The right Steph

Stephen Curry wasn't a superstar out of the box; his greatness was honed through years of work in his native Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE — Everywhere the 10-year-old goes in this town, she hears stories about Steph Curry. You see, Curry is embedded into her day-to-day life in Charlotte. He is everywhere. Example: Katie plays basketball with enthusiasm, though she is usually the smallest one out there. The director of the community center where she plays sees this and takes her into his office. “Do you like Steph Curry?” he asks. “You know, he used to play here.”

Katie is so small right now that she has to fire her shots from the hip in order to generate enough force to get the ball above the rim. “You know,” her eye doctor tells her, “that’s how Steph Curry used to shoot the ball until he got stronger.”

She is passionate about getting better, and so she goes out to the driveway and counts how many shots she makes. Katie heard that some of the older girls are planning to make 10,000 shots over the summer, so now she wants to make 10,000 shots this summer. She keeps a chart. “That’s a good goal,” one of the older girls tell her. “That’s what Steph Curry did.”

She works on her follow-through. “Pretend that your hand is going into the basket,” the girls high school basketball coach tells her. “That’s how Steph Curry shoots.”

Katie worries about being so small that her shot will continuously get blocked. “Work on making your release quicker,” her own fourth-grade basketball coach tells her. “Steph Curry shoots the ball in a flash; that’s how he prevents the ball from getting blocked.”

More than anything, Katie plays basketball happily, with joy, with a beaming smile. “I just love how happy you are when you play,” her father says, and I should know because I’m her father. “It’s just like Steph Curry.”

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Steph Curry’s imprint is everywhere in Charlotte, absolutely everywhere, and it isn’t just because he grew up here and now he’s the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, the leader of the champion Golden State Warriors, the new star State Farm agent (as Sebastian Curry) and more or less the most thrilling and wonderful player in American sports these days.

No, there is something that goes beyond hometown pride, something about Steph Curry’s story that only Charlotte truly understands. Steph Curry was born in 1988 … and that happens to be the year that the Charlotte Hornets became the city’s first professional sports team. In the strangest ways, Charlotte and Steph Curry grew up together.

It’s not easy to explain what those original Hornets meant to Charlotte. I went to high school in Charlotte in the years before the Hornets and, for a teenager, the city seemed to have no core. It was — still is — one of the fastest growing cities in America. Orange cones blocked every turn; construction cranes dotted the landscape. Charlotte’s multiplying population meant the city was as big or bigger than other so-called Major League cities. But Charlotte was hopelessly minor-league. The city had pro wrestling — you would sometimes see Ric Flair or Ricky Steamboat around town. It had auto racing when that was still an exclusively Southern sport. The city had mild winters and a lot of people who had run away from the Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Buffalo snow and just about nothing to call its own.

Then came the Hornets. They were owned by a semi-crackpot named George Shinn, and they wore teal when that was the hot color, and in the early years they were pretty terrible. But none of that mattered. The Hornets were the big time. That meant Charlotte was in the big time. The Charlotte Coliseum (now demolished) held exactly 23,901 people, and every single night, 23,901 people would jam into The Hive to watch. They weren’t going just to watch basketball, certainly not in those first few years.They were going to celebrate the city. They were going revel in Charlotte’s new place in the American sports landscape. The players in those early years became larger than life because they represented something, well, larger than life.

And no player better represented this than a 6-foot-4 shooting machine named Dell Curry.

Outside the Charlotte city limits, Dell Curry was a journeyman bench scorer. He had been drafted by Utah in 1986 and played a few sparing minutes for a Jazz team finding itself; he was a teammate of John Stockton and Karl Malone before they became the inseparable tandem of “Stockton and Malone.” After one year, the Jazz dumped Curry on Cleveland for an ancient Darryl Dawkins and the unforgettable “Dinner Bell” Mel Turpin.

