What’s behind Steph Curry’s MVP life
Faith, fatherhood, Ayesha’s feminism and family
NOTE: This is the second of two consecutive commentaries by Michael Eric Dyson on Stephen Curry, his family and their influences on questions of race, color, family and faith.
If, like me, you’ve witnessed Stephen Curry swish the nets on a 3-pointer from near half court and said to yourself, “My God, that shot was miraculous,” you might have stumbled on the key to his life and game.
If anything is certain about the reigning two-time NBA MVP – besides the arc of the ball as it leaves his hands and finds the hoop with record-breaking accuracy – it’s that Curry believes in himself because he believes in God. His faith is his pillar, a faith gleaned and nurtured at Central Church of God in Charlotte, North Carolina, a Pentecostal mega-church with 6,000 members where he met his wife as a teen and whose services they continue to stream online.
Steph’s faith undoubtedly helped to keep his team, the Golden State Warriors, together when they were down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder and left for dead before battling back to win their thrilling Western Conference Finals contest.
“It just keeps me grounded,” Steph said to me. “It keeps me focused, and with the hoopla that goes on around me, my faith doesn’t change, my family doesn’t change. And that allows me to be myself and enjoy what I do for sure.”
His faith has steadied him as he enjoys the perks of a superstar, and its challenges too, especially when his wife and oldest daughter share the spotlight. Even off the court, Steph and his family set tongues to wagging about fatherhood, feminism, and family values.
Faith shaped Steph’s consciousness from the start. The Curry family gathered each morning at home for family devotions for a half-hour before classes while he was in middle and high school.
“It was just basically reading the Word,” Steph’s mom Sonya told me. “I didn’t feel that [it] was my place to teach them about the Word of God. As God says [in Proverbs], He’ll write ‘on the tablet’ of our hearts. And so I think that’s what you’re seeing coming to fruition in [Steph’s] life right now.”
Sonya also thinks that her son avoids being judgmental and preachy, a pitfall for too many Christians. Sonya alluded to a famous biblical passage to offer a divinely prescribed division of labor. “Some people are called to preach, some people are called to teach,” Sonya said. “[Steph’s] job is to glorify God in everything that he does, and that comes through his talents. And so from that standpoint, he’s not overdoing it. God says, ‘Just let me shine through you. You just be the vessel.’ And be relatable.”
Steph’s most relatable trait that binds him to ordinary fans who marvel at what he’s achieved is his slight, nonmuscular build that belies his ball-handling wizardry. Add to that his unquenchable work ethic, his 3-point mastery, his adroit passing, his revolutionizing the game through his command of small ball, his lightning-quick release when shooting (one-tenth of a second at last count), and his rapid ascent as arguably the game’s best player. If his body of work is housed in a frame that looks like your average American amateur, his humility seems to exist in inverse proportion to his hoops genius.
Calm self-assurance as a man and a player is one of Steph’s most treasured inheritances from his father Dell, a sharpshooter over his 16-year NBA career. The elder Curry told me that he urged his round ball prodigy to remain levelheaded and hardworking in the face of both accolades and adversity.
“Don’t get too high when you’re playing well,” Dell recounted telling his son. “Don’t get too low when you’re playing bad. Continue to rely on your work ethic, and get that routine and stick with it. Whether you’re playing well or not. Your routine is something you can fall back on to get you through.”
Steph’s wife Ayesha respects her husband because he isn’t the boastful sort despite repeating as the league’s MVP. “After his speech [accepting the MVP award], we had a dinner and he didn’t say much about it,” Ayesha Curry told me. “It was just like the basics of trying to win this championship. So even in our house that’s not much talked about unless there’s a game on. Everything’s very normal around here.”
Ayesha admires her husband’s quiet faith. Steph appears to me to possess less the showy evangelism of Tim Tebow and more the understated spirituality of President Jimmy Carter. Ayesha believes that trait makes Steph especially effective in proclaiming God to the world through his actions. “They see Stephen and they wonder why he’s so nice,” she said. “They wonder why he’s so humble. I think that’s the whole mission of this all – for him to shed light that way. It’s never projecting views onto people, it’s just living your life for the Lord.”
As an ordained Baptist minister for 35 years, I can testify that living for the Lord isn’t always smooth sailing. As the protagonist of the old gospel song reminds struggling Christians, “Nobody told me that the road would be easy.”
