Joy and secret rage: How Steph Curry ignites the Warriors

Stephen Curry is a two-time MVP, a five-time All-Star and a two-time NBA champion. He is also the foundation piece of a Warriors dynasty years in the making. Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

THE LIGHT FALLS. A projector screen descends. Marv Albert's iconic voice fills the private room of Scott's Seafood Grill & Bar in Oakland, California's Jack London Square, where an hourlong dinner has just ended. Highlights roll of every Golden State Warrior. So does a dramatic scene from "Braveheart." There are clips featuring the style new head coach Steve Kerr wants -- 3-pointers, up-tempo offense, ball movement, lockdown defense, utilizing their deep bench. "There is strength ... in ... numbers," Albert booms, the sports broadcaster coining the phrase that will become the Warriors' slogan under Kerr.

But there is also humor -- clips making fun of each Warriors coach, plus a funny bit from "Pulp Fiction." The video -- played on the eve of training camp in late September 2014 in front of players and staffers -- is, in total, maybe five minutes long, carefully constructed by the team's video staff, each clip chosen to represent elements of the culture Kerr wants to instill.

He wants hard work and competition, but he also wants fun and joy.

It's all meant to reflect the mentality of Kerr. But, as Kerr says today, "it actually portrayed Steph. ... We're a lot alike."

As Steve Kerr is to Stephen Curry, so is Curry to Kerr. It was a revelation that came early in Kerr's first season as Warriors coach. And so mere months into his tenure in Oakland, Kerr decided the dream culture he desired would embody the star player at the very center of it. They would strive to make one of Curry's defining traits their cornerstone. It would be a constant, felt in the practice facility (where music thumps) and film sessions (where jokes fly) and far beyond. It would be one of the few qualities that, in the age of analytics, remained difficult to tally: happiness.

"You'll never be able to quantify that one," says forward Draymond Green. "I think that drives the numbers. And I think the lack thereof is the force behind bad numbers."

It would also reflect a culture that Kerr believed might work only in Golden State, with Curry as the star. "If I had tried to do some of what I do now with Michael Jordan," Kerr says, "Michael might have looked at me like, 'What the f--- are you doing?'"

"I've had to tell the young guys, 'Y'all need to talk to some other people, ask guys what it's like in other environments, because this is not normal,'" Warriors forward David West recently told The Athletic. "'You m-----f-----s better be thankful to God.'"

Shooting guard Klay Thompson, likewise, knows he operates in an unusual workplace. "I know a lot of people -- I'm not gonna name names -- in the NBA," Thompson says. "They love what they do, but sometimes they don't enjoy going to work every day. I can say here, everyone enjoys coming into the gym." Green cosigns this notion, saying that many NBA players feel like their job -- while coveted -- feels like ... well, a job.

For the Warriors? "It doesn't feel like a job," Green says.

"I think that's why it's been so hard to beat this team," Green continues. "You look at so many teams that may try to match things up with personnel or putting 'All-Stars' together [or] 'Superteams' together. But you miss certain elements of it that really makes it all go."

STEVE KERR HAS his hands folded behind his head, a grimace on his face, as he watches the circus act unfold. It's a Sunday in early March 2015, still in Kerr's first season at the helm, and his 48-12 Warriors are hosting the Clippers, who have Curry completely surrounded. Three defenders close in, inside the 3-point arc. With 8:52 remaining in the third quarter, the Warriors are up 10. And they're about to turn it over. But then Curry dribbles through his legs, behind his back -- and somehow eludes the swinging limbs of his captors and steps behind the arc, his back facing the basket. Then he turns, fades and launches. It's an impossible swish.

The Houdini-esque escape ignites Oracle Arena, creating one of the NBA's most signature highlights of the season.

Amid the bedlam, Kerr turns away, drops his hands, shakes his head and laughs.

"That shot, I sort of realized as a coach, 'You've got to back off,'" Kerr says. "That shot's part of who Steph is -- it's part of his power and his force. So I can't be the old-school coach like, 'Come on, Steph, you've got to search for a better shot.' I can at key times, strategically. But mostly, I've got to let Steph do Steph."

Curry says simply: "When I'm out there, for me to be successful, I've got to play a certain way." There are undercurrents of his playing style, but the heartbeat, the very soul of it, is joy.

