Stephen “Steph” Curry is the 27-year-old star point guard for the Golden State Warriors, who are currently facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Curry is the NBA’s reigning MVP and the all-time record-holder for three-pointers made in a single season. He is amazingly good at basketball: an expert ball-handler, an unrivaled sharpshooter, and an overall creative genius.
Express, Inc., is an American clothing retailer that earned $2.165 billion in revenue last year. According to a company website FAQ written by someone who doesn’t know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States, Express operates “more than 600 stores across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico,” most of which exist within indoor shopping malls.
The brand skews younger than Gap, less waspy than J. Crew, more grown-up than Abercrombie & Fitch, less cutting-edge than H&M, less blandly professional than Banana Republic, more expensive than Forever 21, and more mainstream than Urban Outfitters. Its clothing, which tends to feature a slim cut and a slightly gaudy sheen, is purchased by suburban teenagers who want to look like sophisticated urban adults, aspiring “metrosexuals,” entry-level white-collar workers, and “classy” young men who wear suits when they go clubbing.
In late 2014, Steph Curry became the official “Brand Ambassador” for Express, Inc.—an endorsement deal that struck me as strange, and not only because Steph Curry is so much cooler than Express is. Now that Steph is on the verge of an NBA Championship, Express has been making the most of this bizarre connection, pasting the basketball star all over its website and promotional emails.
Although European soccer players Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham (for example) have famously modeled for Armani, it’s exceedingly rare for an American athlete to shill for an apparel company that does not specialize in sportswear. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant both have contracts with Nike, hawking sneakers and workout gear; neither one has ever tried to sell you a cardigan or slacks.
Although Express does put forth a small, unheralded fitness line called EXPCORE, the photo spreads in which Curry appears advertise suits and blazers. When he’s practicing his jumper, he presumably wears Under Armour, which produces his signature shoe.
Why is it so strange that a basketball star should ink a deal with a major fashion company? Why has this never happened before? And why did Express choose Steph Curry?
The simple answer to that third question is that Steph Curry is perhaps the only major basketball star who can fit into Express’s clothing. He is as skinny as a hipster and not that much taller than an average male human. He makes sense as a model for a mainstream fashion company because he conceivably could wear clothes that we—the general public—might be interested in purchasing. If I borrowed one of Steph’s shirts, it would probably look OK on me.
The more complicated answer, however, is that, for a variety of interrelated reasons, the public has granted Curry a more fully human status than it usually accords basketball superstars. Curry is not an “athletic freak” in the traditional sense: he is not big or strong—he is quick but not to the same preternatural degree that, say, Allen Iverson was.
In high school, he failed to draw any scholarship offers from major universities, eventually settling for Davidson College in North Carolina. He wasn’t the biggest name in the NBA draft. Before winning the MVP Award, he didn’t have all that many important sponsors: Nike declined to re-sign him in 2013, and in State Farm commercials he played second-fiddle to Chris Paul. As a consequence, he never suffered from overexposure.
Although Curry has played in the NBA since 2009, he wasn’t well-known outside basketball circles until last year—at which point, people began to fall in love with him. Now, Buzzfeed writes gushing articles about him. He is a devoted family man, married to a girl whom he first met as a teenager at a church youth group, and has an adorable two-year-old daughter who sometimes accompanies him to the microphone during press conferences. His wife has a domestic blog and records popular Vines in which Steph appears. They’re expecting their second child. Steph is modest, down-to-earth, a little bit goofy, and unthreateningly hip.
In short, he is a person: a likable, “relatable,” ordinary dude—a chill bro who happens to be really good at shooting three-pointers, not a brash, mesomorphic monster with a fantastical playboy lifestyle, as we perceive most basketball players to be. These other basketball players, logically, can market athletic apparel, sports drinks and other foodstuffs that fuel their athletic endeavors, and luxury accessories such as overpriced watches and sunglasses. They bear no relation to the mall-bound fashion retailers with whose generic garments young people seek to gain footholds in the corporate and social realms.
Even Michael Jordan, who shilled for everything, never went further than Hanes among non-Nike clothing brands—and even then, the idea (presumably) was that he used Hanes’s functional, comfortable underwear to play basketball in. The only endorsement deal comparable to Curry’s that comes to mind for me is Brett Favre’s tenure with Wrangler: by that late stage in his endless football career, Favre was so old as to be “authentic” enough to wear cowboy-style jeans regardless of his celebrity-millionaire status.
Dehumanizing athletes has become easier than ever in the PED era: today’s sports stars are not merely “dumb jocks” and “spoiled millionaires”—steroid use allows us to view these people (mostly incorrectly) as products of science, not of nature. Since one look at Steph Curry’s physique can tell you that he’s never touched an illegal muscle-building drug, he’s been subjected to the opposite process: compensatorily excessive humanization. He’s “just like us”—except that none of us is the greatest jump-shooter of all time.