Stephen Curry is SI’s 2022 Sportsperson of the Year
Stephen Curry walked to his bench carrying a star’s dilemma. He had played poorly but his team was going on to win. Seventy-nine seconds were left in Game 5 in the NBA Finals. Curry saw this as a referendum on Curry’s career. Why hadn’t he been awarded the Finals MVP award if he was truly one the greatest players ,? Curry is driven by winning and lifting others–motivations which are fraternal, but not identical twins. He had not lifted them ., but the Warriors would win this game . Curry sat next to Steve Kerr at the intersection between pride and selflessness. He seemed, Kerr says, “pensive more than anything.”
As much as ever, Curry was in the spotlight, and yet still people did not really see him. He doesn’t think about his place in history and finds the Finals MVP conversation irritating. “It bothered my that I had to answer it,” he said. It didn’t bother my that it wasn’t on my resume yet.” He doesn’t believe he is lacking anything. It was absurd to suggest that he needed the biggest stage to prove himself.
Curry is a boisterously ostentatious performer, and confidence is his oxygen. He once missed his first nine three-point attempts in a playoff game and when he sank the 10th he shimmied. Curry told the Celtics to enjoy their final win, as they closed Game 3 with a 2-1 series lead. Omar Carter, Curry’s childhood friend, told him that he wanted to celebrate in Boston. This would have meant that the Warriors would win three straight games and take the title in Game 6. They had won Game 4, and were now ready to win Game 5 in San Francisco.
Kerr turned his back to his star.
” This is the best thing that could have happened,” Kerr stated.
” What do you mean?” Curry inquired.
” We just won this game going home when you had a difficult night,” Kerr stated. “Do you know how that makes Boston feel?”
Curry thought about it, agreed his coach was right and made the kind of small recalibration that comes so easily to him. Before this year, Curry had not won a playoff game since 2019. His Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, had missed two and a half seasons because of injuries. Curry turned 34 in March. After Game 5, in his suite under the Chase Center, Curry received another reminder of time passing: His college coach, Bob McKillop, informed him he was retiring.
Curry came out in Game 6 and made the Celtics feel even worse: 34 points on 21 shots, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals, one block and one more championship. It took an indomitability that was beyond what he displayed in winning the MVP and his first three championships. Curry calls it his “greatest moment” and his wife, Ayesha, said that he was proud of him. Ayesha was at the Warriors’ afterparty in a club under TD Garden. You did it!” Steph corrected her: “We did it.”
Curry knew people had said the Warriors were finished. He said, “I am an internalizer.” That was what I had internalized for the past three years, and it was true throughout the year. “… Let it marinate.” He made one of the most popular sports comments of the year
“What are they going to say now ?”
It was interpreted by Curry as Curry closing up the doubters. He also dismissed the nitpicky nature the Finals MVP criticism. Curry admitted that he logs receipts. This is something that most greats do. But he does it because receipts are valuable. He was a young, unrecognized NBA player and a little-recruited kid. He was a well-respected superstar who had to come up with reasons to get groin pain in January and July. Even though he knew it was a motivational game he was playing.
” “It’s like having a hybrid car,” Curry said. “Once the juice runs dry, you gotta go back to the reserve tank .”
He said that the story of the Finals was about Steph Curry’s reaction to critics. The story of Curry’s life is about how he affects everyone else. This is what Steph Curry did this season: He won his fourth championship. He won that Finals MVP award after scoring an efficient 31.2 points per game against the best defensive team in the league. He graduated from Davidson, 13 years after he left for the NBA following his junior season. He expanded his charitable reach: Since 2019, the Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation he and Ayesha founded has served more than 25 million meals to food-insecure children, spent $2.5 million on literacy-focused grants and distributed 500,000 books, according to Curry’s representatives. Curry’s representatives claim that he has also provided seed financing for Howard University’s women’s and men’s golf teams, which are historically Black schools. He also started the Underrated Golf Tour to increase accessibility to the game. He is co-chairman of Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote initiative. We now name him Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson-of-the Year. Curry, who also shared the award with the 2017-18 Warriors, joins LeBron James, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods as the only multiple-time winners. We salute him for not only what he did but also for how it was done.
