Stephen Curry, the NBA's MVP a year ago, has been even more dazzling this season. He tops the NBA in scoring, averaging 31.8 points per game, up from 23.8 in 2014-2015. He led the defending champion Golden State Warriors to a 24-0 start -- the best in NBA history. Curry's team, which faces LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in an NBA Finals rematch Christmas Day, could break the record for most regular season wins, 72, which was set by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls during the 1995-1996 season.
For a feature story in the Dec. 28, 2015/Jan 4, 2016 "Year Ahead" issue of TIME - which subscribers can read here -- we spoke to Curry about his appeal to basketball fans, the secrets behind his improved game, and a broad range of other topics.
Are you the best player in the world right now?
In my mind, yes. That’s how I have confidence out there that I can play at a high level every night. I don’t get into debates, arguing with people about why I am versus somebody else. I feel like anybody who’s at the level I’m trying to be at, if you don’t think that when you’re on the floor, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Why do you think you've connected with NBA fans?
I don't know, I guess I play a very creative style of basketball. I have fun out there on the court, smiling, laughing, trying to have good demeanor. And I guess I’m not the most the physically dominating guy. So probably to most fans of mine, they're pretty surprised what I can do on the court at my size. I call it lack of athleticism. Obviously not a lack of hand-eye coordination. But not being gifted with the 40-inch vertical, or a 4.5 40, or being 6’9", 260 lbs. That’s my best guess.
I try to be open and approachable and stuff like that, just because I was around the game, with my dad [former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry], and I knew how it affected people that came in contact with him, and how he made people’s days if you just said "hi" to him.
I think people can relate to you because if you walked into the Y for a weekend pickup game -- and you weren't Stephen Curry -- nobody would do a double take. You look like you'd fit in. Is that fair?
If you don’t mind, I’ll use that. I’ll cite you on it. That’s a good way to put in. Some of the stuff I do on the court is what most people think they can do. As opposed to you see a guy like [Warriors teammate] Andre Iguodala take off on a fast break, he rises for a tomahawk dunk. I know I can’t do that. Most people can’t. Shooting the ball is a part of the game. Everybody can shoot in their own way. Not everybody can make. But everybody can shoot.
Your teammate Draymond Green calls you "the face of the NBA." Do you agree?
I embrace that. I don’t know if that’s a black and white answer. You've got to be a winner, and have all the right trajectory as a player and as a team to back that up. Whatever comes out of that is cool. The way I try to represent my family and coaches, I think all are characteristics the league aspires to portray. That’s just who I am. It’s not changing anything about me to fulfill that role.
What was the biggest challenge of your life, and how did you overcome it?
Probably the transition from high school to college. There was a lot of pressure being Dell Curry’s son, growing up in Charlotte, being in ACC country. I was probably really small for an aspiring Division 1 athlete. And I was looked over by pretty much every non low-D1 school. And it was kind of shock. I was a pretty good high school player, so it was kind of a weird dynamic. I really desperately wanted to play ACC basketball. Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, Wake Forest, all those schools, I never even got close to a call. So it was a disappointing moment, in the moment. I had to really trust that everything happens for a reason—that God had a plan for me, other than what I wanted. And to trust that wasn’t an easy decision, it wasn't an easy mentality.
What kind of work did you do over the summer to improve upon what was an MVP season last year?
Lower body and core strength to handle the beating of an 82-game schedule. Knowing we’re going to be a marked team every night. And then, out of that, it's being able to create space on the floor. Being more precise and explosive and efficient. Strength and explosion, just being able to move from point A to point B. But also the ball handling it takes to make the moves I need to get into my shot. So a lot of it wasn’t adding stuff to my game. It was kind of taking what I do well and doing it better and more efficiently.
Your trainer, Brandon Payne, says that during your summer workouts you seek to develop "neurocognitive efficiency." What does that mean?
His terms are more complex than mine. It's literally being able to suvery what’s going on on the court, and have the muscle memory and ability to make certain moves. Make those reads, make those decisions without having to think about where the ball is and being able to make those decisions quickly.
I'm coming down the floor, I know I have two guys over here, one guy over here, three defenders, one's in front of you. You have to be able to read that and make a move, and out of that, be able to see what else going on. That’s what we train in a different way. It’s about about letting your mind go free, while still having control of yourself.
What's an example of a drill you do to accomplish this?
