The pre-draft scouting report on Stephen Curry was unsparing. “Appears as though he’ll always be skinny,” the scouts huffed. “Can overshoot and rush his shots. Doesn’t like when defenses are too physical with him.” But the part that figures to have Golden State Warriors fans breaking out into shoulders-shimmying guffaws is this: “Do not rely on him to run your team.” You can almost picture the line etched inside one of his four championship rings.
“There’s just something magical about Steph,” filmmaker Peter Nicks tells the Guardian.
Turns out the naysayers couldn’t have been more wrong about Curry – the Dubs deadeye who disrupted decades of strategic convention, confounds LeBron James’s Goat argument and is an ace shooter on the golf course, to boot. Just as Tom Brady’s Terminator-mission to become the best ever was spurred by the NFL talent evaluators who underestimated him, the 35-year-old Curry is gnashing a mouthguard at his doubters despite having made his point years ago.
And while Curry’s simmering grudge against anyone who second-guesses him is at the heart of Stephen Curry: Underrated, an A24-produced Apple TV+ cinéma vérité that drops this Friday, Nicks didn’t mean for that theme to overpower his documentary. “I had some pause about the ‘underrated’ premise initially,” Nicks says. “I didn’t think the audience would accept it because he’s so accomplished.”
When the Anthem director huddled with Curry about the project ahead of the 2021-22 NBA season, the plan was to follow his quest to achieve the one title that had eluded him: bachelor of arts. After foregoing his senior year to declare for the 2009 draft – where Golden State selected him seventh behind Blake Griffin (No 1), James Harden (No 3), Ricky Rubio (No 5) and three other guys who are out of the league – Curry would make repeated attempts to complete his sociology degree, as much to appease his mother Sonya (a first-generation university grad turned Montessori school founder) as to uphold his tiny college’s remarkable knack for graduating its jock scholars. But the more his career and family boomed, the longer Curry put off completing his senior thesis – on advancing gender equality through sports – an issue he understands inside and out.
Underrated further sets up this bit of unfinished business, opening with Curry topping the all-time three-point scoring leaderboard at Madison Square Garden; the subdued celebration that follows, at a posh city eatery, brings out college coach Bob McKillop and former Warriors teammate turned Brooklyn Net Kevin Durant – “the most misunderstood dude in the freakin’ league right there,” Curry mutters between sips of a teary glass of red. But a fruity thing happened: that season Curry rallied Golden State past Boston for a fourth NBA crown and picked up his first finals MVP along the way. Nicks, who had also previously directed a trilogy of documentaries about Bay Area institutions and cast a wide reporting net for Underrated, would have to narrow his scope.
Gone are the interviews with Allen Iverson, Muggsy Bogues and Town bard Marcus Thompson. In their place are more home videos of Curry from back when people assumed the baby-faced assassin hurling in three-pointers from his waist was too young, short and frail to be sharing a court with high schoolers. Forget scouts. Curry’s own parents weren’t convinced their kid – the one public announcers called stee-VEN, not STEF-fen – had a future playing college ball, let alone the pros. All of it helps explain how just about every elite NCAA power, not least Virginia Tech (Curry’s parents’ alma mater) and Duke (which hosted Steph at a basketball camp) could overlook the son of a Division I volleyball ace and the Charlotte Hornets’ second all-time leading scorer. So Curry wound up at Davidson College, the 2,000-student “Harvard of the South”, a million miles from the college basketball spotlight.
Looking back, the myth couldn’t have been writ any other way. “It just became more and more compelling as we went and as we understood that he had to overcome a lot,” says Nicks. “The kids of accomplished athletes also have that added pressure. Think about all the ones who never make it. Michael Jordan’s sons. It’s amazing.”
By toggling between the skepticism of the past and present, Nicks shows Curry earning the right to that massive chip on his shoulder. His scouting report – read by Reggie Miller, basketball’s erstwhile sharpshooter extraordinaire – merely sets the tone for Underrated. (“They said the same about me!” Miller gushes later in the film.)
Here’s where the Davidson basketball staff deserves immense credit: they recognized the magic in Curry from the start and scrambled to put on a full-court recruiting press. One coaching assistant nearly had a coronary after Curry dropped off the radar. When he reappeared weeks later to report that his mom had confiscated his cell phone after a friend had sent a curse word in a text, the Davidson staff knew they had a diamond in the rough who’d fit in perfectly with their school squeaky-clean student body. In Underrated, Curry’s freshman year unspools in more VHS time capsules that offer a window into a world that hadn’t yet been spoiled by social media. The day-ones who couldn’t see Curry live could only stream his games over the internet – back when that was a clunky and inconvenient chore.
But what really jumps off the film is the faith McKillop places in Curry in those early games when he came up small, down to his seemingly two-sizes-too-big uniform. McKillop doesn’t just feed Curry more minutes, he gives him a green light to keep chucking away – and it isn’t long before his desperate heaves turn into deadly daggers. In one raw Underrated interview, Curry recalls the blank stares that greeted his signing. Of course he wound up putting Davidson on the map, keying the Wildcats’ shockingly deep run through the 2008 NCAA tournament – a Cinderella story for the ages. It’s no wonder Curry, for too long the only player McKillop hadn’t graduated in his three-plus decades on the sideline, would be so driven to keep the record perfect before the coach – aka the Silver Fox – turned any grayer. In the end Curry comes through at the buzzer again, Davidson awarding him his diploma and retiring his number within months of McKillop calling time on his illustrious career.
With that for an epic, Underrated pivots away from the established narrative of Curry’s fourth NBA title with the Warriors to his life behind the scenes – a mashup of solo workouts and screeching kids. One scene finds Curry struggling to home in on schoolwork in one room while his toddler son stomps on bubble wrap in the hallway. (Been there … still here, actually.) But other distractions – like the breakup of his parents’ Huxtable-ish marriage, a messy tabloid story that unraveled during the Warriors’ playoff push – don’t see airtime. Seth Curry, another nifty NBA shooter, appears briefly in the film hugging big bro as the championship confetti falls.
“We just had to focus,” Nicks says. “Once the Warriors won the championship, we had to rethink and restructure the arc of the movie. It was just magical in a way how this sort of unrealized goal of Curry finishing his degree helped the past and the present relate to each other.”
And then there were the times Curry was almost too relatable. Like a number of athletes with a Messi-like hero’s arc, he too falls into the trap of glossing over his obvious nature-nurture advantages and chalking up his success to desire and sweat equity instead – as if his hoops MasterClasses could round anyone into a two-time league MVP.
“Could I have become Steph Curry?” Nicks wonders. “We were both born in Akron, Ohio. We’re both mixed race, African American, 6ft 2in, skinny. I played basketball in high school, too.
“I basically told him: ‘There’s other people who work as hard as you who don’t achieve what you achieved.’ And he was like: ‘Nobody works harder than I do.’ That’s what he told me. And he was very clear about that. ‘Nobody works harder than I do.’ That is an acknowledgement of that drive and that chip, that he’s trying to prove people wrong.”
Underrated certainly does the job of burnishing Curry’s legacy at a time when so many of his fellow sporting greats are also stuck in PR mode. But most viewers will come away from this film with a new appreciation for the NBA’s freshest face – especially now that it’s fully fleshed out.