Nobody will ever cite the 1992 NBA Dunk Contest as a classic, but I’ve always rather liked it. Could Cedric Ceballos see through his blindfold on his infamous winning dunk? Almost certainly, but it was wonderful theater regardless, and the talk of my Hebrew School class the following morning.
A couple decades later, while looking at a picture of him affixing his blindfold, I noticed something. The true significance of that event wasn’t Ceballos’ brazen display of showmanship, but the 4-year-old sitting to his right who would develop into arguably the greatest shooter in NBA history.
Steph was obviously born and bred for potential basketball greatness. And yet, Dell and wife Sonya–the headmaster of an elementary school the Currys founded–were far from stage parents, teaching Steph and his two siblings the importance of academics while letting them find their own way athletically. Recall Steph’s first middle school game–for which he was benched at Sonya’s behest, since he had failed to wash the dishes.
“We knew there were values other than my dad’s fame or what sports could bring,” Steph told the San Francisco Chronicle a couple years ago, “because it wasn’t a guarantee that me and my brother would take up the family business.”
That said, he might have suspected something most would have dismissed just by looking at his frame. Witness a 14-year-old Steph’s apt assessment of his basketball future on a show called Off the Hardwood: “I wanted to practice some more on it, and try to make it to the pros if I have a chance.”
It turns out he had a very good chance. And as Steph watched Dell in the 3-point contest a few hours before Ceballos’ theatrics, one has to wonder if he was actually picturing himself shooting the money ball.
1 of 5
It’s rare to see Stephen Curry have a clunker nowadays, but during one pivotal AAU travel tournament during his high school days, absolutely nothing went right. In front of a host of Division I coaches that included the likes of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Curry struggled mightily. Back in his hotel room, he asked his mother if his dream was over.
“She told me to keep my head up and keep working, that I might not see it now but that someone is watching how I handle the situation,” Steph told the San Francisco Chronicle. “She said to be patient and keep my eyes open and it will be clear as day where I’m supposed to be.”
As usual, Sonya Curry was right: Davidson coach Bob McKillop was also in the crowd at that fateful AAU Tournament.
“He didn’t hang his head. He still made shots, still defended,” McKillop told Rivals.com in 2007. “That got my attention. He didn’t hold a pity party because of the mistakes.”
McKillop, of course, had known about Curry since he was a 10-year-old center fielder on his son’s baseball team. Having coveted him since he was a freshman, he watched him become a lethal shooter when Dell overhauled his mechanics following his sophomore year.
Even with his pedigree and blossoming shooting acumen, Steph still couldn’t get anyone in ACC country to take a chance on him–even Virginia Tech, Dell’s alma mater, only offered to redshirt him. It was primarily a matter of size: It looked like a stiff wind would blow him over, and he looked physically overmatched at times.
But as Sonya recalled to the Chronicle, when the family offered to bulk Steph up, McKillop had the perfect answer: “I’ll take him just the way he is.” It may not have been his first choice–or his 15th–but it quickly became obvious that Steph had found exactly where he needed to be.
2 of 5
Presence of Royalty
Steph Curry is all the rage at the moment, but it isn’t the first time: The baby-faced assassin was a sensation at Davidson. Of course, his reign had a rather inauspicious beginning: He had 15 points in his first collegiate game against Eastern Michigan, but he turned the ball over 13 times.
“We wondered about sitting him down as a coaching staff. But we kept him in there,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop told theCharlotte Observer last year. “He lives in the present, he’s great at being in the moment.
“We ended up winning that game. The next night he had 32 points against Michigan, and it was full speed ahead from then on.”
Playing for a team that had not won an NCAA Tournament game in nearly 40 years, Curry quickly became the focal point of every defense–and it didn’t matter. He averaged 21.5 points as a freshman, second among first-year players to a guy named Kevin Durant, though Davidson lost in the first round of the NCAAs to Maryland.
Curry’s sophomore season, however, was the stuff dreams are made of. He averaged more than 25 points, broke the NCAA record for three-pointers, and willed the 10-seed Wildcats to the doorstep of the Final Four. With Curry scoring at will, Davidson upset Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin, before losing by two points to eventual National Champion Kansas.
Along the way, he attracted some notable admirers; none other than LeBron James made the trip to Detroit to watch him in the tournament.
“Any time you get an opportunity to see somebody who’s very talented, you want to reach out to them,” James told Sports Illustrated in 2008. “I’m looking forward to seeing him more this year and welcoming him to the league next year.”
Steph averaged a sensational 28.6 points as a junior, before declaring for the 2009 NBA Draft. That’s when the same old size concerns surfaced: He fell to Golden State at No. 7, behind players like Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn.
Would Steph have what it takes to succeed at the highest level? Just ask his most famous fan.
“If you can play, you can play,” James told SI. “It’s as simple as that.”
3 of 5
For those of us who grew up watching Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway fly too close to the sun, there’s not much worse than watching a transcendent talent hobbled by chronic injuries. And for a while, it looked like Stephen Curry’s ankles were running a parallel path to Brandon Roy’s knees.
Steph suffered no fewer than five ankle sprains in 2011-12, limiting him to just 26 games. And though he gutted out 78 games the following season, his ankles buckled twice more in the playoffs, somewhat torpedoing his first postseason with the Warriors.
Testing after the 2011-12 season ruled out ligament damage, which was good news, though his damaged right ankle still required surgery. And there was still the matter of his rookie contract expiring in November. Extending Curry before seeing him play post-surgery would be a leap of faith for Golden State–one they ultimately took, signing him to a 4-year deal.
“We decided to bet on a couple of things,” Myers told ESPN. “We bet on who he is as a human being. We bet on his ability. We bet on the fact that he was the type of player who’d do everything within his power to come back and be smart and be diligent.”
Sure enough, in the summer of 2013, Curry endeavored to figure out a way to fortify his body once and for all. Under the tutelage of then-performance director Keke Lyles, Steph took up yoga for flexibility, markedly increased his core strength, and learned to load up his hips to take pressure off his ankles. The injuries faded away, and thanks to his newfound physical strength, his level of performance skyrocketed.
Might his cursed ankles have been a blessing in disguise? “It made Steph,” Myers said to ESPN, “what he is now.”
Meaning, the best player in the NBA.
4 of 5
Aside from his father, perhaps nobody knows Steph Curry’s game like his coach at Davidson, Bob McKillop. So when he assessed Curry’s game to the Charlotte Observer last May, it was a sobering thought for the rest of the NBA.
“I don’t think he’s as great as he’s going to be,” McKillop said. “He will get even greater because of his work ethic.”
That seemed unlikely, only because Curry was already so good. He would soon wrap a season in which he’d won his first MVP and championship, averaged 28 points in the playoffs, released his first Under Armour show, and cemented himself as America’s most beloved athlete. Can it get much higher?
Three games into the 2015-16 season, Steph emphatically answered that question with 53 points–28 in the third quarter!–in a Halloween night win over the Pelicans. It wasn’t even what he did so much as how he did it, brandishing a gunslinger’s confidence that demonstrated that he knew the throne was his for the taking.
It definitely helps that the Warriors are an incredible team, sprinting out to a record 24-0 start. But loaded squad aside, Steph does things every single night that the league simply had never seen before, a facsimile of Michael Jordan tailor-made for the 3-pointer generation.
Look no further than the Warriors’ win over the Thunder on Feb. 28. Steph tied an NBA record with 12 threes, his final flourish a 31-foot swish with 0.6 seconds left in overtime. (He’s shooting an insane 50 percent–11-for-22–on 30-plus-foot shots.) In the same game, he broke his own single-season record for threes. There were still 24 games left in the season.
Longtime fan LeBron James tweeted after the game: “@StephenCurry30 needs to stop it man!! He’s ridiculous man! Never before seen someone like him in the history of ball!” It was a show of admiration–and perhaps desperation. He needs to stop it.
Meanwhile, Steph’s Under Armour sneakers are currently outselling LeBron’s Nikes, he stole the show at the Super Bowl, and he and his wife welcomed their second adorable daughter to the world last year.
There’s bound to be backlash; it already started, actually. But the Currys are so likable, and Steph is so transcendent on the court, that he seems a little more Teflon than most. And ultimately, for someone whose personal perspective is as laser-sharp as his jump shot, he’s going to be more than all right on and off the court.
“Things are really great right now,” Curry told Time in December. “We’re winning, there’s so many life additions at home, it all comes at once.
“Eventually basketball will end. I have a lot of life to live after that. So I guess the only worry is not to just be defined as a basketball player.”
5 of 5
There have been a number of Next Jordan candidates over the years, and we’ve seen them coming a mile away. LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior. Grant Hill won two national titles at Duke. Kobe Bryant took Brandy to the prom.
The great thing about what Stephen Curry is doing right now is that nobody truly saw this coming. This isn’t to say he came completely out of nowhere; his father was a great NBA shooter, Steph was first team All-America at Davidson, an NBA lottery pick, and an All-Star. Everyone knew he was good.
But who could have imagined he’d someday spark debate–gasp!–about whether he could challenge the great Michael Jordan for supremacy?
“Why else would I be playing? You want to be the best you can be,” Curry told ESPN in December. “And if the best you can be is better than him, then why not? That’s good motivation.”
In actuality, Steph is a completely different animal from Jordan, and anyone else for that matter. We’ve seen great shooters before–Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Larry Bird. But nobody has seemed quite so lethal as Curry: Despite his diminutive size, he’s proven nearly impossible to defend thanks to his boundless creativity and unmatched range.
The question is, how did someone so talented sneak up on everyone to become a phenomenon? To celebrate two new baseball-inspired colorways of the Curry 2 Low for both the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants at Champs Sports, we tracked Curry’s trajectory through five pivotal points on his timeline. What we found is that size is far less important than talent, confidence, work ethic–and a little serendipity.