SHENZHEN, China — As Stephen Curry prepared for the first of two exhibition games in China against the Minnesota Timberwolves this week, the two-time MVP felt a bigger burden than usual heading into a preseason affair.
“Basketball is popular all over the world,” Curry explained. “And when you come here to China, to these cities and these markets that don’t get the up-close-and-personal experience, it kind of takes it up another notch because this is their one chance to kind of see us live and for us to get as immersed in the culture as we can. I think since the last time we came here in 2013, the popularity of the Warriors has grown tenfold, so it’s going to be a different vibe this time around and I’m looking forward to it.”
When Curry stepped onto the floor for the first time before tipoff on Thursday at the Shenzhen Universiade Center, his intuition about this environment on the other side of the world proved to be correct. Chinese fans went crazy for anything Curry did. Fans dressed in No. 30 Warriors jerseys clamored all over the floor to catch a glimpse of their hero in action. Even security officials held cameras to try to capture a memory from his pregame shooting routine. Curry has done in China what he has already accomplished in America: He’s made usually mundane pregame activities a must-see event for fans of all ages.
“It was crazy,” Curry said of the atmosphere after the Warriors’ 111-97 loss to the Timberwolves. “A pretty packed house an hour and a half, two hours before the game. They wanted to get the full experience, and you kind of feel that when you step on the floor for warm-ups. I was back in the locker room when KD [Kevin Durant] was shooting, and he dunked it in [his] workout and it was like a game winner. You could hear it all the way back in the locker room. So it’s pretty cool.”
The intensity that Curry and the rest of the players felt before the game carried over into the game itself. Players on both teams felt the same kind of responsibility that Curry articulated earlier in the week. They know they’re in the middle of a training camp for a long NBA season, but they also understand that they are ambassadors for a game that is hitting a new wave of popularity in a country made up of 1.3 billion people.
“It felt more like a regular-season game than a preseason game,” Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns said. “The intensity was there, the physicality was there, the attention to detail was there — so it was a lot of fun.”
Fun has been the optimal word throughout the first leg of the journey for both teams, and Curry has tried to embrace the fun as he navigates the kind of worldwide celebrity few athletes attain. As Curry and Durant sat at the postgame podium, a Chinese reporter got the proceedings rolling with a question that caught Durant’s attention as he playfully turned his head toward Curry to hear his answer.
“You got five personal fouls in 24 minutes,” she began, addressing Curry. “This is just not like you.”
Curry smiled while processing what he wanted to say.
“Hopefully I can get rid of all those fouls in the preseason,” he said. “That’s what the preseason’s for. You’re just trying to get back into the game speed and stop hacking.”
Then Curry looked toward the nearby translator, asking a question of his own.
“What’s the Chinese word for hacking?” he said.
“I’ll translate,” the translator said, drawing laughs from Curry and the assembled media horde.
The allure of Curry’s game, at home and abroad, is that his play on the floor speaks a universal language. There is a unique joy for fans who watch the 29-year-old prepare for a game and then follow up that work by producing in the game itself. It’s why the Chinese fans rejoiced when he knocked down his first 3-pointer and why they started chanting, “Curry, Curry,” in the fourth quarter, begging Warriors coach Steve Kerr to put his star back in the game for one more run.
As much as Chinese fans are trying to soak up the experience of seeing Curry perform live, Curry himself seems to be trying to do the same. He knows he doesn’t get to play on this kind of stage every day.
“It was a really cool experience to play in front of a great crowd,” Curry said. “Anytime you get to come to China and get a different experience, it’s kind of fun just to see how the game flows. Hopefully put on a nice show, and looking forward to the next stop [in Shanghai].”