If the measure of a good documentary about a superstar athlete is in synthesizing what makes its subject tick, “Stephen Curry: Underrated” gets passing grades. And that’s no small compliment, considering the movie spends most of its time at school, a familiar place for director Peter Nicks, whose previous doc, “Homeroom,” served up a very different look at education. With enough fresh stories to keep basketball fanatics engaged and a coda that every soccer mom will appreciate, this is a film that’s worthy of its subject.
Produced in part by Curry’s Unanimous Media, “Underrated” leans on abundant clips of the hoop star’s career and interviews with family, coaches and college teammates, as well as fly-on-the-wall moments that come with the kind of access filmmakers get when the subject helps to drive the project. Nicks casts Curry as an undersized underdog-turned-college phenom who becomes a four-time NBA champion and the greatest long-range shooter the league has ever seen, and completes the circle with Curry working to get his college degree, a casualty of leaving school a year early to go pro.
In a pre-title sequence that establishes the temporal juxtaposition Nicks uses throughout the doc, a clip shows Curry breaking the three-point-shot record in Madison Square Garden in December 2021 while, in voiceover, we hear a scouting analysis of his shortcomings: He shoots too much; he’s not big enough to score inside; he’s skinny and likely not able to put on weight. The angular Reggie Miller, a former three-point record holder and Hall of Famer, stops reading and puts down the report with a look of irony and recognition on his face. That was what they said about him.
The filmmakers draw constant parallels among each stage of Curry’s development as a player. Most notable is his size. Home movies show a tiny Steph dribbling a huge basketball. In college, at mid-major Davidson (Division I schools considered Curry to be too small), the baggy shorts in style at the time make his uniform look like it’s swallowing him. As a pro, he’s shown working out with weights, and while he’ll never be massive, the transformation is startling.
Curry says he fell in love with the sport playing in a youth league at age 9, and decided he’d somehow make it his career. But Dell Curry, who played for the Charlotte Hornets when Steph was growing up, says his son’s style won’t work if he wants to move to the next level, and teaches him to rely on muscles that will help him get his shot off quicker. Steph continues to refine his hand-eye coordination as a pro: A scene with his personal trainer shows him speed-dribbling a basketball with one hand and, with the other, playing a rapid game of catch with tennis balls.
While others have helped him refine his s𝓀𝒾𝓁𝓁s, the doc makes it clear that Davidson coach Bob McKillop (introduced in a contemporary interview as being in this 33rd year leading the team) provided the inspiration. McKillop ignores Curry’s 13-turnover college debut (“I was overwhelmed by everything,” Curry admits) and starts him the next game, a 32-point breakout against Michigan that was the beginning of his legend.
The second half of the doc is basically a fun trip down memory lane for fans of Curry, the Golden State Warriors and, particularly, Davidson, highlighting the college team’s improbable Elite Eight charge through the NCAA Tournament, beating favored teams including Gonzaga (after trailing by 11) Georgetown (behind by 17 in the second half) and Wisconsin (with a beaming LeBron James, who had requested tickets, looking on). Nicks shuffles in a present-day scene of Curry writing his thesis with his three 𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘥ren traipsing through the house (“You’re in school, too!” one says), and counterpoints the whole thing with the Warriors’ playoff run to the championship, intercutting clips of the Finals against the Celtics (ending with a series MVP trophy) with flashes from the Davidson years that formed him.
Yet the doc’s real highlights are the stories behind the clips. A confiscated cellphone almost ends Curry’s college career before it begins; a white handkerchief teaches him toughness; and despite that 17-point deficit against Georgetown, coach McKillop is … smiling?
There are also moments that don’t seem to fit. A sequence with Curry as a pitchman for Subway and then meeting Spike Lee feels like it belongs in a different movie. But an earlier vérité shot, where Curry drops a seemingly offhanded comment after chatting with former teammate Kevin Durant, should titillate the SportsCenter crowd.
Eventually, things wrap up at Davidson. Not only has Curry’s mother, Sonya, pleaded with him to finish school, he’s the only Davidson player McKillop has coached who hasn’t graduated. With a crowd of onlookers that includes family, friends and those who have helped him, Curry, in cap and gown, gets his sheepskin and then watches as his college uniform number 30 is hoisted to the rafters. If this all sounds a little too perfect, well, it might have been even more so — the filmmakers refrain from noting that McKillop announced his retirement the day after his star student won his fourth NBA championship.