Curry played one mostly forgettable year for the Cavaliers, though — great fact here — that year Steph Curry was born in Summa Akron City Hospital in Akron. That’s the same hospital where LeBron James was born. When Steph was 2 weeks old, Sonya Curry took him to his first game, a Cleveland Cavaliers game.

At the end of the year, Dell Curry became the first Charlotte Hornet. The team grabbed him with its first pick in the NBA Expansion Draft.

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When you travel around the country, you find that there are sports heroes in cities that don’t quite make sense to you. Sure, you know they’re perfectly fine players, but you don’t quite get why they mean SO MUCH to those towns. Chris Sabo, for instance, was a good baseball player, but in Cincinnati he became iconic because he grew up in Cincinnati, and he wore glasses, and he played impossibly hard and he drove a Ford Escort with 200,000 miles on it. Frank White is an eight-time Gold Glove winner and a superb player, but in Kansas City his statue is at the stadium because he grew up in Kansas City, and he was on the construction crew that built Kauffman Stadium and he came from almost nothing and he played second base like a dream. Bingo Smith means something in Cleveland because he had this great look and he shot high jump shots that radio announcer Joe Tait would call the Bingo Rainbow.

Dell Curry became that guy in Charlotte — well, Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues both. But first Dell Curry. He had this crazy, lightning-quick shot that was gonebeforeyouknewit. Because of that unblockable shot, he would have nights when no one could stop him. It seemed like everyone in town remembered being there on one of those Dell Curry nights. I was there one night in 1991 when he scored 29 off the bench in a victory over a fantastic Cleveland team.

And so Charlotte loved him. He belonged to the city. In his 10 years in Charlotte, Curry became the quintessential Hornet. To this day, in team history he has played the most games, scored the most points, made the most field goals, taken the most shots (by almost 3,000), committed the most fouls. And he and his wife Sonya were always around town, too, doing charity stuff, appearing at fundraisers, holding basketball camps. Owning a Curry jersey in Charlotte in those days was practically a city ordinance.

And his oldest son, Steph, came of age in Charlotte right in the middle of the Dell Curry Era.

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For Steph Curry, the Charlotte Observer is practically a childhood scrapbook. When he was 11, there was a story about him playing at a camp — already, the story said, he was a good outside shooter. At age 12, he won a middle school art contest. In the seventh grade, he earned a good citizenship award. By the ninth grade, he was playing some good minutes for the Charlotte Christian School team, one of the better teams in the city.

“He was just this little, small-type kid,” his high school coach, Shonn Brown, would say. “You could see he could already shoot the ball and he understood the game.”

“Tiny,” says Brian Field, who at the time was an assistant coach for Providence Day, one of Charlotte Christian’s rivals. “I mean, he was good — he was one of the better players. But he was so small. He was winging it from the hip because there was no other way for him to get the ball to the rim.”

This is the enduring memory of the young Steph Curry: An almost impossibly small and slight kid firing shots from his side. “He could hoist it up there pretty good,” Brown says. “He had really good accuracy making shots. It was something to see, him making shots from all over the place when he’s just firing it up there with all his might. Well, what would you expect? His father was a shooter.”

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Thing is, nobody could take Curry seriously as an actual basketball prospect. Not at that size. Bob McKillop, the Davidson basketball coach, first saw Steph Curry at age 10 on a baseball diamond. Steph was baseball teammates of McKillop’s own son, Brandon. And while McKillop was impressed with Steph’s hand-eye coordination and even more impressed with Dell and Sonya — “the consummate American family,” he calls them — he had absolutely no idea that he was watching a young man who would become the best basketball player he ever coached.

“Steph, let’s be honest, was just a tiny 10-year-old boy with a boyish face that made him look even younger,” McKillop says. “All I really remember is his family and that he was a very polite young man.”

