There is nowhere the world’s most talented basketball players would rather play basketball than Madison Square Garden, which has been the site of so many divine individual performances that it’s amazing it also happens to be the home court of the New York Knicks. But for all those majestic feats in the long history of the game’s most hallowed arena, there were always three games that stood apart. Three players had returned to the visitors’ locker room after the game having scored the most points in the arena’s history: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. There was nothing to suggest that Stephen Curry would join their ranks when he walked into the Garden on February 27, 2013.
The Warriors had left their team hotel that afternoon on three buses, and Curry was supposed to be on the second bus. He was always on the second bus. But on this night, for some reason he can’t remember, Curry took the third bus. “Which I never do,” he tells me a few years later. He regretted the decision almost immediately. The third bus took an illegal turn, and the Warriors were pulled over by unsuspecting New York Police Department traffic cops. When the bus finally chugged into the bowels of the arena, the players were tired, cranky, and very, very late.
This wasn’t entirely the bus driver’s fault. The night before had been a rough one for the Warriors. After losing to the Indiana Pacers in a game that was spoiled by a brawl, they boarded a plane, landed at some ungodly hour, and woke to the news that one of their teammates had been suspended and Curry had been fined for their roles in the fight. So it had been a lousy day even before Curry found himself stuck on the third bus dealing with the New York Police Department.
But it was oddly appropriate that no one was expecting much from Curry that night. He’d been very good at making people very wrong for his entire life. Curry went to a small private high school and wasn’t supposed to be a big-time college player. When he became a big-time college player, he wasn’t supposed to be a good NBA player. When he became a good NBA player, he wasn’t supposed to be a great NBA player. But there was always one thing he could do better than anybody who had come before him. While everyone in the NBA could shoot, no one in the NBA could shoot like Curry. The most dominant players used to be the ones who made extraordinary things look ordinary. His genius was making ordinary things look extraordinary. And what he was about to do would permanently alter the world’s perception of him.
This was the unusual and highly unlikely beginning of an electric performance that would change the life of Stephen Curry and the future of the entire NBA. It was a game when the best shooter in the history of basketball had the hot hand.
As the bus pulled into Madison Square Garden that night, Curry was approaching an inflection point in his career. If you think of being a professional basketball player as a normal day job, which in many ways it is, and which in many more ways it is not, then Curry was similar to most twenty-four-year-olds who’d held the same job at the same company since college. His bosses had given him more responsibilities, and his annual raises and yearly bonuses paid him enough that he didn’t bother looking around for better opportunities. In the alternate universe where he sat behind a desk every day, Curry’s performance reviews would’ve been excellent, his recommendations for business school would’ve been glowing, and his adoring colleagues would’ve invited him to their weddings. He would’ve been the ideal corporate employee: highly competent, quietly confident, and extremely useful on the company softball team.
He had come closer to working that sort of job than you might think. When he was a college sophomore, Curry’s parents bumped into an NBA general manager after one of his games. His mother couldn’t help but indulge her curiosity. “Do you think Steph can make it in the NBA?” Sonya Curry asked. There was a reason that not even she could be sure that his future was in basketball. For all the genetic and socioeconomic advantages he’d inherited as the son of an NBA player, there was one severe disadvantage that Curry couldn’t overcome. He was usually the smallest guy on the court. The only way he could hold his own with bigger and better players, especially as they got even bigger and even better, was by changing the way he shot the basketball. This put Curry in a deeply ironic predicament. His shot had been his one great skill ever since he’d toyed around with the Fisher-Price baskets in his childhood home. But now someone was telling him that it wasn’t good enough. He listened only because that person was his father.
Dell Curry knew that Stephen’s strength would soon be his weakness. He could see that his son’s low release point meant that anyone taller than him would be able to block his shot. He could also see that everyone was taller than him. Dell took the drastic measure of making Stephen take a break from competitive basketball for a while. In the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school, when other kids his age were juggling college scholarship offers, Stephen was busy teaching himself to shoot again. By lifting the ball above his head and releasing as he ascended, he was essentially making himself taller. That painful summer produced a weapon that Curry would have for the rest of his life. In that summer he became the best shooter his sport had ever seen.
