Stephen Curry will be the centre of attention on and off the court during this weekend’s NBA All-Star Game festivities in Toronto, and while the league’s reigning MVP will have a hard time not getting caught up in the excitement, one former teammate has a little advice for him: “Watch your head.”
This takes some explaining.
Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin was a teammate of Curry’s in middle school and then again at Charlotte Christian School while growing up in North Carolina. Irwin recalled how the future Golden State Warriors point guard nearly knocked himself out mere minutes before a big high school game.
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“We were playing in a tournament, and it was the final against one of our rival schools. We were in the locker room, and typical high-school kids we were trying to get ourselves up for the game by pumping the music. The bathroom had a low ceiling and Steph was in there by himself; he was jumping up and down, and he banged his head on a lead pipe. Two minutes before we were supposed to run out onto the court and he bangs his head. He still has that scar,” Irwin recalled during a one-on-one chat with Sportsnet.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘What are you doing, man? We’re about to go out the tunnel, you’re our best player and you might to have to get stitches in your forehead.’ It was unreal."
Youthful exuberance aside, Curry was a model teammate at Charlotte Christian who provided glimpses of his future greatness and the type of player he would become in the NBA.
“He was really no different than what you see now. He was unbelievably skilled played back then—shoots from anywhere, made all of his teammates better, great on-court IQ. What you’re seeing now is what I saw playing with him back in Charlotte,” Irwin said.
Both players went on to bigger and better things from their days on the court together at Charlotte Christian. Irwin attended Elon University in North Carolina on a soccer scholarship and eventually became a starting goalkeeper in Major League Soccer. Curry played NCAA hoops at Davidson College before being drafted by Golden State in 2009 and becoming arguably the best basketball player on the planet.
While Irwin was a sixth man at Charlotte Christian—“My job was basically to play defence, get rebounds, set screens for guys to get open”—Curry was a star, earning all-conference and all-state honours. But the knock on Curry back in high school (and one that stuck to him for years) was that he wasn’t very athletic.
His father Dell, who played for the Raptors during his NBA career, was a college standout at Virginia Tech. Curry hoped to follow in his dad’s footsteps and play for the Hokies, but they only offered him an opportunity as a walk-on.
Curry did not receive any scholarship offers from major-conference schools—even the schools in the Tar Heel state took a pass on him. That’s why he ended up at Davidson, a private liberal-arts college in North Carolina with a modest basketball program at the time.
“I was so surprised that big schools weren’t recruiting him," Irwin said. "Being in Charlotte, you’re around Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forrest, all of these storied programs, and none of them were taking a look at him. It boggled my mind. It was crazy because he was so good in high school."
Despite Curry being overlooked, Irwin remembers his former teammate quietly going about his business at Charlotte Christian. No sulking, no rants, no feeling sorry for himself. Just basketball.
“Each game, it seemed like he was on a personal mission to show everyone how wrong they were for not recruiting him and not giving him a look,” Irwin said. “It just goes to show there’s a lot of different ways to get where you’re going. Not every single one of them is going to be the traditional route, like in Steph’s case with the big schools. But it worked out for him pretty well."
Indeed, it has. One of the most recognized athletes in the world, Curry is coming off an amazing 2015 in which he was named league MVP and guided Golden State to its first NBA championship in 40 years.
The Warriors began the current campaign with 24 consecutive wins—they didn’t lose their first game until Dec. 12—and currently sport a league-best record of 48-4 going into the all-star break, thanks in large part to Curry’s league-leading 29.8 points per game.
Despite all that, a few vocal critics remain, including Hall of Famer Charles Barkley who recently called Curry “just a great shooter." And Curry still gets criticized for his perceived lack of natural athleticism.
Irwin doesn’t quite understand that.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for his athleticism. Maybe you don’t see him jumping as high or moving as quickly as other guys, but he’s extremely efficient on the court. He’s never had a problem going by anyone that was more athletic than him, even back in high-school. It’s a testament to his skills and the amount of work that he’s put in to get where he’s at today,” Irwin offered.
What's more, fame and success don't appear to have changed the humble Curry. Irwin met up with his former high school teammate last month in Denver when the Warriors were in town to play the Nuggets. Irwin was with the Colorado Rapids at the time—he was traded to Toronto a few days later—and caught up with Curry.
“He was gracious enough to let me come out and watch shoot-around. We caught up a bit and I got tickets to the game. It’s tougher to stay in touch now because how big he’s become and his commitments, but he really took some out to talk and reconnect. He’s still the same guy I knew in Charlotte,” Irwin offered. “He treated me like we only saw each other a few weeks ago when I hadn’t seen him for a year and a half before that.”