No one ever doubted Stephen Curry’s ability to shoot a basketball. But since he was an undersized and lightly recruited high school player at Charlotte Christian, Curry crafted his game into one that surprised almost everybody.
Monday, Curry was named NBA Most Valuable Player for the 2014-15 season. He received 100 of 130 first-place votes from sportswriters and broadcasters. Houston’s James Harden had 25 votes. Cleveland’s LeBron James, a four-time MVP, had five.
“Maybe there’s a guy somewhere who can say, ‘I knew he could do this, and I knew it since he was 3 years old,’ ” said Shonn Brown, who coached Curry for four years at Charlotte Christian. “But that person would have to be God. This is just amazing, almost unbelievable.”
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Brown first saw Curry in middle school, a skinny kid who had this uncanny knack of making shots from long range. Brown figured he had learned or inherited that ability from his father, Dell, a star with the Hornets.
“He could always shoot and really loved playing the game, that’s what I remember most,” Brown said. “Shooting, ball handling and passing were always his big thing. He was always trying to hook other people up with the good pass, and you were always a little amazed at how he was making shots from these great distances and he’s so small. You could tell, if he ever filled out, he might end up being a pretty good player. But MVP? C’mon, man.”
‘Scrawny little kid’
Curry grew up around pro basketball, often shooting with NBA players before his father’s Hornets games and later as a teenager when Dell played for the Toronto Raptors.
“He was just this fragile, scrawny, little kid that enjoyed the game and being around it,” said former Hornets point guard Muggsy Bogues, one of the franchise’s most popular players. “It was amazing to see him gain all that knowledge. He was like a sponge soaking up all that information.”
In 1996 at a Nike Hoop Summit high school all-star game in Charlotte that featured comedian Chris Rock telling jokes from the sideline during timeouts, 8-year-old Stephen stole the show. Stephen played in a halftime exhibition, the Observer reported: “With Dell on the sidelines applauding, Stephen dazzled, wearing an oversize Reggie Miller No. 31 Indiana Pacers jersey. He started fast breaks, created turnovers, dribbled through his legs, whipped behind-the-back passes and nailed jumpers, including a long-distance splash with seconds left that brought a roaring response from the crowd.”
But Stephen wanted to be more than Dell’s son.
Eight years later, in 2004, he was the subject of an Observer story headlined, “Dad’s shadow comparisons inevitable, but Stephen Curry plays his game.” The story noted that, as a sophomore part-time starter for Charlotte Christian, he already had won two games with last-second shots.
“What I’m trying to do now,” Curry said then, “is to not live off my dad’s career but to make a career for myself.”
That summer, he was invited to attend the Nike Hoops Jamboree in St. Louis for the nation’s top 100 rising juniors. At Charlotte Christian that fall, Brown told Curry to take leadership of the team.
He was named a holiday tournament MVP after he led Charlotte Christian to upsets of three schools ranked in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll of the area’s top teams – No. 4 West Charlotte, No. 8 Gaston Day and No. 12 Victory Christian – in consecutive days. That February, he took an unofficial visit to Virginia Tech, and Davidson coach Bob McKillop was watching when Christian lost to Providence Day in the Charlotte Independent Schools championship game.
In the summer after his junior year, Curry faced some big-time competition in Las Vegas playing for a traveling team coached by his father and former NBA All-Star Bobby Jones. He also did well at summer camps that were stocked with national top 100 talent. Curry said he had an epiphany, telling the Observer: “I knew I could play with them before, but after I went to those camps with the best players and did well, it gave me more confidence.”
Still, big-time college conference coaches didn’t come around. Many were worried about his size, which was one of the reasons national recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons of Lenoir, who helps select the McDonald’s All-America team, never included him among his top 100 players.
“We thought he was too small to be a major-college player,” Gibbons said of Curry, who made second-team All-Observer his junior and senior seasons in high school. “He was not in my top 100 going into his senior year or anyone else’s. I guess it shows that the so-called recruiting evaluators don’t always get it right. You can’t predict how a player will work and continue to develop his game.”
As a senior, Curry was 6-foot, about 160 pounds. In September of that year, he committed to Davidson. Brown, his high school coach, said Curry had heard from other schools including William & Mary, Winthrop, Virginia Commonwealth, Wofford and High Point.
As a senior, he became more dominant. Against a strong Ashbrook team, an Observer reporter described this sequence of plays where Curry took over, much as he might do now for the Warriors: “He got a rebound, dribbled the length of the court and hit a teammate with a no-look assist. Next, he got another rebound, dribbled up court and hit a deep 3-pointer. Finally, he slashed inside for a layup.”
The Observer noted: “Stephen Curry has really improved in a year. He can create his own shot and his ball-handling is among the best in the city.”
National recruiting analyst Dave Telep said then: “I really believe if you look at his career in four years, you’ll be able to say he would’ve been able to play at a higher collegiate level. His basketball IQ is terrifically high for a senior in high school. He’s talented. He shoots the lights out of it. There’s a lot of things to like.”
