Everybody Loves Steph

A sports megastar with seemingly zero haters is a rare and beautiful thing.

Good luck trying not to like this guy. Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
Good luck trying not to like this guy. Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Stephen Curry. I mean, I’m sure there are Curry haters out there somewhere. I’m equally sure I wouldn’t want to be friends with any of them.

Isn’t that remarkable? Curry is, by any measure, one of the most popular athletes on earth. His jersey has been among the top three sellers in the NBA since 2015, except for last year when he was at No. 7 — which is all the more impressive considering he only played five games the year before. (He’s widely expected to be back at No. 1 this year.) He has won three NBA titles, made the All-Star team seven times, was a member of the recently announced NBA 75th-anniversary all-time team, and is heavily favored to win his third MVP this season. Despite losing Kevin Durant (to the Nets) and Klay Thompson (to injury) two years ago, his Golden State Warriors have the second-best record in the NBA in large part because of Curry. And Curry long ago transcended the world of basketball into public ubiquity — appearing in Subway commercials, starting his own book club (a good one, too), and even hosting a reality game show with his wife. He’s everywhere.

That sort of omnipresence in the world of sports, as any athlete who has ever achieved it can tell you, is a fast track to being hated — or at least to being picked apart for every possible foible, real or imagined. LeBron James can’t so much as cough without being yelled at on Fox News; Durant is forever being trolled (and, to be fair, trolling) on social media; Tom Brady will have people calling him a fascist on his deathbed. But you just don’t see this with Curry. He’s the rare and perhaps only transcendent sports superstar for whom people don’t hold any ill will.

At Monday night’s game against the Pacers. Photo: Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

This is not because he has consciously tried to keep a low profile like Derek Jeter or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Curry’s most high-profile moment of political activism is instructive. He, along with his fellow Warriors, decided not to visit the White House to celebrate Golden State’s 2017 championship because Donald Trump lived there at the time. Trump famously then “uninvited” Curry and the Warriors. But even though Curry doubled down on his desire to avoid Trump (“My barometer is always, if the current president is upset about something that somebody’s speaking out on, then you’re probably saying the right thing, he once said), it was James who ended up taking all the heat when he called Trump “U bum” on Twitter.

James became the target, and everyone went back to loving Curry. Because everyone wants to love him. (And while Curry did speak out against Trump, he didn’t call him a bum — Curry wants you to love him, too.) Heck, he’s even great on Holey Moley:

Curry is now on the brink of breaking a big record. Tonight at Madison Square Garden — the building the Knicks were this close to making Curry’s home in 2009 — he is likely to pass Ray Allen as the NBA’s all-time leading three-point scorer, having played about 60% as many games as Allen. He’s now just two short of the record, having made five three-pointers against the Pacers on Monday night. Being the three-point leader isn’t as glamorous as being the all-time top scorer — Curry is 64th on that list — and this will almost certainly be the only all-time record the 33-year-old ever holds. But it’s the perfect record for him, and a fitting celebration of the changes he has brought to the game.

The three-point line was not instituted in the NBA until 1979, which was Magic Johnson’s and Larry Bird’s rookie year. But you can argue that the three-pointer didn’t become basketball’s signature shot until Curry arrived on the scene. His rise coincided with the explosion of analytics in the NBA, but unlike analytics in other sports — particularly baseball, where the Moneyball revolution went from “Brad Pitt making baseball executives look cool” to “games lasting four hours” seemingly overnight — analytics in the NBA made the game more fun, not less. (Though the three-point-barrage game of today has its detractors, it’s fair to say even they would prefer it to Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley just fouling everyone.) For years, the three-point shot was seen almost as an escape hatch — the last refuge of the weak. Real stars drove the lane like Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson, or they smashed home a dunk like Shaq. The three-pointer was a weapon, but also a bit of a side piece. Then teams like Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns, led by Steve Nash, began to focus on the three-pointer, in large part driven by advances in the analytic field. Specifically, they shot threes quickly and often. The thinking was that even if they missed a few, the math was simple: Three is more than two. In the long run, if they hit enough, they’d be in good shape.

Curry shooting a three-pointer against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night. Photo: Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Curry was the next step in the evolution of this strategy: a player who seemed completely tailored to it. Here was a guy who could shoot from anywhere at any time, faster than anyone could stop him, and with an unmatched accuracy. In a fantastic piece in The Athletic by longtime Curry observer Marcus Thompson II, Dell Curry, Steph’s father and an outstanding NBA marksman himself, described his son as a combination of Steve Nash and Reggie Miller. The quick-strike point guard and the greatest shooter of all time — merged into one player. Curry could pull up for a three at nearly the mid-court line; he could dribble all around the corner and just swish a three while falling out of bounds; he could find a teammate (often fellow sharpshooter Klay Thompson) open while you were busy concentrating on him; or he could just speed past you and lay it in the old-fashioned way. Curry required such a large portion of the other team’s attention that the entire court opened wide for everyone else. The game was suddenly more free-flowing, fast, and quick-strike — the platonic ideal of what basketball should look like. And Curry’s game was so addictive to watch and to play alongside that a superstar like Durant — an all-timer in his own right — would have been a fool not to want to be a part of it (even if he’s still taking heat for his decision to join the Warriors in 2016). Who wouldn’t want to play with this guy?

James is the better all-around player, Durant the more otherworldly talent, Giannis the more incredible physical specimen, but it is Steph — six-foot-two, from a small school, underappreciated well into his NBA career — whom your kids are probably pretending to be in the backyard. His influence, the universality of being able to drain a jumper from anywhere in the world, has laid the groundwork for the next generation of NBA stars. Being able to shoot a three-pointer is now vital for every player regardless of size, and the range of the average shooter continues to expand. You now regularly see shots made from near mid-court, and that range will surely expand even farther. Curry has done something that perhaps no player since Jordan, or maybe Kobe Bryant or Iverson, has done: He has made everyone want to play like him.

That he does it all with such joy only adds to the pure pleasure of watching him play and excel. And there is a sense that, throughout it all, he is the same guy he’s always been. Way back in 2013, I put in a request to interview Curry for Sports on Earth, an old, now-defunct website. I was working on a series of stories about the sports scene in San Francisco and wanted to see if he’d tell me what he loved about the Bay Area. He didn’t just agree, he emailed me himself and said, “I’ve gotta take my baby for a walk, but yeah, just come with me.” We spoke for more than an hour, just pushing a stroller around the Embarcadero. I was a new father myself, and we spent most of the time talking about strategies to get an infant to sleep. He was as aggressively normal an athlete as I’d ever come across. That normalcy, I suspect — along with being the son of an NBA journeyman and thus not having to go through the cold-water plunge that players experience in their first years in the NBA — is what has allowed him to stay above the fray and remain so likable today. Curry is the sort of player you cannot help but cheer for. I’ll be at the Garden on Tuesday, watching him try to hit the record, cheering for every shot. I suspect everybody in the building, and just about every basketball fan in the world, will be doing the same.

Everybody Loves Steph