Stephen Curry, Who Got Stronger and Returned to Glory: Our NBA Person of the Year
In December, the athletic will spotlight the coaches, athletes and other figures who had the greatest impact on the American sports we cover, as well as the fields of sports business, media and culture. Next in the series is our honoree at the nba: Stephen Currywho at the age of 34 led the warriors of the golden state to his fourth title in eight seasons and won his first NBA Finals MVP award. The full schedule is here.
This moment from Game 4 of the NBA Finals now belongs in the annals of legend. It is worthy of a tile in the mosaic of celts villains Stephen Curry, after drilling a three-pointer in the first quarter, took the opportunity to confront his rival. His muscles flexed, his veins flared, his brow creased, his beard mopped in this menacing tantrum. Number 30 issued a threat, no, a promise, to the Boston crowd.
“This is going to be a different m—–f—ing game.”
His teasing is usually more jovial in nature. This time, there was nothing optimistic about his intentions. For this game, the impetus was different. The adversity was different. The challenge, even the context, was different. The curry was different.
“My mom got mad at me for my choice of words,” he told JJ Redick on “The Old Man and the Three” podcast in November. “And I was like, ‘You’re right.’ But it was just unleashing a different level of, like, ‘I’m here. They were here.’ … It just required another level of response from us. For me, I wanted to lead that.”
It was an illustrative display, of his signature game, of a defining win, in what was to be a legendary season. Curry led the Warriors back to the top, clinched his fourth NBA championship, won his first Finals MVP, and moved to the highest level because he kept going strong. The 15 pounds of muscle he’s added over the years is evidence that Curry’s body is catching up with his thinking. The combination has given Curry: the athletic‘s NBA’s Person of the Year for 2022: the chance to do what he couldn’t do for so long: impose his will. About the defenses. About odds. About moments.
You can’t watch the Warriors and not see Curry’s fingerprints throughout the game. In the 2022 playoffs he made his mark.
However, this was not the birth of something. It was more of a culmination, the realization of an obsession. The fruit of years of intentional work. Small in size for most of his life, even weak in places, Curry went to work. Years of discipline, commitment, and advanced training went into molding himself into his vision.
The result is that the flower of his career is extended and the peak of that flower is raised. The greatest shooter of all time, whose all-time 3-point crown still has the fresh glow of it, already had exceptional skill and a mountain of experience. The physical was the finishing touch, the manifestation of his manic urge.
Not a bull by any means, still relatively small in a giants league. But he is not pushed like before. He does some pushing.
“It’s torn,” Steve Kerr said last month. “He used to look like your little brother. And now he’s just ripped right in through the contact. He’s finishing better than I’ve ever seen him finish. People are trying to mess with him defensively, because that’s what you do, you try to wear him down on the offensive end. I just don’t see people going through it anymore. So he puts up a booth. And he’s just, he’s physically very different now.”
curry said how it looks doesn’t matter. The sculpture of his physique was not a pursuit of vanity. 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 put his greatness in the face of his enemies.
He never forgot the problems he had with the pressure of the ball, when he needed the referee to protect him. He never forgot the bigger and longer teams of athletes he was put on, or the aggressive double teams that would knock him off his feet. He never forgot how players would try to post him, how opponents would try to throw him into space to embarrass him. He never forgot how many considered him a bystander to his first three champions, the product of a system that created a dynasty, and not on par with even the modern greats, let alone all-time greats.
This was the year he would no longer be denied. Curry got the respect his resume deserved. He was only going to be taken by force.
That’s why Curry ranks Game 4 against Boston as his favorite. The Warriors trailed 2-1 in the series and faced a daunting hole. He sprained his foot late in Game 3, bringing up old reminders of his frailty. He was being invaded by bigger, more athletic and noticeably younger players. He was playing in an environment hostile enough to like. Besides, his cohorts needed him. dramond green he was fighting and being serenaded with New England poison. klay thompson He spent two years of hell to get back to the highest level. Andrew Wiggins, jordan poole, Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II – everyone was trying for the first time, and only Curry could provide it.
This game commanded a different kind of energy. The kind that wreaks as much havoc as it can take.
He was able to deliver in large part due to a series of unfortunate events in the previous years. In 2019, he broke a bone in his hand that sidelined him for just over four months. He returned and played one game on March 5, 2020. Then the pandemic shut down the league. The Warriors were not invited to the bubble, so Curry’s season was over. He would have 292 days between games, until the next season begins on December 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 a lot more than they normally could in the two months between the finals and training camp. First of all, mental rest was crucial. Five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals drain the soul as much as the ligaments.
“People don’t understand how exhausting it is five years in a row in the finals,” Payne said.
The four months he sat with a broken hand plus the nine months since the shutdown gave him more than a year to get the power back on. He had time to miss the game and yearn to return to it, necessary for the company that Payne invented.
Working with Warriors director of performance Carl Bergstrom, they came up with a plan to rejuvenate Curry. They could be whole.
“We had this extended period of time,” Payne continued. “So we could mechanically refocus. We could add a few things from a space creation standpoint. We could look and see what teams have done to us over the last two years, start developing some individual strategies on how to attack things. Physically, we could really get organized and have a focus on what he’s doing all year.”
A big part of that was resetting Curry’s mechanics. The broken bone in his left hand had lingering effects. He still didn’t have his feel all the way back, and it resulted in pushing the ball more on his shot. They were able to take their time and address that and other elements of their shot, the fine details that get lost in the grind of chasing titles.
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Another area they addressed was recovery. They’ve refined your techniques, added more and updated technologies to your routine, and looked at some of the patterns you’ve come to learn about your body and perhaps others you might expect. Curry even built a specialized fitness wing in her house, complete with an infrared sauna and cold tub for contrast therapy.
In 2011, when Curry started working with Payne, the short-term goal was to overcome his ankle issues. But, in the long run, Curry wanted to be ready for the end. He remembered the last years of his father’s career. He was just a high school student when Dell Curry played his last two seasons in Toronto. But he remembers the work his dad required to get ready to play. The daily routine of recovery. The meticulous acceleration necessary to prepare his body for the intensity of the NBA. The toll it all took.
Curry knew he didn’t want that by the end of his career. So he and Payne began preparing for the day he lost a step. The plan was to make it so fast with his processing and so efficient with his movement that it would limit the effect, perhaps even neutralize, any physical impairment. Neurocognitive work, elite conditioning, flexibility training, are all designed to make you think faster and make better decisions. They’ve been at it for over a decade.
“I wasn’t thinking that at 34, he would still be faster,” Payne said. “Nobody would have thought, even back then, that when he’s 35, he’ll be stronger and move faster and better than when he was 23, 24. He’s a little crazy.”
The best of athletes are the sweet spots in their career when their experience, IQ, and knowledge, which theoretically increases with years played, coincide with their physical peak, lasts for a stretch, and then wanes. That’s generally between the ages of 27 and 32 in basketball. But Curry’s physical peak came after that. He is a late development, as Payne says, having gained his adult male strength later. This not only extended his window of greatness, but also altered the Warriors franchise. Golden State had plans for the transition, but Curry has essentially blown those plans by being elite beyond the age anyone expected.
Its peak was supposed to be beyond him. His best days were supposed to be bygone. But the id in Curry resisted that notion. He imposed his will at the same time, avoiding his attempted decadence. To be able to orchestrate the greatest performance of his life. To be able to have the season that no one imagined he could have. So he could flex.
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(Illustration: Sean Reilly / the athletic; photo: Elsa/Getty Images)