Steph has had his share of bumps, too: some have wondered if his game was too soft or too “white,” or if his ankles would hold up, while others questioned whether he deserved to be the first unanimous MVP selection. Some dispute that he’s the game’s premiere star. Sometimes he’s hit with backhanded compliments: four-time MVP LeBron James acknowledged that Steph deserved the Podoloff trophy this year, while suggesting a difference between most valuable player and the best player. James toasted his friendly foe with a symbolic drink that had a splash of post-Beyoncé lemonade. Steph’s signifying response could not be misinterpreted. “I’ve gotten good at ignoring people.”
But it’s off the court where Steph and wife Ayesha and their daughter Riley have made a powerful impression. It’s also where they’ve endured not a few flagrant fouls. Steph and his wife have brought a verve and wholesomeness to black coupledom that is rivaled only by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. Steph takes as much pride in his marriage as in his transcendent basketball achievements – perhaps even more.
“I think everybody knows that nothing comes before his family,” Steph’s teammate Draymond Green told me. “It’s incredible to see, especially firsthand. But it’s not a façade.”
That’s a sentiment that’s confirmed even closer to home.
“It’s not like he’s putting on a show for anybody,” said Steph’s brother Seth, who plays with the Sacramento Kings. “What people see on Instagram, Twitter, and on TV is who he is.” Their authenticity draws people to them as role models for healthy togetherness. It’s something that Steph revels in.
“The beauty of it is, we just try to be ourselves,” Steph told me. “And the biggest compliment I think we’ve gotten is that people that know us, on and off the court, feel that we’re the same people we were when we first got married almost six years ago. And not let this whole scene change us, even though it is a huge platform to be an influence, not only to young couples, and young parents. It’s just pretty special.”
Steph’s handsomeness and Ayesha’s beauty have helped to make them the darling of a black America hungry for the public affirmation of black love – a black love that rebuts stereotypes of domestic pathology and dysfunction. In a time where hip-hop’s cynicism about love’s edifying possibilities shadows the culture, Steph and Ayesha’s embrace of cheerful monogamy shines.
Steph’s parents provided a sturdy blueprint for him to follow. “They’re a great example of a marriage sticking together, especially through their professions, and their children,” Steph told me. “That was a great help for me growing up to know it’s possible. It’s not easy; it’s definitely hard work. It’s very taxing, especially on my wife, with the schedule that we have, so it’s nice to have that kind of vision that they’ve given us.”
Ever since their 2-year-old daughter Riley joined her famous father on the podium for a postgame news conference after the Warriors defeated the Rockets in Game 1 of the 2015 Western Conference Finals, she has become a celebrated little figure in her own right. Riley instructed her father to “be quiet” and played peekaboo with the audience beneath the curtained podium, melting the nation’s heart with her adorable antics.
Riley renewed her status as America’s most famous toddler as she made a dramatic entrance to her father’s MVP news conference and flashed a gesture suggesting “I’m watching you.” It was a gesture rife with irony since some of the media had been irritated by Riley’s debut a year before and deemed it inappropriate and unprofessional.
Steph became for many the very picture of a doting father patiently indulging his daughter’s cute behavior. After all, Riley had accompanied him to the podium because Ayesha was pregnant with their second daughter, Ryan, and the 2-year-old was antsy and wanted to be with daddy. Steph answered questions and felt for Riley beneath the table, making sure to keep her within arm’s reach. Beyond the surface feel-good story, the symbolism was inescapable: Here was a black parent who, with the simplest measure of affection, and without even trying to do so, was combatting the myth that the vast majority of black men are absent fathers.
“It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it,” Ayesha told me as she reflected on the denigrating portrayals of black fathers in the media. Ayesha sees the benefit of her husband being heralded, although she knows he is hardly unique. “It’s nice to have that change, and to show what’s really going on. ‘Cause there’s plenty of amazing young black fathers out there and not enough light is shed on that.”
Ayesha said that Steph is a great dad even away from the spotlight. “He is super hands-on,” she said. “He’s not afraid to have a tea party with our girls and play dress up with them when they want to play dress up. He’s like the perfect dad for little girls. He’s not so into himself that he loses himself in his manhood.”
If Steph has become a national inspiration as husband and father, Ayesha has become the model of an ideal woman for millions of folk around the country. “You got a lot of people aspiring to be that,” Green said, noting the huge popularity in social media of “a meme … saying, ‘Oh, I’m just looking for my Ayesha Curry.’ ”
Ayesha is proud to be the face of happy marriage, but she insisted she’s no random part of grammar.
“I think it’s cool that people think that I’m a great wife,” she said. “But I’m not an adjective, I’m a person,” she said, laughing as she told me. “And fortunately, I’m taken.”