What none of them fully appreciated, at least in the beginning, was just how hungry Steph Curry was to become a great basketball player. Sure, some of it came from being around his father and the NBA throughout his childhood. Sonya still says that when she took Steph to that first game in Cleveland, he stayed awake to the end, and his eyes darted all around as if he wanted to know what this basketball team was about.

He practiced non-stop. Dell Curry had been careful not to push any of his children into basketball, but Steph was smitten. “That was the thing you noticed about him right away,” Shonn Brown says. “He just loved being in the gym.”  He loved shooting, but, just as much, he loved working on his ball-handling. Next time you’re watching a Golden State game, watch how often Curry — without no one around him — will dribble the ball between his legs. This isn’t to show off. He honestly loves dribbling the ball between his legs; in a strange way it still makes him happy.

And then came the shot change. Steph Curry had developed his side-slinging shot to the point where it was the best high school shot in the city. But in Steph’s junior year, Dell Curry pulled his son aside and told him that he had to move up the release point, that his shot would be too easy to block at the next level. At the time, Dell was an assistant coach at Charlotte Christian, and he told Brown that he was going to guide Steph through the shot transformation. Changing that shot was, in many ways, the toughest thing Steph Curry has done in basketball.

“I made some suggestions,” Brown says. “But then I thought, ‘Why am I getting into this?’ Let the shooter take over. He’s an NBA veteran and a great shooter, and that’s his son. They got after it, I can tell you that. They shot everywhere — at school, at home, at the downtown arena, everywhere.”

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“Dell performed surgery on that shot,” McKillop says. “I don’t know any other way to say it. Dell had Stephen lift the ball, lift his release point so that it was much higher. It was a painstaking process. They worked on it day after day, shot after shot after shot.”

In other words, there is nothing “natural” about Steph Curry’s shot, even if he looks like he was born shooting it. That shot was built meticulously, shot by shot, now off the pick, now stop-and-pop, now fadeaway, now off-the-dribble. When Mark Jackson was coaching Golden State, he made the point that Steph Curry is the greatest shooter in NBA history because, in his words, “We’ve never seen anybody with his ability to to be a great shooter across the board.” It was the variety that amazed Jackson, and when I mentioned this to Steph Curry, he smiled a little bit and said, “Yeah, I took a lot of shots.”

The father-son workouts were relentless, but only because Steph Curry wanted to make them so. He, more than anyone else, saw how good he could become. After he changed his shot, he began to show a different dimension to his game. Brown remembers when Charlotte Christian played Norcross High in the final of something called the Chick-Fil-A Classic, and that Norcross team was loaded with seven Division I prospects, including Jodie Meeks, one of the nation’s biggest prospects and a Kentucky recruit.

“Everyone thought we would get crushed,” Brown says. “But Stephen carried the load. It was amazing. He was so laser focused, I had never really seen that side of him. That’s the side everyone sees now, but he was still developing it. Jodie Meeks was a much more physical player, but Steph never got rattled, he made a lot of tough shots, he involved the team. And I’m beginning to see something.”

Most people missed it. Recruiters would yawn after watching Curry. Nice shot. Good kid. But he was too small, too slight, and more than anything they questioned his athleticism. “They would say, ‘He doesn’t jump extremely high — you know, Steph couldn’t really dunk consistently until he got to the NBA,” Brown says. “He could dunk, but he wasn’t the kid of athlete who could jump over a bigger guy and dunk. They would say, ‘He just can’t match up with Division I athletes.’

“But every now and again, I would see him do something and I would think, ‘Whoa! That’s a pro move.’ And as far as athleticism, Steph could really shoot the ball. Great athletes — how many of them can really shoot?”

Field would remember the whole Providence Day staff griping to officials because Curry would get all these foul calls while he was shooting. “They are are our rival,” he says. “And we would complain because he was out there flailing around with his arms, and we thought, ‘He’s getting those calls because of his dad and everything.’ But then we kept watching and we saw that the way he was using his body, the way he was getting bumped and still getting off his shot — you know what? He was just really, really good.”

