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Steph Curry turned underdog story into cash for Under Armour

It is July 2013, and Under Armour's product and marketing team are surrounded by mocked-up Steph Curry merchandise in a 2,900-square-foot suite at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Charlotte to make their play to sign him.

It's not a traditional pitch audience, which usually involves a player and an agent. Accompanying Curry on this day, as is often the case, is his agent, Jeff Austin, but also his family: his father, former NBA player Dell Curry, his mother, Sonya, and his wife, Ayesha.

As Under Armour makes its pitch, Kris Stone, a marketing executive for the brand whose past credentials include being a former high school teammate of Jason Kidd, a towel preparer for Jerry Tarkanian as a grad assistant as Fresno State and a SLAM Magazine ad executive, is nervous.

Under Armour has given Curry its Anatomix Spawn model to try while sitting there. As Curry is wiggling around in the shoe, Stone is focused on his reaction.

"No matter what we did that day, if it weren't for that shoe at that time, he wouldn't have signed with us," Stone said. "We had nothing else we could offer."

As Stone later learned, Curry had a narrow foot, and the shoe fit him like a glove.

That Under Armour even got to this point was an accomplishment.

Dead set on entering the shoe market in 2008, Under Armour signed Brandon Jennings, who scored the brand more publicity by turning pro and heading to play in Rome over college basketball to bide his time before he was draft-eligible.

In 2011, with the market still not enthralled by Under Armour's shoe efforts, it signed Kemba Walker, who had just won a national championship at UConn. But there were many misses, including Derrick Williams, who didn't pan out in the NBA, and Blake Griffin, who signed with Nike the following year.

"It was hard because no one had any experience in our shoes," Stone said. "We didn't have much invested in grassroots at the time, and Nike and Adidas used that against us. A lot of guys were frankly hesitant to believe in us."

In August 2013, when Nike -- which had signed Curry out of the draft in 2009 -- made its pitch to keep Curry to him and his family, an executive mispronounced Curry's first name and a slide inadvertently said Kevin Durant on it.

"I stopped paying attention after that," Dell Currytold ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.

Curry clearly wasn't Nike's priority. It didn't agree to sponsor a camp for up-and-coming players that he so much wanted, having grown up in the camp circuit when he was younger. Nike didn't even fit the shoes for him -- some of what he wore came right off the shelves. And it didn't match the less-than-$4-million-a-year offer that Under Armour had made.

Stone's phone was ringing.

"Hey, it's Steph," Curry said. "I'm with Under Armour."

Stone was so excited that he cursed, something Stephen looks down on.

"I'll let you off this one time," he joked.

Since then, Stone has been attached to Curry's hip as Under Armour's point person for the relationship, which was extended through the 2024 season this past September.

Stone travels to games, facilitates conversations between Curry and the company's product teams and tries to give him a run for his money at golf. The two have played more than 100 rounds together.

"We pride ourselves on servicing Steph and making sure our relationships aren't only transactional," Stone said.

Bolstered by Curry's back-to-back MVP seasons and trips to the NBA Finals, Under Armour's Curry business will approach $200 million on the 2015-16 season, according to a source with knowledge of the numbers.

"The demand is bigger than supply for kids' sizes of his shoes," Stone said. "We're making them in infant for the Curry Threes next year."

Watching Curry rise with the brand -- and witnessing things like the huge crowd of people who showed up in August 2014 when Curry did a signing at the company's brand house in New York, or a month later in Chicago when Stone counted more than 50 kids wearing Curry's signature shoes in Warriors colors -- has filled Stone with pride.

"I'm thinking how strange this is," Stone said of the scene in Chicago. "This is Michael Jordan's town. This is a Nike town. This is home of the red and black."

Part of what makes Curry the marketing icon he has become is that he's the everyman -- with his baby face and his relatively short frame. But another part is his humility, which Stone has seen firsthand.

"In every single way, he's easier to work with now than he was in the beginning," Stone said. "He is so comfortable and normal with us all, despite his stardom, that it's almost scary."

On that day in August 2014, with a line of hundreds of people wrapping around a New York City block, Curry took his time with a young boy in a wheelchair.

Last year, after a six-city tour in China, Curry brought some Under Armour employees to tears when he thanked people by name for making the trip successful.

Stone has witnessed Curry following up with kids who attended his camp, seeing how they are doing and giving them encouragement for the future.

"At the end of the day, he works on his game, he wants to use his platform to help others, he spends time with his wife and kids and he wants to play golf," Stone said.

Stone -- who played golf at Arizona State and Fresno State -- says that had Curry never picked up a basketball, he probably would have focused on golf and would have been one of the best on the PGA Tour.

"I know that when he's looking up in the crowd at times when he is on the bench, he's thinking about golf," Stone says, laughing.

As the business grows, Stone and the team around him are charged with making sure that Curry gets what he wants but also understands the business.

Curry is superstitious and frequently will put on a second pair of shoes during a game. It's Stone's job to tell him what colorway it should be if there's a new shoe that the brand has to promote. It's also his job to know that Curry's shoes, which at retail have the biblical phrase "I can do all things" in them, need to be blank. Curry writes the phrase himself on the shoes before every game.

Curry can do all things on the basketball court, and his wizardry and charm have made something out of nothing for Under Armour's footwear business.

Said Stone: "Steph helped us get to this point. Now is the time to push harder and deliver."

Related Video
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How Nike undervalued Steph Curry
Ethan Strauss explains how Nike undervalued Steph Curry and it cost the company when the superstar switched to Under Armour.

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