"I've always had a joyous disposition," Curry says. "When I've always played basketball, I was always the goofy kid, running around, having fun, doing what I loved to do. I don't think I've ever lost that as I've gone through the ranks -- high school, college to now. I just enjoy it. I think from my personal belief system is that I've been in this situation, this stage, for a reason: to shine light on things that I believe in. That's the most constant thing for me."

These are the same values Kerr wanted for the Warriors, but that eye-popping shot Curry dropped on the Clippers -- and others like it since -- forced Kerr to embrace some measure of on-court chaos, which is the term Green uses when describing life on the court with Curry. "You can feel his effect on the game," Green says. "The way we play when he's out there, it's a more joyful style. When he's not out there, it's a grinding style. It's not as fun. Obviously, basketball is always fun, but it's not as free-flowing."

Curry's presence -- and "once-in-a-lifetime" shooting ability, as Thompson calls it -- instills a sense of confidence among the Warriors.

"There's no one on our team that's in awe of him, but there's a level of respect based on how good he is with our players and a confidence level when he steps on the floor that we know he's going to add another whole element to our team," says assistant coach Bruce Fraser. "Our team understands that. They know he's going to make big shots when it counts, can rely on him at any time to change the game."

Ask Curry's teammates to describe his impact, and more than pace or space, they'll cite an on-court energy when he's among them -- one that spreads throughout the crowd. "There's a different feel in the arena," Kerr says. "Similar to Michael [Jordan], there is just this awe factor from opposing crowds, and every crowd is sprinkled with Steph jerseys no matter where we are, and there's a palpable excitement when he gets going. In Oracle, it's the tidal wave. And on the road it's like, 'Oh, my god, I can't believe what I'm watching.'"

Consider, say, the 2018 Western Conference finals, in which prior to Game 3, doubts were swirling around Curry, who had shot 2-of-13 from long distance in the first two games and was too often abused in one-on-one matchups against James Harden and Chris Paul. Early in Game 3, Curry had continued his subpar play.

During Game 1, Kerr had implored a struggling Curry during a timeout: "We're going to break free in this series at some point, and so are you. Just stay with it. Stay solid. It's going to come. The floodgates are going to open up for you." Then, in the third quarter of Game 3, those very floodgates started to separate, with Curry scoring 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting in the third, tying his most attempts without a miss in any quarter of his career. He finished with 35 as the Warriors won by 41, their largest playoff win in history. And one moment reveals more than any other.

With about four minutes left in the third quarter, Curry was matched up against Harden, one-on-one, near the top of the key. When roles are flipped, Harden loves embarrassing his defenders with a flurry of crossover dribbles before drilling a step-back 3-pointer -- and has done this several times to Curry. But now Curry was exacting his revenge, devastating Harden with Harden's patented move, fattening the Warriors' lead to 22 points.

On the next offensive possession, Curry put on a one-man dribbling exhibition on the wing before driving to the hoop and finishing with a one-handed floater. Immediately after the ball fell through the net, Curry roared to the crowd, "THIS IS MY F---ING HOUSE!" -- bringing Oracle to a crescendo.

Curry's outburst offers a window into a competitive rage that's the stuff of legend among the Warriors. "If you think about Steph, you think of this mild-mannered [guy]," says Kerr, himself an in-game shatterer of clipboards, "but he's f---ing competitive. He wants to rip your throat out."

The two are sharpshooters, undersized, looked-over, joyful jokesters who appear laid-back but burn to win. And though neither foresaw it from the outset, these traits forged an instant and powerful bond.

"Him and Coach have a synergy that's unmatched," Kevin Durant says.

"This world is serious to us," Curry says, "because this is what our job is, it's what we need to do. There's a lot of pressure on us to play this game at a high level, and there's a lot of scrutiny, for good and bad, as we go through our respective journeys. Outside of this bubble, he has the best perspective of where this fits into the grand scheme of life."

As Kerr says, plainly: "A coach does not create the culture. Players really create the culture through their force of personality and leadership within the group. The coach's job is to shape the culture."

And so Kerr shaped it around their leader.

"This team is full of joy and laughter," he says, "and that's how Steph is."

PRACTICE ENDED HOURS ago at the Warriors' Oakland facility, and Klay Thompson is heading toward the door, the last Warrior to leave. It's May 11, a few days before the Warriors open their much-anticipated conference finals series against the Rockets, but Thompson pauses before exiting. He looks across the empty court, at a far basket -- the one Curry shoots on every day. "He works as if he's still a rookie, [as if] he's still trying to make his way in this league," Thompson says of his Splash Brother, a teammate for seven seasons. "We all see that, and it makes us go to our hoops and put [in] work. No one wants to be off the floor before him, because this man is the one."

