IT'S NOT GOING TO LAST, of course, this team, this moment, this selfie of pure unselfishness. It's too perfect, the way these Golden State Warriors, whose crunch-time five is so small it would fit nicely in a Fiat 500, have become the biggest thing in the NBA, with a possible stop at Best Team Ever.
This is an article from the March 7, 2016 issue
He's not going to last forever, either, this little man and his little ego and his giant bag of pebbled pyrotechnics. It's too sweet. How can Steph Curry sell the most jerseys and yet barely fill out the one he wears?
Nope. It's all going to go splat. Agents, age, avarice. They'll mess it up. It will never be this pure and happy again, and he knows it.
"It took me until my fourth year to be on a winning team in this league," says Curry. "So I know how great it is to win. I know the league is so fluid. One trade, one bad free-agent signing, and it's over. So there's no way I'm not gonna have fun. I never fail to savor it."
Want to savor it with him?
IT'S FEBRUARY, THE end of a shootaround at Oracle Arena, and the 6'3" Curry, the league's leading scorer, ends it the way he loves to end it. He launches one of his cloud scrapers, the ones that seem to fall out of the catwalk and barely ruffle the net. As it falls, he turns his back and runs the other way. Who needs to look? But us? We love to look. One second later, swish.
ME: How do you know they're in?
CURRY: From the roar of the crowd. Hello?
Ask a stupid question.
IT'S LATE AND the Warriors are exhausted from beating the Raptors 112--109 in Toronto, using every basketball gadget they have: Curry's sky-show 44 points, forward Draymond (Money) Green's Chinese-menu game, shooting guard Klay Thompson's elegant spot-ups.
But now: passport control.
As each player goes through, the grim immigration agent glares at him, glares at his passport, stamps it and waves him on. Except for Curry. The agent glares at Curry, glares at his passport, stamps it and says with a huge smile, "Thanks for making basketball fun again."
IT'S NOT JUST Curry. It's 15 guys who fit together like a cryptex and are twice as unsolvable.
It's the 6'7", 230-pound Green, who's unafraid to guard anyone or boast anything but is terrified of cats.
It's Aussie center Andrew Bogut, who could have peed into this team's Cheerios when he was DNP--Coach's Decision in the last two victories of the Finals last June. "If I'm not whining about that, then the guys at the end of the bench can't bitch about minutes," Bogut says. "Not gonna happen on this team."
It's Thompson, the unsplashy Splash Brother, who's quiet as the tide but whose game is booming. When doubled, Curry dishes, usually to Thompson, who can burn any defender down to ash. Thompson lives to do two things: crush threes and go home to his beloved bulldog, Rocco.
"It's the most unique set of players I've ever seen," says Warriors board member and former Lakers legend Jerry West. "They all like each other! That never happens. Guys on my teams? No. We were all over the place. But these guys actually, genuinely, like each other. And it shows."
But God help them if they ever start losing.
"It's almost crazy when we lose a game," Bogut says. "We feel like we lost the championship. I've been on teams when you lose a game, it's over in five minutes. Here, it's 'F--- you, you should've played better!'"
What do you expect? They don't get much practice at it.
IT'S AN HOUR after a game in Philadelphia and a pimpled ball boy has been waiting for his moment to get to Curry, like an altar boy waiting to get a blessing from the Pope. Just as Curry is finally about to get a mouthful of food from the postgame spread, the kid makes his move.
"Steph, could I get a picture with you?" he tries.
(Even to a ball boy, he's just Steph.)
Curry puts the fork back on the plate and says, "Sure." Click. Afterward, the ball boy's grin can be seen from Pittsburgh. "Oh, my god! My friends are gonna be so jealous! The greatest player who ever lived!"
ME: What about Michael Jordan?
BALL BOY: Oh, I don't know about him. That was before I was born.
I ask the 27-year-old Curry if he realizes that to some young people, he's their Jordan?
"Wow. I don't know," he says. "It's hard to remove myself from the day-to-day life to see the big picture. I mean, I notice the change in support we get with so many more fans on the road, more sales; I see more of my jerseys, more T-shirts. But Jordan? I mean, guys like Jordan, Bird, LeBron, they've accomplished so much. I have a lot more to accomplish."
ME: Could you end up being better than Jordan?
