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Steph Curry’s NFT Project Showed Promise of Web3. Then It Disappeared

Last July, Brent Natsume realized he better work on his jumper. In a few days, he’d be meeting Steph Curry. And he’d be shooting hoops with him. 

Natsume was one of roughly three dozen owners of Curry’s 2974 Collection of NFTs who were invited for an all-expenses-paid trip to San Francisco that would include an opportunity for community service, dinner and shootaround with the NBA’s 3-point king.

“I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I got my ass to the court a little bit,” Natsume said.

The day was everything Natsume had been hoping for. With the benefit of hindsight, you could even say it was too good to be true. Natsume still thinks a lot about his time with Curry—witnessing his jumper up close, realizing how down to earth he was, talking about fatherhood. “Never will I ever forget that,” Natsume said. But he also remembers another VIP who was there that night: former FTX senior executive Claire Watanabe.

Initially, Curry’s NFT project offered proof of what blockchain technology could give sports fans, rewarding believers with a sense of community and once-in-a-lifetime moments. Curry’s so-called “2022 Birthday Celebration” exemplified that. But talk of potential future meet-and-greets among collectors took a sudden turn in November, when FTX, Curry’s sponsor and the project’s technical supplier, stunningly went bankrupt.

“I always wondered how this project had the money to fund it,” Natsume said. “Like, Damn, they actually spent a ton of money on this. I don’t know how sustainable that is.”

The implosion also forced a reckoning for the entire movement. What was crypto, exactly? A new technology that could bring the Internet together? Or was it a poorly understood investment hype bubble? And when the promotional dollars ran out, what was left?

Days after Curry broke the NBA’s all-time record for career 3-pointers made in December 2021, he released a collection of 2,974 NFTs, with each one representing a different make. Two hundred of the digital collectibles were reserved for Curry’s former teachers, coaches, friends, rivals and mentors. The rest went on sale in a surprise drop.

Joe Chui instantly bought two of them. He told multiple friends to get in, too. Another exclusive NFT collection, Bored Ape Yacht Club, was climbing in price, with the cheapest versions selling for $250,000 at the time.

Curry’s NFTs were only $500 each to start. They sold out in minutes. Curry’s Eat.Learn.Play Foundation received a bulk of the proceeds, earning $2.1 million on launch day. Within two days, the secondary market price doubled. On the fourth day, Christmas Eve, the NFT representing Curry’s record-breaking three sold for $1 million at auction.

“Not many celebrities came out with their own projects,” Chui said. “So we all thought this was going to be big—and it was big.”

Some bought in merely to flip the NFTs for a profit, but plenty of others held on, believing in the long-term vision. “The 2974 Collection will surprise NFT holders at future times with gifts that may include autographed memorabilia, tickets to games, additional NFT drops and early access to Curry Brand limited-edition items,” the project’s website explained at the time.

Holders quickly received a bonus NFT featuring one of Curry’s notable buckets. There were plenty of physical benefits, too.

“People got autographed shoes from Steph, or autographed trading cards,” one collector, who asked to be referred to by their online username, outlawtorn, said. “It really created this amazing community of people who were fans of Steph or fans of the Warriors.”

Collectors regularly gathered in an online chat room during Warriors games—and on off days—to chat about Curry and the project. Before and after Game 4 of the NBA Finals, when Curry scored 43 points to even the series, he wore a mysterious hoodie emblazoned with a hand making the three-point symbol and Hebrew letters that appeared to spell “love never fails.”

It turned out the hoodie would be exclusively available to 2974 Collection holders. Those with multiple NFTs would even get a discount. The gear came with a note from the Finals MVP.

“To know that there are projects out there that can really provide real-life utility with real-life experiences allowing people from across the world to gather,” Natsume said, “I mean that was everything that web3 and these NFT projects are trying to achieve.”

Committed community members also heard rumors that Steph’s Bay Area event would be the first of several, and maybe even a yearly tradition.

FTX’s involvement was clear from the start. Curry had announced a larger partnership with the company in September of 2021, taking an equity stake after Tom Brady signed his own FTX deal. Sam Bankman-Fried’s startup was already valued at more than $18 billion by that point.

Curry’s collection was sold using FTX’s marketplace, requiring users to set up a wallet for that exchange to purchase the collectibles. FTX also hosted the group on its own Discord server. And notably, to be eligible for the project’s various rewards, owners had to keep their NFT on FTX’s platform rather than moving it elsewhere. 

“We also knew they were probably trying to use this to prop up their marketplace,” outlawtorn said. “They were trying to draw attention and get people to come in and use it, because you could tell from using it that nobody was doing transactions on the FTX NFT marketplace.”

2974 backers largely understood the bargain they were making. The project could have benefited from the exposure of being on a more popular marketplace, like OpenSea. But FTX was also putting a lot of resources in, such as sponsoring the summer trip, which outlawtorn was also invited to and called “the most unbelievable experience of my life.” 

The experience started with a bag full of exclusive merchandise and a $250 Visa gift card. Curry appeared while the guests volunteered at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “Everyone’s just, like, kind of in shock,” Natsume said. “I was the first person to dap him.”