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Coaches tend to see the world through a slightly different prism than the rest of us. In other words, Bob McKillop did not realize that Steph Curry had a chance to be special after seeing him make a bunch of shots in a game or after pulling off one of his preposterous moves. No, he realized it after seeing Curry commit eight or nine (or 10 — he doesn’t remember) turnovers in an AAU camp in Las Vegas.

At the time, McKillop was desperately worried that some big school was going to swoop in and take Steph Curry away from Davidson. Big schools have the ability to do that, of course. They can come in last minute, flex a little muscle, show a few banners in the rafters, promise some national television and, voila, the kid moves on. It’s the nightmare for coaches like McKillop. He already felt so lucky to get Curry. McKillop had shown up at the Curry house with his assistant Matt Matheny to make their final pitch, to answer any final questions.

“And all of a sudden,” McKillop says, “Steph stands up and announces that he wants to come to Davidson. … I was speechless for a second. Dell and Sonya were speechless for a second; I don’t think they had any idea he was going to say that. And then we embraced as if we had been teammates forever.

“And I remember this clearly. As we were departing, Sonya says to me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to fatten him up.’ And I told her, ‘Sonya, we’ll take him just the way he is.’”

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McKillop knew what everyone knew — Curry was a great shooter, he had a superb feel for basketball (something he got from his marathon practice sessions and just being around the NBA and his father so long) and he was physically unimposing but still growing. McKillop was unsettled because he knew that some big time coach, perhaps from in-state like North Carolina’s Roy Williams or Duke’s Mike Kryzyzewski — would see the potential.

Then, McKillop followed his recruit to an AAU event in Vegas. Coaches call this babysitting. He just wanted to be sure there was no one looking to take his guy away. McKillop remembers that the best players were playing on the main court in the main gym. Steph Curry was not considered one of those best players. He was out on another court, in an auxiliary gym, and McKillop watched as Steph turned the ball over time and again. He was awful. Ball off his leg. Bad pass. He looked almost helpless out there.

“And I’m watching him,” McKillop says. “And I see it. Through it all, he never once stopped playing defense. He never stopped listening to the coach. He never once pointed at a teammate. He never once even looked up at the referee to say he made a bad call. He just continued to play with the same intensity and enthusiasm, and you could see that for him the turnover, ‘It’s over, it’s in the past. I have to deal with what’s in front of me right now.’

“That’s when I first thought, ‘Wait a minute here. We might have something even better than we had hoped.’ Then he showed up at Davidson for workouts, and I was just blown away by his basketball IQ. I was blown away by his instant grasp of things that we do.

“I remember, not long after that, I went to an alumni event, a booster event. And I told them, ‘You are going to be very pleased. Stephen Curry is going to be one of the most special players in Davidson history.’”

* * *

Our story ends just as Steph Curry’s career took off. See, once Steph Curry reached Davidson, he stopped becoming a Charlotte icon and started becoming a national one. McKillop had seen so much improvement that he and the coaching staff decided to start Curry as a freshman. Davidson played Eastern Michigan in a preseason tournament, and Curry seemed overwhelmed. He committed a bunch of turnovers in the first half. The coaches at halftime wondered if maybe they were asking too much of him. Then, Bob McKillop thought about Las Vegas and said, ‘He will be fine.’ He was fine. Curry led the Wildcats back to victory.

The next day, he scored 32 against Michigan, and he was off — one of the most remarkable of college careers had begun. He scored nearly 22 points a game as a freshman and led a young Davidson team to the NCAA Tournament. He scored 30 in a losing effort to Maryland in the first round.

The next year, he led Davidson to the brink of the Final Four — scoring 40 against Gonzaga, 30 against Georgetown, 33 against a relentless Wisconsin defense and 25 against a Kansas team that went on to win the national championship. His scoring was so prolific during his three years at Davidson that he ranks seventh in points among college players of the past two decades; the next player on the list who played fewer than four years is Jay Williams, who is tied for 115th.

