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Stephen Curry: The Full Circle

November 20, 2017

THERE WERE TOO many bears roaming the woods behind the house and, with four daughters, far too many Barbies inside. Just before the school year ended in the early 1970s in Grottoes, Virginia, Wardell “Jack” Curry needed a solution, and fast. All he wanted was a way to keep his only son, Dell, occupied by something other than deadly animals or dolls during the long summer days ahead. As it turned out, though, with nothing more than an old utility pole, a fiberglass backboard and some fabricated steel brackets, Jack Curry ended up changing the sport of basketball and producing the ultimate point guard, his grandson Stephen Curry.

Jack’s hoop was never much to look at. Its finest feature, by far, was the old reliable street lamp that hovered overhead and dutifully blinked on at dusk, bathing the key in warm yellow light. But this was Jack’s plan all along: Only people who truly loved the game and understood the commitment it required would stick past dark on his country court. 

The soft wings of the backboard had more give than a fence gate. The thick steel rim offered no absolution; only shots placed perfectly in the middle of the cylinder passed through. The institutional green metal breaker box just behind the hoop gave off a constant static hum that lured a shooter’s focus away from the target. And the splintery wooden utility pole wasn’t squared to a single landmark — not the white ranch-style house, not the driveway, not the Blue Ridge mountains to the south or the creek to the north. So every shot required instant, expert recalibration. 

Years of toil in the sun and mud honed Dell’s fluid, deadly jumper — a shot that produced a state title, a scholarship to Virginia Tech and a 16-year NBA career, mostly in Charlotte, that ended in 2002. And when Dell and his wife, Sonya, started their own family, their first child, Wardell Stephen Curry II, got more than just his name from Grandpa Jack. Stephen inherited the hoop and the same deep abiding love for the game it evokes. During frequent childhood trips to Grottoes, a sleepy mix of horse farms and trailer parks an hour northwest of Charlottesville, Stephen and his younger brother Seth (who played at Duke) would barely wait for the car to stop rolling before darting around back to start shooting. Their grandma, Juanita, 79, whom everyone calls Duckie, knew that if she wanted a kiss hello she had to position herself between the car and the hoop. (Jack died when Stephen was 2.) This is where Curry’s love of the long ball was born, his trying to be the first one in the family to swish it from 60 feet, blind, peeking around the corner from the top kitchen step. “I always felt like the love and the lessons of that hoop got passed down to me,” Stephen says. “It’s crazy to think about how everything kinda started right there at this house with this one old hoop.” 

This season in Golden State, the legend grows larger by the minute. Nearly every night since the All-Star Game — for which Curry was the top vote-getter and where he sank 13 straight shots to win the 3-point contest — he’s been expanding the lore of Jack’s hoop as well as the parameters by which we define point guard greatness. Yes, his stats are MVP-worthy: Through March 24, he ranked seventh in points (23.4 per game), sixth in assists (7.9) and third in steals (2.1). Yes, he has the fourth-highest 3-point percentage, 43.6 percent, in NBA history and has led the league in total 3s since 2012, if you’re counting. And yes, in six years, he has catapulted Golden State from perennial nonfactor to title favorite. But Curry’s evolution this season is about something more profound than shooting, stats or hardware. The point guard groomed by that historic hoop in Grottoes has become the game’s future.

Curry is standing at the forefront of a new era of playmaker. For the first time since Magic Johnson took an evolutionary leap for the position, we’re witnessing the ultimate embodiment of the point guard. Not a shooter like Steve Nash, a passer like John Stockton, a defender like Gary Payton or a floor general like Isiah Thomas. Someone with the ability to do it all, excelling in each category while elevating everyone around him and then topping it the very next night: basketball’s new 6-foot-3, 190-pound unstoppable force. “He’s lethal,” says Curry’s coach, Steve Kerr. “He’s mesmerizing,” says his teammate Klay Thompson. He’s the “best shooter I’ve ever seen,” says his president, Barack Obama. 

Oftentimes he’s all three at once. During a 106-98 win over the Clippers on March 8, Curry needed all of seven seconds to transform LA’s defense from a group of elite athletes to a gaggle of bewildered senior citizens stammering around at the wrong connecting gate. Up by 10 with just under nine minutes left in the third, Curry dribbled past half court near the high left wing and used a pick to split defenders Matt Barnes and Chris Paul. When he re-emerged, 7-1 power forward Spencer Hawes and center DeAndre Jordan had walled off his escape to the basket. Curry had a split second left before the Clippers converged on him like a junkyard car crusher. He stopped on a dime, dribbled backward through his legs to his left hand, then returned the ball behind his back to his right. The move caused Paul and Jordan to lunge awkwardly into the vortex Curry no longer occupied. Curry then spun away from the basket (and what looked like an impending bear hug from an exasperated Hawes) before dribble-lunging, back, 3 feet behind the arc, as if leaping a mud puddle in Jack Curry’s gravel driveway. 

