-boy smile loved by millions, beyond the every-dude image embraced by companies who have him spray deodorant into his armpits, beneath the wetsuit he wears under his clothes to help State Farm-insured customers locate lost boats, is he really just a smug, cheeky bastard seeking to rip out human organs?

Why, yes, in a basketball context, he is that.

And unapologetically so.

In fact, after spending one-on-one time with Curry at the Warriors' solar-friendly practice gym atop an Oakland parking garage, I discover that he wants much more from sports than he already has gnawed off. It isn't enough to be the NBA's most popular form of buzz, the front-runner for Most Valuable Player in a season of numerous sick candidates, the biggest vote-getter for the All-Star Game, the most dynamic shooter of a 3-point-bombing generation, the best and most electric performer within a Golden State entertainment colossus headed toward a rare 65-win regular season. It isn't enough to have his ass kissed at the White House, to make Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams look myopic in not recruiting him in his very North Carolina backyard, to evoke howls to this day that Memphis selected a washout named Hasheem Thabeet and Minnesota took two point guards — one of whom, Jonny Flynn, is out of the league — before the Dubs stole him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2009 draft. It isn't enough that Wardell Stephen Curry II, he of the malaria humanitarian initiative and the young family who keeps him grounded in a home by a lake in Orinda, appears to be the one breakthrough athlete America can safely trust, I dare say, after a long, miserable run of neon-named cheaters and cads.

He swears he has a lot more to get done in life, though he'd never actually swear.

"I know I've been given talent to play this game. I don't think I've reached my plateau yet. I'm kind of delusional when I think about that," he says, relaxing in a folding chair after practice. "I don't know if I'll ever get to that point, but there's always something I want to add to my game. I'm my own worst critic. I might go 11-of-15 from the field in a game, but those four shots bug me. I sort of want to be perfect in terms of how I play. That's what fuels me. I know I can do something different and better all the time and get to a new level. I have to take advantage of the talents I've been given."

OK, slacker. What's the biggest crack in your game?

"Turnovers," Curry says. "As a point guard, you're going to have them, and you can't be afraid to be creative and take chances — you don't want to simplify your game down. But as a PG, I want to be among the greats when it comes to something specific like assists-to-turnover ratio. I look at that stat, and that bugs me, being in the middle of the pack [among the league leaders]. I need to focus on making better decisions consistently. Then, next step, I need to get to the free-throw line more. As you play bigger games, especially in the playoffs, I have to keep having impact on the game regardless of whether my shot is falling. I need to be in attack mode and get to the line."

Meaning, if Charles Barkley and other doubters think Curry is bothered by lingering ass- ertions that "a bunch of jumpshooters" can't win a championship, he's too busy immersed in his own self-critiques to care.

"Have to prove him wrong," Curry says, without a blink, of Barkley's oft-stated TNT take. "San Antonio shot a lot of 3s last year when they made their run. Their offense was predicated on spacing, and so is ours. As long as we take good shots and don't force and jack up a lot of 3s that aren't in the rhythm of the offense — that's where we get into trouble. We haven't really done that. We have found a good shot on every possession. We have a lot of 3-point shooters who can knock it down. As long as we stick to those principles on offense, we'll be fine."

Would he like to debate that with Barkley? "I wouldn't even if I did," Curry says. "I've seen him. He's a very good dude in person. His opinion is what it is. Obviously, he's opinionated in what he believes, but sometimes, it changes. We'll have to prove him wrong down the stretch."

