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The private refuge that has fueled some of Stephen Curry’s all-time greatest games

A COOL BREEZE blows outside the empty Cleveland Cavaliers‘ downtown arena, and the Golden State Warriors sit on the precipice of a title, just one win away. Still, inside the quiet Quicken Loans Arena, something is gnawing at two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry.

He tries to shake off the game that had just ended — Game 3 of the 2018 NBA Finals. The Warriors had won 110-102, taking a 3-0 series lead over the Cavaliers, edging them closer to a sweep of LeBron James and their second title in as many years. But in 39 minutes, Curry had scored just 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting, including 1-of-10 from 3-point range. In all, Curry had more turnovers (two) than 3-pointers (one).

Such a performance is far from Curry’s best, or even his average. Entering the series, a central storyline had emerged: Could Curry finally win his first Finals MVP award, arguably the lone honor missing from his résumé? His Game 3 dud offered no such support.

Back in the arena, at about 12:30 a.m., about an hour after the final buzzer, Curry approaches Jonnie West, a member of the Warriors’ front office. In a hallway outside the Warriors’ locker room, Curry tells West that he wants to get away the following morning, just a few hours from now.

West reminds Curry that the team has practice scheduled the next day, around midday.

“I don’t care,” Curry tells West.

As the conversation unfolds, Warriors general manager Bob Myers watches from nearby and approaches.

“What’d he say to you?” Myers asks West.

“He wants to play golf tomorrow,” West replies.

Myers raises an eyebrow, though not an objection. The season has been long, the stakes monumental, especially against a Cavaliers team that rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit to shock the Warriors just two years before. But the urgency from Curry is clear, and West tells Myers that his request didn’t leave much room for negotiation — or rejection.

Seven hours later, Curry and West venture to a private course about a half-hour away, teeing off before 8 a.m. Here, in the still of a 60-degree summer Thursday morning, beneath an overcast sky, West and Curry play 18 holes, with Curry making it back just in time for practice.

In the next game, about 30 hours later, Curry scores 37 points, with seven 3-pointers, six rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks. The Warriors complete the sweep, winning their third title in four years.

West is hardly surprised. He’s been witness to one of the most unheralded phenomenons in the game, a yearslong pattern that West has observed up close: how golf supercharges the Warriors’ superstar, often when it matters most.

“There’s definitely a correlation to him playing golf and his performance on the court,” West tells ESPN.

He cites a seven-game road trip in February 2016, when Curry went especially volcanic, with 36 points at Atlanta, 42 at Miami, 51 at Orlando, then, in Oklahoma City, he sank a now-legendary overtime game-winning 3-pointer — from just inside half court.

“His numbers during that trip were just stupid,” West says.

During that trip, Curry averaged 36.4 points, shooting 56% from the floor, 57% from 3-point range and 86% from the free throw line. His scoring average marked the highest over a team’s seven-game span all on the road over the past 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

What also happened during that road trip? Several golf outings, West says.

“It’s my safe space,” Curry tells ESPN, “that I can always rely on.”

FOR CURRY, WHOSE Warriors sit in a 1-0 hole in their second-round series against the Lakers heading into Thursday’s Game 2 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in San Francisco, golf is a life-long obsession.

His father, Dell, introduced the game when Curry was 8 or 9; he’d drive the golf cart at first, playing with a sawed-off putter. But, Curry says, the seed was planted, and a love of the sport took hold. On a family vacation at 13, Curry posted his first score in the 70s and beat Dell, for the first time, at Pine Lakes in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Curry starred for his high school golf team. He shot 67 in Hawaii and Lake Tahoe — and 70 at Pebble Beach. In 2022, he famously holed a 97-yard approach shot for eagle during a celebrity tournament in Lake Tahoe. He has played at Augusta National Golf Club several times. He holds a multiyear partnership with Callaway Golf. Through a seven-figure donation paid out over six years, Curry helped revive the golf program at Howard University.

Curry is a scratch golfer, meaning he can play at a 0 handicap on all rated courses. His television is often tuned to the Golf Channel. At home, he installed a golf simulator and a backyard putting green.

On the basketball court, his mind will sometimes wander toward golf, wistfully searching for the next window to play in a tight schedule. And even after a late-night game, he’ll strategize a next-day visit to a driving range or a course to squeeze in a round.

Golf is a key element to the Warriors’ culture, with the team having an “unofficial golf club” for years that routinely features Curry, swingman Andre Iguodala and West. Coach Steve Kerr encourages players to bring their clubs on road trips. “It’s the opposite of every coach I’ve ever had,” Kerr, who won five titles and played 15 seasons in the NBA, tells ESPN. “That would have been terrifying to try to sneak my golf clubs onto a plane for a road trip. There was no way.”

Kerr wants his players to hit the course. Sometimes he’ll join them, too. “I love it,” he says.

Golf has also helped Curry and Kerr forge a bond; in fact, Kerr says, the course was “really the first time we spent any time together.”

It was the summer of 2014, and Kerr had just been hired to coach the Warriors. In the immediate weeks after assuming his new role, Kerr, Curry, Dell and Warriors governor Joe Lacob played a round at Pebble Beach, where Kerr shared his vision for the team with Curry while also marveling at how good his new point guard was with a club in his hand.

