It was a bleak November evening in 2009, and the Warriors had just dropped to 2-5 in the midst of yet another season shrouded in misery and ignominy. Stephen Curry, an undersized hit-or-miss first-round draft pick out of a small college in North Carolina, had made his NBA debut roughly two weeks before, and now he was issuing his first decree, tweeting out a “Promise to all the Warriors fans” that “we will figure this thing out … if it’s the last thing we do will figure it out.”
Five-and-a-half years later, in the midst of figuring everything out after a championship-clinching Game 6 win in the NBA Finals, Curry is reflecting on that era, on the down years that dragged on him mentally and the injuries that dragged on him physically, on what it was like to view of this Warriors franchise from both sides.
“It just makes it so much more special to have gone through some lows,” he said, “gradually work your way up every year, learn some things, and it all came to fruition with the championship trophy.”
The other day, in a brief meditation on what may be Curry’s lone repulsive habit — the penchant he has for chewing on his mouth guard as it dangles, saturated with saliva, between his lips — The New York Times Magazine labeled Curry an “egomaniac, sort of,” because he’d once chosen himself (behind Michael Jordan) as the guy most likely to hit a game-winning shot in a lineup of Jordan, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and himself. (Never mind that it might be true at this point.) But the thing about Curry, at least up to now, is that he’s managed not to get imprisoned in the sort of egotism that dragged Jordan and Kobe into rabbit holes of self-regard. At the moment, Curry is anything but an egomaniac; he’s somehow managed to balance his own belief that he can sink any shot on a court at any time with a humility that endears him to the kind of people who might have been turned off by the NBA in the past because of that rampant egotism.
And this is what was so appealing about the Curry-led Warriors: In the midst of these 2015 playoffs, they faced off against each of the other four all-NBA players (Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, James Harden, LeBron James) and defeated each one of them with a near-unprecedented display of team basketball. Was there ever any doubt that Curry was the Warriors’ go-to guy? Of course not, but the fact that Curry was willing to defer, to give the ball up to his teammates in the midst of rampant double-teaming and an occasional struggle with his shot, actually made some pundits wonder if he was actually too deferent to ever become a superstar.
Once again, Curry fooled them all. In the last two games of the Finals, he rediscovered his shot, and helped open up the entire Warriors’ offense. He’d spent the entire season, prodded by first-year coach Steve Kerr, elevating his defense to an elite level, as well. He became a first-tier superstar, a once-in-a-generation combination of flashy ballhandling and pinpoint shooting, but because of the ongoing presence of his family in every camera shot, and because of his size, and because of his cherubic looks, he is eminently relatable to the average basketball fan.
This summer, he will no doubt be swamped with endorsement offers for this very reason, because he is perhaps the most ordinary-looking great player in the recent history of the NBA. And who knows if Curry can maintain the balance he’s shown up to this point? Who knows if self-confidence will curdle into egotism, and who knows if opponents will absorb the lessons of these 2015 playoffs and make it even more difficult for Curry to create space and get off his shot? Who knows if the Warriors will be able to maintain the chemistry and genuine regard for each other that they had this season, and who knows if Kerr will figure out new ways to motivate Curry to elevate his game?
There’s dynastic potential in the Bay Area now, but it’s all dependent on the continued development of the guy who finally figured it out. On Tuesday night, shortly after Curry reflected on that now-ancient tweet, his teammate Klay Thompson sat next to him and declared him “the best player in the world.” It’s not quite true yet (see: James, LeBron). But how Curry handles compliments like that — how he deals with the success and attention he’s brought upon himself — will determine whether that statement, like Curry’s other promise, ever comes to fruition.