In the blink of an eye — well, less, actually — Curry planted, coiled, elevated and snapped his wrist. Splash. “That could be the greatest move I’ve ever seen live,” blurted stunned ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who coached against Michael Jordan many times. When his colleagues giggled at the suggestion, though, Van Gundy growled back without hesitation, “No, I’m being serious.”

The sequence had everything: court presence, ballhandling, flawless shooting fundamentals, creativity and, above all, major, major cojones. It left Kerr looking like a young Macaulay Culkin on the bench. And across the country, it had Grandma Duckie cheering from her favorite burgundy chair in front of the TV. “Each time Stephen does his thing, we all picture big Jack up in heaven, nudging all the angels, gathering ’em up,” says Steph’s aunt and Dell’s sister, Jackie Curry. “And he’s yelling and pointing, ‘Look, look down there at what I did! Y’all know I started this, right? Started all this with just that one little hoop, right there.'”

DRIBBLING THROUGH THE rocks and tire tracks at Jack’s hoop honed Curry’s ballhandling skills, while the unpredictable backboard and the unforgiving rim tested his touch and inspired the perfect, impossibly high parabolic arc of his shot. But the court also polished his composure; this is where he first obtained the Tao of Point Guard. “This was a visionary place for me,” Curry says. “Make it work no matter what you have to work with — that’s something that stuck with me very early on as a point guard. Adjust. Get creative. Try a different angle, a different lane, a different move or a different shot — just make it work. Out there on my grandpa’s court, there was no better place in the world to breed that kind of creativity.” 

After all, it’s hard to get rattled by Grizzlies fans once you’ve hit 100 free throws in a row with actual underfed bears lurking just beyond the tree line.

Curry calls his dad Pops, and here, listening to Pops’ stories, is how Stephen came to understand the endless solitary work that would be required. His favorite tale was how every summer morning after Jack and Juanita left for work at the GE plant, Dell’s sisters would walk him to the back steps, place the basketball against his chest and lock him out of the house. If he was good — if, say, he didn’t interrupt any key moments of General Hospital — they’d throw him a fried-egg sandwich out the window for lunch. And then, half an hour before their parents returned, the girls would unlatch the door, dust him off, change his shirt, wipe his face with a wet dish towel and swear him to secrecy. 

The eight hours or so in between? Back then, the closest sign of civilization was a Tastee Freez 10 miles away. There was nothing else for Dell to do but work on perfecting one of the most fluid, efficient and effective jump shots in NBA history — the same form that Stephen would one day mimic. 

Shooting on the perpetually muddy court, Stephen learned there was only one sure way to keep the ball safe, clean and in the same area code: Make every shot. “That connection to perfection comes from my granddad and his hoop,” Stephen says. “It was ‘make it or chase it’ out there, and if you missed, it was terrible. So you didn’t miss. That instills something in you as a shooter without you even knowing it’s happening.”

Jack would study Dell’s shot from behind the lace curtains of the dining room window. Occasionally, he would growl at something he didn’t like, then crash through the screen door at the back of the house. Father and son would fuss over fundamentals, their voices carrying for miles over the Blue Ridge foothills. And then, as a universal gesture of approval and affection, Jack would stand under the rim and silently rebound for his son. 

When Jack died in 1991, at 58, after a sudden heart attack, he had just sat down to watch Dell play the Lakers on TV. By the time Dell flew back to Virginia, the house was packed with mourners. He went straight to his mama, gave her a gentle peck on the cheek, then weaved through the crowd to his room and shut the door, devastated.

After a while, though, they heard it again. The faint, familiar, life-affirming noise coming from Jack’s hoop.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Ba-dink.

The basketball butterfly effect of Jack’s hoop didn’t fully hit Dell until many years later, though, when he realized he’d have to pass on the exact same lessons he learned to Stephen. As a skinny 5-8, 150-pound sophomore at Charlotte Christian School, Stephen still used a flip shot that seemed to originate from his belt buckle. It was inefficient and easy to block, and Dell knew that if Stephen had any aspirations to play at the next level, he’d have to tear it all down and rebuild his shooting mechanics from scratch. 

It was a frustrating, tense few months for everyone. Stephen, who loves his craft so much that he often takes 1,000 shots before practice, says it was the only time in his life he flat-out hated shooting. The court at the Curry house in tony south Charlotte is a little different from the one in Grottoes. Here, there’s almost an entire half court of perfectly smooth concrete between the stucco-lined two-car garage, the professionally installed top-grade glass backboard and the perfectly green lawn. Manicured crepe myrtles shade the court and prevent the ball from bouncing into the glistening pool. But the summerlong grind Stephen endured was almost identical to what his pops experienced, minus the fried-egg sandwiches. “We called it the summer of tears,” Jackie says. “Dell became Jack, Stephen became Dell, and it was Stephen who shot a lot of shots with tears in his eyes.”

