Last year, Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry got an unexpected promotion from NBA All-Star to America’s Family Man of the Year, all because of his then-two-year-old daughter, Riley, who kicked off a news conference by announcing that she wanted to sit on her father’s lap. Dad obliged.
The performance that followed saw Riley interrupting, dramatically yawning, giggling adorably, and waving at reporters with the playful stage presence of an NBA veteran.
Within hours, the press conference had gone viral, and the Curry family unit was catapulted into the mainstream. The headline “How Riley Curry Became a National Sensation” ran in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day, recounting how she “stole the nation’s heart.” A video of the press conference has since been viewed more than 1.7 million times on YouTube. But the Chronicle article was also about “a Most Valuable Papa,” whose gentle, soft, nurturing handling of his daughter inspired the first commenter to write: “What a breath of fresh air! A sports figure who has a family that can help him be the fine role model that he is.”
That press conference was the moment when Steph Curry, father and family man, was invited to Middle America’s dinner table, on the back of what many witnessed as unimpeachable evidence of his character.
Our love affair with Curry has stretched into the current NBA finals, and is certainly related to, as many have suggested, his headline-making statistics and much-talked about skin tone. But it's also about a set of off-court attributes taken straight out of the Bill Cosby school of respectability politics. To the media and America at large, Curry is a God-loving family man and exceptional athlete. And yet on the court he’s arguably the most arrogant elite basketball player to have ever graced the NBA hardwood, the epitome of the type of black athlete that much of America has long struggled to accept. While other black athletes routinely get condemned for displaying this level of swagger, Curry’s on-court arrogance has done little to tarnish his brand. In other words, he’s accomplished what few black athletes have been able to do: remaining black on the court while also being palatable to white people.
Curry’s braggadocio takes the form of confidently chucked-up shots as he approaches sniffing distance of the three-point line—shots that would make most basketball coaches cringe. That alone isn’t arrogance, for arrogance isn’t taking a shot that consistently finds the bottom of the net. But watching the Warriors guard turn away to stare down anyone in the vicinity, or turn to give the Warriors bench high-fives just as he releases a shot from deep, well before the ball even gets within the rim’s airspace—that’s world-class arrogance. Add to that his dances after doing dope shit, sprinkle in his light taunting of opposing benches and fans during the game, and we’re left with a sketch of Middle America’s long-time sporting nemesis: the pompous black athlete who doubles as a terrible role model.
The arrogance historically brought to the court by the Allen Iversons, Kevin Garnetts, and Russell Westbrooks of the NBA is rarely universally as well-received. For the notorious Iverson, simply standing on the court rocking tattoos and cornrows, at a time when neither were prevalent in the NBA, invited conversations about thuggery. “I took an ass-kicking for me being me in my career, for me looking the way I looked and dressing the way I dressed,” recalled Iverson at his farewell press conference in 2013.
Garnett’s on-court intensity was often characterized as unchecked aggression by a man with a “big mouth.” Westbrook’s flashiness and whimsical celebrations got him accused of selfishness. And, hilariously, in 2010, a group attempted to create the All-American Basketball Alliance, an all-white professional basketball league “for white players to play fundamental basketball,” not “street ball.” Black athletes in the NFL are subject to similar treatment: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been routinely criticized for dabbing in end zones after touchdowns and handing footballs to children. White parents write letters to the editor decrying his “chest puffs” and “pelvic thrusts.” Richard Sherman’s celebration of the Seahawk’s Super Bowl win in 2013 was described as “thuggish,” a word, Sherman pointed out, that has become “an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word.”
But when it comes to Curry, sports commentators and the media tell us that the baby-faced assassin is just out there having fun. Few bat an eye on account of his egregious displays. No one—sponsors, opponents, the media, children, the elderly—can get enough of the man. This month, Curry, along with his two kids, are even on the cover of Parents magazine. (To put that into perspective, only two men have made it to the magazine’s cover in the last five years. The other was a random white male model holding a child.)
“Often, one needs to do no more than be light-skinned to reap the rewards of light privilege in a culture that remains profoundly color-struck,” writes Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson over at The Undefeated. It doesn’t hurt that Curry also appears, by all accounts, to be a thoughtful, responsible, and respectful husband and father. He’s happily married to Ayesha, and neither has appeared on VH1’s Basketball Wives throwing drinks on other “reality stars.” His wife is an intelligent, loving companion and mother who happily stands by her man and loves creating works of art in their family kitchen. He has two cute, light-skinned children, both from the same mother. One of those kids, Riley, can’t stop being adorable in front of cameras, and her dad is often close by participating in the adorableness. He's a devout soldier for Christ and has no issue speaking about his faith. He’s articulate, in the uncomfortable “that young colored man speaks so well” kind of way. (Curry doesn’t speak like Iverson, so he might be able to date your daughter.) Dell Curry, Steph’s father, was a longtime NBA player, and his mother, Sonya, is now a familiar figure in that stands at Warriors games. They’re from the suburbs—a place, Dyson writes, “that is definitely not the ghetto.”
Sporting proficiency coupled with light skin alone has rarely been enough to forgive black athletic arrogance. The attributes that make Steph Curry an undeniable commodity are those that America has historically wanted, not just out of its NBA stars, but out of its black men: achieve the highest standards of fatherhood, husbandhood, devoutness, education, professionalism, familiar diction, and skin tone. Like Obama. Like the Huxtables.
It’s a standard that asks for near-perfect assimilation just to exist, or on a good day be conditionally accepted, in spaces frequently occupied by much less perfect, less exceptional white folk. And it’s worth noting: Many black NBA players check many of these boxes without ever coming close to public worship for being a decent family man. Even LeBron James, by all optics a loving family man married to his high school sweetheart, rarely gets a fraction of the universal love for being most of what Middle America wants from its black men. (Perhaps that’s because James’s version of blackness adheres to the familiar “rise from adversity” narrative, and when you start out poor, black, and raised by a single mom in Akron, America struggles to see past that. Unlike the upper-class Curry, America will always treat James like a visitor to the 1%, no matter how much success and money he accumulates.)
All this adds up to an acceptance of Curry’s behavior—as long as he leaves his blackness on the court, a space of entertainment that poses no real threat. That’s how we convince ourselves that Curry’s arrogance isn’t rooted in any of the more nefarious, darker sides of what America associates with black athletes or black men—the patois, the broken home, the irresponsibility, the thuggery, the violence, the anger. His physicality, which he describes as “6’3” 180 pounds soaking wet,” isn’t menacing. And to some observers, his stature, in addition to his other traits, translates him into a white player. As Dyson suggests, Curry “is assumed to be white, or to ‘play white,’ because he lacks commanding physical presence, because he’s more finesse than forceful, and because he’s a towering shooter.” (For the record, I don't see anything white about Curry’s game.)
Unfortunately, many other black men who display on-court or on-field arrogance can’t be forgiven in the way Curry is. And that, by no means, is Curry’s fault. But it will be a great day when America deems that black perfection on someone else’s terms isn’t necessary to be as black and as arrogant as you want. It’s probably something worth remembering as we mourn the death of Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest unapologetically arrogant black athlete in modern history.
Miriti Murungi is a Senior Digital Producer/Social Media Editor for Fusion. He is possibly responsible for the nonsensical ramblings at @NutmegRadio. Also dabbles in yacht rock and used to wear a tie. *tips hat*