We do one where we start at half court, and there’s two lights. I’m dribbling to the three-point line. The top one tells you what move you have to make, and the bottom light tells you what shot you have to take. So you have to read all of that and make a split decision, coming full speed. Green means between the legs, blue means you have to shoot a three. Yellow means you have to shoot a pull-up two, or red means you have to get to the basket. You’ve got to be able recall right away, and make that move, not knowing what’s going to happen .5 seconds before. Then you’ve got to make the shot. (Laughs) Or else you’re going to have to keep running back and forth. So there’s a little bit of pressure and competition to it.
When most people take a jump shot, they shoot the ball at the peak of their jump. But you shoot the ball as you're jumping. How important has that method been to your long-range shooting success?
It’s been a part of my mechanics as far as I remember. I would tell anybody who wants to learn how to shoot or play basketball, that’s a fundamental of shooting. You get legs under you, and you’re not fighting yourself at the top. Most guys, when they’re at the top of their shot, gravity takes over eventually. You don’t want to be fighting gravity on the way down.
Your Under Armour sneakers have really taken off this year. Is that success even sweeter because your helping a company build an identity in basketball?
Definitely. That’s a big reason I joined. I had been with Nike since college. And the presentation I had with Under Armour was literally about building a basketball business around me, with that whole underdog mentality that I really aligned with. That’s the part I feel most blessed about. It’s one thing to get to the NBA and be successful in the NBA. But to have your own signature shoe, it still doesn’t make sense. It’s surreal.
What player do you get the most fired up to face?
There’s probably a shortlist of top 10, 15 point guards in the league that I follow day in and day out.
Is Chris Paul No. 1?
Probably, yeah. For a lot of reasons. The whole team aspect, the history between our two teams. But also our history individually. I used to work out with him before my rookie year. We’re both from North Carolina.
Are you guys friends?
Yeah. That’s an interesting dynamic. As you go though the league, you start to try to get to where somebody else is, and try to stay there, and the whole competitive environment. But yeah, there are certain guys that drive you because of their success. He's one of them, Russ [Westbrook] is one of them. John Wall.
You seem to play with a healthy chip on your shoulder? Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah. It’s not probably what people think. Everybody talks about the players award thing, where James [Harden] was voted MVP by the players union, what the Houston Rockets guys said over the course of the summer, what Doc Rivers said, all that stuff. I hear it but it doesn’t move the needle for me because I'm comfortable. Like the chip is that we’ve retained a pretty high level, the highest level, and we want to stay there. That’s the hard part. That’s the motivation.
You hear it, you react to it, But to be honest, I was as motivated before I heard that stuff. It’s just kind of humorous to me.
What current athlete do you most admire?
[American golfer] Jordan Spieth. His maturity, the way he handles himself, his vision as a 22-year-old is unbelievable. How composed he is, whether he played well or not, is unbelievable.
The NBA is in a good place right now. But both the players and owners can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement by December 2016, which could cause a work stoppage after the 2016-2017 season. You're on the executive committee of the players' union. Do you see yourself playing an active role in the negotiations?
I’m very interested in and am going to have a hand in the new direction of the CBA coming up. [The players] have better leverage now. We're much more organized than we've ever been, we're much more unified, and that’s our biggest leverage point as players. We’re all on the same page as to what we bring to the table. We’re obviously blessed to play a game, and get paid to do it, and the game is in the best shape it’s ever been. [We want] to take adavantage of that, to make sure we get what is fair in the grand scheme of the NBA. Obviously that’s a touchy subject. You just look at the value of teams going up on a year-to-year basis, and you follow that trend, the players should be compensated accordingly. That’s the simple message. We’ll fight for it. Hopefully it won’t be too nasty.
The NBA had lockouts that shortened the 1999 and 2012 seasons. What's your message to fans who really don't want to see another one?
Players don’t want to see a lockout either. We want to play. Guys have such a short window, you don’t want to waste time sitting on the sidelines talking about bargaining agreements, things like that. We’re working hard to present out issues and hear the NBA’s issues, what may or may not be right or wrong and work it out hopefully. We will fight for what we feel is right.
Athletes are starting to speak up more about social issues they care about. Is that something you see yourself doing more of?
I'm not afraid to do that at all. I recently tweeted about jail reform, how many people are jailed on petty crimes. It’s interesting. I like to read the reaction. It gets the conversation started, even if I’m not a part of it on the platform.