On a daily basis, Curry pulls off one of the toughest tricks in sports: He passionately seeks greatness without being consumed by it. Curry reminds us that stardom does not make you a jerk and stardom is not a prerequisite to stardom. Many stories of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan shaming their teammates can be recalled by long-time NBA fans. Curry is not one of these stories. He can go weeks without giving anybody a pep talk, and, when he does, it’s usually pretty short: Come on! Get ready!
“Winning is fun,” Curry says. We all know that. But to do that in a way that people speak about our culture, speak about my leadership, you need the respect of those around you. All that stuff matters in the bigger picture. It’s difficult .”
Curry only wears out those who are his defenders. Curry supports everyone else. There are many highly driven people in professional sports and many sweethearts. But Curry is the best of both worlds. He says the losses in the 2016 and ’19 Finals sit with him more than the wins: “I still can put myself in those moments or feel that sense of emptiness. I feel that way more now, compared to the other ones, for sure. That’s the age-old conversation. Jordan seems to have said it. Kobe is also a good example. His friends agree that they go hand-in-hand. Curry hears the criticism but says, “I don’t carry it home.”
Bob Myers, the Warriors’ general manager since 2012, says he has seen him down once–in the ’19-20 season, when Curry had hand surgery, Thompson had a torn ACL and the Warriors had no immediate hope. Many people who know Curry say he is the best person they have ever met. However, because so much Curry’s character is tied with not acting special, they are reluctant to make too much fuss about it. Jason Richards, two years ahead Curry at Davidson, says that Curry is a better person that a player but casually refers about him as “the child.”
Ayesha replies, “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him mad.” He isn’t argumentative. He never reaches that point. He is able to look at the world from multiple perspectives and take a step back from himself. “It’s beautiful as a human being, but it’s kinda annoying for his wife,” she laughs. “It’s like, ‘O.K., Mr. Optimist!’ “
This Curry self-assessment won’t go viral like his post-Finals comment, but it sums him up as well as anything: “I don’t need anybody to tell me I’m great or anything like that. I feel confident in myself and what I can accomplish. But there’s also the self-awareness, too: You’re not doing anything great in this world alone.”
He is so comfortable with himself that he doesn’t waste time on his ego. McKillop states, “If you call him or text him to say, “Great game, great this and great that,” he will not respond. If you say, ‘I hope you treat Ayesha like a queen today. He’ll get back with you. Happy anniversary, Richards. Richards is Underrated’s director for athletic operations. When Curry meets his friends, he warns them that he will make eye contact with them whenever they speak. As a rookie, Curry walked down Bay Area streets quietly handing out $100 bills. When you speak to Curry, he doesn’t play with his phone. Curry asks everyone he meets, “How are you?” and listens to their answers.
Kerr was a Jordan’s Bulls champion and says Curry is deeply committed to giving his fans the best Steph Curry has to offer: “They feel responsible.” Jordan felt the same way. He felt responsible for putting on a show for Milwaukee fans who only see him once or twice a year. He told Carter, his longtime friend, he has a simple aspiration: He wants to make sure anybody who talks to him “has a good experience.”
Myers has won four NBA titles with the Warriors, but he says working with Curry “will be probably the biggest blessing of my professional career. It’s not the winning. The winning is great. But the man, the individual. I am amazed at his character. I don’t have that ability to see happiness all around.”
Here is a story you could tell about almost nobody else. Curry was a high school basketball player at Charlotte Christian. He and his fellow captain believed that the team should have a returning starter. Brown, their coach, agreed and told the captains that they had to announce the news. Curry was reluctant to do it but being a captain isn’t a job you can just pick and choose which tasks you like. Curry agreed to do it.