CURRY: I mean, that's a goal. I want to be the best. I do. I have a huge amount of respect for him, but I don't think it's disrespectful to say, "I want to be the best of all time."
Coming from anyone else that would be sacrilege. But the prom-faced Curry with sage eyes says it and you think, "What, the kid's not allowed to dream?"
IT'S NOT MUCH to ask, is it? The two things 15-year-old Sofia Petrafesa of Stamford, Conn., wants in the entire world? One: to meet her idol, her crush, her melting point, Steph Curry, whose pictures, Wheaties box, pillows, bobblehead, socks, hat, bracelets and magazine covers fill up her room. Two: to make her back stop hurting.
The first request her parents met. For Christmas, they gave her tickets to see Curry and the Dubs play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
The second? That would be much, much harder.
IT'S PAST THE All-Star break and the world is still joyously, wondrously, happily downside up. How could every NBA arena be suddenly half filled with colors the home team doesn't even sell? How could a league whose standard used to be a cyborg called the Spurs now be fronted by a bunch of happy snipers from the Bay Area who get more touches in a single possession than a $20 bill at a street craps game? And how could these guys be called the Warriors anyway? They're about as warlike as fudge.
How? Because fun is the whole strategy. Fun is the Plan A to take over the world. Take the other day, in Minneapolis, time for yet another road practice. So why isn't the team bus pulling up to the arena?
"No practice today," coach Steve Kerr announces. "We're going bowling."
"Turns out Steph's ridiculously good at bowling, too," assistant coach Bruce (Q) Fraser marvels. "His balls have that PBA hook on them."
They've blown off practice to play touch football, take batting practice with the A's, and get to team dinners early, where they rent out entire restaurants and laugh for three hours while crowds press their noses to the windows. Team film meetings are not drudgery, they're diggery. Recently, for instance, Curry fell asleep on his man, who got a wide-open corner three. The film cut to three-year-old Riley Curry yawning at a press conference.
The rookie, Kevon Looney, fell asleep on the team's charter jet one night with his mouth open, and Green swatted a dead fly into it.
These guys are looser than secondhand socks. They're playing with house money. They won the title last year when positively nobody saw it coming. If this season were a Zagat review, it would have been: These "soft" "underdogs" are a "lucky" "fluke" who had an "easy road" to the title. So they came out and doubled down on the excellence. At times they've approached mythical. Through the first 50 games, when they had their three All-Stars—Curry, Thompson and Green—they were 48--2. That Three you thought was Big? Just shrunk.
"They've ruined the game of basketball for me," says former Dubs forward Tom Tolbert, a Bay Area sports-talk host. "No other team passes like this. No other team shoots like this. No other team has this much fun. You try to watch another team's game, and you're like, 'Well, this sucks. Thanks a lot.'"
IT'S TIME I mention it: The game's best player and I have a history.
In 2013, Curry gave up a week of his off-season—including his anniversary—to come to a refugee camp in Tanzania to hang 37,000 antimalaria bed nets with us for Nothing But Nets, a charity I cofounded in these pages 10 years ago with the United Nations Foundation. What's funny is that he paid for a lot of those nets. He donates three nets for every three-pointer he makes, which is like having your 14-year-old daughter donate three every time she checks her phone. Do you realize the NBA-record 288 threes he has made already this season—the last his 32-foot show-stopper to beat the Thunder in overtime last Saturday—could cover half the beds in Togo?
On that trip, I came to know a humble superstar who has as much time for a malaria-riddled mother as he does for the President; a patient soul who tries to smile while a peasant slaughters a goat in his honor; a mannered man who doesn't say a peep about having to ride gutted roads in tiny Toyotas as soldiers hold machine guns on either side of him.
This is about a guy who, at the end of all of that, says, "When are we coming back?"
IT'S GETTING AWKWARD, this interview, now that I've asked Thompson about his fiercest critic, a sports-talk host in L.A. who called him "an idiot" for fighting a 7-footer and said the Lakers of the 1980s would have "crushed" these Warriors. It's Thompson's father, Mychal, the former Lakers center.
"People don't get it," Klay says, squirming on his chair a little. "My dad has a very dry sense of humor. Like he said he was going to cut my allowance over that fight. People were coming up to me like, 'Whoa. Your dad still has you on an allowance? That's pretty smart of you.' I mean, geez."
