Everything about Stephen Curry, it seems, comes coated in sugar. Even his tattoo is sweet, just three letters and his jersey number -- "T.C.C. 30" -- delicately inscribed on the underside of his left wrist. It's shorthand for the motto of Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop, "Trust, commitment and care," and Curry's ink matches that of four teammates.
The bigger, bolder tats also appeal to him -- as a sociology major three credits shy of a diploma. His NBA peers wear the body murals; he's writing a thesis about them. Curry started his research about two years ago, when he heard that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had instructed quarterback Cam Newton to just say no to tattoos. He wanted to explore the connection between athletes and their epidermal art. Isn't that adorable? He takes "student of the game" miles beyond cliché.
At this moment, nobody in the NBA plays more elegantly or garnishes his game with a blither spirit. Curry moves seamlessly through his jumper, whether off a dribble or a catch and shoot. The rim rarely feels a thing when his offerings come through.
Curry almost parodies himself when he celebrates. He surrendered his gracefulness to a geeky shimmy dance after scoring 54 at Madison Square Garden in February. He broke out a little head bop after a breathtaking bounce pass from midcourt against the Clippers in January. That pass ricocheted past the feet of Blake Griffin and into Warriors' teammate Jarrett Jack's hands, entering the hoop on a reverse layup.
The play was lovely and symphonic, not to mention an homage to team play. Above all, though, it was wicked. Nasty. Ruthless. It was Curry at 25, ever more the point guard, ever more the pro.
Beneath all the basketball beauty, the endearing demeanor and the face so pretty it could headline a boy band, or take over the "Twilight" lead, lies a fiend. Curry is an assassin in white tie and tails. Everyone who guards him knows it, or should.
Forget the references to silk or butter. He will cut you. He will make you bleed. Put two guys on him, get right up against him, keep him deep in the backcourt. It might work. Or it might make things all the more demoralizing when Curry and that quick release of his go to work. He doesn't need to see the basket as long as most shooters do. He can catch a glimpse and let go immediately, no need to work at squaring up. He's probably already where he needs to be. However many moves a given basketball play would require from anyone else, he can reduce the number. He has the efficiency of a natural, and of a predator.
The Curry nastiness remains stealth and then some. His name has come above ground, after the record-setting 272 three-pointers this season, the 54-point game and after Tuesday's 30 points and 13 assists in Golden State's Game 2 playoff win over the Nuggets in Denver.
But the sugary coating won't disappear. Curry may prefer it that way. He can talk about being underestimated his whole career without sounding terribly aggrieved, a skill almost as rare among athletes as his shooting touch. Surely, it burned him that his father's school, Virginia Tech, wanted him only as a walk-on. And he must know that many of his peers see him as genteel basketball aristocracy, inheriting not only his shot from dad Dell, a 15-year pro, but also an ease in any NBA arena. When he looks at the Nuggets' bench, he'll see George Karl, who coached his father in Milwaukee and once pulled an 11-year-old Steph into a shooting contest with both Dell and Ray Allen, whose three-point record he just swiped.
Then came the repeated injuries to his right ankle, earning him a reputation as fragile. Again, he had to prove people wrong, with many assists from doctors and trainers.
"I'd say patient determination usually helps Steph achieve what he wants; he doesn't let things bother him," his college roommate and teammate, Bryant Barr, said. "I've known him for seven years, and I think the only thing I've ever seen really upset him was the ankle."
Surgery cut his 2011-2012 season shorter than the lockout had already abbreviated it. It also cost Curry the chance to join Barr on a trip to Kenya to see the effects of an anti-malaria campaign that his friend supports through his BuzzKill foundation. Now a full-time Nike employee, Barr took up the cause in college and prompted Curry to get involved, as well. For every three-pointer he made this season, he donated three bed nets to keep malaria-carrying mosquitoes at bay during the night, when cooler African weather tends to draw them out of hiding.
Barr and Curry have been in each other's weddings, and Barr and his wife serve as godparents to Curry's baby girl, Riley. Barr and at least one other Davidson teammate plan to fly to Oakland for Game 3 Friday night. It could be a difficult test for Curry, who twisted his left ankle -- not the perpetually afflicted one -- in the third quarter of Game 2 and then returned. As of Thursday, inflammation had set in, and Curry did not practice. He said he expected to play, perhaps with the aid of a painkilling injection, an option he would not consider for a regular-season game.
But Curry being Curry, he found a way to make light of the injury. On Wednesday, he invited his Twitter followers to send "ankle-isms" -- puns about his plight. "Leader in the clubhouse," he wrote, "... As the 'ankle' turns."
Send me your best ankle "isms", metaphors, funnies. Leader in the clubhouse.... As the "ankle" turns- Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) April 24, 2013
His own contribution might have been the wittiest: "No ankle left unturned."
Would that be the cuddly Curry at work or the predatory one? Perhaps they are always in cahoots, or he has learned to make them cooperate. Or maybe he prefers not to take himself too seriously.
"One thing that is really refreshing about Steph is that for somebody with his visibility level, he's normal," said Jack, who joined the Warriors this season. "He doesn't have an ego about him. Really a selfless person. … There's a lot of quote, unquote superstars who hang by themselves. They're never one of the guys. It's I'm the lead singer and they're the backups. But Steph wants to be one of the guys. He wants to blend in…
"Even though," Jack said, starting to laugh, "his talent level doesn't allow him to."
Jack said he signed on with coach Mark Jackson's plan to persuade Curry to speak up when he wanted, to accept that the team needed him to lead by more than example.
Early on, he said, he told Curry: "Hey I know you're a quiet kid, but we need you to be more vocal.
"And he's made it a point to do that, to bring up things he sees, to challenge guys. 'Yea, pick it up,'" Jack said. "But at the same time, he's always holding himself accountable, shouldering a lot of the responsibility even when he might not be the problem."
He still feels a responsibility to Davidson, because his early departure for the NBA brought down the basketball team's graduation rate. During the lockout in the fall of 2011, Curry went back to the North Carolina school and took three classes. He completed two of them before the season started up, and now the school is trying to help him finish the degree within the limitations of an NBA lifestyle.
If he doesn't get it done, his old teammates may never let up. "Oh yeah, we tease him all the time," Barr said. "We tell him he'll be in the Class of 2030."
There's something charming about Curry simultaneously having a $44 million contract, a new NBA record and endless grief about not earning his diploma. People expect an awful lot of him. He seems to like it that way.