The "Leitch Across America Tour" kicks off this week in the San Francisco Bay Area. (I'm aware that title sounds like a series of geographic inseminatory accidents. Just go with it.) Every couple of months, I'll be visiting a new city for a week, exploring the local sports culture, talking to fans and luminaries, attending games, and trying to figure out what makes the fanbases tick. The plan is to hit cities huge and small, from major metropolises to smaller college towns. The only way I know the world is through its sports; Leitch Across America is an opportunity to understand it better and put it into context -- a sort of Lonely Planet of sports.
We're still working out the kinks this week; we'll have this honed to a science after we do a couple of these. But for now, to quote the final "Calvin & Hobbes," It's a magical world out there. Let's go exploring.
* * *
SAN FRANCISCO -- Stephen Curry was drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 2009, and it took him a while to figure out exactly which city they played in.
"I'd only been to the area once, and that was my last-ever college game," he tells me Wednesday afternoon, pushing his 10-month-old daughter Riley down the Embarcadero in a stroller. (Roughly 15 minutes of our 45-minute conversation were spent sharing stories of the general insanity of having a toddler.) His Davidson Wildcats were about to lose to St. Mary's in the NIT, an ignominious ending to a glorious collegiate career. "We came in straight from the San Francisco airport, and I spent the entire time with my nose stuck to the window of the bus. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was here. But I had no idea where we were going."
Four years ago, Curry was disappointed that the Knicks didn't draft him. Today, he has the key to the city. (San Francisco, not Oakland… not yet.) Stephen Curry has been special all his life, but he's never been more special, and more revered, than he is right now, in this city. "You wanna know how much this place loves their Warriors?" he says. "We made it to the conference semifinals and they gave me a freaking key to the city. The key to the city! For the semis! If we'd have won the title, they'd have put a statue of Coach Jackson on top of the bridge."
This, of course, is understating what the Warriors, and specifically Curry, did in these playoffs. Either the Spurs, Pacers or Heat are going win the championship this year, but the breakout star this postseason was undeniably Curry. His explosions were the stuff of legend, perhaps most notably the third quarter against Denver in Game Four (when he scored 22 points) and the 44 points and 11 assists he put together in Game One against the Spurs. He was impossible to guard and mesmerizing to watch. Most of all, he elevated perhaps the best fans in the NBA -- at the very least, the most rabid fans -- in nightly frenzies, the perfect match between superstar and fanbase in all of sports. If Curry didn't exist, Oracle Arena would have created him. Stephen Curry had always been a star, but this year's playoffs turned him into an irresistible national icon, the type of player your grandmother loves almost as much as you do.
As you might expect, the playoffs changed things for Curry, immediately. "It's crazy how quickly it shifted on me, in a good way, but in a very different way," he says. "I'm learning what I can do and what I can't do. [My wife and I] went out to California Pizza Kitchen on a Friday night and were just mobbed. I mean, people were real nice; they've been through 20 terrible years, and this has meant so much for them. But whew, we weren't ready for that. No more CPKs on Friday nights."
Curry lives in Jack London Square in Oakland, and it's actually the third different place he's lived since being drafted. He originally set up in Lake Merritt in Oakland, but decided he wanted to try a year in San Francisco proper, where many of his teammates lived. He and his wife -- who he has known since high school and has launched a blog about cooking and motherhood called Little Lights of Mine that Curry was extremely eager to make sure I got in this piece -- moved into the Millennium Towers in the Financial District. It did not sit well with him. "I'm a suburban Charlotte kid, and getting around was just too hard," he says. He points to Harrison Street, just a couple of blocks from the Millennium. "See that street? That's how you get on the Bay Bridge from here, which is the only way to get out to the arena. It's not bad right now, but in an hour or so, it's gonna start packing up, and then by rush hour, there will be cars waiting all the way down Embarcadero. If you don't time it right, you'll sit there for an hour just trying to get, like, a half a mile to the bridge. It drove me crazy. It made me late to practice one time, and [my wife] couldn't stand it either. We're not city people. We wanted to try city living, but it's not for us." He pauses. "Besides, on the weekends, everything around here is closed anyway. You can't get a bite to eat in this part of town."
You probably shouldn't expect him to live in Jack London Square too much longer either. He lives in a big apartment -- along with a home he has in Charlotte -- and he's already finding that no matter how much money a basketball player might make, there's just never quite enough space when you have a toddler. "I keep thinking the place is huge, but kids have a way of making everything seem real small," he says. "I knew things were gonna change, but man, I had no idea."
A year ago, I wrote a piece on Derrick Rose for GQ in which he told me how he was afraid to leave his condo in downtown Chicago, he was bothered so often on the street and felt so uncomfortable about it. Curry isn't quite at the level of Rose yet -- who grew up in Chicago after all -- but this could be a concern for someone whose star is as ascendant as Curry's. During our walk, he was constantly recognized -- "It'd be worse, but I'm pushing a stroller," he jokes -- but not in an intrusive way and mostly by people who were less star struck and more genuinely appreciative. Almost every person who talked to him said, simply, "Thank you." "It was an amazing ride, and people just seem happy to have gotten to go on it with me," he says. "No one has ever been anything but nice." Only two people even stop him for a picture. (One of them was me. "I didn't think I had to worry about you," he says, smiling, sort of.)
Midway through our walk, he stops. "This is where they want it to be." The Warriors are trying to get a new stadium built in San Francisco proper and are attempting to use the good vibes generated by Curry and the playoff run to grease the wheels a little bit. (It's probably the real reason Curry was awarded the key to the city, during a ceremony in which San Francisco mayor Ed Lee called Curry "Steve." Curry explained: "He got it right the first three or four times he said it. But then I think he got revved up and excited and forgot for a second.") The arena, on Piers 30-32, is meant to be for the Warriors what AT&T Park was for the Giants; a gorgeous downtown hub with breathtaking views and modern amenities. Many are skeptical of how much of what the Warriors want will get built, and even Curry's a little doubtful himself. "It'd be fantastic, but they gotta fix this pier first," he says. "Gonna cost $100 million just to fix the pier. But man, have you seen those drawings? That'd be the most amazing place to play. I might sometimes stare at it and forget to play." If the arena is built in San Francisco, by the way, Curry's probably going to move to a fifth place. He's not going to get stuck on another bridge coming from Oakland. "I'd head down to the Valley, I bet," he says.
Curry spends the summers back in Charlotte and is in fact going down there on Friday. He loves the Bay Area, but his home is his home. "It's just chill in Charlotte," he says. "Quiet. I like quiet and peace and a normal life in the suburbs. I might be too young for that, but that's what I like. And now that I have a kid, I suppose I wouldn't have much choice anyway." But during the season, he is ecstatic to get to live here, wherever it is he lives. "The great thing about this whole area is that it has everything," he says. "I can live in the city or in the suburbs or near a college, it's all in the same place. Tough to find an environment like that."
But mostly: It's the fans. "No offense to New York, but I'm so, so happy I didn't fall to them in the draft," he says after I tell him I'm a Knicks fan. "No matter what they do with the new arena, they better not change the dynamics of the fanbase. If we have the same fans, in this new place … man, I'd want to play here forever. Wouldn't you?"
* * *