ME: So he doesn't get to you?
THOMPSON: No, he's an idiot. He's crazy.
ME: When's the last time he beat you in H-O-R-S-E?
THOMPSON: I was 14.
ME: Can I interview Rocco?
THOMPSON: No. He needs his space.
IT'S BUZZING AT Madison Square Garden and Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony is trying to solve Curry and nothing's working. Finally, Anthony tries something new. He puts his big hand on Curry's face, the way your big brother did to keep your punches from landing.
"I didn't know what to do," Curry says. "I've never had someone put their actual hand on my head to stop me. It felt kind of claustrophobic, like I couldn't move."
He tried, though, and got a gash across his forehead for his trouble. "Hey, Carmelo," Green yelled the next time down, "You need to cut your fingernails."
"I was kinda mad about it actually," Curry said afterward. "I was going to complain to him, in the tunnel. I was going to be like, Hey, look what you did to my face!"
But instead Anthony came up to him with his adorable eight-year-old son, Kiyan, who held a present for Curry—a woodcut bust of Curry he'd made in shop class. Imagine that, the whole family enjoys cutting Steph.
IT'S "PLAYER AVAILABILITY" IN Oklahoma City, and every reporter wants to know about the Number.
It's not Green's 11 triple doubles, best in the NBA. It's not Curry's 30.0 points a game—six points more than last year—or his shooting 68.1% from 28 feet out, which is pure sorcery.
No, the Number is 73. They hear about it 10 times a day. Are the Warriors going to go after a record 73 wins—one more than Jordan's 1995--96 Bulls—or just focus on another title? It will take 20 victories over their final 24 games. "My greatest fear is never experiencing [winning a championship] again," Green says to me over a cheeseburger one day. "It's better than sex." And the pat response from the players is: Well, if we're right there with a chance to get 73, why wouldn't we try? That's a record that will put us down in history.
But Curry and the Screen-setters, as they sometimes call themselves, never talk about that number. The number they talk about the most is how much is in the Silly Fines kitty.
The goal of any Dub is to catch another Dub committing a Silly Fine and make him contribute between $250 and $500 to the kitty. To wit:
• Green chewing gum in the White House ($500). "I didn't know it wasn't allowed," he pleaded.
• Center Festus Ezeli tweeting after the Super Bowl: "Happy for Eli Manning." He meant Peyton Manning ($250).
• Kerr breaking only a small corner off his clipboard during a halftime rant in January. "Kind of a weak-ass break," Green says. "At least break it in half." Kerr: "It was defective!" (Fine to be determined.)
When the kitty gets big enough, there's a half-court shooting contest. Winner takes all. Everybody gets a chance—equipment guys, trainers, even reporters. Except for Curry, who recuses himself. Unless everyone else misses.
IT'S FOUR DAYS before the big Curry game when an X-ray finally finds it—the large mass on Sofia's back. It's a tumor, Ewing Sarcoma, a bone cancer that shows up only 200 times a year in the U.S.
Right away, she has only one question for the doctor, the nurses, her parents: "Can I still go see Steph Curry? I really, really, really want to go to the game."
Seems impossible, since she has to start chemo right away.
"I'll try to get you there," the doctor says.
IT'S BEEN A week now since I've hit the road with the un-Warriors. I went on the road for a week with that 72-win Chicago team, too, but it's like comparing grizzly bears to gummy bears.
The Bulls were an army coming to town. They weren't there to laugh or dance or entertain you. They were there to crush your soul, grab the W and get out of town. The Warriors are a game of three-card monte. They'll take your money, but you'll have fun getting fleeced. Coach's orders. It said so right there on the whiteboard, in Kerr's handwriting, before Game 1 against the Cavaliers: LET IT FLY.... HAVE FUN. If that's what he wants you to do during the NBA Finals, you can imagine what he wants you to do in Game 57 at Orlando (a 130--114 win last Thursday, in which Curry made 20 of 27 shots and scored 51 points).
The Dubs pass the ball as if it's coated in anthrax. In the first half alone against the 76ers, they had 26 assists. Most teams don't get that many in a game. They have a chance to become the first team since the Showtime Lakers of 1984--85 to average 30 dimes.
