It’s 11:30 a.m. in Hangzhou, China. Stephen Curry is on the third leg of his annual Under Armour-sponsored Asia tour. You’d think he’d be tired from the 12-hour jet lag, nonstop promotional appearances, or two-a-day workouts that he’s been powering through the past four days, but the reigning NBA champ seems like he has a bit more bounce in his step than usual.
“Curry, Curry with the sauce,” Curry hums to himself as he switches looks for a Chinese-based magazine’s photo shoot at the Four Seasons Hotel. “Yo, I need that song.”
The eponymous tune Curry is singing to himself are the only English lyrics to a tribute track recorded by Chinese rap group The Higher Brothers. The musicians, who’ve been described as the Asian version of Migos, debuted the song earlier in the week while the tour was in Chengdu.
For Curry, having his own Chinese anthem is just a microcosm of how lauded the player has become in the country. At his hotel, there are close to 1,000 kids with sneakers in their hands camped out in 100-degree weather just looking to get a glimpse of Curry walking through the lobby. Even though he’s not this year’s MVP, he gets “MVP” chants from every crowd he’s in front of.
A certified icon in China, he knows he has an opportunity to reach G.O.A.T.-like status with an entirely new generation. A 26-year-old guy might have fun scrolling through 3-1 memes on the internet, but a 13-year-old kid is begging their parents to buy them some Chef Currys.
“A lot of the younger generation who are watching the game now don’t remember seeing Michael play. Even the younger, younger generation don’t even know who Kobe is on the court,” Curry said. “This is my time to do me and get the most out of the game that I can. It goes with that off-the-court impression of being able to inspire kids to want to be like me when they grow up…That’s the goal for sure and there’s a huge opportunity to make that happen.”
Complex caught up with Curry during his whirlwind Asia tour to talk about reaching icon status, avoiding the championship hangover, and why he gets trash-talked for his good guy image. The following interview took place over a span of four days shadowing Curry through two cities in China and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This is the first time I’ve witnessed this Asia tour firsthand and it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen. Is this similar to what you experience in other countries or back in the States or is it just here specifically?
This is a whole other level for sure. During the season, you get a couple people showing up to our hotel trying to get autographs or they show up to games early and whatnot. Obviously here, they don’t get that kind of access on a daily basis.
It’s a bigger type of phenomenon when the Asia tour rolls through here. I appreciate that love and support. It’s still surreal to me to show up to Chengdu for the first time and not really know what to expect and pull up to the hotel and there’s 1,000 people at the hotel just looking for a picture. It’s been like that at every stop in China. It’s pretty special.
I was talking in the car with one of the locals and he told me that it’s only like this for three basketball players: Jordan, Kobe, and you. What do you think it is about you that resonates with the people here?
I don’t know. I’ve been asked that question a lot and it’s kind of hard to answer because I really can’t speak for the fans. But I think most of it is because the way I play is something that most people can try to emulate. I’m not a high-flyer going above the rim or anything. For the average basketball player, no matter what level you are or what age you are, everybody loves to shoot, and they love to shoot from way out. I’m pretty sure that has a little bit to do with it. How much fun I have on the court when I’m playing is some of it too. I like to play the game with a smile and that’s genuinely how much I appreciate the game.
These kids are showering you with gifts at every stop. On the basketball courts, they’re playing pick-up in full Golden State Warrior uniforms. The Higher Brothers, a rap group in Chengdu, even dedicated a song to you. What is the weight of being a role model like?
I understand the opportunity I have and the magnitude of how many people look up to me. Not just to model their game after me, but also the character, values, and that kind of deal. But it’s not outside my normal daily life. It’s just how I live my life and how I was raised. The fact that that speaks volumes to people is amazing, but there isn’t any extra pressure or anything like that. It’s just who I am. So I guess that helps to be able to handle the spotlight that’s on me. I definitely appreciate the opportunity and the impact that I have, but I don’t really feel any extra pressure.
So what you’re saying is that you don’t have good values because people are looking up to you, it’s because you have good values that people are looking up to you?
Yeah. That’s the way I see it. My parents would be very disappointed if there it was anything else than that for sure.
A topic you haven’t really talked about yet is your religious beliefs. You write scriptures on your sneakers; the tagline on your Under Armour merchandise is a direct reference to the Bible. Why is that important to your brand?
My faith is what helps me keep everything in perspective. I know I’ve been given these talents to play the game and this is my way to reach millions and millions of people through those talents. That’s what makes me appreciative of everything that happens, good or bad. My mom and my pops were obviously huge influences in that they set that foundation: Basketball is fun, but it’s not the highest priority.
