Interview // Under Armour’s Kris Stone Discusses Stephen Curry’s MVP

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words & interview // Nick DePaula:

For Stephen Curry — who just yesterday was officially named MVP of the entire NBA — all of the accolades, endorsements, praise and superstar status that has come along with his relentless passion for the game of basketball clearly wasn’t to be expected.

“You have big dreams, but you don’t know exactly what the end will be,” Curry admitted in a reflective tone during his 35-minute long press conference.

The on-court successes he’s experienced to this point were certainly not a given. His story has been told before — unranked, unrattled — and he never let go of those big dreams, no matter how lofty and out of sight they may have seemed as a high schooler.

Check out his official final scouting profile for yourself. No rating. No rating. No rating.

“Neverending self belief. Steph has that,” sums up Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

That self belief, and of course, faith, in his own abilities has driven Stephen throughout his journey, and served as Under Armour’s major campaign tagline throughout his MVP season for his first ever signature shoe, the Curry One.

Charged by Belief. 

Just as Stephen’s self belief has fueled his career to this point, Under Armour bet equally large on believing in the undersized and then oft-injured point guard that hadn’t yet become a household name when he entered sneaker free agency in the fall of 2013.

With a pitch to position him as the face of the brand, so long as he held up his end on the court, the partnership between Curry and Under Armour has been the sports marketing magic that both parties dreamed of when the endorsement contract was officially announced on October 1, 2013.

Kris Stone, Under Armour’s Director of Pro Basketball Sports Marketing, is the exec charged with identifying and signing NBA athletes as endorsers, and as you can imagine, yesterday’s official MVP press conference was a landmark moment for the now 7-year old UA Basketball category. It’s a moment he believed in all along, when he signed Stephen two years ago, and when he briefed the footwear team on an MVP edition of the Curry One six months ago.

I caught up with “Stoney,” a Bay Area native, over the phone earlier this afternoon to hear all about the impact of Curry’s MVP award on the brand, how the brand’s celebratory “Stonecutter” spot came about, and his favorite interactions with Stephen the man as their relationship has grown.

Nick DePaula: What has the last week leading up to yesterday’s MVP announcement been like for you?

Kris Stone: It was a lot of stress. [laughs] I found out about it last Wednesday, and it was hard not to share that information with anyone. There was the stress of that not getting out, because you want to make sure that Dell and Sonya had their opportunity to tell their son the right way, versus it being leaked out to the media. You just cross your fingers that they can have their moment with their son, because it’s such a big moment.

NDP: I was watching the press conference yesterday, and he mentioned how he was at his house when everyone surprised him. Were you there at that same time?

KS: We were all at the game, and knowing that they were going to surprise him as a family once they got to the house afterwards, I decided to hang back and let the family have their time. Then I came over about 20 minutes later. He was just laughing, and saying, “I can’t believe you kept a secret.” [laughs]

NDP: To go back a bit, it’s been a little over a year and a half now that you guys signed him. I remember following that whole process of you guys pitching him to join the brand. Your level of excitement at the time – I don’t want to say was higher than other people in the building – but you had a vision for where he could be in his career that was maybe beyond what other people thought was realistic. When you guys were close to signing him, what would you say the expectations amongst the executives at Under Armour were for Stephen?

KS: We always saw him as a signature athlete for our brand. We viewed him as a signature athlete for the other guys that he was representing at the time too. There was a lot of homework that his agent Jeff Austin put into giving us as much information about Stephen as possible. His likability, his Q Score rating, and all of those things that add up to this guy being one of the most likable athletes on the planet. For us, we’re not building an NBA starting five, we’re trying to build excitement around our footwear business as a company. If you look around the league, I’d say he’s one of the top 2 or 3 most exciting players to watch play the game today. That in itself, you can really build a business around.

NDP: What was it about his season that you think earned him the MVP?

KS: I think his consistency throughout the entire season. From Day 1, to when they won their 67th game, which is a franchise record. It’s a top 6 team record of all-time in NBA history. His consistency, and his impact on the game when he was actually on the floor. He played only 32 minutes a night and didn’t play in 18 or 19 4th quarters, because when he was on the floor, he had such an incredible impact on the game that the outcome was already decided by the 4th quarter. Some of that goes unnoticed, and in order to be great at anything in life, you have to be consistent every single day.

NDP: You were there at the press conference yesterday, and it seemed real emotional. Did you have a favorite part of his message from his speech?

KS: Two things stuck out for me. When he was speaking about his father, and knowing truly how close they are, Dell understands how hard it is to achieve something like this in the NBA from an individual perspective. There aren’t many MVPs. There’s only one a season, and if you look at the list of names that have won that award, there are a lot of Hall of Famers that have never won MVPs. That’s a big deal. Then, Stephen had an incredible message as he ended the speech. There was a message about faith, belief and will, and being true to yourself, and that really stood out and characterizes who he is as a person. He told me that when he was holding onto the podium, he looked down and his knuckles were white cause he was gripping it so tight. [laughs] Very rarely do you see the guy nervous, but he definitely was nervous yesterday, and he did a great job.

NDP: Like you were saying, there’s no bigger individual award than the MVP. As you guys got into the zone of creating a celebratory spot, how’d you guys pull Bill Russell into it, and what was the overall message you were going for?

