Northern Touch: Steph Curry’s Toronto connection

The feature showcases Stephen Curry’s Toronto connection. Steph lived in Toronto for one year during his father Dell’s final season in the NBA (2001-02 with the Raptors).

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2013 issue of Sportsnet magazine

James Lackey was out of ideas. There was only a minute left on the clock and the basketball coach of the seemingly unbeatable Queensway Christian College Saints had just watched the visitors do what no other team in the city could: slow down his star, a short, scrawny, baby-faced guard. From the opening tip, the bigger players had pushed the kid around. They fouled him—hard. They triple-teamed him and swarmed him when he dared to bring his spindly frame into the lane. “So we’re down six and I call a time out,” Lackey recalls, 12 years later, from his home in Oakville, Ont. “I brought the guys in and said, ‘Look, I don’t know what to tell you. Do you have a suggestion here? Help me out.’ And there was just silence. It was like one of those Hoosiers moments.”

That’s when the skinny guard piped up. “Give me the ball,” said 13-year-old Steph Curry. “Give me the ball and we’ll win.”

“You heard him,” barked Lackey. “Give him the ball and get out of his way.”

The defence lined up near the three-point line. Curry took the ball up the court, dug his black-and-white Jordan 13s into the weathered blue concrete gymnasium floor, and pulled up a couple of feet in front of them. Good. On the Saints’ next trip up the court, the wall moved closer to Curry. Again, he pulled up two feet in front and drilled the shot. You can guess how this ends: Queensway won by six; in that minute, Curry scored nine of his team’s 12 points and the Saints finished the season undefeated.

In the years since, that scene has played out over and over, only the stage has gotten bigger. Much bigger. And the kid who averaged 50 points a game in Grade 8 has become the NBA’s premier shooter and the maestro of the most exciting, freewheeling team in basketball—short of the Globetrotters. Last year, Curry made more three-pointers than any player in NBA history and this season, his fifth, he’s nearly on pace to match his own record. Curry only lived in Toronto for a year. But if you look back on his time here, you can see the player fans have come to know—the work ethic and passion for the game, the sweet stroke and tendency to take over games in big moments, the loyalty and willingness to be coached. Toronto was more than just a pit stop on his road to the pros.

Lackey was pumped in the fall of 2001, when then–Toronto Raptor Dell Curry showed up to register his kids at the private K–12 school and told the coach that his sons, Stephen and younger brother, Seth, were basketball players. Dell and his wife, Sonya, an NCAA volleyball star, rented a condo overlooking Lake Ontario (where it was not uncommon to find team staff, including Dance Pak members, babysitting the Curry boys and their sister, Sydel). And the couple became actively involved—Sonya volunteered with the girls’ volleyball team, while at school barbecues you’d almost always find Dell working the grill.

On his first day of school, Steph was in the office, drooped in a chair and staring straight at the floor. Curry was always something of a shy, quiet kid away from the court, and Lackey, sensing this, did his best to make him feel comfortable. “I came in and introduced myself and he hardly looked up at me,” recalls Lackey. “Then I said, ‘By the way, I’m the basketball coach here.’ His face lit up instantly and he said, ‘Hi, my name is Steph!’ He just became this different kid.”

Curry’s love for the game may have been clear, but at first glance, Lackey couldn’t help but feel a touch disappointed; he had imagined some six-foot-four NBA SuperKid, a man-child. Instead, he saw a boy, the spitting image of his mother, barely an inch over five feet tall and with arms as thin as a rim. Well, that’s too bad, the coach thought, hardly the first person to underestimate Curry, and far from the last.

Photo courtesy of James Lackey

But that was before he watched him play. Though the local school board would rule against allowing Curry to play for the high school team, leaving him to dominate at the middle school level, sharing the backcourt with Seth, Curry did first appear with the senior squad. During a pre-season exhibition versus rival Peoples Christian, Lackey gave Curry a tryout on the senior boys team, sending the Grade 8 kid off the bench to face a group of Grade 12s. “I’d seen him shoot around at the gym, so I figured he’d be all right. I just wanted to throw him in and see what he could do,” says Lackey. “I think he scored 25 or 30 points. He just ruled the court.”

