Commentary

Curry following in dad's footsteps

Updated: June 1, 2010, 8:46 PM ET
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN.com

Stephen Curry walks into the kitchen of his parents' Charlotte home holding two bags of groceries. The 6-foot-3 guard has been back in his hometown for two weeks since his inaugural NBA season ended April 14. The Rookie of the Year runner-up takes out bananas, peanut butter and a few other ingredients for the power smoothie he's making, a recipe passed along by his trainer. Curry, who bulked up his wiry frame during his first year in the league, says he wants to pack on a few more pounds in the offseason, his workhorse mentality still focused on basketball even though he's supposed to be taking a break from basketball.

In an adjacent room, his father, Dell, a 16-year NBA veteran who works as a commentator for the Bobcats, makes several phone calls. Dressed in a white T-shirt and Duke athletic shorts (where Stephen's brother, Seth, will play this fall as a projected redshirt sophomore starter for the defending national champions), Dell walks into the kitchen, scrutinizing his older son's purchases. The two poke fun at each other while discussing who is recognized more often by fans in Charlotte.

"They don't want an autograph really, they just want to congratulate me or know how I'm feeling," the son says, citing the fans who approached him in the store a few moments ago.

"I just tell them, 'It's good to be home.'"

When Curry was drafted by the Warriors as the seventh overall pick last June, the 22-year-old realized that he'd be living 2,700 miles from the only home he'd ever known. Curry grew up in Charlotte and went to college 22 miles away in Davidson, N.C. He is a self-described homebody, thanks in large part to the environs created by his parents, Dell and Sonya, who met while student-athletes at Virginia Tech.

Though Dell was playing in the NBA when the two became parents, he and Sonya made a conscious effort not to force basketball on their children. "During the week I tried to keep them home when Dell had games because their job was school," Sonya says. "Then on the weekends, they got to go to games, but I tried to help them understand that their dad's profession is what God gave him to do. They can't think automatically it'll be what they do."

Apparently they didn't quite heed that lesson. Or if they did, Stephen and Seth decided to work hard enough at basketball so that their abilities would trump a reliance on genetics.

[+] EnlargeStephen & Dell Curry
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesStephen Curry basically grew up in the NBA. But nothing came easy for the Warriors rookie.

Dell retired from the NBA in 2002 and took a job as an assistant JV men's basketball coach at Charlotte Christian High School, where Stephen was a freshman. That was the first -- and only -- time Dell coached his son in an official capacity. "I never saw the coach/dad tension in practice," says Charlotte Christian head coach Shonn Brown. "Dell was just Coach Curry. He never went berserk if Steph did something really great or really bad. He was level-headed."

That even-keel approach began before either of his sons' talent evolved and is a major factor in their success. While Stephen remembers attending his father's NBA games as early as 4 years old, he says that in seventh grade he almost quit basketball to focus on baseball (Dell was also a baseball player and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 14th round of the 1985 draft).

"It wasn't like I always wanted to be a pro basketball player," Curry says. "I had to make that decision. Dad always told us that whatever we wanted to do, he'd support us. He wasn't ever going to push us to the gym; sure, he'd go with us, but it's not like he'd wake us up and force us to go. That helped me a lot, because my work ethic has always been my own and not someone else forcing it on me."

During Curry's junior season, Brown told the players that if they attended every mandatory practice, they'd receive a prize. Stephen made every practice except for one. "He came to me and said, 'Coach, we missed one today, it was my fault, can we come early tomorrow and make it up?'" Brown remembers. "I said, 'Absolutely;' he and Seth came the next day at 6 a.m. and doubled their workouts ... that just showed how, off the court, he's very bright, very respectful and respected, which is proof that he was reared very well from a parenting standpoint."

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Octagon Sports for ESPN.comDell, Stephen and Sonya Curry were together for the big moments and small ones, too.

Curry's family attended numerous home and away games while Steph played at Davidson. Dell says he recognized his son's NBA potential toward the end of his freshman season, when Davidson made the NCAA tournament but lost in the first round. On the plane home, Dell talked with Davidson coach Bob McKillop and nodded in agreement when the coach commented, 'Your son is going to make some money playing this game one day.'

Wildcats fans fell in love with Curry's flashy, no-look passes, drive-to-the-basket-in-impossible-ways style and humble demeanor before the rest of America, which jumped on the bandwagon during the Cats' Elite Eight run in 2008. Opponents began designing double- and triple-teams for Curry in trying to stop his offensive dominance during the tournament.

