The Unlikely Trainer Behind Steph Curry's Jump Shot
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Trainer Brandon Payne never made it as a big-time basketball player, but his NBA roster continues to grow.
By Mark W. Wright
Brandon Payne is haunted by his past, and Stephen Curry is paying for it.
While the six-time NBA All-Star and two-time league MVP makes splashing buckets look oh so easy, it’s Curry’s longtime trainer — and his unwavering attention to detail — who continues to have the biggest impact on Curry’s free-flowing game. And now he’s shaping the next generation of transcendent guards.
“Some days I don’t wanna come to the gym and give it 110 percent,” admits Curry, who has worked with Payne since 2011. But “can you push yourself — when you don’t wanna work and you don’t wanna grind — and know that it’s gonna pay off in the long run?”
It’s hard to imagine Curry having a tough time with any trainer. He does, after all, come from good stock: His father, Dell, was a 16-year sharpshooter in the NBA, and his mother, Sonya, was a star volleyball player at Virginia Tech. Still, Curry’s taskmaster trainer is driven to get even the greatest shooter in NBA history to maximize his potential.
And what exactly is driving Payne? His own unfulfilled athletic past.
We created a vision for where I wanted to be in terms of ballhandling, footwork, balance and, of course, accountability.
Steph Curry on Brandon Payne
“I could really shoot it,” recalls Payne, who was a slender 6-foot-2, 185-pound two guard playing for his dad at Sun Valley High School in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, and, later, playing at Wingate University. “I was limited athletically, and to be quite frank with you, I didn’t do the things I needed to do.”
Now a 40-year-old father of two sons — Carson, 11, and Collin, 8 — Payne uses his own story to push his clients, with Curry serving as Exhibit A. “What drives me now is to make sure that no kid that comes through this facility — or even my children — miss those opportunities because they don’t know how to work,” he says.
Payne didn’t have the physical gifts for the NBA. So he made the transition from wanting to be like Mike to wanting to be a hybrid of his dad and Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina coach. He became a volunteer assistant coach for Wingate’s Division II basketball program, but that track was short-lived.
“I was probably going to make it a tough working relationship just because of how demanding my personality is and how abrasive I can be at times,” Payne says of coaching. The answer? “I probably should do something on my own.”
Payne took his sports management degree — and his passion for training and player development — and launched Accelerate Basketball in 2009. Within four years, word had spread that Payne’s facility outside Charlotte, which works with athletes’ rehab and skills development, had a secret sauce for training top-notch athletes. Payne’s NBA player roster grew — it included Tyrus Thomas, Matt Carroll, Antawn Jamison and Anthony Morrow — and his fortunes turned when he met Curry in late 2011 during the NBA’s lockout-shortened season.
Gerald Henderson Jr., then with the Charlotte Bobcats, asked to bring Curry, a Charlotte-area native in his third NBA season, to a session with Payne. Curry had shown plenty of promise but had not topped 20 points per game.
“I had always admired [Curry] and always thought he was a guy that I really wanted for my philosophy because he fit it so well,” Payne says. Just hours after their first workout, he got a text from Curry: “Hey, can we go tomorrow morning and get some work in?”
Since then, Payne has served as Curry’s personal skills development and performance coach, traveling to California a couple of times a year and also working with Curry when he returns to North Carolina and travels internationally during offseasons. Of course, Curry has become one of the best players in the game.
Payne’s program goes far beyond ladder drills, trick shots, weight training and dribbling a basketball with one hand and catching a tennis ball with the other. “It really all boils down to making the correct decision quicker with the least number of steps, the least number of dribbles and with the best balance and mechanics you can possibly have,” says Payne, who sounds almost professorial when breaking down the game. “When you look at the NBA, it’s all about neutralizing physical advantage.” For Curry, undersize compared to many of his opponents, that means using “footwork, efficiency with the ball, making sure that our hip level is always where it needs to be in order to score.”
From Curry’s perspective, the journey with Payne has been well worth it. “My goal, after meeting Brandon — and coming off injury — was to get back to being sharp,” says the three-time NBA champion. “My journey with Brandon has been a lot of evolving, and I appreciate his perspective on things — everything from watching game film and cutting it up to advice and direction on reaching my full potential. It’s been all those things. And we created a vision for where I wanted to be in terms of ballhandling, footwork, balance and, of course, accountability.”
A growing number of players are turning to personal skills trainers outside of what their teams provide. They’re often friends, like Travis Walton and his star client, Draymond Green, who played together at Michigan State.
“From my experience, as long as the organization knows that what you’re doing with the players is going to be helpful for the player and the organization, they’re OK with it,” says Walton, who trains Green most of the summer and portions of the regular season.
Steve Hess can attest to that.
A longtime trainer who retired in 2017 after 21 years as a Denver Nuggets assistant and strength and conditioning coach, Hess has seen the industry grow since the likes of Michael Jordan had their own shooting and skills development coaches.
“I do kind of feel like guys today are looking outside of the box to get more of that individual attention,” says Hess. Since branching out on his own, Hess can see both sides of the issue: Teams are protective of their players, and players want to have some say in their own development. Now that Hess also trains athletes across professional sports, he believes both sides can win. “It’s a brilliant idea as long as the [trainer] shares the team’s objective, which is to work with the team to get their player better,” he says.
For Payne, his client list has soared along with Curry’s historic production. He now trains Luka Doncic of Dallas, Dennis Smith Jr. of New York and Trae Young of Atlanta — guards with superstar potential, just like the Curry of 2011.
“I’m a worker, a grinder, and I value the journey,” says Payne, who wants to stay on the skills development track, which will keep him close to his sons as well as local Charlotte talent. “So much of what I’m trying to set up for all of our players, young and old, is a system of accountability and learning how to recognize incremental improvement. Understanding that you can get better, even through negative workouts.”
For Payne, it’s a lesson learned better late than never.