The other player was so mad that he ran after Curry on the court before practice one morning. Steph was on the ground in a headlock with his face reddening. Curry didn’t fight back. Curry waited for the child to release Curry, and when he did, Curry stood up and said a few words to him. He then went back to shooting practice.
What is that? Is it possible to feel that empathy for someone who is physically attacking you, right at the moment? That was Curry as a teenager.
“He has an emotional stability that kind of overrides every day emotion of the team,” Kerr states. He’s our foundation. He’s our foundation. We’ve been through a lot. Without him, this would have unraveled years ago.”
In 2016, when the Warriors wanted to sign Kevin Durant, Curry helped recruit him, unconcerned about whether Golden State would be his team or Durant’s. They won two titles together and nearly won a third, with the public dissecting their relationship every day until Durant left for Brooklyn. After Curry got well, he returned to All-NBA form. This helped him maintain his historical standing. Last December he broke the NBA’s career three-point record. He might have dismissed it in the past and moved on. Ayesha says that he was like that for a time. You just won a championship. You should probably take a moment to celebrate.’ ” But this time, he celebrated with a gathering of around 75 people at Catch Steak in New York City.
Steph sat between his dad and his college coach, and he was the only one who gave a speech–so he could thank everybody who had helped him. Bryce Young, Alabama’s quarterback, was there. He had just received his Heisman. Kerr was unsure if he was invited and didn’t ask. He knew Curry isn’t a person who keeps score in his social life. Durant was the only one who showed up. Despite all the public discussion about their relationship and what it meant to their legacies in the end, they are still on good terms. Curry had provided Durant a positive experience. Even a championship NBA season can be full of headaches. Curry is the Tylenol. When Draymond Green coldcocked Jordan Poole in October, Curry tried to play peacemaker–by listening more than lecturing. Ayesha said, “I think that was the first time I’ve seen something shake Curry because he cares.” Curry was his usual All NBA self when the season began. However, the Warriors struggled. He will be responsible for repairing and elevating the team once more. He says: “Empathy is a great word that you try to embody through the good times and hard times. It comes from a place where there’s no judgment, based on who you are, where you come from, what you bring to the table.”
This is what Steph Curry did not do this year: He did not make a big deal about now having twice as many titles as Durant. He didn’t publicly declare his claim to be one of the best players of the era, along with James. He did not point out that he easily could have been–and arguably should have been–the 2015 Finals MVP ahead of Andre Iguodala. (Durant won the trophy in Golden State’s other two title runs. He didn’t complain that Green’s preseason punch had put him in an unfair situation. He did not push the Warriors to trade one of their young potential stars for veterans who could help him win another title. Myers asks Curry every year as the trade deadline approaches. Curry replies, “You’re better than me at this,” and he laughs. It doesn’t matter what you think. He could abuse this power and get away with it. He never does.”
This summer, when Green said on his podcast that Curry “got double-teamed probably seven times the amount that KD did in a given series” when they were together, Durant fired back on Twitter: “From my view of it, this is 100% false.” But Curry did not enter the fray. Curry didn’t do that because he didn’t have to. True confidence doesn’t require external affirmation.
“We won’t win those championships without playing at the highest level,” he said of not being Finals MVP before. “But also: Andre, KD, they deserved the award because of how they played.”
In a world that rewards relentless self-promotion, Curry is a confusing case, because he says and does things on the court that he would never do off it. He talks trash. He revels in his success, turning to face the opposing bench before his three pointer touches the net, and celebrating his (relatively recent) win with a “night-night celebration”. He loves being watched and is so much fun to be around. He then walks off the court, and quickly begins to defer to everyone else. To prove a point, he doesn’t play basketball. The point is the fun.
“The pure joy I have on the court, it’s like a spacey kind of attitude. He says, “I don’t think of anything else than hooping and having fun.” “That’s why I have all these mannerisms and joy and happiness out there, because I’m kind of just lost in the game.”
That kind of balance is why the Warriors keep rolling in an era when nobody keeps rolling for long. Kerr said, “There are many players around where you have to constantly think about their needs.” We don’t have to spend any energy on that, because he’s so self-assured and so happy and confident in himself, in his own skin.”