The next stop was the Warriors’ former practice facility in Oakland, where Curry ran a few drills before setting up a knockout competition. Natsume’s prep paid off, as he lasted long enough to face the Warriors guard. 

“We’re all trying to figure out the order, and no one wants to be in front of Steph, obviously,” Natsume recalled. “So I volunteered to be in front of Steph, because I figured, if I’m gonna get knocked out, I want to be knocked out by the GOAT.” 

Sure enough, Curry, in a black shirt and blue joggers, added that knockout competition to his list of victories with a calm 28-footer. “But, I mean, experience of my lifetime,” Natsume said. His second favorite moment of the day came that evening, when Curry ate dinner with the group at Ayesha Curry’s restaurant, International Smoke. “It was surreal,” he said. “We were just having a normal dinner with him.”

The amount of money being devoted to the project was on display that day, outlawtorn says, before interrupting himself. “Unfortunately now we learned it was customers’ money, right?—so that sours the experience a bit.”

Wait wait wait… FTX FAILED ?! somebody please catch me up, one chatter wrote in the Curry project Discord channel on the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2022, a day after the company, once valued at $32 billion, filed for bankruptcy. Soo I just lost $500?, another chimed in. 

“A few people started panicking and pulling NFTs,” outlawtorn said. “The mods in there at some point gave an indication that something was up, and it would be smart to get your stuff off. And then like two hours later, it was all shut down.”

Some collectors managed to move their Curry NFTs to other servers before FTX’s exchange completely disappeared, but many weren’t so lucky.

“I was one of these guys that thought that FTX is too big to fall,” Milosz, a 2974 collector who asked to be identified only by his first name, said. “FTX was supposed to be rock solid.”

Unlike other NFT marketplaces, FTX had built what’s called a “custodial” platform, meaning it held users’ NFTs in its possession until someone transferred them to an external wallet. The tokens, then, were among the many turned over in bankruptcy proceedings. Other affected projects included the Coachella concert festival.

On Discord, users talked about reviving the project on another platform by letting past holders verify their ownership to receive an identical NFT minted elsewhere. But then that raised the question: If the endeavor wasn’t being actively supported by Curry and his circle, what were these things worth? 

“Let’s take it easy here friends,” outlawtorn wrote on Discord amid the chaos. “We will stay strong and find a way forward, but it may take some time.”

The Curry crew were far from the only ones asking questions. More than 1 million people may have lost their money as a result of the exchange’s collapse. Investors like Tom Brady may have lost more than $40 million of value. 

Law enforcement officials had their own queries. Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and securities fraud. The Wall Street Journal reported that SBF’s Alameda Research firm used $10 billion of FTX customers’ money to make risky crypto bets. Replacement CEO John J. Ray described a “complete failure of corporate control.” Watanabe’s name popped up again, too; she was reportedly pushing for a $100 million partnership with Taylor Swift.

Questions eventually caught up with FTX’s spokespeople—stars like Brady and Curry. They were among those named in a lawsuit claiming that the platform “was designed to take advantage of unsophisticated investors.” Texas committed to its own investigation of the firm’s endorsements.

Beyond the NFT partnership, Curry had starred in a nationwide ad for the company, proclaiming, “With FTX, I have everything I need to buy, sell and trade crypto safely.” 

Months later, the 2974 Discord still exists, though chatter is quieter these days. People have discussed the tax implications of their vanished NFTs. Some periodically check in to see if there have been any updates. Others continue to use the space to talk about Curry and the Warriors; few seem to hold a grudge against them. 

The project may be in a “deep sleep,” as outlawtorn put it, but the international community that had gathered there for nearly a year was still around. Grassroots leaders even revived trivia games for 2974 owners. Without Steph Curry’s hand to sign any gear, a store-bought SC30 hat was put as a reward instead. That night’s winner decided to turn around and offer the hat to the next champion, and so on. 

“That’s a sign of—you know a lot of people came together on this,” outlawtorn said. “It’s just incredibly sad how that was ripped away from us through no fault of anyone… related to the project.”

Curry himself has not spoken about the project since FTX went bankrupt. Legal proceedings only complicate any type of mea culpa or compensation he could offer the fans who spent hundreds of dollars to get closer to him through the collection. Curry’s representatives did not respond to recent requests for comment. FTX executives could not be reached for comment.

FTX’s implosion has put a wider damper on crypto’s influence within sports. New projects are still being released, but many are shying away from the term NFT altogether, and the pace of experimentation has slowed considerably. Only one NFT concern, DigiDaigaku, had the temerity to advertise during this year’s Super Bowl.

Discord mainstays did get a glimmer of hope in January, when Ray expressed openness to the idea of bringing FTX’s exchange back online. “If there is a path forward on that,” he said, “then we will not only explore that, we’ll do it.”

Bankman-Fried, meanwhile, continues to contend that the U.S. branch of operations “is solvent” and could potentially return assets to its customers. FTX’s FTT token is up 80% in 2023, though it’s still down 90% from November.

“Hope springs eternal,” outlawtorn said. “And for the people that are interested in continuing to be a part of the community, we’re trying to keep it open as a place that’s there in the hopes that something happens again in the future.”

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