I speak for a sports nation in saying we can't wait to watch. What the hoops cognoscenti want in the end is Warriors vs. Cleveland, the Steph Offensive vs. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Splash Brothers vs. Double Trouble, a work of art vs. monsters possessed. And for all of James' business-contrived, universal good vibes in returning to his home region after his bittersweet, four-year Miami getaway, my guess is that more people will be rooting for the Warriors because of Curry. We're all sort of slogging through LeBron Burnout, impressed as ever by his on-court dominance but weary of his nonstop image enhancement efforts, such as a recent story in the Hollywood Reporter that he wants to immerse himself as a show-business entrepreneur. (I would suggest Mr. "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven ..." focus on title No. 3.) Curry is new, refreshing, unpretentious, comparatively slight of build, someone who makes us want to grab a ball and shoot in the driveway — as opposed to James, who makes us want to reach for an HGH jug. We can't relate to LeBron, but Steph is one of us, sort of, at least until we go 0-fer in a game of H-O-R-S-E. His intensity is accentuated by regular spillages of joy that might smack of showing up the opponent — playing to the crowd, gesturing with both hands, shouting amid a barrage of threes, hopping, skipping, throwing bubble gum into the stands on his 27th birthday — when, truth be known, he's simply having fun with a game that should be fun for all of us. His coach, Steve Kerr, often is asked if Curry reminds him of Michael Jordan as a competitor. As one who covered Jordan throughout his dynasty, I will counter with this: Ever remember MJ, the cutthroat killer, cracking a smile on a court? In contrast, Curry is immersed in a euphoric trance.

"There's a joy and a bravado that I love, especially because it's paired with this genuine humility and modesty off the court," Kerr says. "It's a great combination. I compare him to Tim Duncan. Tim doesn't show the joy that Steph does, but Tim's confidence in himself combined with the humility in the locker room is just a brilliant form of leadership without even trying, just being who you are. That's how Steph is. Just being the person he is, people are attracted to him. Confidence and skill and modesty — when does that package come together? He's got it. It's awesome."

Completely unaffected by fortune and fame, then?

"A normal dude," Kerr says.

While Curry has had every reason to morph into something else as a human being — "Every time I turn on the TV, he's doing another commercial," Kerr says — he somehow remains as well-balanced and sensible as the kid who exploded onto the national scene as a March hero at wee Davidson College. His famous NBA-shooting father, Dell, and mother, Sonya, have raised a son who never will let ego trump work ethic. After practice, a usual afternoon and evening involves spending time with wife Ayesha and their 2-year-old daughter, Riley, and perhaps working in some practice time on his backyard putting green. Or playing video games. Curry and his wife watch TV shows, and when he says his favorite is "House Of Cards," I briefly consider again that he is some cloaked madman in the vein of Frank Underwood. But then Curry speaks, washes away all evil thoughts and says it's important for Steph to remain Steph.

"You have to be purposeful in that effort," he says. "For me, off the court is where I try to keep things as familiar and simple as possible, and by that, I mean how important my family is and how I spend my time with them. Obviously with the rise in status, I guess you call it — the commercials and the schedule you have off the court — things get pretty crazy. You really have to protect your personal space and your time, or you will get distracted and lose focus on what's really important. I have a lot of help. My family does a great job of keeping me normal, not letting my head get too big."

The cranium has the potential to become blimp-sized if Curry 1) wins the MVP award as he deserves in the coming weeks, beating out James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and James; and 2) leads the Warriors through the murderous Western Conference playoffs into the NBA Finals. When I ask him, point-blank, if he deserves to be MVP, he thinks for a few seconds, not wanting to separate his own dreams from his team's ambitions.

"I want to be," he says. "That's a huge honor to have in a year when a team is winning with you having a big impact in it. For me, that's my mission, to win as many games as possible and have an impact on every single game on both ends of the floor. In doing that, not only myself but other guys on the team should be acknowledged for their efforts. Being MVP would be a special accomplishment for a lot of reasons. It's not my mindset to go out, have 30 [points] a night and see it boost my MVP resume. But if I channel that drive into doing my job, good things will happen. So far, they have."