Kerr once forgot to mention Curry when speaking at a championship parade. No big deal. Kerr chose Durant over Curry during the Durant years. Kerr’s opinion is more interesting than Kerr’s. He said it publicly: “I knew that Steph would not mind me saying that.” Part of his power is his humility, his awareness of the team dynamics and who needs to hear what.”
But about that answer, Steve …
“KD, to me, remains even now the most talented player in the league,” Kerr says.
“His frame, his size–6’11”–his ability to protect the rim defensively and then get any shot he wants offensively. But Steph was more influential to our team due to his speed and the frenetic flow in his game. It was also because of how everyone chased him around and how much it opened up. We’ve struggled with Steph, but we’ve been able win many games without Kevin. So to me, it’s two different questions.”
Kerr did not fully appreciate Curry’s gifts until late in their first season together, 2014-15, which ended in a championship. Curry is so versatile and draws so much attention from opposing sides that he makes it possible for everyone else to use the court.
Kerr is just one of many people who underestimate Curry. Curry, who stands 6’2″ tall, is five inches taller that the average American man. However, he appears small on an NBA court. Curry looks young no matter how many times he grows facial hair. No major-conference school recruited him, general managers holding the first six picks in the 2009 draft passed on him and he perpetually seems like he is starring in a sports-fantasy movie in which the littlest kid is granted a wish to be better than everybody else, smiting giants by slingshotting basketballs through the net from 30 feet away, then grinning like he won a toy at the state fair. The average person cannot imagine being Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Curry is relatable. It all disguises what Kerr says is the truth about Curry: “He’s one of the great athletes in the world.”
Kerr sometimes brings footballs to practice, just to keep the team loose, and he describes Curry’s throwing arm as “an absolute cannon.” McKillop saw Curry play baseball when he was in middle school and says, “I swore he was the next Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter. I swear he could’ve been in the major leagues. I swear to God” Curry hit a home run in batting practice with the A’s a few years back. When he was pitching BP, Curry jogged over to catch it bare-handed behind his back.
Once, Kerr surprised the team while on a road trip in Minnesota by canceling practice and taking the team bowling. Bruce Fraser, the Warriors assistant coach, says Curry started “strike and strike, strike, strike”–everyone starting in the gutter and then spinning back to the center of the lane PBA Tour-style. Fraser said, “I’m looking to this guy: That’s not fair. Curry’s team won, naturally.
When DeMarcus Cousins joined the Warriors in 2018, he watched Curry sink a pair of flip shots–way up high in the air, then right down through the net–and looked at Curry like he had won the lottery two weeks in a row. Fraser explained to Cousins: “That’s not lucky.”
“When you look at the world through your own lens, as everyone does, you can’t fathom what that kind of hand-eye is,” Fraser says. “You can’t. It’s almost as if an eagle can see a mile. It’s a tiny thing that seems so far away that you can’t even begin to imagine it. This guy has that.”
Curry’s hand-eye coordination is especially apparent in golf, a sport he doesn’t play nearly as often as he would like. Everyone knows Steph loves golf. But, you might not know how much. He was a beginner at the sport, and he thought he would be unable to play in the regular season. Curry is a plus-one handicap, meaning he is expected to break par; he bemoans a pair of recent 77s that damaged his handicap, which means 99% of golfers reading this sentence now resent him.
This summer, in the first round of the American Century Championship celebrity tournament in Tahoe, Curry holed out from 97 yards on the 13th hole. The next day, he got to 13 and hit his drive in the fairway again. As he walked towards his ball, his playing companions, Aaron Rodgers and Justin Timberlake, were discussing how loud the roar had been when Curry made the eagle the previous day. Curry quickly got within a foot from the cup. Kerr states that the traditional view is that the best athlete is the one who runs the fastest or jumps the highest. “I think that is one form of athleticism, but the other one that I think is at least equally as important–in basketball, more important–is hand-eye coordination, balance, focus, intensity.”