A lot of people question my good boy vibes and whether it’s genuine or not. There’s always those questions about me and there’s a lot of trash talk that comes directed at me from that too.
When did you first start writing Phil 4:13 on your shoes?
My mom texted me before my first practice my freshman year. Her favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28, “All things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” She had sent me that verse in a text message as an encouragement and inspiration for my college career. She challenged me to kind of find something that I could count on to give me that strength, focus, and belief in myself as I embarked on that new challenge.
So I picked that verse Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I wrote it on the side of my shoe during that first practice and I’ve been doing that ever since.
It’s crazy because during my tournament run, this photographer at Davidson took a picture of my shoes, and on the side you could see the “I can do all things…” That picture became iconic in our little world in understanding where I got my strength and my talents from. They made this huge poster of it and everyone at Davidson had one.
I’m just thinking back to that, and that was such a cool seed to plant through the game of basketball. I don’t know if I would have the opportunity to do that otherwise. So that was pretty special.
It’s funny because we’re at a time now where musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper are embracing these Christian themes in their music where not a lot of people were as open about it a few years ago.
You talk about Kendrick and Chance, but LeCrae is someone, when I listen to his music and the way he’s been doing it since ‘08, that’s the vibe that I want to carry. He has this message of being an anomaly and being someone that goes against the grain. That’s the mantra I want to carry on the court, so he’s been a big inspiration for me.
During your career, have you ever faced opposition because of your Christianity or felt pressure to be a different person, or have a different persona?
For sure. Not everybody plays from the same perspective. A lot of people question my good boy vibes and whether it’s genuine or not. There’s always those questions about me and there’s a lot of trash talk that comes directed at me from that too. But if that’s the burden that I’m going to have to carry, then that’s pretty simple for me.
So last time you were in China it was coming off a 3-1 loss in the NBA Finals. Did coming all the way out here help you deal with that pain in any way last year?
I always feel like, for the last three years, this trip has marked the end of the previous season and the beginning of the next year. Two years ago, I came here. We celebrated and I brought the trophy out. It was a great way to think back and reminisce on the year we had in 2015. When I got back from China it was time to go back to work and get ready for the next season.
We didn’t win the championship in 2016 and it was a tough loss, but a lot of good had happened that year—it was just a bad ending. But there was a lot of love and a lot of support here after the Finals. I was still able to celebrate the good that was happening and it also gave me motivation to come back stronger in 2016. I told them I’d bring the trophy back and I was able to do that.
I’ve kind of taken that vibe into this year where we’re celebrating again. Now it’s about what’s next. When I get back [to the States] I’m going to hit the ground running ready to take on next season
Is it a bigger challenge to come back after winning a championship?
Championships are the goal. We’re very much in a “What have you done for me lately?” society. We want more. We want to continue to push more championships. We want to continue to get better and I feel like I can get better as a basketball player and as a person. More championships. More fun. More everything for my team. I understand the work that needs to go into it and I’m ready to take that on again.
Being on both sides of the NBA Finals, is there something specific you do to keep yourself from having that championship hangover?
I have a few games I can play in the DVD player that could remind me of not taking championships for granted. I understand how hard it is to not only win one regular season game, let alone a playoff series, and let alone a championship.
We’re a hungry group. We like winning. It’s an intoxicating feeling when you walk off the court, put those goggles on, and champagne is flowing over you while you’re smoking a cigar. I want that feeling again.
Now that you’re deeper into your NBA career, have you started to think about the legacy you want to leave the game after you’re done playing?
I’ve had ideas about it for sure. I want to be known as a winner. I want to be known as a champion. Obviously, I’ve accomplished a little bit, but I want to accomplish a lot more. I just want to play the right way and get the most out of my talent and impact people along the way to hopefully feel good about themselves and make them feel like they can do whatever they put their mind to. In the Bay Area, with how much the Warriors organization has changed, I feel like I had a lot to do with that too, but hopefully I’ve got another eight to ten years left.
Do you have a number in mind terms of how many championships, points or...
No. I live in the moment, man. I know none of this is guaranteed. It sounds cliché, but you have to appreciate every day in this business. Injuries can happen. There’s beef and drama all around the NBA that you really can’t foresee down the road. You’ve really just got to enjoy the process. For me, that’s worked. I really don’t get too far ahead of myself. This is a tough industry to navigate through and you kind of have to be in the moment.