In response, McKillop invited Dell to a coaches' meeting one evening in Detroit, asking the NBA veteran to draw up a few plays similar to what he'd seen in the pros that might help Stephen evade swarming opponents. "That was a lot of fun," Dell says, smiling.

A breed apart

Athlete fathers can be of varying breeds, but the personality most often portrayed is the pushy, overbearing, succeed-or-you're-a-failure variety. As a result, the children often burn out in their sport before college or rebel against their parents in ways that compromise their athletic potential. The Currys say they've seen this type of parenting and have tried to stay as far from it as possible.

"I think the greatest attribute Stephen received from his folks is the qualities of character, accountability and unselfishness," McKillop says. "Sure, he has a sweet jump shot, can pass the ball and is a terrific talent, but when you combine that with the whole package, it's really the character aspect that shows who Stephen is."

Curry's character was immediately tested during his first months in Oakland. After Warriors coach Don Nelson, notoriously difficult on rookies, named Curry the backcourt starter alongside veteran Monta Ellis, the latter declared publicly that he couldn't work with the rookie. Then Stephen Jackson, who Curry had relied on for advice in transitioning to the pros, was traded to Charlotte. Curry's insecurities began manifesting themselves in his reluctance to control the game on the court.

"The team drama we had was a shock because it came out of nowhere," Curry says. "So I went to him [Dell] about how to handle it."

"When he was struggling toward the beginning, he'd call Dell to hear his dad's voice and know he can talk to someone who went through it versus someone telling him what to do," Sonya says. "Dell's very good about listening and encouraging."

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Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty ImagesDell Curry spent 16 seasons in the NBA and was voted the league's Sixth Man of the Year in 1993-94.

Dell reminded his son not to forget the intangibles of being a rookie: establishing his routines, watching film, getting enough sleep, and having the confidence in his own ability as well as the coaching staff despite whatever knocks the team endured.

"Stephen is driven by wanting to be good," Dell says. "He's always had his goal to beat his dad and he beat that pretty early on. But now he thinks, 'Hey I could be really, really good in the NBA, after being under-recruited and not appreciated.'"

Bobcats rookie Gerald Henderson, whose father also played several seasons in the NBA, has known Stephen for almost seven years. "When I met Steph, he was a quiet, nice kid who'd go about his business, and he's still like that," Henderson said. "He kills you softly on the court. Dell is like Stephen in that he just goes about his business and he's the nicest guy you could ever meet."

The amicable, easy-going Curry demeanor has endeared Dell to many fans nationwide, a quality that's carried over to his son. Curry says that Marcus Thompson, the Warriors beat writer for the Contra-Costa Times, tallied how often he saw Curry/Davidson jerseys and T-shirts in the stands on the road this season. By season's end, the Davidson-Curry faithful had been spotted at 39 of 41 away games.

Teammates often teased Curry that for such a small college, he drew quite a crowd of fans. Curry says he always made a point to acknowledge those he saw in the crowd, brushing his hand across the "30" on his chest and nodding at them as a silent thank you.

By midseason, he'd settled in to his role and his numbers began to improve. "Once he realized that he had the starting position and no one could take it from him, he understood what to do," says Warriors teammate Anthony Morrow. "He'll make a left-handed behind-the-back pass in crunch time, and on the bench everyone's eyes are wide-open like 'I can't believe he did that.' He's such a confident player and I think that's what motivated him to get better."

Because of Dell's Bobcats obligations, he couldn't travel to most of his son's games. Still, when in Charlotte, he'd arrive home on game nights around 10:30 p.m. ET and turn the TV on to the Warriors' West Coast matchups. "He's a guy who'll be very good in the league," Dell says. "The way he improved was remarkable. He was getting better every game, and his last game was the best he had all year."

The Warriors faced playoff-bound Portland in their regular-season finale. The Golden State roster, plagued by injuries, had been whittled down to six healthy players, and at 25-56 going in, the Warriors long ago lost a chance for postseason play. Curry responded by scoring 42 points, grabbing nine rebounds and totaling eight assists and two steals, the best overall stat line for a rookie since 1961.

Afterward, he returned home to his Oakland apartment, staying up until 4 a.m. talking with his mother and good friend and former Davidson teammate Bryant Barr, both of whom had flown from Charlotte to support Curry in his final week. "In terms of how he can control a game, that's really elevated," Barr says. "Especially when you consider all their injuries and the young guys getting adjusted. To control a team like that and still play as well as he did, it's pretty incredible."

