How Steph Curry leads like no other NBA superstar

It was exactly a year ago when teammates first noticed a change in Stephen Curry. The Golden State Warriors had just witnessed Kevin Durant suffer a knee injury, which immediately cast doubt on the team's chances of advancing to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive year.

When the Warriors found out the next day that Durant would be available for the postseason, they were relieved. But no one within the organization knew if there would be enough time for the 6-foot-11 forward to return to his All-Star form during the playoffs. The pressure was mounting for a team with championship expectations, especially after the offseason acquisition of KD.

That's when teammates say Curry, a team captain along with Andre Iguodala, made adjustments to his leadership approach. It started behind the scenes. Players said they would arrive for practices to find Curry was already in the gym drenched in sweat.

"You just saw him practicing and he started becoming more aggressive," David West recalled to ESPN. "When we were going 5-on-5, he was going 100 miles an hour and everybody is like, 'Oh s---. This m-----f----- is serious.' And that was also at shootaround. He got everybody going. It was during that stretch that he became a little bit more vocal, more demonstrative about the urgency we needed to have to keep the season alive when you lose somebody like KD."

Durant noticed the change in Curry, too.

"Hell yeah, I saw it," Durant said. "As a leader, as one of the best players in the league, you see one of your teammates go down, you feel as though you have to pick up the slack. ... Mentally, he was just locked in and he's been that way ever since. That focus carried us to a title last year."

Curry is naturally laidback. His voice doesn't carry very far and he seldom utilizes it. After Durant's injury, he didn't want to drastically alter how he communicated with his teammates out of concern it would come off as inauthentic. So, the only way he knew how to send a message was through action.

"I've had to learn when it was time to say something," Curry said. "I wasn't always considered one of the best players on the team. I had to grow into the role of leadership, and in many ways, I'm still growing into it. But I know how to work hard, and I like to let that speak for me."

As the face of the franchise, Curry made a strong statement in September when he made it clear on media day that he would not visit the White House when the Warriors were in the nation's capital this week. Curry has been vocal about his disdain toward President Trump's rhetoric. However, the team had yet to take a vote on whether to visit the Trump administration.

"I don't want to go," he said in September. "That's really it. ... It's not just me going to the White House. If it was, it would be a pretty short conversation."

For Curry, his leadership position was now on display for the world. With his stance, praise was coming, but so was condemnation. President Trump would respond on Twitter that the Warriors' invitation to the White House had been withdrawn.

Over the coming months, Curry and former President Barack Obama had a discussion about what the Warriors could do as an alternative. Curry and Obama have occasional text exchanges that can range from small talk to sports to worldview matters. Briefly discussed was the possibility of the team visiting Obama, but that was quickly dismissed as both agreed it would only open up the floodgates for individuals to spout off about so-called political leanings.

Politicizing the occasion wasn't the intent and for the most part, Obama, out of respect for the current administration, has tried to keep a low profile.

Ultimately, Curry and the Warriors decided as a team that, instead of celebrating their championship in the White House, they would visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., with local students from Durant's hometown of Seat Pleasant, Maryland.

When you think about effective leaders in the NBA, it's the more animated players who typically come to mind: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett. Even on the Warriors, Draymond Green is considered the emotional leader of the team.

But don't be fooled by Curry's quieter disposition.

"We have different players in this locker room with different styles of leadership," Curry said. "We have just about every element covered between our vets so it's easy for me to be myself and lead my way. I don't have to be demonstrative; we have someone like that. I've always been a lead by example person. I think your teammates respect you when you're being true to yourself."

In particular, Curry has tried to emulate the leadership he learned from his coach at Davidson.

"Coach Bob McKillop is the best example of how I always wanted to lead a team," he said. "He wasn't loud, but his message and tone was consistent enough that you knew what he stood for and guys followed. He knew when and how to get his point across and that's what I try to do here."

After two lackluster performances by the Warriors to start the preseason, both resulting in losses, Curry stepped out of his comfort zone and lit into the team before its third contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves in China.

"Man, he went off on us. In the preseason," West said. "He knew we weren't going in with the right frame of mind and it was something we needed to hear. He made his point and we beat them by [32] points."

Green is obviously more known to be the one to get on his teammates. His in-your-face, expletive-filled approach has also proved effective on the team. When asked if Curry, a devout Christian who many lift up as a wholesome sports figure, curses from time to time to illustrate his anger, Green just smiled and said, "You'll have to ask him."

Curry acknowledged that he does in fact let his tongue slip on occasion.

"It's never a tactic to seem more tough or hard-nosed or edgy, but on the same hand, when I'm out there on the floor, if I was mic'd up, there would be some games where I would get censored for sure," he said. "The game is so intense with heated battles. I've got ejected twice and I'm pretty sure I had a few choice words in those situations, but that happens.

"For me, it's about how I respond afterward. People know who I am and what I stand for, but on the same token, nobody's perfect, and I think that's OK. If you want to go find those [cursing] moments and try to lipread on the court, you can find them. My mom found them."

"He's obviously a superstar player, but he acts like he's the 12th man." Steve Kerr

Ultimately, it's about consistency for Curry.

When Curry sprained his right ankle in early December, an injury that would sideline him for a little more than three weeks -- including his much-anticipated homecoming in Charlotte -- he remained a present contributor.

In need of point guard depth, the Warriors immediately called up 6-foot-2 guard Quinn Cook from the G-League Santa Cruz Warriors. Curry was back home in Charlotte, but sporting a walking boot. The fans were disappointed: no pregame routine to witness and no circus shots to clamor over.

Meanwhile, Cook wasn't simply being called up to provide an extra body; he was making the first start of his NBA career. He was anxious and nervous not only about his opportunity, but about being the replacement for a superstar in his own backyard.