One year later, the Warriors’ golf culture took an important step forward. After a Game 3 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies dropped the Warriors in a 2-1 hole in the second-round series, Curry and Iguodala played 18 holes at Mirimichi Golf Course (formerly owned by Justin Timberlake) near Memphis. The Warriors then won three straight to close out the series. But it was during the early rounds of these playoffs that Curry and Iguodala had learned that Kerr had a legendary connection, one some 540 miles to the east.

Kerr confirmed their suspicion. Intrigued, they wondered what it would take for him to get them into this ultraexclusive golf haven. A deal was brokered: Win the championship, and Kerr would make it happen. (Today, Kerr says, “I knew we would have gone anyway even if we had lost, but I didn’t say that part.”)

And so in the immediate moments after the Warriors closed out a Game 6 Finals win against the Cavaliers in Cleveland, Iguodala and Curry embraced each other on the court, bouncing up and down and shouting:

“We’re going to Augusta!”

But golf has become more than a hobby for Curry. As his singular stardom and global fame rose to historic heights, it has become an essential escape.

“EVERYWHERE WE GO everybody wants a piece of Steph,” Kerr says, “and he’s so obliging. He’s so nice. He signs a million autographs and talks to everyone who comes up to him. So that never ends in his life. So for him to be able to take four hours and get away from all that and get out in the sunshine and play a game he loves, it’s important.”

Says Myers: “There’s different versions of getting away for you and I. But he probably doesn’t have that many spaces where he feels like he can just be free.”

Says Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser: “That’s his happy place. That’s the one place that he can go that frees his mind. It’s a place that rejuvenates his spirit and soul.”

Relay the above to Curry, and he’ll nod.

“It checks a lot of boxes in terms of getting away from the game, getting outside, there’s a vitamin D element,” he says. “There’s fresh air. You’re around good people.

“Then you’re not too far away from the competitive aspect of basketball. [But with golf], it’s more internal. It gives me something else to lock into that energy without having to search for it on the court.”

Curry isn’t the only NBA player who has turned to golf as a much-needed respite.

Iguodala tells ESPN that the sport became essential during the 2020 NBA bubble on the Walt Disney World Resort campus in Orlando, Florida.

Former NBA shooting guard JR Smith, for his part, picked up the sport in 2008 and felt the impact. “That was the one thing that really soothed my mind and let me really be at peace and get away from the game,” he tells ESPN.

Former NBA shooting guard Kyle Korver turned to golf throughout his pro career, too. “When I was maybe a little bit off on shooting, instead of shooting a lot of shots the next day, I hit a bucket of balls and that seemed to recalibrate some stuff in my brain,” Korver tells ESPN. “It was amazing to me how often that would happen.”

Hall of Fame guard Ray Allen, who played with Curry and former President Barack Obama on Martha’s Vineyard, steadily relied on golf throughout his 18-year NBA career.

“Your face is famous,” Allen tells ESPN. “Everybody knows you. So you can’t get away from it. And it’s a great problem to have. But in real life, you have to be able to blow off some steam, you have to be able to get away from basketball. So the golf course provides that escape for us while we still get to compete.”

Golf can provide a creative challenge, too. Just as Curry visualizes shots from all over the court during NBA games, he attempts to do the same on the golf course, West says, challenging himself to test the limits of what’s possible. He’ll view a challenging shot — over trees, around a bunker — as something to achieve. He’ll play where and when he can. “I’m not picky,” Curry says.

Curry has devoured golf books by Hank Haney, Raymond Floyd and Butch Harmon, all famed golfers and instructors. And all, he says, contain some element of visualization. “It’s the same way in basketball. No matter which way you’re moving — off the bounce, off the dribble, left, right, inside the arc, deep 3 — you have to see the shot before you take it. It’s kind of a feel that you always have to display out there, so on the golf course, that’s how I approach the game as well.”

IT’S A SATURDAY afternoon in San Francisco, and sunlight sparkles off the stock-still Pacific Ocean as short-sleeved runners speed by on the Embarcadaro’s edge, passing patios stocked with patrons sipping adult beverages. As the temperature kicks into the mid-60s — exactly the kind of day golfers pray for — Curry, in a tracksuit, settles into a folding chair inside Chase Center, and considers how that sport helps his day job.

He tilts his head, searching through his memories, and a smile quickly spreads across his face. He’s found a fond one. It was February 2016, he says, the All-Star break fast approaching, and Curry, ever in search of a challenge, decided to try something new. His Warriors were playing the Houston Rockets at home, then heading that night to Phoenix to play the Suns the next day to close out a back-to-back set. Curry and Iguodala hatched a plan: After arriving in Phoenix that night, they’d rise early the next day to play golf — on the morning of the game.

“That was the one time I thought I could experiment and see how my body would feel coming off playing that morning,” Curry recalls.

“And I shot the lights out.”

The Warriors would post a 112-104 win, with Curry scoring 26 points in 30 minutes, hitting five 3-pointers and adding nine rebounds, nine assists, a block and a steal.

In the first quarter, Curry drilled a 3-pointer — three of his 12 points in the first — and Kerr and Fraser turned to each other on the bench. They shared a knowing smile.

Said Kerr to his longtime assistant coach: “There’s that golf game kicking in.”

This story originally appeared on ESPN

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