Another lame knock on Curry is that he's not demonstrative enough as a leader, leaving the louder leadership rants to Kerr and a resoundingly vocal Draymond Green within an otherwise low-key group. Kerr dismisses it as a nonissue. "I don't believe that. You have to be who you are," he says. "That's up to the coaching staff, and me in particular, to understand the dynamics of the team. That means maybe I have to yell sometimes to get their attention, unless Draymond does it. The other guys aren't going to do it. That's fine. There's so many different forms of leadership, but if it's not genuine, the guys aren't going to believe in it. If Steph started ranting and raving and screaming at guys, they'd all look at him like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

"I lead by example, try to set an example of how hard I'm going to work every night and at every practice, putting in the extra work," Curry says. "I'm not an in-your-face guy, but I like the responsibility of being in charge of the team, the way I communicate in one-on-one settings. I'll pull a guy to the side, encourage him or get on him, just between us. I'd expect the same from my teammates with me. That's how I operate as a leader."

As opposed to LeBron, who sends cryptic public tweets to teammate Kevin Love and politically turns him into the team's third wheel.

Not that there aren't questions about the Warriors, even as they wear their "Pacific Claimed" T-shirts after winning the franchise's first division title since 1975-76, the year after the Dubs last took the NBA title. How will Curry's body hold up through three potentially wicked series in the West? What happens when opponents smother Curry and Klay Thompson with perimeter double-teams, forcing others to step up? While Kerr has been brilliant in building a unified bridge and raising the team's offensive and defensive profiles after the sensitive dismissal of Mark Jackson — a move strongly opposed by Curry at the time — how will he handle the adjustments of masters such as Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers as a rookie playoff coach? Curry knows a heavenly regular season soon will be supplanted by the rage of the Western gauntlet, but he is confident that the upstarts — and the coach he now embraces — will succeed.

"I compartmentalized it into two decisions. The decision to fire coach Jackson, I didn't agree with, and it was something that didn't sit well. But if you separate that from the decision of who they hired, they got it right last summer," he says. "I heard [Kerr's] vision and how he was very complimentary of the roster and the talent level, and that he wasn't going to blow stuff up and reinvent the wheel. He has just built on the foundations we have set the last three years. Obviously, it's working out. I've been blessed to have some great coaches."

But none who challenge Curry to free-throw shooting contests after practice, as Kerr routinely does. In the pantheon of basketball marksmen, these are two all-time greats, so deadly that the objective of this game isn't making free throws but making them cleanly — swish, not even a nick of iron. At one point, as Kerr kept ripping twine as if still in his playing days, Curry slammed the court with his fist. "I'm locked in that moment, as I would be in an actual game," says Curry, who ended up winning, as he did in New York last month at a memorable 3-point contest on All-Star weekend. "I definitely know all his accomplishments as a shooter, all the big shots he made. He brings out the best in me. I know if I miss a couple, there are no gimmes against him."

If the Warriors once again crash early, it will be debated whether their style is conducive to winning a championship. That criticism will fall upon Curry, as well. Cool as it is to have the league's best-selling jersey this calendar year, heartwarming as it is that 18-to-34s voted him their favorite athlete in a recent poll, rewarding as it is to have an Under Armour shoe that pays him $4 million a year, crazy as it is to have Jamie Foxx narrate a tribute to All Things Steph, and fun as it is to do an ESPN ad in which he thinks Chicken Curry is being served in a cafeteria as a tribute to him, the greats still are defined by championships. Curry knows it.

"We have a big goal in mind," he says. "That has always been our belief. If people still doubt us — and a lot of people do, because we haven't gotten past the second round the last three years — we know that we have every piece to make it happen. From October on, we've been very confident in our abilities to do some special things this year, and it's shaping out that way."

Let history provide the lessons. Doubt Stephen Curry, and he will drown you, splash by paralyzing splash. "I don't really waste energy on why Minnesota didn't draft me when it picked two point guards, or why Duke and [North] Carolina and those schools didn't recruit me," he says. "I'm a big believer in everything happening for a reason and just staying in the moment. I have a big belief in myself, and I put the work ethic behind it. That's where I get my fuel."

If only it could be bottled for the rest of sport, for the breadth of humankind.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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