Steve Kerr still remembers the first time he saw Stephen Curry play basketball for Davidson College.
It was December 2007 in Anaheim, California, and Kerr — then the general manager for the Phoenix Suns — was scouting a tournament alongside close friend and then-Suns scout Bruce Fraser. In a game that featured future pros Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Darren Collison and Luc Mbah a Moute playing for UCLA, Kerr found himself locking in on the skinny shooter from the tiny school outside of Charlotte.
“It was magical to watch him,” Kerr told ESPN recently. “The first time I saw him play, he was a sophomore, played in the Wooden Classic against UCLA. And he didn’t shoot the ball that well, but he was — his ballhandling, his feel, the way he played just jumped off the court. You could just feel his presence. The whole game revolved around him.”
Curry was just 6-for-19 from the field in a 75-63 loss to the Bruins, but Kerr left impressed by what he had just seen. As he looks back on the game, and Curry’s path toward superstardom, the coach can’t help but smile at the conversation he had with Curry’s parents after that game was over.
“Dell and Sonya were there,” Kerr said, “and Sonya asked me, ‘Do you think my son can play in the NBA?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. … Like, hell yeah he can play in the NBA.’ There was like this look of relief on her face, like, ‘Ohh, that would be so amazing!’
“They didn’t even know if he could play in the league, and now think about where he is and what he’s done and what he’s accomplished, it’s pretty incredible.”
As Curry, fresh off playing unofficial host to All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, gets set for another homecoming Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets, he does so with the support of a city and a small school still following his every move. It’s something he embraces while navigating the rarefied air of being one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet. Eleven years after leading Davidson to the precipice of a Final Four berth, the bond between Stephen and his hometown is even stronger and more enduring than most.
“Stephen Curry is somebody that people want to embrace,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. “His persona, his character; he’s got the character that you want your son, your husband, your father to have. He’s got the persona that is a combination of great confidence but great humility.”
McKillop, who is in his 30th season at Davidson, uses another sports analogy to explain how strong Curry’s bond is with the Charlotte area.
“As a kid growing up in Queens, New York, one of the great stories of my time was of Bobby Thomson’s home run,” he said. “‘The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!’ Steph Curry’s career was Bobby Thomson’s home run. That home run lasted for decades. That was one event. One at-bat. Steph Curry’s career at Davidson has resonated the same way as sort of an iconic aspect of sport 10 years ago that now has transcended time and is a treasured memory for anyone who was part of fandom. Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina, basketball globally, as well as regionally, as well as nationally.”
A decade after leaving Davidson to enter the 2009 NBA draft, Curry’s presence is still felt all over the campus and throughout the alumni network. His pictures hang throughout the walls of the John M. Belk Arena on campus, and his reputation shines as a sterling example of the best Davidson has to offer on and off the floor. His name has become synonymous with the school itself.
For his part, Curry is quick to give credit to McKillop and his former teammates for helping them create the memories that continue to resonate today.
“It was just a monumental moment, like snapshot in time, with that tournament run,” Curry said. “To be honest, the storyline around the school was 1,800 students really rallied around us and showed that support. … I think [people] see me in the red jersey and kind of look like I’m 14 out there and doing amazing things — that’s something people remember. I definitely do. I look forward to going back every time I have an opportunity. And when I see my teammates that I played with, you pick up where you left off in terms of how much they all had to do with my success and our success as a team.”
A smile was glued to Curry’s face during his return to Davidson’s campus over All-Star Weekend. Curry, who sat courtside with close friend and former college teammate Bryant Barr, celebrated the Wildcats’ win over St. Joseph’s by climbing over the railing into the student section, adding another viral moment to his ever-expanding highlight reel. The joy Curry displays in his game and in his personal life is something both McKillop and Kerr, now Curry’s coach with the Golden State Warriors, are always quick to highlight. It’s also the reason so many people embraced Curry’s story all those years ago.
“Every little kid thought they could be Stephen Curry,” McKillop said. “Because here’s this 6-foot-1-inch guy who’s not slam-dunking, but just playing with great joy and great enthusiasm. And he did every little thing — he cut, he screened, he defended, he passed, he ran, and he did it with such great joy. I think people really identified with that.
“It was the nature of a small school like Davidson making it that far, but it was the catalyst and the leader that Steph Curry was that clearly gave many people at that point a chance to step onto the canvas and say, ‘Wow. It’s real. It could be me. It could be my son. It could be my daughter. It could be my neighbor. It could be somebody that isn’t what seemed to be gifted with great size, great strength, great leaping ability.’ The story has taken off because he’s continued down that same road but done it at a significantly higher level on a much grander stage.”
Curry’s Warriors teammate Draymond Green still smiles while reminiscing about what it was like to watch the young guard tear through the 2008 NCAA tournament.
“Just watching a small guy, undersized really for a 2 [guard], on an average team completely destroying the NCAA,” Green said. “It was an incredible run to watch. I was really hoping he got to the Final Four, but it was amazing.”
A few hours before Curry appeared on the scene at Davidson on Feb. 15, he stood in front of a packed house at the Carole Hoefener Center — the same community center he played in as a child and helped refurbish in advance of the All-Star festivities.
“Charlotte will always be home,” Curry said. “Obviously, we live in California, but our roots are here.”
As much as Curry and his family love the Bay Area community, the roots and connection to the Charlotte area have only grown stronger over the years.
“Dell was one of the all-time most popular Hornets,” Kerr said. “Steph grew up there and shooting around on the floor. People literally watched him grow up and then to see what he accomplished, first at Davidson, now in the NBA, becoming one of the biggest stars in the world, all from their town, so everybody’s really proud of him.”
Though Curry is more than happy to talk about his roots, when the topic of his own personal legacy at Davidson comes up, he grows uncomfortable. He wants to make sure that 2008 tournament run gets remembered as a team accomplishment, not just Stephen Curry’s coming out party. He wants his teammates and coaches to get the credit he feels they deserve.
“I just know we did something special a lot of people were surprised to see, and we did it as a team,” Curry said. “It’s just wild I can think about each teammate that I play with and how important they were to the squad. That’s something coach McKillop highlights as much as any — regardless of what I did personally, it doesn’t happen without the rest of the guys, so that’s not just talk. That’s how we feel about it.”
It’s that humility in the face of global celebrity that helps explain one of the biggest reasons those who have known him the longest have stayed so loyal to him throughout the years.
“He’s proud of his city, his home,” Kerr said. “He wears his Panthers jersey with pride and talks about how much that meant to him growing up there, so the connection’s strong both ways.”