At Davidson, Curry quickly became a national star.
In early-season practices, McKillop was blown away by Curry’s passing and shooting. He knew he had something special.
“What I saw early on was his exceptional basketball vision,” McKillop said. “He would go to shootarounds with Dell when he was young and watch games. That meant his understanding of the game was way ahead of most. He obviously has great hand-eye coordination. He also has great foot-eye coordination. He’s one step ahead in every basketball game he plays.”
Early in his freshman season, Curry showed the country, scoring 32 points with nine rebounds in a loss to Michigan. His performance impressed then-Wolverines coach Tommy Amaker.
“He was tough to handle, and he got into his rhythm early,” said Amaker, the former Duke star who is now coach at Harvard. “We knew that going in but still couldn’t contain him.”
Dell Curry said his son worked hard on his game in college, determined to make himself the best he could.
“A lot of hard work and perseverance,” Dell Curry said. “He knew he was better than others thought he was out of high school. That wasn’t just about proving people wrong, it was about showing what he could be.”
Over three seasons Curry became the best player in Davidson school history, leading the Wildcats to wins against Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament his sophomore year. The Wildcats had a shot to beat Kansas, the eventual 2008 national champion, before losing 59-57 in the Elite 8. NBA star LeBron James came to watch him play.
Curry averaged 25.9 points his sophomore season and 28.6 as a junior.
“When he came to Davidson he looked like a frail kid, where even in college basketball he’d get beaten up,” said Davidson radio play-by-play announcer John Kilgo. “He didn’t handle the ball very well, but he was very imaginative – he would see passes others didn’t. And he could shoot like few people. You thought he would be a better-than-average college player.
“Then, in the middle of his freshman season, he got so confident. Basketball was very serious for him, but it wasn’t the most serious thing in his world. He didn’t feel the pressure. He’s a very spiritual guy, and he took the attitude this wasn’t the only thing in his world. That meant he didn’t feel the pressure that normal people feel.”
Kilgo said he once asked the late North Carolina coach Dean Smith what impressed him most about Curry:
“Coach said everyone knows he’s a great shooter. But the balance to that is how well he got to the rim and finished against taller, stronger people.”
After his junior season, Curry turned pro and was selected No. 7 by Golden State in the NBA draft. He was selected behind two players (center Hasheem Thabeet and point guard Jonny Flynn) who no longer play in the NBA.
At the time Curry was a proven commodity as a 3-point threat and as a passer. The question was whether his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame would hold up against bigger, stronger players and whether he could defend NBA point guards.
Curry did a predraft workout for the hometown Charlotte Bobcats, but it was clear he’d be gone before the Bobcats picked 12th (selecting Gerald Henderson).
Curry and his wife, Ayesha, own a home in the Charlotte area where they live in the summer. Curry said in a 2011 interview with the Observer that there’d be some appeal to playing in his hometown. When that became an Internet sensation, Curry went on Twitter to say he considered himself a Warrior for life.
Curry had a breakthrough season in 2013-14, making his first All-Star roster. He is wildly popular in the Bay Area and was the leading vote-getter in the fan balloting that determined All-Star starters in February.
While 3-point shooting continues to be his forte (he broke his own NBA record for most 3s made in a season with 286 this season), Curry is a much more complete player in his sixth NBA season. He finished the regular season sixth in scoring (23.8 ppg.), sixth in assists (7.7), first in free-throw percentage (91.4), third in 3-point percentage (44.3) and fourth in steals (2.04).
In the past 45 years, only five NBA MVPs have come outside of the big-time college conferences. Santa Clara’s Steve Nash and Louisiana Tech’s Karl Malone won twice. Grambling’s Willlis Reed, Massachusetts’ Julius Erving and Navy’s David Robinson won once. There are five MVPs who didn’t attend college: James, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Moses Malone.
And now there’s this 27-years-old from Charlotte, who was always thought of as too small or too slow growing up.
“He’s been the smallest guy on every team he’s played on,” his father said. “That made him learn to find ways to get the ball to the rim in really creative ways.”
Bogues thinks about the little scrawny kid at the NBA shootarounds and marvels at the player Curry is – and what he might become.
“It’s so awesome he’s getting the MVP,” Bogues said. “Knowing him as a little kid and seeing him grow into a young man, it’s just marvelous and breathtaking for me. I’m proud of him like he was my own son. You can’t ask for a better kid than that. He’s educated. His foundation is solid. He’s got God in his heart, a beautiful family, a wife, a daughter and they’re all so grounded. He has no hoopla about him. He goes about his work day like he would do if he wasn’t at that level. That’s why I’m having a wonderful time witnessing and watching.
“I told Dell the other day how it’s a treat and brings joy to my heart to see him in the stands and his family there supporting Steph. I told him that’s something you can’t imagine or take for granted and to be blissful and thankful you got this opportunity. This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr