23.3 C
New York
Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Real Reason Steph Curry Is So Damn Good

Greatness attracts greatness. That's what Ryan Coogler, the game-changing director of Black Panther and producer of Judas and the Black Messiah, wants me to know. He's not talking about himself (though, indirectly, he kind of is) but about Stephen Curry, who, in his 14 years in the NBA, has—quite literally—changed the game. Coogler and Curry are touting the virtues of what the Golden State Warriors point guard calls “irrational confidence.” They are going long on it, thinking it through, rumbling over what it means to believe in yourself, to believe in those around you, and to somehow arrive at greatness: not as a destination but as a byproduct.

The two, along with Curry's producing partner Erick Peyton, are tucked into a small hotel room in Midtown Manhattan to talk about their new documentary, Underrated, which looks back at Curry's early years at Davidson College and his special, fateful relationship with head coach Bob McKillop. For much of the interview, Curry sits with his hands folded across his stomach and his lean, long legs stretched out under the too-small table. Coogler, who produced the doc, can barely contain his restlessness. He leans in, pushes his chair back, bangs a fist on the table to emphasize a point.

Curry and Coogler may not seem like the most natural team-up, but the two vibe at parallel frequencies. They both love basketball; both love Oakland—Coogler as a native of the city, and Curry as the otherworldly sharpshooter who brought three championships to the town before the Warriors made their controversial move to San Francisco in 2019. Though Coogler is reluctant to admit it, the two are also connected by their respective greatness. Judas and the Black Messiah was the first Best Picture nominee in Oscar history to have an all-Black roster of producers; Black Panther was the first superhero movie to receive a Best Picture nod. Curry has earned four NBA rings and two league MVP trophies, and he holds the NBA three-point record.

Success is never necessarily predestined. Both Coogler and Curry thrive in industries ruled by numbers—either court stats or box office figures—yet this focus on the quantifiable is what Underrated pushes against. Focusing on Curry’s time at Davidson College, director Peter Nicks forgoes making a 110-minute career highlight reel and instead examines how a kid who was considered too small for the NBA, who shot air balls in his first game as a college freshman, defied what any algorithm could have predicted. The most moving parts aren't when our scrawny, undervalued hero starts to drain threes but rather when we see the diligent, no-BS support of his mom, Sonya, dad Dell, and Coach McKillop. Watching, you get the feeling that maybe—and this is why Coogler gets so passionate—had things gone just a bit differently, professional basketball would have been robbed of one of its greatest talents.

As we talk, Curry occasionally lapses into sports clichés that have all the authenticity of an Instagram post. Do the reps. Get in a flow state. Be honest with yourself. But listening to Steph talk is like watching him play. The man is just so damn good, you can't help but become a convert. He works with so much joy and ease that it rubs off on collaborators and competitors alike. There’s that irrational confidence again—the ability to move through the world regardless of what the algorithms and metrics say. Maybe we all need a little more of that.

Hemal Jhaveri: So how did this film come to be?

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Ryan Coogler: Steph is like an adopted son of Oakland. He's given us, as a community, so much honor and great memories. We've grown with him. And it's rare in this day and age that an athlete stays with one team. The identity he has then fuses between them and the neighborhood. So I'm like, alright, let me see if they'd be willing to rock with Pete [Nicks]. So we went in, and Pete pitched for it, and they responded well to it, man.

Erick Peyton: I don't know if Steph remembers this, but with this one he sat back and thought about it, and we're like, oh, OK, this works. But, we didn't know that Steph was gonna win the championship that year.

Stephen Curry: You didn't know?

Coogler and Peyton: [Laughter]

Curry: I had it all planned out, man.

Coogler and Peyton: [More laughter]

Ryan, you called Steph an adopted son of Oakland. To revisit a hotly debated topic, Steph, take me through what it was like when the Warriors left Oakland and moved to San Francisco.

Curry: From a player perspective, the move to San Francisco was out of our control. For me, it was about making sure that we didn't lose that connection with Oakland and with our loyal fan base. It's why my foundation does 99 percent of its work in the confines of Oakland. There's just a real sense of pride in making sure that they stay represented, empowered, and supported.

But yeah, there's a tension on that. Because, to your point, the move was loud, it was polarizing. You understand the reasons behind it. But you also know, like, I'm not abandoning that part of my story.

There's a tension in the documentary between what the statistics and analysts say about Steph at the start of the NBA draft versus what Steph thinks he's capable of. Was that always the narrative?

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Coogler: After stepping back from the film, I'm realizing that it is called Underrated, right, but it's about the people who didn't underrate Steph or people who looked at him, saw him not for what was missing or what he could be or could not be, but what he was. They poured love into him. It was a form of investment, you know? It's so moving and so much bigger than basketball.

What are we losing when we're so focused on the stats, the algorithm, the numbers? Are we missing the alchemy that can happen when you put a group of people together?

Curry: You lose the personal assessment of who somebody is and, you know, the stuff you can't put on paper. Everything is so overexposed now. There's such a short feedback loop when it comes to the analytics and all that type of stuff. There's such a strong reaction to people going through failure too. They don't have time to learn the lessons you need to learn.

Especially with social media.

Curry: Thankfully Twitter was just popping off at the start of my career, and nobody knew my stats every night. This is why I don't like the highlight reels and all that stuff. I got to grow at a natural pace and find my own way. It's a totally different landscape today.

You could see what happened with the Brooklyn Nets, where sometimes it looks good on paper but it doesn't translate to success on the court.

Coogler, Curry, and Peyton: [Burst into laughter]

Coogler: I think [data, metrics] are also comforting. I think people are trying to access control. Life is unpredictable, you know what I'm saying? It's random. I feel like that in my industry; it's just like, “Oh yeah, if it has this, if it has that, it's gonna do this.” We know that's not how it works. If it did work like that, there would never be a failure, there'd never be a surprise success. You should stake your claim on what you do well, or what's there for you. I think there's something to that concept that's really beautiful.

Peyton: What we look for when we look at a project is, how passionate are you about it? It's not really what the hit is on television or what our agents are telling us. We try to program against the algorithm, because I feel like the algorithm is a little biased. Actually, It's always biased.

But how do you hang on to those principles, in the face of the pressure to succeed?

Curry: There's a little bit of intuition and a feeling of staying true to your identity. I do want to expand my style of play, leadership. You want to get out of your comfort zone, get stretched a little bit, but the fact that I know what I am and how I approach things, there's confidence that's in that. The intuition will tell you how to manage the temptation to—or the discipline to—block out some of those ill-informed, uhhh …

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

… opinions?

Curry: Yeah, opinions. [Laughs] You know, the analytics now say that you should shoot way more threes. Oh, you don't say?

It was just the way I saw the game. I didn't need somebody telling me that. I had irrational confidence.

Does AI freak you out?

Curry: Oh, all the time.

Pretty soon you could just have a virtual Steph Curry shooting threes all the time. Have you taken any steps to protect your image?

Curry: Just the steps of being aware of what's going on. Nothing tangible in terms of any action on that front but just acknowledging what's happening, how the landscape is changing. And like you say, there's a lot going on, especially in the film industry.

Yeah, that's a huge topic of conversation right now, with WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

Coogler: Obviously, I'm a member of the WGA and support. Solidarity with fellow writers and actors who are striking right now.

You talked about San Francisco and its relationship with Oakland. I was born in Oakland. In the Bay, we kind of like the canary in the coal mine. The wild part about it is, you see like all these words come up, like “autonomous vehicle,” “cloud computing,” “social networks.” You kind of see 'em change things, you see them become a talking point.

But oftentimes it comes down to labor. Oftentimes it comes down to housing displacement. I think this is a watershed moment for a lot of things, man. It is a really intense time, and I think people should keep their eyes on the ball, because with each advancement, the chair can be pulled out, and it tends to come with a regression in benefits for labor, you know what I'm saying?

Yes.

Coogler: Yesterday, somebody asked me who would do better if we [points to himself and Curry] switched places. It's like, making a movie is difficult, but when I show up to work, nobody, like, standing in my face trying to stop me.

So, like, if somebody got in my face and was like, “Yo, I'ma stop you from doing what you're trying to do,” I would freak out.

Curry: That's hilarious, bro.

Coogler: It's pretty funny, man, to think about like, Oh, all you gotta do is shoot a ball in a hoop? From really far away? Run up and down the court? But the whole time you're doing it, someone's trying to stop you!

I mean, there's also something like 20,000 people screaming at you while you're trying to do your job.

Coogler: It's crazy, bro. It's like, OK, you got a good shot, now do it while you're being guarded by Russell Westbrook.

Curry: Imagine you're editing and someone stands in front of your screen. [Curry spreads out his arms, miming a defender] “I'm going to let you see that screen one time, now what? Whatcha gonna do? Decide. Go.”

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Coogler: Holding onto my shirt and shit. Yo, I'd freak the fuck out. I ain't even been that close to someone in that long.

Steph, there’s a moment in the documentary where your mom sees you having a great game and says in this whisper, "Steph, how are you doing this?" It's just this beautiful little cut. But seriously, how are you doing this?

Peyton: Seriously, I want to know, too.

Coogler: Yeah. I thank God for that. Holy shit.

Curry: I think there's a flow state you get to that's stacked on top of layers, and layers and layers and layers. We have talked about the irrational confidence that comes from the work that you put in, the vision of being able to see an output but not obsess over the output, if that makes sense. Ever since I started playing, I love to shoot the basketball, and I can see the arc of the shot, I can feel the flow of the ball.

Flow state. Spoken like a true programmer.

Curry: The joy that comes in that space—like, you surprise yourself a lot. And you kind of take a log of what that new idea or new move felt like. It's almost like a computer's log. And then it becomes muscle memory. And then it becomes confidence. And that confidence comes out when it's time to perform on the stage. You're able to block out all the distractions, all the noise, even whoever's guarding you. There are times you get into that flow state where it does not matter who's in front of you. You find a solution to the problem. The discipline around that is something I'm super proud of.

Draymond [Green, a Warriors forward] always said I have an ego when it comes to that. It's not so much like “Look at me,” but I want to keep doubling up on what I'm able to do. Because I enjoy it that much. That's my best way of explaining it. But sometimes I'll look at it all like, I don't know how I did that.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

In looking over the footage for the doc, was there anything that surprised you?

Curry: I guess the one thing that surprised me was how bad my first college game was. Because I tell the story—I've told the story all the time. Like you saw, you can hear, “He had 13 turnovers in this game.” And Coach had to make a decision, do I keep playing him or bench him? He could have made or broken my college career at that moment. But it was worse than I remember.

How do you go about forgiving yourself for a bad performance or a bad mistake?

Curry: It's easier to move on to the next thing as long as you're not cheating the process. In terms of learning the lessons you need to learn, you need to be honest with yourself, vulnerable with yourself. I know human nature is powerful, the mind is a powerful thing. You can't be afraid of failure, you can't be afraid of the negative outcome.

Coogler: I try to do analysis. If I have a failure, I see if there was any points where I could have done better. Was it anywhere where I had an inkling and went against it? Or I didn't do something I knew I should have done?

I got Panther shot in maybe 100 or 117 days, or something like that. Not all of them 117 days I was efficient. So, after a day when we didn't really get what we needed, it's like alright, cool, well, what happened? Did you not have a shot list? Did you not talk to the actors? Some days you might get rained out. You can't control that. And like Steph's saying, you gotta be in honesty with yourself like, man, did I do everything I was supposed to do? Could I have been better? But the thing is, you got to get excited and say, “I'ma fix it tomorrow.”

Peyton: So, I'ma be real.

Yeah, please. I hope everyone’s being real.

Peyton: There’s this irrational confidence that both Steph and I have.

Curry: You're a maverick.

Peyton: In my day-to-day life, I'm constantly examining how I can be a better husband, father, all those things. As a producer, I think the idea is to work as hard as you can to make this thing better. But once that thing is there, to me, it's beautiful. It's almost like a baby coming out. No matter the scars or whatever, to me it is beautiful. Because, before, that thing did not exist. So now that it exists, it is beautiful.

Steph has said that faith is an important part of his life. The documentary, in that vein, feels almost spiritual.

Curry: There's the old saying that I'm not smacking people over the head with the Bible or trying to force anybody to adopt a belief. It's about identifying, what makes you unique? What do you tap into? That is like a superpower.

Coogler: In a way for me, like, [long, long pause] it's like, the film is like, constantly in conversation with fate.

Curry: You said “fate”?

Coogler: Fate. Like, I think about, what if that didn't happen? What if Coach McKillop didn't leave him in that [first college] game? And didn't play him in the second game? I think he was signaling to Steph and to Davidson, and to everybody, “I didn't pick him up for a player he is going to be. I picked him up for right now. [Bangs the table] You don't sit on a bench man. ‘I'll put you back in when you ready?’ No. Right now. You're ready right now, even if you think you not ready, I'm gonna show you that you are.” And that? Well, that changed basketball. Not benching that freshman changed the way we play basketball.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Curry: Yeah. Yeah.

Coogler: The other thing about this film is, it’s also a conversation about how greatness attracts greatness. Like you see Spike [Lee] come up to Steph, asking for an autograph. You've seen KD pull up. Steph and the Warriors greatness, man, he brought greatness to the Bay Area. So you see the game, and the game has bent to the style of that freshman who was almost benched.

It does make you think, where can I be that person for somebody else? Where can I see the value in them when they don't see it in themselves?

Coogler: People who have never experienced greatness for themselves have a hard time recognizing it, but people who live with it, they acknowledge it, even if we didn't see it for ourselves. So, for me that was Chadwick [Boseman]. I'd have days on that first Panther where I was like, Yo, what are we doing? I'm making the worst movie ever. I'm wasting all this money. They hired the wrong person. Chadwick would come up and be like, “Hey man. This is great. I can see it now. It's gonna be like Star Wars.”

Did you believe him?

Coogler: I'm like, What is he talking about? But, it would get me through the day. He was seeing something that actually was there, but I couldn't recognize for myself, even though I was directly involved in it. I think that's where faith comes in. Because Chadwick saw it. He wasn't bullshitting or trying to give me false motivation. He saw what was gonna happen. They say, “Speak it into existence.” I could tell he was speaking about what was to come from the movie.

There's something to be said about playing with joy and creating with joy. It becomes viral; it's contagious.

Peyton: I think you have to have joy behind every project you do.

Coogler: Talking about creating with joy, that's why I love production. You know, it's like being a doula as opposed to being the one that's doing the labor.

Curry: Maintaining that is the challenge, especially with the business of basketball. The greatest compliment I got in the league was from Kobe. He noticed the killer instinct behind the smile too. He acknowledged the joy that I played with and how different it looked, but he recognized the competitive spirit and the killer instinct underneath. For somebody like him to acknowledge that and for him to see it, it only cemented me trying to maintain that presence. The joy of it makes every day fun, but I'm trying to win too.

Four NBA championships, two league MVP trophies, you hold the three-point record in the NBA, you just recently got a hole in one playing golf. What are you bad at?

Curry: I can't sing. I would be a different person if I could sing.

I don't know how to answer that question. I just enjoy what I get to do. You have a certain standard that you want to hit, a certain vision, but you might surprise yourself along the way. Sometimes I do respond, like, Wow, that was dope.


Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at mail@WIRED.com.

Related Articles

Latest Articles