And the supernovas of the 72-win Bulls and the current Dubs? Nothing alike. "Michael Jordan lived a separate life from us," says Kerr, who was a backup guard on that Bulls team. "He stayed in his own suites, had his own security people. Steph takes a regular room like everybody else, goes everywhere the rest of the guys do. Michael intimidated players just by walking on the court. Fans too. Steph walks on the floor, and people are like, 'How old is he? 13?'"
Curry doesn't think he's the cosmos. In America right now, Steph Curry seems to be the only one who isn't all that impressed with Steph Curry. Maybe that comes from his father, Dell, a 16-year NBA shooting guard who taught him that when taking a jump shot, you want to land in the same place you started. Curry wants to be the same person at the end of all this that he was when he began. "He's got patience for every single person who comes across his path," says the team video coach, Nick U'Ren. "I've never seen him have a bad day."
Curry's joy seems to come from making others happy.
ME: Can you break Ray Allen's career three-point record?
CURRY: What is it?
IT'S 10 MINUTES AFTER the Warriors have outlasted the Thunder 116--108 at Oracle, and because the Super Bowl happens across town the next day, the home locker room is slammed like a Hong Kong subway.
"You! Out!" barks Dan Martinez, Golden State's senior director of p.r., at a sturdy, shortish man in a purple sweater.
"But I have a pass," the guy says meekly, holding it up.
"Don't care!" Martinez says. "It's too crowded in here. The players can't even move! Out!"
And with that, the guy is shooed out into the hallway.
Turns out it's Tiki Barber.
IT'S JANUARY, A home game against the Spurs, and another defender gives Curry the Look.
"They just stare at you, no words, no blinking," Curry says. "It's like they're saying to you, 'My turn. I'm gonna lock you down.' And then they pick you up full court. That means the challenge is on. I'm like, O.K., let's go."
On this night, it's 6'6" rookie Jonathan Simmons. Ezeli: "He kept telling Steph before the game, 'I'm gonna lock you down, Steph! Gonna lock you down!' So Steph goes out there, and he's like, 'O.K., let's see you lock me down.' And three straight and-one's later, they're pulling Simmons off the court, and Steph's yelling, 'Go sit down!'"
O.K., so maybe he's not always mannered.
IT'S ANOTHER NIGHT when Green is in peak form. Not playing form. Talking form. Nobody in the league talks better—and more—than Green.
A fan sitting 20 rows up is yelling about how the Knicks are going to destroy him and how he doesn't deserve to be an All-Star and how he's softer than warm butter.
"What?" Green yells up to him, hand to his ear. "I can't hear you! You got bad seats! They're too far up!"
"Draymond could talk a bird out of flight," Bogut says.
In Philly, the Sixers put 5'11" Isaiah Canaan on the often unguardable 6'7" Thompson, who kept torching him. Each time he did, Green would holler out, in falsetto, "I'm just too little!"
After the Warriors had Green's mom surprise him by interrupting a fake TV interview to tell him he'd made his first All-Star team, Green looked as if he was going to cry.
"I wanted to cry," he said, "but I didn't want to be the next Michael Jordan meme on Facebook, so I couldn't."
Memo to TNT: We found your next Charles Barkley.
IT'S 90 MINUTES BEFORE tip-off, and Curry comes out for his nightly follicle-raising warmup routine, which hasn't changed in four years. What has changed is that the world now treats it as Adele doing scales, Streep reading lines and Puck stirring sauces, combined.
You owe it to yourself to see it at least once. Curry begins with a dizzying display of two-basketball dribbling, then switches to crazy-high loft shots, then lefthanded bank shots, then T-shirt-gun shots from the corner, then high teardrops with both hands. He makes so many of all these you begin to think you're watching some kind of David Blaine trick. Then lefthanded hooks, then 10 threes from each spot around the arc—in practice once this year Curry made 77 straight—then 10 from the start of the half-court logo, then a few from half-court, then rainmakers over the backboard while standing out-of-bounds. All of it to the crowd's fireworks-show oooohs! and aaaahs! and whooooas!
In most cities the Steph Curry Warmup Show is now televised live when the Dubs are in town. A couple of teams have changed their doors-open time so that people can be settled in when it starts. (Memo to Warriors: When are you going to change yours?) One team actually offered courtside seats for it if fans bought a 10-game package.
