In a new documentary, Wardell Stephen Curry II — Steph to his family, friends and fans — asks the key question about his journey from skinny 9-year-old on the 10-and-under AAU Charlotte Stars to 35-year-old NBA superstar: “How did I get here?”
“It’s a powerful question,” said Peter Nicks, director and producer of Stephen Curry: Underrated (streaming on Apple TV+ beginning Friday). And Curry answers it candidly in the film, reflecting how he had his work cut out for him from the moment he first played organized basketball.
“I remember looking around and thinking I’m not as tall as him, not as strong as him. I was the undersized scrawny kid that was trying to figure out how to make it at whatever level I was playing in,” Curry said in the film. “That was when I first really understood I was different. And the temptation for me at that time was to think about what I could do. But I knew that I could shoot.”
Could he ever. It didn’t hurt that Curry’s dad Dell, a shooting guard for the Charlotte Hornets and three other NBA teams, helped his son polish his shot. From Curry’s days on the Charlotte Stars to high school at Charlotte Christian, Curry’s talent on the court began to reveal itself bit by bit. Coach Shonn Brown noticed a big change from freshman Curry to sophomore Curry: “Look at his shot, look at his pace, look at how he creates. There is just an art as to what this kid is doing out on the floor and there is a drive to be the absolute best.”
More than anything, Curry was desperate to become a Hokie at Virginia Tech, where his mom Sonya and dad were star athletes. But he didn’t pass what he called the “eye test” — too short, too skinny. “When the Virginia Tech coach came to the house,” his dad recalled, “he said, ‘Steph can definitely play. No doubt. We see the skill. But we don’t have a spot here. He’s too little. Going to get pushed around. He’s not big enough to play major D-1 basketball.’ ”
And it wasn’t just Virginia Tech that relied on the eye test and overlooked him. Curry wasn’t offered a scholarship to any Division 1 school with a big basketball program. Even then-coach Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, no slouch for spotting talent, had Curry in his camp and conceded he missed him because of his height. Krzyzewski called Curry at Davidson one of the great stories in college basketball.
When Davidson College, a small liberal arts school outside of Charlotte, then in the Southern Conference, got wind of Curry from the Charlotte Observer, coach Bob McKillop and his assistant Matt Matheny drove to Charlotte Christian School simply to watch Curry play. “We watched. We saw. We liked. It was interesting. Because he missed shots. He made turnovers. He made bad plays, but he never stopped playing,” McKillop recalled. “The next opportunity he had, he made spectacular plays. He showed a real emotional toughness, which is so rare.”
It then took but a few minutes at Curry’s house for McKillop to seal the recruiting deal. “It was a shot of adrenaline,” McKillop recalled. “It was the sense that we just got a steal. No one knows how good this guy’s going to be. He is a perfect fit for what we do.”
Indeed, at Davidson, Curry found a mentor in McKillop who knew just how to unlock his potential.
“When Davidson came along, when Coach McKillop saw his potential in that classic line in the film where mom Sonya said, ‘Don’t worry, coach, we’ll fatten him up for you.’ And coach said, ‘It’s OK, we’ll take him just how he is.’ I think that kind of validation was very powerful,” Nicks said.
A few years ago Curry decided to approach his friend, filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station, Creed), a partner with Nicks at Proximity Media, about making a documentary about his career. The documentary has plenty of footage from his 14 seasons with the Golden State Warriors that have included four NBA championships, two MVP trophies, a Finals MVP and the all-time NBA record for 3-pointers made (2,974), set in 2021, that has grown to 3,390 entering the 2023-24 season.
For Curry, he told Andscape it’s a record that surpasses his hole-in-one or long eagle putt on the 18th hole to win the American Century Championship golf tournament July 15.
“Everybody who’s ever played golf or watched golf, you envision yourself on the 18th hole on the green, with a putt to win,” Curry said. “So, that is definitely the top of my golf experiences. But it is not topping the 2,974 … when you consider the number of reps I’ve gone through in my life to set that record.”
Curry’s shooting prowess as a 6-foot-2 shooting guard only underscores just how underrated he was in his original NBA draft report on NBAdraft.net: “Far below NBA standards in regard to explosiveness and athleticism. At 6-2, he’s extremely small for the NBA shooting guard position. … Can overshoot and rush into shots. … Doesn’t like when defenses are too physical with him. Not a great finisher around the basket due to his size and physical attributes. Needs to add some muscle to his upper body, but appears as though he will always be skinny.”
The report invites the well-worn cliché: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Curry wanted this film to focus on his three years at Davidson before he entered the NBA draft, like when he came of age and his skills stunned sports journalists to lead Davidson out of a 17-point deficit against Georgetown in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
“Everything I learned while I was at Davidson for those three years, the NCAA tournament run we had … it’s all through the lens of what helped me develop that underrated mindset,” Curry said this week. “It’s always part of my DNA because that’s how I truly learned how to approach the game and find my own identity in this world.”
“From the very beginning, this idea of Underrated was floating out there as the title for the documentary. It’s part of Steph’s brand ecosystem. It’s a narrative I think he’s latched on to,” Nicks said.
Asked how much he worries that many young people, especially Black people, don’t pass the eye test and then have limited opportunities to fulfill their passions, Curry told Andscape, “You hit the nail on the head.
“That’s what we’re trying to acknowledge and change in every field of life. That’s why I have created the underrated brand in golf and basketball. I’m trying to find that overlooked, undervalued, young boy or girl — young men and women, too — to create an opportunity for them to just be on a stage, to have an opportunity to showcase what they’re about. It’s the opportunity that I had. I took full advantage of it. It’s a huge part of everything that I’m doing, and I think this [film] hopefully gives something tangible that people can watch and see and interact with that speaks to what that experience is.”
Nicks said he and Curry agreed that this documentary wasn’t designed as a celebrity profile or sports movie because, he said, “being underrated is universal.”
“We’ve all felt sort of overlooked or underrated, misunderstood at one time in our careers, whether it’s a classmate or a boss or a funder who [we] are trying to get money from. I feel that way all the time. Documentaries are underrated. We don’t get the marketing dollars and support and attention as films with movie stars. So, this is a universal idea. And when you think about people who can kind of overcome doubts, whether they’re internal or external, you often wonder why. I remember hearing that anybody who has achieved greatness in life, there’s someone who touched their life who’s not a parent, somebody like a mentor or a teacher or a friend or uncle. And we knew that part of what the movie was going to be about was unpacking the story of how this smallish athlete was able to transcend all the limitations that were in front of him, including being the son of a fairly accomplished NBA player.”
Curry said he fought his underrated image for a while, then decided to embrace it, leading to his nickname at Davidson: the Baby-Faced Assassin.
“That underrated kind of mindset, being undersized, it was like a badge of honor at a certain point and you kind of flip it on its head and, ‘if I apply myself in this way, I can be as good as the next guy, even though I don’t look the part,’ ” Curry said. “So you accept it, and try to let your game do the talking. And for me, that was always kind of my happy place.”
There was one piece of unfinished business that may have motivated Curry to have this documentary made now, something he wanted his three kids to understand: the importance of keeping a promise and of education.
When he left college after three years to enter the NBA draft, he promised his mom that despite his celebrated pro basketball career he would finally get that degree from Davidson. He had been the only student-athlete coached by McKillop in 33 years at Davidson who had not graduated and until he did, couldn’t have his Davidson shirt retired.
In August 2022, he crossed the Davidson stage in cap and gown, threw his mortarboard into the air and the light finally shined on his No. 30 shirt in the Davidson gym rafters.