Curry, to the surprise of Cook, reached out to the young guard to tell him to meet him an hour before the game.

"He met with me in the locker room to go over a certain number of plays and suggested ones I should stick with," Cook said. "At that time, I had limited practices and game action. He actually sat me down, and was patient. He did the same thing at halftime too. This occurred every game he was out. He would tell me what he saw and how to adjust.

"Most people stay away from the team to treat and focus on their injuries. He was definitely still there for the team, but especially there for me when I needed it most."

Said coach Steve Kerr of why Curry's approach has been successful: "I think it's how hard he works combined with his humility off the floor. He's just a decent human being; such a nice player. He's obviously a superstar player, but he acts like he's the 12th man. I can get on him in film sessions and he never seems to mind. He leads by example. He's a great guy, a great teammate and the players respect him. That's what a captain is about."

Some of Curry's competitors may take his polite nature and clean image as a sign of weakness, and sometimes that perception extends outside of basketball.

On Nov. 19, after defeating the Brooklyn Nets 118-111, Curry got dragged unexpectedly into a controversy.

Superstar players don't normally like to re-enter the arena bowl after games because fans will attempt to swarm them for autographs. Players often send a team security personnel out to grab a loved one to bring them back near the locker room. On this occasion, however, Curry ventured out into the bowl looking for family members.

Standing about 10 feet away in the stands was a 10-year-old boy sporting a Curry jersey, which he was pleading for the two-time MVP to sign. But Curry's eyes were focused upward in an attempt to locate members of his family and he never saw the kid.

The next day, the mother of the child posted a video on Facebook criticizing Curry for intentionally leaving her son out to dry. The video showed her son getting his jersey signed by other Warriors player with sentimental music playing in the background, then Curry never making eye contact with him.

"I wasn't always considered one of the best players on the team. I had to grow into the role of leadership, and in many ways, I'm still growing into it."
Steph Curry

"That was a shock because it couldn't be further from how I carry myself and how I try to handle those situations," Curry said of the video. "And it was just funny to me because they went through a lot of effort to film, edit, music choice, text over the screen to produce that video. All that stuff just to try to shame me."

Sources close to the guard told ESPN he ended up sending the kid a video of encouragement.

"In that situation, it's all about the kid," he said. "I don't care how his mom thinks. It's just about him because I didn't want any of that to be any more blown out of proportion than it should be. He matters and that's important, but I wasn't going to get into a battle with the mom. I'm not going to try to prove myself to anybody."

As arguably the most popular and most requested player in all of sports, Curry is generous with his time. After every pregame workout routine, he signs close to 100 autographs before heading back into the locker room. He also meets with young fans who are sick and wish to have a conversation with the star.

Curry feels he has an obligation to uphold, and it stems from his childhood experiences shadowing his father, Dell Curry, who had a 16-year NBA career.

"I have a different perspective on kids. I was in that position where I was around NBA athletes all the time and I knew which ones were a--h---s or not," Curry said. "That actually affected me as a kid. My dad's teammates or the people he played against, if I sat in the hallway and I said 'hey' and said 'what's up' to them, if they even said something back to me, that made my day. If they just cold-shouldered me, that hurt. It wasn't a lasting effect, but in the moment, that means a lot.

"So, for kids to come to our games and if they go out of their way to try to connect with me, I do feel a responsibility for the kids for sure because that might make or break their confidence or their spirit on that specific day. That's my only opportunity to impact them in person. But I'm only one person and I can only do so much. So I've got to make sure I keep that balance."

The "Golden Boy" image is something he understands, but would rather shy away from. People look to him as a role model, but he cautions those who depend predominantly on him to be their source for what a model citizen looks like.

"Obviously, nobody's perfect and stuff is going to happen but I am who I am and I don't feel any extra pressure to live up to people's expectations," Curry said. "They make comments saying, 'Thank you for being a great role model.' That's a great compliment, and I get where parents are coming from when they're looking at athletes in general to find people for their kids to emulate and parents need those kinds of presence to maybe connect with their kids, but for me, the biggest thing is that can't be the benchmark. You have to have a consistent presence from family and parents based on real-life stuff, not just what they see on TV. That's how I approach my life with my kids."

Prior to taking the court before every game, the Warriors gather around in the tunnel leading to the arena bowl. Some players are stretching, some are jumping up and down, some are talking and others just standing around waiting for the pregame huddle to commence.

Slowly but surely the players begin forming a circle with Durant taking center stage. He begins performing a unique dance in which his arms are tucked to his side and his legs separate and converge in a motion similar to jumping jacks. He starts off fast, then slows down. And to finish the routine, he takes a step forward in rhythm.

That's when Curry takes control of the huddle.

Everybody raises an arm up and Curry steps in to give a pep talk. He seldom yells and his voice isn't overpowering. Instead he's calm and composed, explaining the points of emphasis for that particular contest while his teammates listen. He's the final voice everyone hears before going out onto the court.

Curry's message lasts for about 10 seconds, then he dashes off to the court with his teammates following behind.

"He always knows what to say at the right time," Shaun Livingston said. "He might not be loud or very expressive, but he leads his way and it's been working for him and for us."

Whether the two-time MVP is dealing with his teammates, fans, or the President of the United States, Curry's leadership qualities remain the same.

"The morals that he has that his parents instilled in him at a young age, it allows that to rub off on everybody else," Durant said. "The way he carries himself throughout the game, his temperament, how he approaches his work habits. All of that stuff you can see just shining bright through Steph, and he doesn't really have to say anything because of it. I think that's just a making of a leader, not just as a basketball player, but in the household, as a brother, a family member, a friend.

"That transcends the game of basketball."