A skinny, baby-faced kid from a small college on the other coast, Stephen Curry landed in the Bay Area in 2009 not by choice but by circumstance and, perhaps, fate. In an NBA teeming with skeptics, the Warriors were among the true believers.
Precisely 50 years earlier, Wilt Chamberlain strolled into the Warriors franchise, then in Philadelphia, and immediately became the highest paid player in the league. Of course. Here was someone with unprecedented size, skill and athleticism.
Everybody believed in Wilt, whose sheer physical dominance changed the game.
Everybody with a working knowledge of basketball has come to believe in Steph, who on Monday night replaced Chamberlain as the franchise’s all-time scoring leader.
Curry also changed the game, opening it up to such a degree that coaches teach differently, the NBA operates differently and, perhaps most notably, skinny boys and girls he’d never met could watch him and find greater belief within themselves.
“Here’s the thing about Steph: He is so much fun to watch,” says Rick Barry, No. 3 on the franchise career scoring list. “I love watching him play. Steph is one of the rare players who is worth the price of admission.”
Curry’s ascent from Davidson College in North Carolina to No. 1 on the franchise scoring list of one of the NBA’s original 11 teams is a testament to perseverance, a man determined to get the most of his gifts, wasting not one drop of potential. He scrapped his way to the top, doing it with a smile that concealed the sneer in his heart.
“I saw him in college and immediately said to myself, ‘That’s a hell of a shooter,’ ” Barry says. “It remained to be seen how he’d do in the NBA. I don’t think anybody expected him to become the player he is. But he is because of his work ethic and his drive to be great, the time and effort he puts in. How can you not admire that?”
The first two years put the Warriors on alert over Curry’s durability, and his third year had the skeptics leaning on their initial assessments. Sure, he could shoot. But would his 6-foot-2, 180-pound body hold up to the demands of the NBA? Could it meet the challenges of a league in which 80 percent of the players were taller and 90 percent were heavier?
“A lot of people were saying he’s not a point guard, that’s he’s a 2-guard, but he’s too small to play there, not strong enough,” recalls former Warriors general manager Larry Riley, who along with former coach Don Nelson, drafted Curry off what they visualized. “Part of the problem, I think, was that he looked like a 16-year-old kid.
“But we actually looked at it differently. Sure, we had some slight concerns about him physically, but we also felt that if he got him in the weight room and gave him a chance to mature that he’d be OK. If you look at his dad, Dell, he was built pretty well. The whole family is athletic. We figured it might take a while but that his body would come along.”
Not until Year 4, 2012-13, after multiple ankle surgeries, was Curry able to fully defend his value. He played 78 games, averaging 22.9 points and leading the NBA in 3-point makes with a league record 272.
Moreover, the Warriors reached the playoffs for the second time in 19 years and the first time in Curry’s career, a No. 6-seed upsetting the Nuggets in the first round and pushing eventual Western Conference champion Spurs to six games.
In the seven seasons since, the Warriors reached five consecutive NBA Finals, winning three championships, with Curry earning back-to-back NBA MVP awards, the second with the only unanimous vote in league history.
“Even those with the highest regard for him coming into the league, I don’t think could have forecast the heights that he has reached,” says Chris Mullin, No. 5 on Golden State’s all-time scoring list and the only other living member of the Top 5, along with Barry. “More important, he’s been able to stay there. He’s exceeded the highest expectations – by miles.”
In searching for comps, Mullin mentions Nate “Tiny” Archibald, a 6-foot-1, 160-pound guard who led the NBA in scoring and assists in 1972-73, and Isiah Thomas, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound guard who led the Pistons to three consecutive trips to The Finals, with back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. Both are in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
“But Steph has taken those guys’ types of games to a level so much higher that it’s crazy,” Mullin says. “That’s insane, because those are two of the greatest guards of all time. But there’s no comp to Steph Curry.”
Curry, 33, has sculpted his 6-foot-3 frame to almost 200 pounds. He is in the midst of one of his best seasons. His 29.7 points per game is the second-highest of his career, his 59.5 effective field-goal percentage is a fraction better than that posted in his first MVP season and his 92.5-percent shooting from the line is the best in a decade.
“We thought we drafted a really good point guard that could have a 10-year career with us,” Riley says. “I’d be lying to you if he said I knew this was coming.”
As the Warriors struggle to stay in the playoff race, and with opponents focusing their defensive schemes and energy toward Curry, he has been remarkable.
“He’s having fun out there playing,” Barry says. “He can do everything an offensive player can do. He can get to the basket. He can shoot the midrange. He can from insane distance. He can take shots that for most players, the coach would be up in arms. But with Steph, it’s a good shot. And, also, he’s a great free throw shooter.
“How do you guard that? You can’t. Not with one player. Sometimes, not with two.”
Barry declines to compare Curry to Chamberlain, citing different eras and roles, but declares Curry is the best point guard in the history of a franchise that has employed Hall of Famer Guy Rodgers and likely Hall of Famer Tim Hardaway.
Mullin, however, believes Curry already has established himself as the greatest player to ever wear a Warriors jersey.
“He’s going to have all the records,” Mullin says. “He’s already got three rings. And, much like Wilt or Rick, and all those legendary players, defenses are trying exclusively to stop him every game.
“Milwaukee played him pretty well (last Tuesday night). Every time he shot a 3, there were two guys, really close contests. Plus, (Bucks guard) Jrue Holiday is a great defender. They did a good job, which sounds silly because he got 41. It’s a joke.”
Curry’s game is the polar opposite of that played by the 7-foot-1, 270-pound Chamberlain. Same applies to their on-court personas and their off-court lifestyles.
Wilt eventually outgrew the resources of ownership. Too big for the market, he was traded to the 76ers, who provided a better salary.
Curry could have outgrown the market. Instead, he operates under a new-age ownership that understands he is the market. He has made the Bay Area his own and calls it home.