Which is what he’s done everywhere he’s ever played, from centre stage at the NCAA tournament to the highest-pressure situations as a pro. Last season, Curry took his game to another level entirely. The 54-point performance—50 in the final three quarters—at Madison Square Garden versus the Knicks in January put the NBA on notice. Then, during the playoffs, Curry showed the world just how good he really is. In the fourth game of the first round against Denver, he scored 24 points in a quarter. A week later, he dropped 44 versus the Spurs. Curry not only had fans believing that the eighth-seeded Warriors could knock off the greatest dynasty in basketball right now, he became the single biggest story in sports. The kid who embraced the “Baby-Faced Assassin” nickname given to him in college wasn’t only carving up the league with his shot, but taking over every facet of the game—picking pockets, attacking the rim, and leading fast-breaks with swift dribble moves and deft passes.

Curry is and has always been an offensive savant, a basketball brain operating several levels beyond normal comprehension. And while it’s his shot that gets the most attention, it was obvious even back in Toronto that Curry was more than just a shooter. “I couldn’t believe his knowledge of the game at such a young age,” says Lackey. “He knew movements of players and where they were going to be—he could see those passing lanes in a way that a guy his size normally can’t.” The coach warned his players, urging them to always keep their hands up when Curry had the ball. They may think they aren’t open, Lackey would preach, but the new guy would still find them. Still, some kids are visual learners. “In his first practice we had four or five guys who had to come off the court because their noses were bleeding. They’d come off the court saying, ‘Coach, I didn’t think he would make that pass.’ They learned pretty quick.”

So did Steph. Dell was tough on his kids when it came to sports—Lackey remembers staff-versus-student games during which Dell would suit up and guard Steph with no mercy, blocking shot after shot. But he was also incredibly supportive and active in the development of their games. Growing up under the tutelage of an NBA pro certainly has its benefits. “Stephen learned everything from his daddy,” says Muggsy Bogues, who played with Dell for 11 seasons on both the Hornets and the Raptors.“Stephen [was] always coming to our practices, was always shooting around with the guys. He really got to watch how the game is supposed to be played, and as he grew up, information stayed in his head. He’s always known how to make his teammates better. Its why he has those pure point guard skills today.”

More than that, he’s as unique as he is gifted, and it’s a big part of his appeal. Curry is a complete package: extremely high basketball IQ, good height for a point guard, sneaky fast, all-world handles, God-given court vision to go with a jump shot touched by Jesus himself (Shuttlesworth, that is), and a stage presence even the finest actors would sell their souls for.

As with all great players, Curry’s game has been the product of a lifetime of work and fine-tuning. And no singular tweak to his game would prove more impactful than when, in the midst of his undefeated Grade 8 season with Queensway, Curry and his father set out to transform his shot.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/GETTY

“I remember walking into the gym and Steph told me, ‘My dad said I have to change my shot,’” says Lackey. “I was thinking, ‘You’re scoring 40, 50 points a game. Your shot is just fine.’”

But Curry was insistent. “No, my form is off,” he would say. “By the time I get to high school and college that shot is going to get blocked.” And so they began the process of completely altering his form, going from a hip shot to the quick-fire overhead motion that he’s famous for today.

In Toronto, Curry was as big a star as Grade 8 private-school league basketball allowed. But when he got to the States the next year, it was harder to stand out; despite dominating in high school at Charlotte Christian College, Curry didn’t crack the Rivals Top 150 prospect ranking his senior year and didn’t receive any looks from the traditional powerhouse colleges in the state. Virginia Tech, where Dell had starred, showed interest and offered him a scholarship. But they told him he would be red-shirted in his first year, that physically he wasn’t yet ready to make the leap. So Curry chose Davidson, a small school nearby with a strong academic record. Sure, the team hadn’t won a tournament game since 1969, but he could start right away. It was a perfect fit—the basketball world never expected much from either. In his second collegiate game, against the Michigan Wolverines, Curry scored 32 and grabbed nine rebounds. By March, he had shattered the NCAA’s freshman record with 113 made threes, and at year’s end Curry trailed only Kevin Durant in points by a first-year player. Yet Davidson failed to make the NCAA tourney.