The problem was that Curry’s weapon was the slingshot of basketball. There was an obvious reward for anyone who could wield it: his shots were worth three points instead of two. And not since a biblical shepherd boy named David had the slingshot been used to such a devastating effect. But the slingshot wasn’t a bazooka. He still had to be selective about when he shot, where he shot, and why he shot. He couldn’t shoot too early in the twenty-four-second shot clock. He couldn’t shoot too far behind the three-point line. And he couldn’t shoot too much.
That restriction was the one constant of his entire career until that February night in Madison Square Garden. Stephen Curry couldn’t shoot as much as it made sense for him to shoot.
But what if he could?
For longer than Stephen Curry has been alive, ever since the 1985 publication of a classic study that suggested the hot hand didn’t exist, no matter how many or how much people believed it did, it has been the subject of fierce debate among psychologists, economists and statisticians, not to mention anyone who has felt the hot hand for themselves—which is to say everybody. Is there really such a thing as being in the zone? Or is belief in the hot hand simply a misreading of randomness? These are the sorts of questions that have been picked apart by Nobel Prize winners and genius scholars over the last few decades because they’re not simply about basketball. They’re really about human behavior. When you start looking for the hot hand, in fact, it becomes hard not to see it everywhere.
But what happens once you do get hot? We know that it happens to different people in different professions for entirely different reasons. And we know that the process of turning a blip of success into a sustained period of success is not a random occurrence. It’s the collision of talent, circumstance, and even a little bit of luck. What we don’t quite know and what scholars are only now beginning to understand is how the hot hand can shape an entire life.
One of the more intriguing studies in this nascent scientific field was co-authored by Dashun Wang, a statistical physicist at Northwestern University, who published a 2018 paper in Nature that proposes a new theory of creativity. He believes that success is streaky. Our creative hits are clustered, and our careers are defined by those clusters.
“What happens in the hot-hand period,” Wang says, “is what we remember.”
Wang limited his research on hot streaks to movie directors, artists and scientists, but he’s convinced that he would find them anywhere he looked. The hot hand is not a random occurrence. It’s the collision of talent, circumstance and a little bit of luck. His subjects took advantage of resources when they were hot to get even hotter. Success begets success. That is the simple power of the hot hand.
But maybe the most riveting thing that Wang and his team found was actually something they didn’t find: There is no way to predict when someone is on the verge of such a streak. “Your hot streak can come at any time,” Wang says. “What I learned from my own research is actually rather uplifting. Because the hot streak can start with any work, the only sure way to prevent it is to stop publishing. If you keep going, your hot streak may be yet to come.”
So how do you know if you’ve already had your hot hand? You don’t. You can’t. If you were to ask Wang for advice, he would tell you that it doesn’t even matter if you believe your hot-hand period is on the horizon or if you feel it’s already passed.
“The answer is the same,” Wang says. “You should keep going.”
This isn’t necessarily the wisest advice. Confidence can become arrogance. Arrogance can become ignorance. You can keep going and plow directly into a brick wall. But the reason to trust in Dashun Wang’s law of the hot hand is that it’s not impossible for circumstance to appear when talent least expects it.
In fact it’s happened before.
The night before the hottest game of Stephen Curry’s career happened to be one of the weirdest. The Warriors had gotten into a fight with the Pacers, and Curry had been one of the first players involved. He charged a seven-foot-two, 280-pound giant named Roy Hibbert, and the outcome was similar to what might happen if a mosquito attempted to tackle a moose. “I didn’t even feel him,” Hibbert would later say. What saved Curry was his size. He wasn’t big enough to do any damage in a fight involving NBA players. For his entire life, Curry had been smaller than everyone on the basketball court, and it had always been a disadvantage. But for this one night it worked to his improbable advantage. When the NBA reviewed footage of the brawl, the league fined him $35,000 instead of suspending him.