They got through it. Stephen perfected his trademark fluid, low-lift, lightning-quick form and an effortless overhead swan-neck follow-through. Almost as soon as the game’s greatest shot was created, however, Stephen sensed it wasn’t going to be enough. Even though he had played point guard for only a year during his final season at tiny Davidson College, the Warriors took him with the seventh pick overall in the 2009 draft and began to rebuild around him. Three years later, there were lingering doubts about his defense, ballhandling and durability after chronic ankle problems limited him to just 23 starts in 2011-12. 

Curry had always studied and drawn inspiration from Nash, another slightly built point guard who used shooting skills, creativity, leadership and instinct to become a two-time MVP. But the full picture of how Curry wanted to place his own stamp on the position didn’t fully click for him until the summer of 2012, when he visited the training camp of the Carolina Panthers, one of his favorite teams. Curry sat in on a full day of quarterback meetings and saw a contemporary in Cam Newton, who won the 2011 NFL offensive rookie of the year by playing quarterback like a point guard in shoulder pads. In the playbook and on film, Curry recognized how Newton was juggling the same dozen or so basic responsibilities that point guards also have to manage in real time: game situations, momentum, positioning, ball protection, elevating teammates, staying three steps ahead of the defense and, when needed most, making something happen all by yourself. 

The difference was that even as a rookie, Newton wasn’t hesitant, overly worried about mistakes or brain-locked by all the duties the way Curry had been. Newton was smooth. Effortless. In command. And having a freakin’ blast. Curry realized that although a point guard has dozens of responsibilities, the toughest one is to let it all go and ball like you’re back on Jack’s country court. He had always known how to play the game. What Curry has improved on dramatically since then is how to feel it. “It’s all become so natural,” Curry says. “I think that’s why I feel so comfortable on the floor most nights.”

It also helps to have Grandma Duckie cheering from 13 rows behind the Warriors’ bench. On Feb. 24, she and some other relatives made the 150-mile trek from Grottoes to the Verizon Center in DC, only to sit in silence as the Wizards wrestled away control of the game late in the third. Sensing the momentum shift, Curry took over, scoring the Warriors’ final nine points in the quarter, including a breathtaking baseline drive through three defenders that started with an impending “oh crap” car-crash feel and ended with a teardrop runner that brought Wizards fans out of their seats for the only time the entire game. 

In the fourth, Curry drew a charge on John Wall, and every time Washington tried to bully Curry at the top of the key, he calmly delivered one flawless no-look pass after another to a series of giddy wide-open teammates. Curry finished with 32 points, eight assists and zero turnovers in a 114-107 road win that, if not for his presence and command at the point, would have easily slipped away. “Brilliant,” said a nearly speechless Kerr afterward. “Absolutely brilliant.”

It was the kind of jaw-dropping win the Warriors have become known for. The next day, Curry visited the White House as part of his work with the United Nations’ Nothing but Nets anti-malaria program. Inside the Oval Office, he and Obama discussed their shared admiration for wild Warriors forward Draymond Green before the president invited him back for a reunion next year, this time in the East Wing, with the rest of the team. Just a few months ago, an NBA title seemed inconceivable. The Warriors had a rookie coach and a rep for being soft in a league notoriously inhospitable to elite newcomers. (The Bulls, Lakers, Spurs and Heat have won 16 of the past 19 titles.) Some experts (like us) had them ranked as low as seventh in the preseason. Now Golden State has the best record in franchise history, the top seed in the playoffs and a mind-blowing 10.2 point differential that ranks it squarely among the greatest teams in NBA history. “You can definitely feel something special brewing with our team,” Curry says. “But all the real rewards are in the playoffs. Point guards that have won championships definitely separate themselves in the conversation of all-time greats. And I want to be a part of that group.”

THE LAST BASKETBALL honor the Curry family celebrated together was in September 2012, when Fort Defiance High School renamed its court in honor of Dell. Afterward at the house in Grottoes, everyone — cousins, great grandchildren, friends, neighbors and future NBA All-Stars alike — was drawn to the same spot. “That old hoop is gonna be there for a long, long time,” Stephen says. “When my kids are old enough, I will definitely be passing it on. That will be a cool moment: getting to know what my dad felt like watching me learning to shoot on that hoop and what Grandpa Jack felt like watching my dad after he put it up.”

The net on Jack’s hoop is upside down. The wood is weathered and splintered. And over the years, as the area has grown, the utility pole has become covered in thick, black, twisted vines of cable and electric wire. Which means that even if you wanted to take down Jack’s hoop, you couldn’t. First, of course, you’d have to get past Grandma Duckie. What’s more, you’d have to disconnect the entire neighborhood, in more ways than one. 

It’s a fitting and enduring tribute to Jack and what he started. 

His hoop was here first.

Everything else came after.

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