Stephen Curry, who built himself up and returned to glory: Our NBA Person of the Year

In December, The Athletic will be highlighting the coaches, athletes and other figures who made the biggest impact in the US sports we cover, as well as in the fields of sports business, media and culture. Next up in the series is our honoree in the NBA: Stephen Curry, who at age 34 led the Golden State Warriors to their fourth title in eight seasons and won his first NBA Finals MVP award. The full schedule is here.

This NBA Finals Game 4 moment now belongs to the annals of legends. It is worthy of a tessera in the mosaic of Celtics villains. Stephen Curry, after drilling a 3-pointer in the first quarter, used the opportunity to confront his foe. Muscles flexed, veins popped, brow scrunched, his beard resembling a scouring pad in this menacing tantrum. No. 30 issued a threat—no, a promise—to the Boston crowd.

“This gonna be a different m—–f—ing game.”

His taunts are usually more jovial in nature. This time, there was nothing buoyant about his intentions. For this game, the impetus was different. The adversity was different. The challenge, even the context, was different. Curry was different.

“My momma got mad at me because of my word choice,” he told JJ Redick on “The Old Man and the Three” podcast in November. “And I was like, ‘You’re right.’ But I was just unleashing a different level of, like, ‘I’m here. We’re here.’ … It just required another level of response from us. For me, I wanted to lead that.”

It was an illustrative display, from his signature game, of a defining triumph, in what was a legendary season. Curry carried the Warriors back to the top, got his fourth NBA championship, won his first Finals MVP, and translated to the highest of tiers because he kept getting stronger. The 15 pounds of muscle he’s added over the years is evidence of Curry’s body catching up to his mindset. The combination has afforded Curry — The Athletic‘s NBA Person of the Year for 2022 — the chance to do what for so long he couldn’t: impose his will. Over defenses. Over odds. Over moments.

It’s not possible to watch the Warriors and not see Curry’s fingerprints all over the game. In the 2022 playoffs, he left a footprint.

This wasn’t the birth of something, though. It was more a culmination, the realization of an obsession. The fruit from years of intentional labor. Undersized most of his life, even feeble at points, Curry went to work. Years of discipline, commitment and advanced training went toward molding himself into his vision.

The result is the prime of his career being extended, and the peak of that prime elevated. The greatest shooter ever, whose all-time career 3-point crown still has its fresh sparkle, already had exceptional skill and a mountain of experience. His physique was the finishing touch, the manifestation of his maniacal drive.

He isn’t a bull by any means, still relatively small in a league of giants. But he doesn’t get pushed around like he once did. He does some pushing.

“He’s ripped,” Steve Kerr said last month. “He used to look like your little brother out there. And now he is just ripped and he gets right through contact. He’s finishing better than I’ve ever seen him finish. People are trying to pick on him defensively — because that’s what you do, you try to wear him out for the offensive end. I just don’t see people going through him anymore. So he puts up a stand. And he’s just, he’s physically very different now.”

Curry said what he looks like doesn’t matter. The sculpting of his physique was n’t a vanity pursuit. He wanted to be more physical, more explosive, more durable. He wanted to resist the resistance he faces, in all its forms. He wanted to shove his greatness in the face of his haters.

He never forgot the problems he had with ball pressure, when he needed the referee to protect him. He never forgot the bigger and longer athletes teams would put on him, or the aggressive double-teams that would knock him off his spot. He never forgot how players tried to post him, how opponents sought to get him out in space to embarrass him. He never forgot how many regarded him as a bystander on his first three champions, the product of a system that created a dynasty, and not on par with even the modern greats, let alone the all-time ones.

Stephen Curry

In Game 4 of this year’s NBA Finals, down 2-1 to the Celtics, Curry had one of the best games of his long playoff career, scoring 43 points and leading the Warriors to a win. Golden State didn’t lose again. (Elsa/Getty Images)

This was the year he would no longer be denied. Curry took the respect his resume he deserved. It was only going to be taken by force.