In his second season at Davidson, though, Curry orchestrated one of the most exciting March Madness tournament runs in recent memory. In front of a national TV audience, the 10th-seeded Wildcats came back from 11 points down to upset seventh-seed Gonzaga in the first round behind Curry’s 30 second-half points. Davidson made it all the way to the Elite Eight that year, taking down tourney favourite Georgetown along the way, before losing out to the eventual champion Kansas Jayhawks in a 59–57 nail-biter—a game in which Curry hit his 159th three-pointer of the season, a new NCAA record. That spring, Curry became just one of four players ever—and the first since Glenn Robinson in 1991—to score at least 30 points in each of his first four NCAA tournament games. Needless to say, he had officially arrived. After a junior season in which he led the NCAA in scoring (28.6 ppg), he declared for the 2009 NBA draft.

Yet, like Lackey years earlier, and nearly everyone who first lays eyes on him, scouts and NBA front offices still had their doubts. Though Curry had grown to six-foot-three, he was still considered too small to play shooting guard, and, watching him carry so much of the scoring load at Davidson, scouts saw him as little more than a skinny gunner. One scouting report read: “Doesn’t like when defences are too physical with him. Not a great finisher around the basket due to his size and physical attributes. Far below NBA standard in regard to explosiveness and athleticism. Although he’s playing point guard this year, he’s not a natural point guard that an NBA team can rely on to run a team.”

Curry fell to the Warriors with the seventh pick. Two more spots and he could have been a Raptor, like his dad. With the benefit of hindsight, if that draft were held today, he’d go in the top three (Blake Griffin of the Clippers went first that year and James Harden went third). But the Warriors were another perfect fit, the NBA’s most raucous home court a fitting backdrop for Curry’s showman-like game. And when head coach Mark Jackson, who played alongside Dell and Bogues in Toronto, took over before the 2011–12 season, he understood exactly what he had in Curry, giving him free reign to let it fly, a luxury most coaches don’t afford to even their biggest stars.

This season, Curry’s playing the best all-around basketball of his career, averaging more than 22 points and nearly nine assists per game, to go with two steals per and a ludicrous 44 percent accuracy from deep. And with the addition of Andre Iguodala and the emergence of Klay Thompson, the Warriors have entrenched their status as appointment viewing for basketball junkies. Take, for instance, earlier this month, when the Raptors visited Oakland. Down 27 points, the Warriors, with Curry leading the charge, mounted the seventh-largest comeback in NBA history. He drew those familiar double and triple teams on the way to the rim, and casually found wide-open teammates along the perimeter. He drilled shots from every spot on the court, sticking his tongue out on his way back down the floor, playing up to a crowd feeding off of him. In a way it doesn’t matter which team you root for—this is what everyone wants to see. Basketball is just more fun when Steph Curry is involved.

All these years later, the Queensway coach and his one-time star are still close. Lackey calls the notion of having an NBA superstar as a friend surreal: “I knew him in one capacity as a kid and now he’s this rock star.” The two see each other regularly after games; Curry has always been the type to form long-term attachments (a couple of summers ago, he married the girl he’d been dating since he was 14). “If you were to ask me what stands out about Steph,” says Lackey, “it’s not his playing. It’s his character. He’s just an unbelievably humble guy.” He recounts how, unsolicited, Curry will walk over and greet Lackey’s kids, remembering their names even though he doesn’t really know them. “That’s just the type of kid he was,” he says, “and the type of man he’s become.”

Asked when he first wanted to be a pro ball player, Curry has always maintained his decision was made in Grade 9, during his first year back in Charlotte. But if you look at his lone season at Queensway, you can see the seeds had already been planted. The way he altered his mechanics, the confidence he had to take over games and score at will, the time spent around NBA locker rooms studying the habits of the pros. Really, all you had to do was look at his email handle at the time: DCwannabe. Lackey remembers asking what that stood for, and wasn’t surprised when Steph flashed a big smile and gave him the answer: “It means Dell Curry wannabe.” He’s pulled that off—and then some.