During his pit-stop in Toronto, Stephen Curry was a 'pipsqueak' prodigy. Now he's the NBA's premiere player
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Underage and undersized, Curry still dazzled against bigger, older opponents during his brief stint in TO
James Lackey's classroom intercom buzzed and an excited secretary interrupted with news: Toronto Raptor Dell Curry was visiting to enroll his kids. Lackey, a teacher and basketball coach at Etobicoke's Queensway Christian College, dashed to the office, imagining that the offspring of this NBA player would be tall with big hands.
They would be brilliant additions to his ragtag middle school squad for the 2002 season.
"I met Dell Curry, and he introduced me to Stephen, who was this tiny little pipsqueak of a kid," Lackey says.
The coach remembers that team's first tryout. The tiny private K-12 school of about 150 kids didn't have much basketball talent. He had them all dribble up and take a shot from around the free throw line, which proved a total cakewalk for eighth-grader Curry.
"He was making every shot, so I told him if it was too easy, he could step back from everyone a bit," Lackey says. "By the time the drill was done, Stephen was shooting from two or three feet behind the three-point line and still making more shots than anybody else. That's when we figured he was something kind of special."
That pipsqueak has grown into the 6-foot-3 star point guard for the Golden State Warriors, reigning NBA champ and league MVP. He is the NBA's leading scorer, the undisputed leader of a 48-4 team for the ages, and many already call him the greatest shooter in history.
When the 27-year-old makes his third All-Star appearance this week in Toronto, it will be a homecoming of sorts. About 14 years ago, he was a young gym rat at the Raptors practice facility, shooting around with his dad's teammates every chance he got. The skinny, baby-faced kid also played a single season in Toronto, leading Queensway's team to something it would have never have imagined: an undefeated campaign.
The Curry kids had remained home in Charlotte, N.C., during their father's first two seasons as a Raptor, visiting on weekends. They moved to Toronto for the season in his third and final year. Sixth-grade brother Seth (today a reserve on the NBA's Sacramento Kings) also made the middle-school squad, and their second-grade sister, Sydel, attended the school too.
The humble boys didn't talk much about having thrived on the courts as grade-school kids back in Charlotte, where the talent had been much tougher. But the older brother's experience in particular stood out in Toronto, as he routinely scored 30 or 40 points a game.
"There wasn't the talent level there in Toronto then like there was in the States, but I think that was a good experience for them to play with kids less talented than they had encountered before," says Dell Curry, reached by phone in Charlotte where he is now a television broadcaster on Hornets games for Fox Sports Southeast.
"They had to figure out how to win, to keep playing the right way and get their teammates involved. They have really fond memories of being in Toronto that year. They loved the restaurants and going to the Playdium all the time. And I loved being able to watch them play."
The talented point guard had a uniquely swift lateral movement that Lackey had never seen in kids that age and a shot that rarely missed. Rules allowed him to play up with the affiliated high school team in tournaments, so he took the opportunity.
"We all thought, 'He's small, he'll get blocked a lot when he plays up with us bigger kids,' but he always found a way to get his shot off," remembers Andrew Tsoi, who was a Grade 10 player for Queensway at the time. "Even at that age, he made everything look so easy and smooth. He was in no way intimidated about playing older kids. He was spending so much time around NBA players that being around high school kids was no big deal to him."
“I met Dell Curry, and he introduced me to Stephen, who was this tiny little pipsqueak of a kid.”James Lackey, Curry’s youth basketball coach in Toronto
Just as they had when their dad played for the Hornets, the boys would tag along and shoot around with the Raptors after games and practices. One particular day, former Raptor Jerome (Junk Yard Dog) Williams can remember offering to rebound for young Stephen, before the kid stepped behind the three-point and issued what seemed like a whopper of a declaration.
"Steph tells me he's going to make five threes in a row, and I'm thinking, 'Oh man, I'm going to be here all day waiting on this little kid to make five straight NBA threes,' " Williams recalls. "But then he went right out and did it. I thought, 'Wow, this kid is shooting threes better now than some of the pros.' "
Lots of players would bring their kids around, but most were toddlers – too young to remember the experience let alone flourish from the incredible perks at their fingertips. Curry's dad was 37 that season, and in the twilight of his career, so his boys were old enough to soak in the experience. Young Steph learned his dad's signature quick release. During the three seasons he hung around the Raptors, the kid got to play one on one with the likes of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Alvin Williams.
"He couldn't get enough of being in the gym. The only player I know of that practised that much as a kid in that sort of situation was Kobe Bryant," Alvin Williams says. "A lot of kids of NBA fathers come up entitled, expecting to have it given to them, but not the Curry kids. There's a heavy expectation to be good and it's a big one to live up to. Everyone considered the Currys the ultimate family. I always admired how tight they were."
Curry's mom, Sonya, was always at his games, while his dad attended whenever possible. The NBA veteran joined his sons in the kids' game against their parents and teachers that year and flipped burgers at the school picnic.
There was only one middle-school game that season in which an opponent slowed Curry – fouling him hard and triple-teaming him. Queensway trailed by six with 90 seconds left, before the most memorable display of Curry's one Toronto season transpired.
"I called the kids into a huddle and said I was out of ideas, and Stephen said, 'Give me the ball; I'll win us the game,' " Lackey says. "And he did it. He scored like nine of our last 12 points, and we won. For that minute and a half, it was the most unbelievable demonstration of kids' basketball I'd ever seen."
When the Raptors season ended, the Currys moved back to Charlotte, where Steph played his high school ball and began to chart his path to Davidson College and the NBA.
These days, Lackey sometimes drives to Detroit or goes to the Air Canada Centre to see Curry play with Golden State. At those games, the coach sometimes sees old Queensway players from that season, and Curry makes time for a quick postgame chat with all of them.
Lackey still has the yearbook from back then and isn't surprised by the words under Curry's smiling eighth-grade graduation photo: "I would like to thank God this year for allowing me to move to a new country and live in a new environment," it reads. "I look forward to going to the NBA when I get older."