But tonight is something new: The 76ers have set up Finals-type ropes to keep people off the court. "Never seen that before," says Q, Curry's feeder. They were not disappointed.
ME: What did you think of the TV cameras, the 1,000 people watching and the ropes?
CURRY: Hashtag overreaction.
IT'S TIME FOR the Warmup Show, and Sofia is there because ... what self-respecting Stephaholic would miss it? Later on the Dubs run away from the Knicks, but in the final minutes it gets thrilling. NBA media exec Tim Frank shows up out of nowhere and wonders whether Sofia and her friends want to go down to the floor.
"Maybe you can watch Steph do interviews," he says.
Then it's, "Maybe you can see him walk out of the locker room."
And then it's, Omigod, Steph Curry himself is looking right at you! Not only that, he's holding a signed pair of his signature shoes.
"Are you Sofia?" Curry asks.
She squeaks a yes.
"These are for you." He hugs her and whispers into her ear, "I heard you got some bad news this week. I just want you to know it's going to be O.K. Keep fighting. You've got a great support system. Lean on them, O.K.?"
He unhugs and looks her in the eye and smiles.
Through the tears, all she can do is nod.
"Who gets diagnosed with bone cancer and then, three days later, meets their all-time hero?" Sofia's mother, Geralyn, says later. "And then that hero turns out to be soooooo nice?"
Gushed Sofia, "It was like he didn't even know he was famous."
"I kept noticing her mom," Curry says later. "She was breaking down too. I kept watching her to make sure she was going to be all right. But it's cool it meant a lot to her. I'm glad I can be just a little bit of a distraction to her as she goes through this."
When she gets home, Sofia can't resist—she smells the shoes. "Hey! They don't even stink!"
IT'S A TYPICAL day on Twitter, which means a bunch of women will tweet that they dreamed they were married to Curry and a bunch of men will tweet that they dreamed they were Curry, but then comes a tweet nobody's seen before.
KayKay @KendraVilli: my life goal is to have a threesome with @StephenCurry30 and @ayeshacurry
Curry doesn't check his mentions much, but Ayesha does, and she types back the Reply of the Year:
@ayeshacurry: Yes maybe one day we will play a round of golf together...
IT'S GETTING CERTIFIABLE out there. One family went as the Curry family for Halloween, complete with a Riley-aged toddler with a Riley-style headband, an Ayesha look-alike wife and a husband in full Warriors uniform, complete with the hanging mouth guard.
The other day, a fan emailed Ayesha a highlight video. But there was no hoops footage. They were highlights of all the stuff that Steph and Ayesha have posted about their family on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Dubsmash, etc. "I mean, whoever it was spent hours and hours putting this thing together," Steph says. "That's weird, right?"
Is it weirder than the 100 people who crammed up against the window at Piercing Pagoda to watch Curry's new baby, Ryan, get her ears pierced? Or the police having to come to Emerson College in Boston to clear a path for the team to get onto the bus after practice? Or the four ominous big guys in New York City who creeped the Currys out by following them from Steak 'n Shake back to their hotel—then only wanted autographs?
"Steph is approaching Kobe and Michael territory now," Warriors security chief Ralph Walker says. "It's really gotten crazy. I have a little back room that allows him to completely skip the crowd, and most of the time he doesn't use it. He's always out there, among the fans."
Minneapolis, five below. "We had it worked out perfectly," says Martinez. "We'd rigged up a side door for Steph to go out of and a side door of the hotel for him to go into. All he had to do was cross the street, go through the kitchen and up to his room."
The Secret Service couldn't have done it better. Curry and Walker were halfway across the empty four-lane street when they heard, "Steph! Steph! Sign?" It was three kids, a good 50 yards away.
Now, nearly any other athlete in the world would've suddenly been stricken deaf. Not Curry. He looked at Walker, whose shoulders sagged, and then waved them over. Twenty more were right behind. Curry signed until his fingers couldn't hold the Sharpies.
"Lordy," Walker says.
IT'S HOUSTON. A dad stands up with his little boy in one hand and a big sign in the other. RALPH WALKER I'M 4 CAN MEET CURRY?
You know you're big when your security guard is famous.
