OAKLAND — We'll remember how he paused to cry, too overwhelmed by emotion to speak through a cracking voice, too brimming with love for his father to slow the tears. No one has stopped Stephen Curry all season, but this moment did, this day that officially certified him as a giant in sports and American culture.
“Pops,” he said from the podium, looking at Dell Curry in the audience, “you're the example of what a true professional is on and off the court. I remember a lot of your career, and to be able to follow in your footsteps …”
“Awwwwwww,” came the collective reaction in the ballroom.
Suddenly, nothing else mattered except a bond between a famous basketball parent and his son, reminding us that all of these marvelous events wouldn't be happening — Curry's NBA Most Valuable Player award, the dramatic rise of the Warriors, a transcendent front office now considered the model for progressive sports management, serious talks about a new arena — if Dell and wife Sonya hadn't raised a son so uniquely impressive as a man, a husband, a father, a teammate and maybe the best shooter ever to play the game. We must be careful, I understand, about overglorifying good character in this racket, having been burned too often when perception doesn't match reality. But I'm willing to say Steph Curry is the one megastar who won't let us down in big-picture life, and I'm taking that quantum leap because of a question he asked midway through his MVP acceptance speech Monday, a question I'll remember as much as his brief sobbing interlude.
“Where's Ralph Walker at? Where's Ralph?” he wanted to know.
He wasn't going to continue until Walker was acknowledged. It wasn't enough for Curry to thank Jesus Christ (“for blessing me with the talents to play this game”); his wife, Ayesha (“my backbone … you challenge me and inspire me every single day”); his mother (“a pretty embarrassing moment if you go to your first middle school game and you have to tell your team, 'Hey, fellas, I can't play tonight because I didn't do the dishes at home,'”); his brother, Seth, who's trying to attract NBA attention via the developmental league (“it's not easy having an older brother in the NBA and a dad that's done it before us, and the way you're handling it is impressive”); his sister, Sydell; Grandma Candy; Grandma Ducky (“probably watching at home right now, flipping back and forth between this and the Braves game”); Granddaddy Jack (“I know he's looking down on us and is extremely proud of our family”); his close friend, Bryant Barr; his current coach, Steve Kerr; his college coach at Davidson, Bob McKillop; his high school coach; Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, president Rick Welts and general manager Bob Myers; equipment manager Eric Hausen (“for taking care of us when we're a little needy, like when we need an extra pair of socks when it was our fault we lost them”); the media relations staff; the marketing staff; former GM and current scouting director Larry Riley, who made the decision, with then-coach Don Nelson, to draft Curry in 2009 (“taking a chance on a scrawny little kid from a mid-major school”); and his agents, who have made a lot more money off the Curry endorsement craze than they ever dreamed.
No, on an afternoon that was supposed to be all about Steph Curry, Steph Curry needed to make the world aware of Ralph Walker. “Ralph, our head of security, I've seen a lot of you the last three years,” Curry said after Walker waved from his perch beside — where else? — the ballroom door. “You're at every event, every practice, every game. You're our eyes when we don't have them, and we appreciate you putting yourself out there anytime we need you.
“And I like that vest. It's nice.”
Then and there, you grasped why Curry is an MVP for this team, this league and this planet on which we walk. Last year, Kevin Durant drew rave reviews at an MVP ceremony for an inspirational tribute to his mother. Curry delivered an inspirational tribute to practically every person he has encountered in life. It was not hokum. It's who he is. As Myers observed, “I think you look around at some famous people, famous athletes, and you say, 'I'd love to meet that person,' and sometimes you get the chance to do that. Most of the time, to be honest, you're disappointed because they're not quite what you thought they would be. Then, in rare occasions, you meet someone and they exceed what you thought. I can promise you, Steph embodies all of that.”