She is flattered by the attention because it highlights the value of mothers and stresses the importance of families in a culture too quick to forget both. Ayesha believes that in families “everybody holds each other accountable,” and that the sense that it’s important for families to have meals together has been tragically lost. Ayesha has been taken to task on social media for what appears to be a traditional view of womanhood that undermines feminist self-expression. A recent Instagram post chastised her for exploiting her ties to a famous spouse to tout plans for a pop-up restaurant instead of encouraging women to seek higher education and their own careers.
“I do have a career, and I do work on a weekly basis,” Ayesha told me. “I have my own passions, I have everything. But what I’m most proud of is my family. And so that’s what I project out there. And I feel like there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Her perspective underscores the belief that feminism fights for women to be able to work independently of their husbands and to carve out their own identities – and the ability to become homemakers and housewives if they choose to do so. College-educated Ayesha’s role as a “mompreneur” embraces a feminist ethic of choice.
Ayesha has also been accused of fueling the politics of respectability when she sent out a series of tweets noting that contemporary women’s fashion trended toward sparse clothing. Ayesha said that she preferred to “keep the good stuff covered up for the one who matters,” and that she chooses “classy over trendy.” The social context in which Ayesha’s comments are interpreted must be acknowledged: Women who choose to dress “provocatively” are “slut-shamed” and mercilessly pilloried by the same men who applaud Ayesha’s modesty, and whose patriarchal prerogative to prescribe the right dress or sexual behavior for women is hardly challenged. Of course, these same men fail to see the looming paradox of their desire: To snag “an Ayesha Curry” they might want to first be “a Stephen Curry,” an apparently faithful and loving husband who encourages his wife’s goals and tends to the needs of his children.
As for Ayesha, she wasn’t aiming to degrade or insult women who disagreed with her. “I want every [woman] to succeed,” she said. She was simply stating her preference not to have her dress or style dictated by a sexist culture that overly sexualizes women for the material and sexual benefit of the male gaze.
Ayesha is surprisingly feisty in defense of her position. “I think if you don’t make people a little uncomfortable you’re not doing something right,” she confidently told me. She says that her reference to “the one that matters” could be oneself, one’s mate, or whomever one might deem important. “But people’s conscience took over [and] maybe they felt some type of way about what they were doing.”
Ayesha thinks that much of the blowback she received from Black Twitter was misplaced and rooted in misperception about her real identity. “It’s crazy how a group of people can shape [the perception of] a person. Everybody has an opinion and a view on who I actually am. I feel like my message may have gotten a little misconstrued.”
What can’t be misconstrued is that Steph’s faith, Ayesha’s ideas, and Riley’s charm have all gained “Curry-ency” because Steph is the most magical and transformative force in the game today. Dell Curry argued that the weapons in his son’s arsenal have been with him from the start. “That skill’s been in him his whole life, “ he said. “He’s always been a guy who hated to lose. He wanted to be the determining factor of whether his teams won or lost. And I think it’s helped get him here to this point now.”
Steph told me that he’s always had “that kind of creativity” that defines his style of play, “the juice for the game.” Even in college at Davidson, he said, he was “trying to push the envelope and do something nobody thought we could do. That experience really boosted my confidence.” After he got to the NBA, Steph sought first to establish himself, and then to push himself to get better each year. “I was put in a position where I needed to accelerate my game pretty quickly, and that helps. And opportunity helped, obviously. So I just took it and ran with it.”
Steph’s work ethic is already becoming legendary; his yen to get better pushed him to become, in the same year, both the league’s most valuable players and unofficially its most improved player (he placed fourth on that list this year). That the league’s reigning MVP could grow by leaps and bounds to further reach his greatness is simply astonishing. “It’s incredible, some of the things that he’s doing on the court,” Green said to me. “So someone will say, ‘Oh, my God, how does he win MVP, then get better?’ Well, the amount of work that he put in, that’s how it happens.”
It is easy to forget that Steph’s draft report read like a litany of weaknesses that doubted his NBA success – he wasn’t a true point guard; he made questionable shot selections; he lacked lateral quickness; he had a limited upside; he possessed average athleticism, average size and an average wingspan; and he relied too heavily on his outside shot. It is poetic justice that Steph has turned being a long shot as a superstar into being a superstar because of his long shot. His malady has become his meal ticket; his deficiency became his defining gesture. Now widely viewed as the league’s greatest shooter ever, and a player with more championships on the horizon, Wardell Stephen Curry is as much a miracle as the awe-inspiring baskets he routinely makes.