Indeed, before practices, Curry and Fraser choose from a menu of more than two dozen items, depending on which aspects of Curry's game need sharpening. Maybe shooting off-the-dribble jumpers or shooting after high-ball screens or ballhandling drills. Repetitions vary, but Curry always ends his sweat-soaked workout with 100 3-point attempts, often making in the mid- to high-80s -- and frequently into the 90s. After all his makes, Curry will sit beneath the basket, his back against the stanchion, his chest heaving up and down, a bottle of water between his legs. By this point in the day, he's often one of the few Warriors on the court, if not the last. It has been this way for years.

But the Curry effect extends far beyond.

Board their team plane, where Curry's laugh is distinct enough to stand out in a crowd. It starts with a loud burst, then trails off and spreads. "You hear it, you smile," Fraser says. He'll hear it, then watch the smiles migrate, row to row, toward the plane's rear, to people who have no idea what led to that laugh in the first place. "So now my energy is better because he's laughing and they're laughing," Fraser says. "What is that worth?"

"So, if you come in here and you have an ego, or you think you're bigger than the team, the guy who we built this around is not." Kevin Durant, on Curry

"There's a humility about [Curry] that you can't really be taught at this point," Thompson says. "And he's just easy to joke with. He'll joke with our video interns, he'll joke with our owners, he'll joke with our equipment guys. When you see your best player being loose and disciplined -- like, it's a fine line, but when you can walk both lines, it just makes for such a nice work atmosphere."

Assistant coach Ron Adams, who just turned 70, is the Warriors' sage, imparting wisdom from nearly three decades in the NBA. "I think every day he realizes how lucky he is," Adams says. "He also realizes the joy that he can bring to people's lives -- not only his teammates, but I just think in general.

"He pulls that off better than any pro athlete I think I've been around."

Adams calls Curry a "bon vivant" -- a person who enjoys the good things in life -- and says that idea permeates to everyone in his orbit: "There's something gratifying in his presence. It's more than just a feel-good [quality]; it's just his attitude about life. I think it rubs off on other people. He can make a great play; he can make a mistake, and he's so very human in both, with both extremes."

And it is that authenticity, Durant says, that defines the Warriors.

"When you know everybody here and everybody's open to be themselves, really he is," Durant says. "That's what the culture is set, [that] it's all right to be who you are. Steph started off here. He's the one that's been here the longest. So, it's like, everybody in here is just kind of doing their best to assist him in whatever he needs to be, as a young player all the way up until now.

"So if you come in here and you have an ego, or you think you're bigger than the team, the guy who we built this around is not. So maybe you need to go. You know what I'm saying?"

STEPH CURRY IS sitting at his locker, in Phoenix, in street clothes. It's April 8. The Warriors have just throttled the dreadful Suns for their 53rd win of the season while Curry sat out with a knee sprain that would sideline him through the first round of the playoffs.

But rather than stay in the Bay Area to rehab, as he did for some late-season road trips, Curry has been coaxed into joining the team for this jaunt, in part by Fraser -- who tried to woo Curry, an avid golfer, with a potential golf outing. Fraser explains that even if Curry doesn't play, his presence provides something that's as powerful as it is hard to explain. "I begged him," Fraser says now. "I told him, 'Our team needs you.'"

And Warriors general manager Bob Myers knows why.

"You can go see the Beatles, and you can go see Paul McCartney, and he's awesome," Myers says. "But there's a uniqueness in Lennon -- and maybe Paul McCartney is a better singer than John Lennon. I don't know. But Lennon had this aura. And it's like Curry has some [aura], as well.

"It's more mystical, if that's the right word."

And so it is, on this night in Phoenix, after a 15-point Warriors win, that Fraser approaches Curry at his locker and tells him how much he loves having him around. "I'd give you a hug," Fraser says to his MVP guard, only half-kidding, "but it might be weird."

Back when Curry played at Davidson in North Carolina, his head coach, Bob McKillop, preached the idea that every player is part of a puzzle. "And we were all going to shine at the end of the day, no matter who the media talked about or who got the accolades or whatever," Curry says.

"And if you've got a team with great talent that has that?" Green asks.

He nods to the far wall over the Warriors' practice facility.

"They get banners."