The other night I happened to watch the documentary Stephen Curry: Underrated. In case the NBA or sports in general are not your thing, Steph Curry is a basketball star who plays with the Golden State Warriors. He has won multiple NBA championships and has been named the Most Valuable Player in the league. He is truly a transcendent talent; some have gone so far as to call him the greatest basketball player of all time.
Curry is noteworthy in part because of his stature. In a game where height is presumed to be an essential asset, Curry is among the smallest players in the league. When he first came into the NBA, fans and commentators didn’t expect him to be able to survive, let alone thrive. He didn’t just survive, and he didn’t just thrive. He has changed how basketball is played.
Underrated is a documentary that tells the story of how Curry, a skinny little kid who was a completely unremarkable basketball player made himself into a player that at least one college wanted and eventually, into the player he has become. It tells the story of amazing personal determination.
I’ll get back to Curry in a minute. First, I want to talk about anxiety dreams.
Apparently, anxiety dreams are not uncommon. They make for good conversation among friends, if only for the comfort that comes from knowing that you’re not the only one who has experienced these dreams. Wikipedia says that anxiety dreams are related to nightmares but they aren’t the same. Nightmares involve “intense or agonizing dread”; anxiety dreams typically involve “incomplete tasks, embarrassment, falling, getting into legal or financial trouble.” That is, in nightmares, we’re encounter situations we have never experienced and hope we never will, like falling off a cliff. In anxiety dreams, our brains create situations that are familiar to us, but the situation is a bit out of control and therefore causes us significant unease.
One of my anxiety dreams is about high school. In the dream, I haven’t attended a class for the entire semester, and now a paper is due or an examination date is approaching. At the beginning of the semester I had felt that I had the subject under control, so I just didn’t bother to go to class or do any of the homework. Now, the day of reckoning is coming.
Another of my anxiety dreams is about playing basketball. I had some success early in high school, but by my senior year it was clear that I was not college basketball material. In my anxiety dream, I’m playing with good college players or professional players. I love playing with them, because my childhood basketball aspirations were to be among good players like that. In my dreams, I’m running the floor with my new-found basketball friends and teammates, I fumble a pass and the ball bounces out of my hands and out of bounds – a turnover. The game continues, I catch the ball and dribble it off my foot and out of bounds – another turnover. And again, I dribble and the ball bounces off my hands and into the hands of an opponent – turnover. I turn it over three or four times in a row, and then I wake up. Waking up is a great relief, because the agonizing failure ends, and my awake self can remind myself that I’m actually more competent than the bumbling oaf who disappoints Lebron James every time he passes the ball to me.
If you’re a basketball player, a turnover is a fundamentally bad thing. A missed shot is just a missed shot; everyone misses shots. A turnover, however, is worse. Players play the game for the opportunity to take the shot. A turnover is a lost opportunity.
Coaches are happy when their team has fewer than ten turnovers in a game. Coaches often are apoplectic when their team has more than fifteen turnovers per game. A player who has three or four turnovers in game simply doesn’t play very much, avoiding turnovers being so critical to the success of the team. My basketball anxiety dream rarely involves more than three or four turnovers before I wake up for relief from the repetitive failure.
Okay, back to Curry.
In Stephen Curry: Underrated, we see video of this little kid in high school, a kid who clearly can shoot the ball with success, but who also seems lost in the crush of larger players. One college coach, Bob McKillop of Davidson University, saw Curry’s potential. I think McKillop would admit that he wasn’t exactly sure how to tap into that potential, but he knew the potential was great enough to take a chance on the kid. Pretty much no other colleges were interested in Curry.
Curry showed up as a freshman on the Davidson basketball team, the smallest guy on the team. He wasn’t just short; he was skinny and unmuscular. He looked like he simply didn’t belong. McKillop was undeterred. He inserted Curry in the starting lineup in preseason practices, and when the season began, Curry was a starter.
The first game of Curry’s college basketball career, displayed in detail in the film, was against Eastern Michigan in a tournament at the University of Michigan. Davidson was and is decidedly small-time basketball in the college ranks, and the University of Michigan is very much the big time. Even Eastern Michigan puts together some competitive teams. No one who had seen Curry play in high school believed that he had any place whatsoever in big-time college basketball. No one except McKillop.
That first game is when the unthinkable happened. Curry played through a real-life anxiety dream: In the game, Curry had 13 turnovers. 13! He had nine turnovers in the first half; in other words, more or less every other minute, he lost the ball. I wake up after three or four turnovers, but for Curry there was no relief – he already was awake. The misery just continued, minute after minute. He was living an anxiety dream, and it wouldn’t stop.
Remarkably, McKillop left Curry in the game, and if you’re in the game, you keep playing. That’s what Curry did. He just kept playing, and he kept losing the ball. He threw bad passes, he didn’t catch the ball, he dribbled the ball out of his hands. Over and over it continued, and McKillop just left him on the court to play through the agony. In my experience, no coach leaves a player in the game who has five turnovers, let alone nine, in a half.
Davidson lost the game, and the team had a day to regroup before playing their second game in the tournament and the second game in the freshman’s unlikely college basketball career. Surely, McKillop would make a lineup change and give Curry some time on the bench to regroup emotionally, to try to figure how to manage the huge leap from cute high school player to serious college athlete. Well, no, that isn’t what McKillop did. He knew what he saw in Curry, and he believed in it, so when the second game started, there was Steph Curry in the lineup.
That’s when the unthinkable happened. No, not the same unthinkable that happened in the first game, not the anxiety dream. This time it was the Cinderella dream. This time, Curry scored 32 points. In my wildest basketball dreams, I never scored 32. Pretty much no one scores 32. And it’s a unique individual who has the emotional strength to score 32 after 13 turnovers.
Curry was a phenom by the time his college career ended. Still, many people believed he would be unable to translate his unique basketball talent to the NBA. He was just too small, and the league was dotted with bigger talented players.
Nobody doubts him now.