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Peter Nicks Shows a Superstar at His Most Human in New Stephen Curry Documentary

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A college-aged Black man sits in the locker room with reporter microphones in his face
Before NBA superstardom, Stephen Curry was a doubted prospect at Davidson College. (Courtesy SFFILM)

There are countless ways to talk about Golden State Warriors megastar, Stephen Wardell Curry. Champion. “Improbable.” Future Hall of Famer. “Absurd.” Humble. “So inspirational.” Father. No singular descriptor can capture the Three-Point God in all of his matrix-bending dimensionality, but perhaps one word comes close: underrated.

But how can the best shooter in basketball’s history — who boasts one of the sport’s best resumes as a two-time league MVP, four-time NBA champion, eight-time All-NBAer and nine-time All-Star, who has definitively splashed the most three-point field goals of all-time — be undervalued, even underappreciated? It’s a question that Bay Area filmmaker, Peter Nicks, set out to investigate with his latest documentary, Stephen Curry: Underrated.

Premiering April 13, on the opening night at the 2023 SFFILM Festival, the visual biography takes viewers on an intimate ride-along from the early moments of Curry’s high school days to the present — hot off a triumphant 2022 NBA Finals run. The film presents a story of redemption and endurance, sacrifice and celebration, disappointment and euphoria. At its core, it’s the most human depiction you’ll likely ever get of the global phenomenon.

Basketball isn’t at the forefront of this film: a messy, perseverant human life is. There are scenes of Curry doing homework after NBA practice to earn his college degree. There are moments with his three children that teeter between frustration and playfulness. And there are flashbacks — lots of flashbacks — to his years as a scrawny, unknown, often-dismissed teenager who went unrecruited by the nation’s top basketball programs and settled for the only option he had: Davidson College, a small liberal arts school in suburban North Carolina with zero basketball notoriety. It was a program he would drastically transform.

Despite his herculean achievements, Curry has remained largely “underrated.” He’s never embodied the desired stature or cocky attitude of a dominant athlete. It’s fitting, then, that Nicks — a Bay Area storyteller who has been documenting Oakland’s institutions for the past decade — would be the perfect person to share Curry’s inspiring story with a national audience. Nicks sat down with KQED to talk about his own journey to becoming a filmmaker and the process of creating Underrated.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Four men stand smiling in front of Sunday step-and-repeat
Producer Ryan Coogler, director Peter Nicks, Stephen Curry, and producer Erick Peyton at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of ‘Stephen Curry: Underrated.’ (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Alan Chazaro: How did your sports fandom influence or inform your approach to this film? Did you grow up rooting for the Warriors?

Peter Nicks: I grew up a hardcore sports fan from Boston. The “We Believe” team was the first time I kinda got shaken out of my complacency and started to pay closer attention [to the Warriors]. The Bay Area in the 2000s was just an incredibly exciting place to be a sports fan.

I wasn’t making sports documentaries; I was making films about a community facing challenges — education, criminal justice, healthcare. I noticed that Bay sports arenas were filled with wildly diverse groups of people from all walks of life. I always fantasized making a film about the A’s that celebrated the Bay and the community and how people can come together — like church. Sporting events are a time when people come together for a common purpose. To capture that in film was something I wanted to do.

When did the actual recording and interviews happen? What were you most interested in capturing during those moments?

It was several months prior to last year’s season. I met with Steph and explained to him my philosophy of storytelling, which involves observation without filming: hanging out and understanding the ecosystem. If it’s an institution, I spend time with doctors, nurses, patients. In this case, it was with Steph and his family. In a way, he has become his own Bay Area institution, a superstar.

How can we make a film about a very well-known athlete that feels unique? Immediately, the first time I met Steph, he got his phone out and started sharing photos and videos from college. He just lit up and you could sense a nostalgia for that moment in his life. You got the sense that this piece of the story hadn’t really been told.

Steph and the Warriors ended up winning the NBA Finals in 2022, which aligned perfectly with the theme of Steph’s resilience at Davidson. How did that unlikely Warriors championship shape your filmmaking in the moment? Did the plot evolve while shooting? No pun intended.

It wasn’t a thought. I encouraged people in meetings to keep a gentle eye on the season. Documentaries are wildly unpredictable. For my film about the police department in Oakland [The Force], we had to re-edit the entire thing in the final hour because an OPD scandal broke out and it became an integral part of the film. With Homeroom [about Oakland High School], COVID hit and Black Lives Matter went international. You can’t predict those in a documentary, but if you position yourself to allow those unexpected things to happen and you’re prepared to make a shift in the narrative, that’s where the magical moments happen.

The championship was not integral to our narrative. This documentary is a coming-of-age story about an underrated, undersized player who couldn’t even get the opportunity to play at his parent’s alma mater, [Virginia Tech]. The fact that he went on a run in the NBA Finals and it dovetailed with his failed effort in the 2008 [NCAA] tournament was really poignant. It’s beyond serendipity.

