The motorcade carrying Steph Curry through London consists of the following vehicles: an executive-class Audi at the front, three Range Rovers with blacked-out windows in the middle, and what looks suspiciously like an armoured van bringing up the rear. Is he here to play basketball, or to stage a coup? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.
The line of cars pulls up outside Old Billingsgate, the magnificent Victorian edifice on the banks of the Thames, where crowd control barriers have been installed around a mini-basketball court. They’re not strictly necessary: as it turns out, the sight of one of the world’s biggest athletes is enough to draw a crowd of only a few dozen, much of it curious through-traffic rather than genuine basketball fandom.
Still, there’s a buzz about the place as Curry rocks up, dressed simply in black leggings and a maroon training jacket. This shouldn’t really be a surprise at all, given everything we know about him, but you expect him to be taller. As Under Armour PRs and production assistants mill around him, setting up the promotional video he is about to film, the eye isn’t immediately drawn to him. He’s just one guy in a city of millions, going about his daily business. Only the lone devotee in a Golden State Warriors top emblazoned with Curry’s famous No 30 gives the game away.
But then someone hands him a basketball, and even as he flicks it absentmindedly from hand to hand, it all makes sense. Some athletes just look right, and as he dribbles for the camera, weaving the ball between his legs, two balls at once, Tower Bridge at his back and the wind in his face, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Curry was born to do this. The ball seems to be an extension of him, a fully-functioning body part, and even when he’s not trying, magic leaks out of him like electricity.
He’s here because his sponsors Under Armour want to film him shooting three-pointers on the banks of the Thames. So for around half an hour, that’s exactly what he does. Office workers press faces and phones up against first-floor windows, craning for a better look. An American tourist walks along the riverpath and does a double take. “No WAY,” he exhales, wondering whether he has just stepped into a surreal dreamscape where two-time NBA MVPs simply appear in his holiday, like characters in a play.
And then it’s all over. Curry drains one last three-pointer, gives a menacing side-glance to the camera, and then disappears back into the automotive squadron on the way to his next engagement. The modest crowd begins to disperse, one of them a woman of around 40, who turns to her friend and says with a puzzled expression: “So, was that someone famous?”
You could say that. More specifically, you could say that according to ESPN, Curry is the ninth most famous sportsperson in the world, behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant from his own sport; Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar from football; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal from tennis, and Tiger Woods from golf. According to Forbes, he’s also the world’s eighth-highest paid athlete, having signed the first $200m contract in NBA history last year.
On the court, he’s conquered all he surveys, winning three championships in the last four seasons with the Warriors, a team on the verge of forging one of the great NBA dynasties. More profoundly, his ability to shoot three-pointers almost at will has subtly transformed the geometry of the entire sport, opening up areas of the court previously thought safe for defences. Standing at just 6ft 3in – four inches below the league average – Curry is relatable like few others in his position, a counterpoint to the physical freaks and towering giants who tend to populate the upper reaches of the sport.
And yet in Britain, a more conservative country than it often likes to imagine itself where sport is concerned, Curry could probably walk down the high streets of most cities unmolested. Even in London, where basketball lives and breathes at street level and where the NBA is aggressively marketing itself with a number of regular-season games in recent years, the world’s ninth most famous athlete would still be comfortably less recognisable than, say, Olivier Giroud.
That, in part, is why Curry has gone on tour. At the behest of his sponsors Under Armour, and with a month to go until Curry’s Warriors begin their campaign for a third straight crown, he has spent the last few days criss-crossing the world. He’s eaten the popular Filipino yam dessert halo-halo in Manila and taken a calligraphy course in Wuhan, China. He’s thrown the ceremonial first pitch at a Yomiuri Giants baseball game in Tokyo, and hung out with Neymar in Paris. Now he’s in the capital, preaching… well, the gospel of Steph Curry.
It’s not his first visit. His wife Ayesha is a cookery presenter in the US, and was here last summer filming a show. “London is amazing,” he says. “The people are amazing. The reception is always amazing. And the culture here is phenomenal.”
We’ve relocated to Shoreditch in east London, where Curry and his entourage have parked their tanks outside a local court for a practice session. Here, the crowd is younger, more engaged and certainly more enthusiastic. Curry is cheered as he steps out of the car, where he is greeted by members of the Lewisham-based London Thunder club, who Curry will be putting through their paces. And in amongst the polished photoshoots and VIP chinwags, Curry was particularly keen on doing something community-based.
“Growing up in Virginia, we played on a rim like that,” he grins, looking up at the battered backboard with its steel rims. “You had to almost shoot perfect shots. There’s something to be said about putting in time on a court here, improve your jumping. Plus the wind. It brings me back to my roots.”
But the real issue at stake here is not what British basketball can do for Steph Curry, but what Steph Curry can do for British basketball. It’s not every day, after all, that one of the genuine icons of the game graces east London with his presence, and so it’s interesting to hear how Curry feels his presence can grow a game with plenty of grassroots appeal but little elite infrastructure.
“Basketball is kind of low on the radar here,” he said. “But we want to try and continue to raise the patter game, and the next generation of kids that are getting into the game earlier. What they see in the NBA with myself, maybe they’re able to carve a story out for themselves in the game of basketball. That’s why I’m here.”
So what exactly is brand Curry? On one level, of course, it’s simply the irresistible aura of sporting excellence. The Warriors are strong favourites to become only the fifth team in NBA history to win three straight titles. If he hung up his boots tomorrow, Curry would already be assured of a place among the greats of the sport. But the will to keep conquering still consumes him.
“Human nature is tough to fight sometimes,” he says. “In terms of showing up in October, coming off of a championship, and all you can think about is: ‘How can we get back to June and another finals as soon as possible?’ But there’s a process to it. Eighty-two games is a long season. We can’t just show up and expect to win.”
But there’s more to it than that. In a world of glossy PR sheen, where athletes are often little more than curated holograms for brands to project their interests onto, there is a basic authenticity to Curry that – ironically – makes him highly marketable. He speaks his mind. He champions causes. Last year he publicly refused an offer from President Trump to visit the White House. He has even stood up to his own sponsor, slapping down Under Armour’s chief executive after he described Trump as “a real asset to the country”. “I agree with that description,” Curry said at the time, “if you remove the ‘e’ and the ‘t’.”
The real value of Curry, however, lies not in his profile or his politics, but in something far simpler. And you can see it as he takes the Thunder through a set of dribbling drills, as he coaches them in his three-point technique, as he gets them to try and recreate his unforgettable 38-foot buzzer shot against Oklahoma City two years ago. Coaches often describe Curry as a joyful player, but it’s only when you see him up close that you realise what they mean.
It’s the simple pleasure of the ball in your fingers; the thrill of testing your limits; the umbilical link between the global superstar shooting hoops for eight-figure cheques, and the kid in the driveway doing it for free. It’s utterly infectious, and it’s what makes Curry one of the most compelling performers in sport.
“Basketball has been so good to me,” he says by way of a parting thought, just before he climbs back into his armoured van and the motorcade rolls back out of town. “There are only 450 spots in the NBA, and it’s extremely hard to get there. I want to share that story with as many people that want to listen.”