Like father, like son

There are eight major NBA stat categories and Curry finished the season ranked in the top 10 in three of them. Not only among rookies, but all NBA players. Curry was No. 3 in steals, No. 7 in 3-point shooting percentage and No. 9 in free throw percentage. He finished second to the Kings' Tyreke Evans in Rookie of the Year voting. And as soon as the season ended, talk began amongst Warriors fans that Curry would be the face of the franchise, albeit one that is searching for an owner.

Despite his continued successes, "I feel like I'm still the same person I was in high school," Curry says. "I'm sure I've changed a little but the way I see things hasn't and that's something people told me would be hard to maintain when I got to the league. I have a lot of good friends that I still talk to on a daily basis and my family reminds me to keep my head on straight."

Curry says he tries to emulate the play of Steve Nash and has become close with Chris Paul, who's represented by the same agency. He called Paul several times throughout the season for advice and will likely attend Paul's basketball camp this summer.

Curry says his best learning strategy isn't necessarily mimicking others; instead, he watches video of himself, pausing the tape before each play, thinking about his best passing and shooting options, then pressing play to see if he made the right choice. His father rarely critiques his game and offers advice only when asked.

[+] EnlargeStephen Curry
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesStephen Curry shined in his first season, averaging 17.5 ppg.

The heat of father-son competition now lies on the golf course for the avid golfers. Stephen will play in a celebrity tournament in Lake Tahoe this summer, and he and Dell won the celebrity Pro-Am at the Quail Hollow PGA event in Charlotte in April (Stephen shot an 83; Dell a 79). The two will co-host the first annual Curry Celebrity Golf Classic on June 21 in Davidson, the proceeds of which will go toward various non-profits supported by the Currys.

"They have a normal father-son relationship, and basketball is one of the ways they bond," Morrow says. "It's in Stephen's blood just like Mr. Curry's. It's something they've always had."

They've moved from the kitchen and are now outside playing H-O-R-S-E. But before they start, they're both offering excuses. Stephen says he hasn't shot a basketball since his season ended. Dell says he hasn't shot a basketball -- well, he claims it's been years, but Bobcats players will tell you otherwise.

After the son's opening basket, it's clear that neither is going to go easy on the other. First it's an 'H' for Dell, then for Stephen. Dell swishes a shot from almost beyond the next-door neighbor's driveway. Stephen misses and earns an 'O.' Back and forth they trade letters until, tied at 'S,' Stephen decides to exploit his father's weakness.

"He can't make the trick shots," Stephen says smiling, lining up at the free throw line before turning away from the basket and swishing a shot behind his back. Dell attempts the same but the ball banks off the rim. The son holds up his arms in victory, grinning. Dell walks inside, saying he's got more phone calls to make.

Back inside, Stephen ponders aloud why, in middle school, he chose basketball. Dell stands at the counter, sorting through the mail, half-listening.

"From an early age, I had a lot of fun with it," Curry says. "And I like the creativity that it breeds because I'm always thinking about it. And I think the way I play the game, there's always some kind of spark that people enjoy."

Stephen stops for a moment and looks at his father, considering his next words.

"Now, don't cry, Dad," he warns, smiling with a mix of jest and sincerity. Dell pauses and looks up, waiting to hear the answer.

"Really, it's because of him," Stephen says, nodding toward his father. "I chose basketball because I wanted to be like him."

Dell smiles and pats Stephen on the shoulder as he walks out of the room as Stephen continues talking about his love for "being at home." He says that yesterday he laughed with Seth for almost three hours as he and Dell moved Seth out of his Duke dorm for the summer. He predicts that he and his brother will battle many times on the backyard basket in the coming weeks. For now, though, they're a family spending time together before basketball seasons again send them on divergent paths.

"I remind our family that we're all we have at the end of the day," Sonya says. "It's so easy if you don't feel like going to your brother's game to say, 'That's just a game, it doesn't matter.' But I say, 'We are in this as a family, and we will support each other as a family.'"

That lesson has resonated.

"They're passionate about family, they love being at home and they love playing the game they saw their dad play," Dell says. "They work hard and they stay out of trouble for the most part, so we're very lucky. There's so much that can influence kids and young adults now, you just have to raise them the best you can and hope they make the right decisions."

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.