That’s why Curry ranks Game 4 against Boston as his favourite. The Warriors were down 2-1 in the series and facing a daunting hole. He sprained his foot from him at the end of Game 3, bringing up old reminders of his fragility from him. He was being swarmed by bigger, more athletic and notably younger players. He was playing in an environment hostile enough to taste. Plus his cohorts needed him. Draymond Green was struggling and being serenaded with New England venom. Klay Thompson went through two years of hell to get back to the highest level. Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II — they all were getting their first taste, and only Curry could deliver it for them.

This game commanded a different kind of energy. The kind that wreaks as much havoc as it weathers.

He was able to deliver in large part because of a series of unfortunate events in the years before. In 2019, he broke a bone in his hand that knocked him out of action for just over four months. He returned and played one game on March 5, 2020. Then the pandemic shut down the league. The Warriors weren’t invited to the bubble, so Curry’s season was over. He would get 292 days between games, until the next season started on Dec. 22, 2020.

He and his personal trainer, Brandon Payne, founder of Carolinas-based Accelerate Basketball, used that as a reset period. They were able to do so much more than they normally could in the two months between the finals and training camp. First and foremost, the mental break was crucial. Five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals exhaust the soul as much as the ligaments.

“People don’t understand how taxing five straight years in the finals is,” Payne said.

The four months he sat out with a broken hand plus the nine months from the shutdown gave him over a year to replenish the energy source. He had time to miss the game and yearn to get back to it, necessary for the undertaking Payne concected.

Working with the Warriors’ director of performance, Carl Bergstrom, they crafted a plan to rejuvenate Curry. They could be comprehensive.

“We had this extended period of time,” Payne continued. “So we could refocus mechanically. We could add some things from a space- creating standpoint. We could look and see what teams have done to us for the past couple years, start to develop some individual strategies for how you attack things. Physically, we could really get organized and get into having more of a year-round approach to what he’s doing.”

A big part of it was resetting Curry’s mechanics. The broken bone in his left hand had lingering effects. He still did n’t have his feeling of him all the way back, and it resulted in pushing the ball more on his shot of him. They were able to take their time and address that and other elements of his shot by him, the fine details that get lost in the grind of chasing titles.



Thompson: Warriors’ trio of stars belongs with the best in NBA history

Another area they addressed was recovery. They refined his techniques, added more and updated technologies to his routine, and analyzed some of the patterns he’s come to learn about his body and maybe others he might expect. Curry even built a specialized fitness wing in his house, including an infrared sauna and a cold tub for contrast therapy.

Back in 2011, when Curry started working with Payne, the goal in the short term was to overcome his ankle issues. But, long-term, Curry wanted to be prepared for the end. He remembered the final years of his father’s career about him. He was but a middle schooler when Dell Curry played his final two seasons in Toronto. But he remembers the labor his dad required to get ready to play. The daily grind of recovery. The meticulous ramp-up needed to get his body ready for NBA intensity. The toll it all took.

Curry knew he didn’t want that for the back end of his career. So he and Payne started preparing for the day he lost a step. The plan was to make him so quick with his processing and so efficient with his movement, it would limit the effect of, maybe even neutralize, any physical decline. The neurocognitive work, the elite conditioning, the flexibility training, are designed to make him think faster and make more accurate decisions. They’ve been at it for over a decade.

“I wasn’t thinking that at 34, he’ll still be getting faster,” Payne said. “Nobody would have ever thought even back then that when he’s 35, he’s gonna be stronger and moving faster and better than he moved when he was 23, 24. It’s kind of crazy.”

Athletes’ primes are the sweet spots in their career when their experience, IQ and savvy — which theoretically increases with years played — match up with their physical peak, lasts for a stretch and then declines. That’s generally between the ages of 27 and 32 in basketball. But Curry’s physical peak came after that. He’s a later bloomer, as Payne says, who got his grown-man strength later. This not only extended his window of greatness, it also has altered the Warriors’ franchise. Golden State had plans to transition, but Curry has essentially blown up those plans by being elite past an age anyone expected.

His peak was supposed to be past him. His best days were supposed to be yesteryear. But the id in Curry resisted that notion. He imposed his will on time itself, warding off its intent to decay. So he could orchestrate the greatest performance of his life by him. So he could have the season no one imagined he could have. So he could flex.



The Athletic’s Sportspersons of the Year: The athletes and coaches who defined 2022

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo: Elsa/Getty Images)


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