It should have been a moment of triumph for Stephen Curry. The 73-win Golden State Warriors had taken a 2-0 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, and the newest colorway of his signature Under Armour sneaker, the Curry 2 Low "Chef" was set to drop.
Instead, the shoes became an instant critical failure, roasted on Twitter within minutes of being unveiled to the public. Then Curry and the Warriors famously became the first team to blow a 3-1 lead in the championship series.
For Curry and his shoe designer Kort Neumann, that outside noise pushed them to be better, resulting in his most positively received sneaker to date, the new Curry 4. The process of building Curry's fourth signature shoe began in the summer of 2016, shortly after the dual failures of the Curry 2 Lows and the NBA Finals.
"The team and I went out to the Bay to go see Steph, and I wanted to take a new approach and start from square one," Neumann said. "I wanted him to be as involved as he wanted to be."
In the past, Curry would be shown samples and options and would simply say "Yes" or "No" to what he did and didn't like. This time was different.
"We asked him what some of the things he was looking for were," Neumann said.
The team was looking for "pillars" to design around, an approach that could filter through each future model and be more in line with what the face of the brand was hoping to see.
"Sleek and fast," Curry fired back right away.
It was a simple declaration but also a visual shift for one of the game's most inventive freelancers on the court. Curry's first few models were built up for extra ankle support, resulting in what some considered a clunky look.
The Curry 4 looks much different. Prior models featured a traditional tongue and panel upper; the 4 is higher in silhouette to the eye, but because of its knitted upper material, there's more slope and contour throughout, making for a slimmer shape.
Fastened atop the knit material, a leather panel wraps and flows around the shoe for support. A deeply sculpted midsole then serves as the base. It's a simplified execution of what Curry had envisioned.
In addition to the materials and construction, the oversized Under Armour logo on the side of the Curry 1 and Curry 2 had become a point of frustration. For Curry himself, the big tongue logo and full company text underneath on the 3 became a discussion point, leading to a change on the later-released colorways of that model. Still, he was looking for even more subtle badging.
There was one specific doodle of early Curry 4 designs that Curry gravitated to right away. As Neumann handed him a red pen and his sheets of sketches, he told Curry, "Circle the ones you like, and X out the ones that you really don't like."
"One of the sketches he really circled heavily, to the point that he almost ripped the paper," Neumann said. "He wanted to have that strong SC logo. It was one of those things that I knew was going to be a must."
On some colorways, like the simple black and white version, Curry's "SC30" logo is understated. On others, the molded "SC" piece is outlined in color. Both are a leap from the more overt initial Curry shoes. A small interlocking UA stamp is tucked along the heel.
"We wanted to have it be SC first, and then the UA 'heartbeat' logo second," Neumann said.
As Curry nears 30 and has become increasingly confident in his off-court style, he wanted to have a shoe that he and his fans could proudly wear away from the game.
"Prior to this one, we were really focused on on-court performance and making a total performance shoe," Neumann said. "With the 4, we still wanted to do utter performance, but also make it wearable. The style aspect of it is huge, and that definitely was a big part of this shoe."
While only a few colors of the Curry 4's slated lineup have hit retail stores so far this fall, the shoe was actually first debuted earlier this spring at Game 1 of the NBA Finals. With several gold-accented pairs at his disposal, Curry urged the team at Under Armour to let him make use of the platform and wear the shoe months early, in what eventually was a third consecutive Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers.
"We gave him a sample in his size last December, and he wanted to wear them all the time," Neumann said. "That was kind of an indicator for us that he really liked the shoe. When it came to practice, he wanted to keep playing it in, and then wear it outside of practice."
It wasn't until June that the debut of the new model was ready for public eyes.
"Nobody knew it was coming, but I had been planning on it for a while," Curry said. "I wear-tested it throughout the year to dial it in, and was obviously hoping to make it to the Finals to take advantage of the opportunity. It was almost like starting a new season. When you wear a new pair of shoes, you feel a little bit different."
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For Neumann, it was a moment every designer dreams of, as his reimagined take on a Curry signature model was now forever etched in the memory of basketball lore, with even more potential for the sneaker in store this season.
"I was super nervous, because I just wanted the shoe to perform," Neumann said. "Him putting it on, and seeing the positive feedback on Instagram from people that were interested in it, that got me excited. The fact that he played well in it, from the first game and all the way through, I couldn't ask for more."
"Every time I look at this shoe, I can remember winning a ring," Curry said. "It's special."