KS: When we looked at the idea of the Stonecutter passage, it really represents Stephen’s journey. Some of the verbiage in the poem that Bill Russell is reading talks about 100 blows at the stone, and after every single NBA practice, Stephen shoots 100 threes every single day. Every single practice. For the last six years of his NBA career. That’s going back to being consistent, staying true to the process and his routine. His work habits and his work ethic, and the way he prepares in the offseason for the regular season, it’s almost to the point of boredom. [laughs] He is like the stonecutter, and he is pounding that rock every single day until he reaches one of his goals and it splits. It felt very organic. With Bill Russell, we wanted to connect the Bay Area and the roots of Oakland. Bill is from the Bay Area and played at USF in college, and he’s one of the ultimate winners and classiest guys that the NBA has ever seen. The poem was written in the 1900s, and Bill has this legendary old school voice that really felt like it could take it over the top. Tai Foster stepped up to the plate on the brand side, and he was really driving everything internally to get this piece together with Bill Russell. Everyone stepped up and contributed to get things together.

NDP: Another thing that rolled out yesterday was the MVP edition of the Curry One. Can you walk me through that colorway in particular?

KS: The footwear team of course worked on the colorway, but I briefed it in 6 months ago and wanted to put it on everyone’s radar that, “Hey, this is a real possibility.” There’s a darkish fade with gold trim, and it symbolizes the MVP trophy and that plaque. It’s one of those legacy pieces that celebrates the incredible year from an individual perspective that he’s had. Now, if he also wins an NBA title, then we’ll have to figure that out too. [laughs]

NDP: That was one of the funniest things that he said at the Curry One launch in January. Everyone was asking him what his favorite colorway was between the Warriors, Underdog and Father2Son, and he was saying, “Well, hopefully there’s a championship colorway for the Curry Two.”

KS: Exactly, and obviously we’re all hoping that’s the case.

NDP: The model has been out now for several months. How impactful has the Curry One been from a general sense for the Basketball category?

KS: It’s been huge. I live in New York normally, but I’m originally from the Bay Area. I’ve been based here in the Bay for the last eight months during the season and going to a lot of their games, and I’ve been seeing our footwear on young kids, adults and the range of people has been unbelievable. The pull that Stephen is able to have for our brand is hard to measure. The social currency that comes with that for someone like Stephen that has so much respect among his peers and his fans is amazing. The product is just blowing out. We’ve had 75 to 80% sell throughs during the first week of most of the launches, and we haven’t seen that at Under Armour before, maybe outside of the cleated business. The partnerships that we’ve been able to create with Foot Locker, Finish Line, smaller boutique accounts and Dick’s Sporting Goods, that’s a reflection of Stephen. It goes beyond just basketball, and what he’s able to do for us is much like what Jordan Spieth, as a golfer, has been able to do for the brand. It’s given us a lot of global visibility, and I don’t know if anyone could’ve predicted all of this.

NDP: It was not even five months after you guys signed him that he’s starting in the All-Star Game in New Orleans, then he wins a gold medal in the FIBA games, is starting in another All-Star Game, is breaking his own 3-Point records and is now the MVP. There’s just been a sudden rush for him.

KS: And he hasn’t changed. [laughed] He is the same person that he was before all of these recent successes. He’s had many successes before he signed with us, but he’s the same person. I told him yesterday, “Man, I’ve got it easy Steph. Everything has just been great.” We’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with any ankle injuries, and we’re here and able to celebrate his MVP moment.

NDP: As a brand, you guys went through a pretty public negotiation with some of the league’s biggest names last summer. Now that Stephen has won the MVP, how do you think that can change the perception of your brand being aligned with the game’s top players as you look to sign other guys?

KS: It’s been strong to this point already, and we’ve already signed Emmanuel Mudiay, who is going into the 2015 Draft now and will be a top 5 pick. Brandon [Jennings] and Kemba [Walker] were playing at a high level before they got hurt. Greivis [Vasquez] played at a high level this year again, Corey Brewer is playing at a high level now for the Rockets, and we also had Patty Mills playing well for the Spurs in our first season with him. The engines are already moving with the grassroots programs that we have, and the process is getting easier and easier with young players that understand who we are as a brand. Steph just takes it all over the top, and he’s showing kids that you can play at the highest level in our footwear and be successful. There’s no higher individual award than the MVP.

NDP: In the year and a half that you guys have been working together now, you’ve been overseas for golf trips, you’ve been around him in Spain at the FIBA games and you’ve also spent a lot of time with him in the Bay. Do you have a favorite moment or time together from a personal standpoint?

KS: He is just truly about other people. I’ve been here living in the Bay Area this season for the last 8 months because my father is really sick, and Steph had never met my father. When my dad was first in the hospital last fall and having a hard time, Steph told me one day, “Hey Kris, I want to go spend some time with your dad tomorrow and see your father.” He went and hung out with my dad for two hours. That was just unbelievable for me and he was so overwhelmed, and it probably added another 6 months to his life, to be honest with you. That’s the type of person that Stephen is. He’s all about helping others, and it’s not BS. That’s who he is, and I think that’s one of the keys to why people love Stephen so much.

NDP: Family is definitely such a big part of his life. Have you had a chance to sit with Dell, now that his son is officially the MVP, and what has his reaction and pride been like since yesterday?

KS: Well, we all watched the Mayweather and Pacquiao fight together on Saturday, and Stephen wasn’t aware at the time, but Dell and Sonya both knew. After the fight, Dell and I were just talking, and he was just speechless. He truly understands the journey and how challenging and difficult it is just to be an NBA player, let alone reaching that MVP level. To do it in a way with so much class and dignity, Dell was just overwhelmed and so proud. The two of us sat back at Stephen’s house, smoked a cigar and celebrated that night. [laughs] Tonight will be one of those nights where you just enjoy yourself. We’ll see Commissioner Silver hand him the trophy, and then you know what, you put it away and you get back to business. They have to win 11 more games to reach their goal.

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