People are mostly surprised that I even know about it. Even supporters of the cause are surprised I know about the issues. Even if I’m not tweeting about it every hour or going on rants or whatever, people are following that stream and discussing both sides. I think that’s powerful.
What was it like playing golf with President Obama this summer?
He was so approachable and cool. Once we got out there, and we started talking, and there weren’t 25 secret servicemen on every hole, you would not have thought he was President of the United States. We played at like 12:00. So the whole morning, I ironed my clothes, cleaned my clubs, doing all this nonsense. I’m so hyped up and nervous. One of his White House staff comes to pick us up in a 2002 jeep, nothing special about it, just takes us across Martha’s Vineyard to the course. We show up, and there are people actually playing. I thought it was going to be shut down, because the president's playing. So we get to the driving range, Ray Allen’s there, the president's not there yet; 10-15 minutes later you see the whole motorcade, they pull up right to the range. We park in the parking lot, they go up right next to the range. And it’s like seven SUVs, and this swat-looking truck in the back. And this is when I started to get nervous. This is the real deal.
Were you more nervous on the course than you were during the NBA Finals?
For sure. I feel comfortable on the court. There, on the first tee, it was the president, my dad, Ray Allen, and 40 people in the clubhouse yelling Obama’s name the whole time. I’m just trying to make sure I get it in the air. I sprayed it a good 40-50 yards right. But we played the breakfast ball rule. I got to re-tee it. I hit a decent one the next time. I birdied the first two holes.
What was it like seeing your 2-year-old daughter Riley become an internet sensation last spring, after she stole the show at your playoff press conferences? (Riley's now 3; Curry's wife, Ayesha, gave birth to the couple's second daughter, Ryan, this summer)
We weren’t ready for it. I’ve been watching the NBA all of my life. I’ve seen post-game press conferences where guys bring their daughters up all the time. And that’s a special moment, to be able to bond with your child after a good game, bad game, whatever. Just because, at the end of day it sucks, but we don’t get to spend as much time as we probably would like with our kids.
So those moments are pretty precious. After the game, you’re just so happy to see your family. That's how it was, I was walking past the family room. My wife and daughter are sitting there, I say, 'hi everybody, I’ve got to answer some questions right quick.' And Riley’s like 'I want to go with you.' Yeah, sure, let’s go. I pick her up, take her there, I had no idea how she’d act. I wouldn't say she surprised us, that’s how she is at home all the time, that personality. But in front of all those people, she just ran with it.
It sunk in when I got home. SportsCenter was on. I'll never forget this: John Buccigross is on there. He does the three stars of the night thing and Riley was one of them. And I was like, 'what do you mean?' Cause I hadn’t seen the playback. So I didn’t know how funny it really was to everybody. She’s telling me to be quiet, it’s too loud, all that stuff. It was pretty funny. She walked by a TV and saw herself and said, 'aaahhh, Riley!' And then left, like nothing happened. She didn't know.
It was very surprising that it took off the way that it did. All the memes and attention she got. Even now, over the summer, anywhere I went, like, anywhere I went, they asked, where’s Riley? I went to the Kids' Choice Awards in LA. I turned the corner to go down that little orange carpet -- 'Where's Riley? Where’s Riley?' She’s not here. Just yelling her name. It’s interesting, We're trying to keep things as normal as possible for her. It is a challenge.
Did any negatives come out of that whole experience?
I wouldn't change a thing about how we did it. Not at all. I would want that moment for my family forever. And I’ll look forward to the day when she’s a teenager down the road, and I can say, 'hey, this is what you did.' If there is a downside, with social media, everybody knows who she is. I do worry sometimes that when she gets to the age where she can process what's going on, how she’ll handle it. Hopefully we have the foundation set. You’re a little different, your dad plays in the NBA. But that shouldn’t change who you are. I like our chances of being able to instill that in her.
What is your one big worry in life?
Not losing myself. Not losing my perspective on life. I'm learning you have to be proactive in that regard.
I don’t want to have a pessimistic attitude. But things are really great right now: We’re winning, there so many life additions at home, it all comes at once. Eventually basketball will end. I have a lot of life to live after that. So I guess the only worry is not to just be defined as a basketball player.
If there's one thing people can expect from you in the coming year, what would it be?
You should expect me to keep getting better.