IT'S HALLWAY INTERVIEW time, and a reporter is talking to Luke Walton, who coached the Dubs to the greatest start in NBA history (24--0) and a 39--4 record until Kerr returned from chronic headaches. The NBA ruled that all the wins are Kerr's, potentially an oh-snap situation.
"Do you think Kerr trusts you more now that you've gotten all this head coaching experience?" she asks.
Just then Kerr walks by.
WALTON: Hey, Steve, do you trust me more now that I've been a head coach?
WALTON: Yeah, me.
KERR: Absolutely not.
IT'S HIGH TIME to point out the four things people hate about Curry:
1) His mouth guard doesn't stay in his mouth. It's gross. It flops out, it flops up. He chews it, twirls it, sucks on it, all game long. We need a guard to guard us from the mouth guard.
"I've given up," says his mom, Sonya. "I've made my peace with it. It's never going to change. He still bites his fingernails. He flicks his nose, from all his allergies. And the mouth guard."
It's the new Jordan tongue. And, like Jordan, Curry doesn't realize when it's in or out: "Some fan studied it. He said I shoot 2% better on free throws with it out. And I think he's right. Because when I shoot a free throw with it in, I always go, Whoa, that's weird. It's where it's supposed to be."
2) He sleeps with the TV on. "Ayesha gets on me about that. Kinda drives her crazy."
3) "I saw him wear sunglasses indoors once," Kerr likes to point out.
4) He's a bad example. "He's hurting the game," former Golden State coach Mark Jackson said during the Warriors' Christmas Day unwrapping of the Cavaliers. "And what I mean by that is that I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids, and the first thing they do is they run to the three-point line. You are not Steph Curry. Work on the other aspects of the game."
Curry took that a little hard. "Sure, anybody can just jack up shots at the YMCA," he says. "And, yeah, I would hate watching that kind of basketball. But that's not what I do. I work on all this stuff all the time, the floor stuff, the dribbling, the drills. So by the time I go on the floor, I've done all this stuff nobody sees."
November. Hours after dinner. The Dubs are 10--0 following a win at Minnesota, where Curry scored 46 points. It's been a long day. Team equipment manager Eric Housen comes back to the Brooklyn practice gym expecting it to be empty and instead finds Curry and his personal trainers, grinding. "Left hand, inside out, between the legs, catch left hand, shoot with the right," Housen recalls. "They were going to be there, seemed like, all night. We were undefeated. He was playing a ton of minutes, and yet here he was, still trying to get better when, essentially, he's the best player in the league."
It's paid off. Since last year's MVP season he's gotten crazy better. His three-point shooting is better—a career-high 46.8% at week's end, including 61.1% over his last four games, when he has averaged 43.8 points.
"It's hard to imagine the Most Valuable Player," says Ezeli, "could then be the Most Improved Player."
IT'S JUST AFTER the Thunder win, and there's a rare sighting of Steve Nash in the hallway, a guy who's supposed to be a "consultant" to the Warriors but hasn't been around the team for months.
"What am I gonna do with 46--4?" he shrugs.
IT'S 10 A.M. AT the White House, and President Obama is in the East Room with the Warriors.
He mentions Curry scoring 51 points against the Wizards the night before, on just 28 shots. "Steph was clowning," the President says, "he was all jumping up and down...." and he goes into Curry's signature little happy-happy joy-joy shoulder-shimmy dance.
You know you're famous when the President has you down.
But for Curry, the moment is more than funny. A year before, he met with Obama to talk about Nothing But Nets and the President's own antimalaria work. Afterward, Curry asked a staffer for a tour. "And, can you take me to the room where they do the championship team celebrations?" They took him to the East Room. "I looked in and I thought, Yes, we're coming back here."
IT'S DAY ONE OF a nine-month course of chemo and radiation that could also include surgery. Sofia arrives at 7:30 a.m. and leaves at nine at night. In one six-hour session she looks at everything Instagram has ever posted about Curry.
She's had to leave school, stop her horse jumping and start homeschooling. She's trying not to cry. She knows harder days are coming. Much. But she's ready.
"On the harder days," she says, "I'm going to think of him and what he said to me, his words, 'Keep fighting.' I know already those are going to help me. And I'm going to. I'm going to fight."
O.K., now that's a warrior.