His spirit pervades an organization that, before Curry's arrival and during his initial seasons here, was a laughingstock. Much is made of Kerr turning Curry and his talented teammates into a freewheeling juggernaut after they were paralyzed by Mark Jackson, who, curiously, didn't make Curry's thank-you list after Jackson favored James Harden as MVP. Much is made of Myers as Executive of the Year, Lacob as the owner who had the guts to fire Jackson. But watching him thank everyone from Jesus Christ to Ralph Walker, then watching him turn to his teammates on the dais and thank them individually — from Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to little-used Justin Holiday — while giving us glimpses of the humor and backstories that pull this team together, yes, Steph Curry is your MVP, doubters and dumbasses. Forget the air-gasp highlight show, the crazy shot with Anthony Davis tackling him at the end of regulation, the 286 3-pointers that broke his own league record. Curry won the MVP award when he got over his initial disapproval over Jackson's dismissal and pledged his support to Kerr, which quelled a potentially explosive situation and led to a stress-free season.
Actually, Curry started laying the MVP foundation when he arrived six years ago. It's no secret he didn't want to be here, with the franchise in shambles at the time. “We didn't think it was the right fit,” Dell Curry said Monday. But with his father counseling him every night on the phone, coast to coast from North Carolina, the rookie did his part and improved individually. That set the course for a five-year overhaul — new owners, new management, new teammates, the controversial trade of Monta Ellis (who said he couldn't play alongside Curry) for Andrew Bogut, the decision not to trade Thompson — that led to the Warriors' current lot as Bay Area darlings and an engaging national story.
“There were some terrible times where you question the future a little bit: 'How do I get out of this situation?'” Curry said. “You keep pushing on.”
All of which adds up to his place as the ultimate leader and winner. Powerful as that is to experience, his perseverance is the most important lesson for young people. He may have grown up as Dell Curry's son, but that was a curse when he always was the smallest player on his youth teams. “I had a terrible, ugly, catapult shot because I wasn't strong enough to shoot over my head,” he recalled.
At a summer camp, he realized he had to change his shot. He almost quit at 14 before deciding to reconstruct his mechanics. “The worst three months of my life,” he said. “People would come and watch us play and say, 'That's Dell Curry's son? He can't play basketball.' That hurts as a young kid. That's as close as it got [to quitting]. I had to really dig deep.”
He went through hell early in his Warriors career, too, when two ankle surgeries threatened his livelihood. Myers remembers sitting with Curry at a doctor's office in Los Angeles, thinking, “This is not how it's supposed to be for this guy. This can't be how his career goes.” When the doctor determined reconstruction wasn't necessary, Curry was fitted with a sturdier shoe. And he worked even harder.
“He's about setting goals for himself, not settling,” said his wife, whom Curry has known since their early teens in Charlotte, N.C. “He thinks, “What is the next thing I need to do?' He needs goals. Then he works hard at them.”
Steph Curry is not LeBron James, who had the requisite gifts. Steph Curry is Isiah Thomas, Steve Nash, the little man mastering a big man's game.
“Everything happens for a reason, and there is a story to everything,” he said. “If you take time to realize what your dream is and what you really want in life, you have to realize there is always work to do, and you want to be the hardest working person in whatever you do and put yourself in a position to be successful. And you have to have a passion about what you do. Basketball was mine, and that's what's carried me to this point. You have big dreams, but you don't know exactly what it will feel like at the end, or what the end will be.”
The end game, of course, is an NBA title. But first, there is internal business to address, according to a “reporter” who grabbed the microphone during a question-and-answer session. “You keep mentioning us like we're a part of this,” said Green, noting that Kobe Bryant bought his teammates expensive watches after winning an MVP trophy. “So I was just wondering what our gift was.”
“That's a great question, Draymond,” said Curry, straight-faced, sizing up his next challenge. “I warmed you guys up with PlayStations last week. That wasn't good enough, though. Now I can up the level of the gift before we get out of here in June.
“I don't know what kind of watches they were, but I'll beat that gift.”
And he will. Because Wardell Stephen Curry II — when pressured to produce or adapt, no matter the predicament or obstacle — usually makes the shot.