FORT MILL, S.C. -- After a long drive from Charlotte, North Carolina, I appeared at Accelerate Basketball, tucked inside a warehouse. It's quiet out here, far removed from the din that surrounded Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry the night before, when he went off for 28 third-quarter points against the Charlotte Hornets, the team that honored his father at halftime.
This warehouse isn't where Curry's saga started, but it could be the scene of a remarkable turning point.
This is where Brandon Payne started training Curry in 2011, a time that preceded Curry's playoff appearances, All-Star appearances, MVP and NBA championship.
"I started training Steph in 2011," is a great sales pitch, which could have something to do with the upgrades on Payne's horizon. "We'll have four full courts and a full weight room and it'll be a performance facility," he says with a grin. "Right down the street."
The current facility is spartan, almost wholly comprising a half court with a low ceiling and rubberized floor. Payne is happy to move on from this, but the smallness of the setup taps into a certain skill set. He's obsessed with "versatility," getting "multiple uses" out of his drills. A compact space forces you to be resourceful, to optimize your equipment to the greatest possible degree.
With no small amount of pride, Payne will describe how some neatly tucked-away machinery can transform into so much. He's the guy always trying to optimize. For example, he likes to train his sons at the facility, but doesn't want them to ignore their schoolwork. As a fix, he has taken to quizzing them with study flash cards during their workouts.
Payne is something of an autodidact, which is why he initially loathes to read the instructions of the equipment he receives. He wants to tinker with it first, possibly fashion it to what he needs. In Curry's case, needs are specialized. Nobody is making equipment specifically fashioned to improve the best shooter ever. Curry is on the frontier of this sport.
Just as few imagined Curry would become this great, even fewer have a handle on how to improve such a uniquely devastating force.
Central to Payne's mission for Curry is "overload," a term he often repeats. "Overload" means flooding your perception, to challenge your ability to focus on the tasks at hand. At its most basic representation, that's the idea behind Curry's now famous pregame dribbling drills. Dribbling two basketballs simultaneously is less a test of coordination than a test of realization. Can you track two things at once? Can you do the basketball version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time?
Shortly into our conversations, I was put to the test.
Volunteer crash dummy.
Dribbling two basketballs at separate rhythms was tough, but workable. Quickly, life got much tougher. I was broken by one particular drill that involved dribbling between the legs while transferring another ball elsewhere. Adding to the deflation, young AJ Jamison, son of retired NBA player Antawn Jamison, was called upon to demonstrate. The third-grader effortlessly went through his dribbling paces -- with a grin. I was just getting introduced to a language the kid spoke fluently.
Still, I pressed forward, clumsily and sweatily. There was the Steph drill where you catch a tennis ball while dribbling a basketball. There was the Steph drill where you dribble a heavy basketball and a regular one simultaneously. There was the drill that involved continuously transferring a ball to bounce between your legs while simultaneously maintaining a regular dribble with your other hand.
Here's the through line in all these drills: Parts of your body start shutting down. That'd be the first thing you'd notice -- if you had the ability to notice such things. I needed Payne to point out to me that I was experiencing something called a "knee valgus," an awkward twisting of the joint. I looked down and there was my leg, bent as though I was a hockey goalie, attempting to block a shot south of the wickets.
That's just one of the ways overload can express itself. Some guys pucker their lips (Draymond Green, for instance, when he tried these drills). Others stop breathing, which is less than ideal for obvious reasons. Curry might bend his knee a bit, but he's mostly a portrait of coordinated calm during these drills. This only adds credence to the reasonable supposition that Steph Curry might be superhuman.
Finally, I tried out the experimental technology at Accelerate: military-grade goggles with strobing effects. They look similar to the fit-over sunglasses your grandfather prefers -- likely seeing the world clearer in his wraparounds than most would wearing these goggles.
To read Semitic languages like Arabic or Hebrew, one must often read words, sans written vowels. It's akin to reading "similar" as "smlr" and just understanding it based on context, like a human autocorrect. The strobe goggles mirror the difficulty of taking up such a language. Suddenly, there are gaps in the visual story of what you're processing, and your reaction must fill in the blanks, based on context. Probably appearing like a lost grandfather in my goggles, I shakily dribbled a basketball as a tennis ball was tossed to me. The gaps in my perception meant I had to trust the tennis ball's arrival as I reached out to grab what might be nothing. Most of the times, I did grab nothing. It was disorienting and I would imagine I looked remarkably stupid.
That's what Accelerate specializes in, though: drills that make you look stupid so you can look smarter when you're on the court, free of training constraints. The drills and their explanations altered my view of ballhandling in general. A handle isn't purely about coordination; it's about multitasking. It's the ability to change speeds, directions and plans, all while running a play and attacking when holes open in the defense.
Curry is able to dominate a sport as a smaller guard in part because he can do two things at once better than most larger men can do one.
"We have to look past," Payne explains. "If you see him dribbling a ball and tossing a tennis ball, we don't view that as just ballhandling. We view that as carrying out an assignment while you're dribbling a ball, just as you would do during a play."
Curry, famously, can also shoot. No drill I do approximates that, as his is a refined and granular process. As an example, Curry had suffered an "off" shooting night in Utah (9-of-20) earlier that week. Payne and Curry went over what went wrong and set about to fixing it in the Charlotte game.
"He shortened up his right foot just a touch," Payne describes of the fix. "It's not a whole lot, it's just a small, little adjustment. From the Utah game, he was overstepping with his right foot just a touch, which was pulling his hips around, and it was pulling the ball, long and to the left."
So much of how Curry gets open is specific to that shot as well. Many of the drills Payne and Curry do are focused on lateral movement, ones more commonly associated with defensive shuffling. They work for Curry because he can shoot from anywhere off the dribble (for example, Curry's closing shot over Matthew Dellavedova in Game 5 of the Finals last season). Many players are trying to move forward, beating their man off the dribble en route to the rim. Curry prefers sideways motion because he'd rather step left or right for a 3 than run straight ahead for a 2.
On how he's improving in this kind of movement, Curry says: "All sorts of band resistance work, contrast stuff so you overload, load up weight and do the same moves I'll do on the court. Then, contrast that, take the weight off, really work on the explosion part of it. It's pretty amazing how much space you can create after you do a couple sets with resistance, train your body to fight through that and then you build that strength."
What's already "amazing" is bound to get much better, according to Payne. He says Curry "hasn't scratched the surface," which sounds unfathomable considering the level at which he's playing.
There must be limits out there, somewhere -- limits to how well you can do two things at once, limits to how great Curry can get. Those exist, but from Payne's perspective, they'll be pushed further than ever. Payne believes that one day, Curry will routinely take and make shots off the half-court logo. When asked about the seemingly crazy possibility, Curry wouldn't rule it out, though he noted that it's mostly a practice shot -- for now.
When you're at the top of the sport, improvement can take you to unthinkable levels, places no one has yet reached. We've never seen anything quite like Stephen Curry.
And if he gets even better, that just might be a sensory overload for the NBA world.