He was amazingly fortunate to lose so much money. The Warriors needed scoring against the Knicks. They had no choice but to free Curry. He was going to shoot more than ever before, and they could only hope that he got hot.
They were still holding their breath after the first quarter. It took him until the second quarter to make his first three-pointer. But one minute later, he made another, longer three-pointer. He was heating up. The next one came a minute later. By any objective measure, it was a bad shot. Curry stole the ball and sprinted across half-court in a straight line on his way to the rim. But instead of continuing toward the basket, which is what almost everyone who had ever played basketball would have done, Curry stopped. He was choosing to stay behind the three-point line. There were two defenders between Curry and the rim who appeared to be shocked by his audacity. Curry was trying a low-percentage shot when a higher-percentage shot was available. He was taking his chances with three instead of accepting two. When the ball dropped through the net, he didn’t have to be told what he was feeling.
Stephen Curry was on fire.
He tried another three-pointer one minute later as he was falling away from the rim several feet behind the arc. This shot was as outrageous as it was ridiculous. It didn’t look like it was going in. And then it did. Of course it did! He had the hot hand. “Most locked in I’ve ever been,” he told me. “Any time I got a glimmer of daylight, I let it go.”
That night in the Garden was not Curry’s first experience with flammability. The first that others remember was when he was six years old and played for a team that was actually called the Flames. But the first that he remembers was in the eighth grade. The Currys had moved to Canada, and Stephen and his younger brother, Seth, enrolled at Queensway Christian College. “We were a small little Christian school where everyone who tried out made the team,” says their coach James Lackey. “It was the two of them and a bunch of guys who’d won three games the year before.”
Queensway won every game the year that Stephen Curry arrived. He caught fire so frequently that his coach often shook his head in sheer wonder and thought, What the heck just happened? Curry’s final explosion came in front of an abnormally large crowd for a basketball game between eighth graders. Down by six points with one minute remaining, Lackey called time-out because he figured his team had no chance to win. Since this was still nominally a middle school basketball game, he wanted to remind his players to keep their composure after the loss and congratulate their opponents when the game was over. Or at least that’s what he was planning to say. Curry stopped him in the middle of his sportsmanship lecture.
“We’re not losing,” he said. “Give me the ball. I’ll make sure we win.”
“Okay,” Lackey said. “I guess that’s the play from now on.”
They gave Curry the ball. He proceeded to make four three-pointers in the next thirty seconds. Queensway won. Curry’s past is littered with so many of these tales that they begin to seem mythological, but Lackey swears this one is true, and I find no reason not to believe him: The guy teaches at a Christian school in Canada.
Why did Curry have the hot hand that day? Why did Curry have the hot hand on any day? Was it physical? Was it mental? Was it some bowl of cereal that he scarfed down that morning or a lucky seat on the bus that got pulled over on the way to the Garden? Curry himself doesn’t know. He can’t predict when he’ll be in the zone. But he can do everything in his power to remain in that flow state for as long as possible.
“Once it happens,” Stephen Curry says, “you have to embrace it.”
If he were playing NBA Jam, he would have returned to his normal ability when he missed his next shot against the Knicks. In this real NBA game, something even more interesting happened. Curry didn’t take another three-pointer for the rest of the first half, but it wasn’t because he suddenly decided that he was lukewarm. It was because the Knicks understood as well as the Warriors that Curry was still hot. His teammates refused to touch his right hand because they didn’t want to cool him off. “There was nothing anybody could do,” said Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks, “except hope he misses.”
But there was something they could do: not let him shoot. The Knicks sent double-teams at Curry. They trapped him whenever he touched the ball. Their goal was no longer to beat the Warriors. The only thing they cared about was not letting Curry shoot.