His game was so mesmerizing, so joyous, so wonderful that LeBron James showed up just to see him play. That was the time when America first fell in love with Steph Curry, a love affair that has grown ever since.

The thing about the Curry story is just that — it is a story, a fairy tale even, one with a famous father, an unlikely prince, and an undeniable destiny. Everybody loved him but nobody saw his greatness, not in those early days,  “I know people say he was under-recruited,” Field says. “But, really, considering where he was then, based on his size and and physical build, I think he was recruited just about right. It’s just that nobody could see inside him. Nobody could see that he was this once-in-a-lifetime person.”

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And yet, weirdly, the people who have known Steph Curry consistently refuse to use the word “surprised.”

“Obviously, I can’t tell you I saw this coming,” Shonn Brown says. “I mean if you had told me when he was in junior high that he would become the MVP of the NBA and would lead a team to a championship, absolutely, I would have had a hard time believing that. There are just so many things you don’t know. Will he stay healthy? Will he get stronger?”

“But I also can’t say that I’m surprised. All the things he shows now, he showed then. He was coachable. He listened. He loved to learn. He could make others better. And he could really shoot. He was already the Steph Curry who has become the icon of the NBA.”

Bob McKillop says the same thing, almost word for word.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘surprise,” he says. “He has exhilarated me  When I see him do these great things, I think, ‘He did those same things at Davidson. He’s just doing them more consistently now.’ When he made that winning shot against New Orleans in the playoffs, it was exactly like the shot he made against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. It was like a replay.

“I’m convinced that Steph is just scratching the surface. The sky’s the limit. There is nothing he does that surprises me because I believe he’s capable of anything.”

These days, Steph Curry is just about America’s ideal superstar. It isn’t just the basketball, though nobody is more thrilling to watch. He’s a man of faith. He’s a family man. He’s relentlessly trying to get better. And his Vine videos are the most awesome in all of sports. It’s dangerous and often disappointing in our skeptical time to put too much faith in anybody. But then Brian Field tells a story.

Field had become Providence Day’s head coach after years as an assistant, and his team beat Charlotte Christian for the first time in a long while. This was well after Curry had left Christian for Davidson. This was after he had become a national star.

A month or so after the game, Field was in a Chipotle. Steph Curry sees him through the window and walks in. Field, who had been an assistant coach in Curry’s days, wasn’t quite sure how Curry even knew him.

“He sits at the table,” Field says, “and he says, ‘I was at that game. Obviously I was pulling for Christian but what a great game. What a great high school atmosphere. Congratulations, that was really fantastic.’ And then he was on his way.”

Field pauses.

“Everybody in America knows him. He’s already a big star. And he stops to say that to an old assistant coach from a rival team? Who does that?”

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And here’s one more Steph Curry story to share with Katie. It doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but it’s fun anyway. One sunny day in the summer after he graduated high school, Steph was washing his car, and Dell came home and challenged his son to a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Steph Curry had never beaten his father at H-O-R-S-E or even P-I-G. But he was becoming a man. His shot was locked in. He looked up at his Dad, smiled, and dropped the towel into the bucket. Then father and son went at each other with the craziest shots, back and forth, long jumpers, nutty hook shots, behind-the-basket flings, until each man had H-O-R-S. The next winning shot would take the game.

“This is it,” Steph said happily. “I’m getting you.”

And that’s when Dell Curry stepped behind the car, 30 or 40 feet away, shouted “Swish,” and launched. The ball swished. And Steph Curry lost to his father one more time.

Is there a point to the story? Not really. Except maybe this: Before every Warriors game, Steph Curry takes a crazy long shot from the tunnel leading into the stadium. Sometimes he even makes it — there are examples on YouTube. I once asked him why he does that. And he said, “Well, it’s a pretty good H-O-R-S-E shot.”