The myth of Curry as an ordinary athlete is self-perpetuating. It becomes easier to see Curry as one of us when he is undervalued because of his appearance. It helps that he behaves like one of us too. He promised he would graduate from Davidson when he left Davidson. This vow was something he took much more seriously than anyone realized. He returned to Davidson dressed up for his freshman year to see his classmates receive their degrees. The school had a rule that limited remote learning, so Curry couldn’t finish his degree while playing full NBA seasons, but during the 2011 lockout, he went back to campus and took classes.
When Davidson loosened remote-learning rules in the pandemic, Curry decided this was the year he would graduate, and there he was last spring, waking at 6: 30 a.m. Pacific Time to Zoom with professors and having tutors visit him at home. Ayesha said they would FaceTime during Warriors road trip, while Steph was writing his thesis. He was like a college kid playing in the NCAA tournament–studying, traveling and trying to win a championship. He could have been awarded an honorary degree all along, but he didn’t want it. McKillop used the phrase, “Finish all,” to his players. Curry was listening. McKillop, basketball’s most outstanding shooter, wanted no exceptions.
In the early days, NBA stars were just players. Then they became celebrities and then pitchmen. Conglomerates are today’s stars. In September, Curry assembled all of his people in Las Vegas for a retreat, and when he got there, he looked out at them and thought, Holy s—.
There were more than 50 employees there, working for various entities: SC30, his branding company; Unanimous Media; Underrated, his events company; and the Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation. This doesn’t include people who work for Ayesha’s company, AC Brands.
Many celebrities of this caliber live in echo chambers encrusted with diamonds. Myers said, “A lot people in that kind of fame lose their ability to ask questions to other people.” Curry spent most of his time teaching Topgolf in Vegas.
Curry got some publicity for helping fund the golf teams at Howard, but its director of golf, Sam Puryear, says, “It’s not about [credit for] the money with him. He has a vested stake in these young people. He would not get the headlines if he wanted to, if I’m honest. He’s that kind of guy.”
Curry texts with Puryear regularly. He FaceTimes with Howard teams sometimes after events. Curry, who was unable to play in the Warriors’ March match at Stanford due to an injury to his foot, came to Stanford to see the game and give his Curry touch. Puryear said that he spoke to the team but that it wasn’t so much what he actually said. He spent time with them.”
This summer Curry returned from a France vacation with Ayesha and arrived at the Olympic Hotel for his basketball camp the next morning. Brown, Curry’s high school coach, was curious if Curry was tired from jetlag. Curry replied, “Coach it’s camp time. Curry said, “Coach, it’s camp time.” He attended every session of the three-day camp. It is coed at his request and includes a financial literacy course. He allowed the children to watch him train so they could see what it is like to be a player in the NBA.
The Currys also helped rebuild playgrounds in Oakland Unified School District. John Sasaki, the district’s communications director, said that the Currys were “a driving factor in transforming SO much of our student experience.” Steph’s charity work, just like his profession, brings him joy.
” Kerr said that Steph puts his head on the pillow every night, and thinks, “Man, what an amazing day!” “His REM score is probably off the charts.” “His REM score is probably off the charts.”
McKillop teases Curry about running for office someday, but Ayesha says she can’t imagine that, “because I know that he doesn’t want to.” With his not-about-me manner and perpetual need to see the best in those who disagree with him, Curry is not a politician. Curry is the politician people want. His charity work aims to give people the same life he has. Eat well. Financial security is important. Play golf. Vote. Take your chances. Complete everything. Ayesha says, “Growing up and experiencing these things, he wants to share it with the community.”
This is what Steph Curry did this year: He moved forward in his game’s pantheon, went backward to get his degree and somehow stayed the same. He enjoyed being on stage, but also enjoyed walking off of it. He was a great host. Four championships, one Finals MVP, the all-time record for three-pointers, a burgeoning business empire, SI’s Sportsperson of the Year, and we know what Steph Curry is gonna say now:
How are you?
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.