Curry knew from experience what it was like to be the sole focus of five other basketball players. When he was a budding star at Davidson College, there was one game when Loyola University Maryland’s coach tried to beat Davidson by not letting Curry shoot. His strategy was to double-team Curry no matter where he was on the court and no matter whether he actually had the ball. This coach would rather his team play three-on-four than five-on-five. Curry realized the folly of the plan, stood by himself in the corner, and dragged two Loyola defenders with him. That meant one of his teammates would always be open. Curry could have been eating popcorn with fans in the front row and he still would’ve been helping Davidson. The gimmick would have been interesting if it weren’t such a complete disaster. Curry was college basketball’s leading scorer, and he finished the game against Loyola with zero points. Davidson won in a blowout.
But now the Knicks were more or less going with the Loyola game plan. Curry knew that meant one of his teammates had to be open, and he passed to those open teammates for easy shots. His shooting demanded so much attention that it had become easier for everyone around him to succeed. There’s actually a delicious basketball term for this: “gravity.” Curry always had the gravity to suck a defense close to him. But his gravity when he had the hot hand made Curry more like a black hole. His momentum warped the game around him. Both teams behaved as if Curry was probably going to make his next three-pointer, and their collective belief in the hot hand was as powerful as the hot hand itself. There was no one on the court who didn’t believe in the hot hand. In fact there may not have been anyone in the NBA who didn’t believe in the hot hand. “I haven’t met that person yet,” Curry says.
It wasn’t any easier for him to find open shots when the second half started. The Knicks chased him around the court like they were trying to drench him with a bucket of ice water. But his first shot after halftime was all it took to convince him to keep shooting. As soon as he touched the ball, he reminded himself to remain under control when his defender charged at him. He pump-faked and watched the defender fly past him. He centered himself, launched the shot, and took in the supreme beauty of his swish.
Curry hadn’t cooled off. Once he confirmed that he was scorching, he launched three-pointers that would have earned anyone else a permanent spot on the bench. One from three feet behind the line while double-teamed. One from five feet behind the line. One with a gigantic seven-footer in his face as Curry fell on his butt. There was a certain sound that accompanied these shots. It began as he released the ball and fans drew a collective breath of anticipation. The pitch rose as their lungs filled. It peaked in a hysterical crescendo as the ball traced a parabola toward the rim. But his shots originated from so far away and followed such a high arc that all these fans ran out of oxygen. That was the noise: the Curry note.
The last shrieking Curry note of the night came at the end of the fourth quarter. He grabbed a rebound and seemed to be running to the other basket before he even had the ball. He took two dribbles to cross the half-court line. He took one more dribble to slow his momentum. And then he shot. In the millisecond it took for him to levitate, the equation of the possession had tilted Curry’s way. His defenders were caught flatfooted. Curry was rising above them. The ball hadn’t even swished through the net before he was backpedaling across the court in celebration. He galloped the length of the floor until he was underneath his own basket again. It was as if Curry were literally on fire and needed to extinguish himself. He was that hot.
By the time the game was over, three shocking things had happened. The first was that the Knicks had won. The second was that Knicks fans had given a player from another team an ovation. The third was that Stephen Curry had scored fifty-four points—the most points he’d ever scored in a game, and still the most points he’s scored in a game to this day. In the history of the NBA, nobody had taken so many 3-pointers and made as many of them.
The three-pointer was no longer a slingshot. Stephen Curry had made it his bazooka.
What happened in the Garden that night wasn’t an anomaly. It was an epiphany. This was when it started to become clear that Curry could shoot more and should shoot more. He’d been fully unleashed for the first time, and the results had been astonishing. He’d broken the game. That one game in Madison Square Garden turned out to be the night that changed Stephen Curry forever. Within two years he was the most valuable player of the NBA. Within three years he was the first unanimous most valuable player in the history of the league. Within four years he was the most influential basketball player alive.
If you ask Curry for his career breakthroughs, he will tell you about the time he won his first championship and the time he was invited by the White House to golf with Barack Obama. But neither would have been possible if not for a third moment: the time that Stephen Curry was on fire.
From the book THE HOT HAND by Ben Cohen. Copyright © 2020 by Ben Cohen. Reprinted by permission of Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.