What are the challenges of piecing all those years and scenes together to tell a coherent narrative?

If you watch the movie, the credit [goes to] JD Marlow, the editor who did a remarkable job, it’s the weaving of three storylines. Maybe four if you count Steph’s relationship with Coach [Bob] McKillop about someone fulfilling their full potential. There’s always a mentor who isn’t a parent in those situations. An uncle, cousin, coach. It makes a difference. In that arc of the Davidson Wildcats, it also tracked the Warriors’ improbable run to a championship and Stephen’s promise to his mom [to complete his college degree].

That’s a very difficult task — to weave them together in a coherent way, with pace and entertainment. JD Marlow was the architect behind that. The poignancy of the parallels comes into focus in terms of how [Steph and Coach McKillop] were both able to finally achieve what they couldn’t back in 2008.

I’m a Warriors diehard and Steph loyalist, yet even I learned so much and enjoyed lots of the recovered footage in this film. What’s the process of collecting intimate moments to share with an audience? Were you always in the room interviewing Steph?

I typically don’t do interviews in my movies. It’s observational filming, sometimes filming myself. Hanging out with Steph for an afternoon, he might be working out or with his kids, and it becomes a way to show a behind-the-scenes picture of what it’s like to navigate a crushing schedule while being a husband and father. You don’t know what those scenes are going to ultimately say until you’ve shot them and then watch them with editors.

We knew we’d shoot Steph with as much access as we could get. We knew we would interview his parents and the people in his life going back to Davidson to try to understand the impact he had and tell the story of that 2008 run. We interviewed scores of former students from that time to retell that story.

The last pieces are archival — personal, family, stuff that students had shot or collected. That was challenging. Matt Fisher was our archival editor; he scraped the internet and reached out to alumni groups, the university, Steph’s family. NCAA and NBA footage [are used] as well. You collect all that stuff and sort of have an idea of where you’re going and then you start putting it together in the editing room. And as the everyday narrative unfolds during the NBA season, you start to shift the narrative more.

Young Black man with short hair against blurry background
Young Stephen Curry in a still from Pete Nicks’ ‘Stephen Curry: Underrated.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

This film is largely about Steph Curry as a fallible, unlikely hero, rather than an invincible superstar. What were the challenges in telling the story in a way that allows audiences to see him — one of the most accomplished players in NBA history — as being underrated? Some would argue he is actually overrated.

The title emerged pretty early. Most of us have gone through some time in our life when we’ve felt underrated, misunderstood, maybe had a chip on our shoulder and felt we had something to prove. Even with a superstar on Steph Curry’s level that can exist. As we got deeper into the details of his early career in high school and him not getting any recognition from D-I schools, we recognized the depth of the lack of vision that people had for his potential.

In a subtle way, I’ve been exploring that theme in Oakland. What’s at stake when people do not fully see you? Ryan [Coogler, this film’s producer,] told a story with extreme stakes with Oscar Grant — a young Black kid in a hoodie — about the consequences of not being seen as a whole person. Steph’s story is a version of that notion of how we only see the surface — a skinny kid, undersized, might get pushed around. With scouts and journalists, there’s a knee-jerk judgment there that gets layered on top of someone’s potential future. When that happens, it’s very difficult to overcome.

We found out how whenever family and a community see you and lift you up, and a mentor steps in and believes in you, powerful things happen. We’ve been unpacking that notion of being underrated and how it applies to athletes, communities, universities. It became a driving idea for Underrated.

In his lowest moments, Steph Curry had his family and Coach McKillop. Who was your mentor, and in what ways have you felt underrated?

In college, I had a significant drug problem and was arrested and sent to federal prison. When I got out, I was getting my life back together and went to Howard to study creative writing. That wasn’t even six years removed from me being in federal prison.

I got it in my head to study documentaries. UC Berkeley was a great place for that. Jon Else was a filmmaker there, and had been nominated for Oscars. He was a producer for the seminal PBS series about Civil Rights, Eyes on the Prize. I didn’t think I’d get in because of my grades and my record. [John Else] talked to me, he listened, he heard my story about why I was there and what I was hoping to achieve, what I had planned for the next five years. He advocated for my admission and I got in. That changed my life.

Because I was seen, despite what had happened to me and despite me not meeting the eye test, so to speak, I was nevertheless seen. I thought about that while making this movie: the parallels. I’m 6-foot-2. Steph is 6-foot-2. I’m mixed race. Steph is mixed race. I was born in Akron, Ohio. Steph was born in Akron, Ohio. How do you explain that? It goes back to the notion that all of us are connected and that we all need a sense of family and community to represent us.

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‘Stephen Curry: Underrated’ plays April 13 at the San Francisco International Film Festival with screenings at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. Peter Nicks and producer Ryan Coogler are expected to attend both screenings. Details here.

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