‘You were watching greatness’: How a young Steph Curry became a Toronto middle-school legend?
The new kid stood off to the side, watching the other boys play. He was quiet and seemed a bit shy, the way any adolescent might on their first day in an eighth-grade class partway through the school year.
As the best middle-school basketball player and one of the most popular students at Queensway Christian College, it was Casey Field’s duty to welcome him. His coach told him to make sure he didn’t feel left out.
Field knew the kid was the son of a Toronto Raptor — but that didn’t necessarily mean he knew how to play the game. And besides, he was so small. It was unlikely that he carried his dad’s basketball talent.
“Hey man,” Field asked during a break in the pick-up game. “Do you play at all?”
“Yeah,” Stephen Curry replied. “I play a little bit.”
With the first shot that Curry heaved from his waist, arcing way up with the skyline of Toronto just beyond the tiny private school in the city’s west end — and falling without a sound through the mesh-less rim — Field knew his school had probably landed itself a decent shooting guard.
He had no idea what he was about to witness.
We know what’s happened since. Curry is the now the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history. His dynastic Golden State Warriors have reached the NBA Finals five years in a row, and are looking for their third straight championship.
But back then, no one could have predicted what Curry would become — except, maybe him.
Not in an arrogant way, according to the rag-tag team of adolescents that played beside him. But with a sense of destiny, certainly. Curry sketched out his legacy beneath his Grade 8 grad photo in Queensway’s yearbook:
“I would like to thank God this year for allowing me to move to a new country and live in a new environment. It was a great change and I enjoyed it a lot.” Curry wrote. “I look forward to going to the NBA when I get older…”
Curry “looked forward” to it, as though it was a summer trip that was already booked. Now he’s back in Toronto, with a chance to win another NBA championship — and crush the hopes of the franchise and fanbase that was once part of a formative season in his young life.
James Lackey, a Phys Ed teacher and basketball coach in his late 20s, was in the gym staff room when he received an urgent call. He needed to get down to the office, he was told, because Dell Curry was there to see him.
The Toronto Raptors’ veteran shooting guard was in his final season with the team in the fall of 2001. He and his wife, Sonya Curry, had decided to move the family from North Carolina and were looking to enroll their children —Stephen, Seth, and Sydel — in the closest Christian school they could find.
Queensway sat on a busy thoroughfare that runs parallel to the Gardiner Expressway, which slowly funnels traffic into Toronto’s downtown core. There were about 500 students from kindergarten through to the end of high school. The school was really just a couple of hallways and a gym behind Queensway Cathedral, a large evangelical church that packs in a bustling, multicultural congregation of a few thousand people.
Looking at the 6-foot-4 Dell, Lackey figured he was about to add a large body to his undersized team. But when he was introduced to Stephen later that day, he was as scrawny or scrawnier than any of the boys he already had on the roster.
“Are you kidding me,” Lackey thought.
But word quickly spread from the playground that the new kid had game. Through those early days, Lackey saw Curry shoot around enough that he decided to add him to the roster of a high school exhibition game in the Queensway gym. There was only a few feet of room around the sidelines. It was packed with students who were let out of class early to see what Curry could do.
Against students in Grade 12, he was by far the smallest player on the floor. But he hit a three from the arc as soon as he was subbed in. The gym stirred. The opposing coach told his guards to play Curry tight at the line. On the next possession, Curry stopped a few feet back and hit another three. The gym got louder. The coach had his players step out and guard Curry even further out. Same result. The students went wild.
“They were holding their heads because they couldn’t believe what they were seeing,” Lackey says.
After that, Curry was allowed to play in exhibition games with the junior and senior high school teams — but was prohibited from playing in the regular-season games because he was in the eighth grade. So, Curry’s main team was the middle school squad. With only a couple of classes in each grade, there wasn’t a large pool of talent to choose from. Basically, anyone who wanted to play on the team did.
Sometimes, Curry’s next level ability became a liability for his less experienced teammates.
During a scrimmage in practice, Lackey told one of the players on Curry’s squad to make sure he kept his hands up near the basket. On the next play, Curry zipped a behind the back pass to his teammate, who had not taken his coach’s advice.
The ball smacked him hard in the face. The scrimmage halted as he clutched his nose, gushing with blood.
So one busted nose — and the potential for some bruised egos, at least initially.
George Daoud had been the team’s starting shooting guard. But as the season went on with Curry on the floor, he found himself relegated to the bench. During tournaments, Curry’s younger brother Seth came up from Grade 6 to play with the middle school team, too. That meant even less playing time for everyone else.
But, as a diehard basketball fan, Daoud quickly found that he didn’t really mind the lack of playing time. He had a front row seat to the best show in the city.
It took Field a couple of weeks to fully realize that the new kid was more than just a talented shooter — and that, in fact, he was no longer Queensway’s best player. Field didn’t mind much because he’d finally found a friend at school who cared about basketball as much as he did.
And all the winning they did helped, too.
The Saints only won three games the year before Curry arrived. Early in the season, when Queensway walked into opponents’ gyms, they were usually taken for underdogs. As the Saints ran layup drills, it often looked as though they should be in a different division than the team towering over them.
“It was like who are these guys?” says Field. “And then we’d go out there and Steph and Seth would just start hitting shots — it was like, our whole team is small, none of us are particularly athletic, but damn these two guys can shoot.”
And the crowd just grew from there. That was just the warm up.
Wherever the Saints went that year, crowds packed in to see “Dell Curry’s son.” The spectacle was as advertised. Curry wore a gold jersey that looked like it belonged to his famous dad. He was so small, he could have passed for an 11-year-old. But he dribbled like a wizard in his white Jordan 9s with black trim. He launched a sky-high shot from his waist at the 3-point line. It seemed like it would take all his effort just to hit the rim.
And he rarely hit the rim, of course.
The ball usually dropped right through the hoop, as though part of some perfect symmetrical equation. Then Curry would back up, and do it again — and back up, and do it again… and again.
“You were on the team and you were watching greatness,” says Daoud. “The scores for those games were like 60-50 — and he’d be scoring 40 to 50 of our points.”
Of course, Curry had the effect of making everyone on the floor better too. As his teammates learned to keep their hands up, he hit them with passes that kept opponents spinning in circles. Whenever one of his teammates scored a bucket, Curry celebrated like the play belonged on the And1 Mixtapes he used to watch with the team’s “sixth man” Ryan Counsell. Curry was especially excited when a player who usually didn’t get much floor time managed to get a bucket. As appreciative as they were, his teammates were more than happy to just watch the show.
“I just sat back in awe,” says Deven Mack, who wore No. 31 for Queensway as the team’s backup power forward. “I felt like I was watching an artist.”
While Curry dazzled crowds on the court that year, there were many areas where he was closer to an amateur than an artist.
Ball hockey, for starters.
Beyond golf, the kid from North Carolina had little experience with a stick in his hand. Curry could hit a jump shot from 40-feet out — but hitting a ball at his feet with a hockey stick was an entirely different story.
Still, Curry was eager to take on the challenge of life in a new country. He worked diligently in French class, mandatory in the Canadian curriculum, but completely foreign to an American student. He learned about Canadian history, even though when first arrived he wasn’t sure who Jean Chrétien was.
Curry also found the quirks of Canadian speech perplexing. He questioned why classmates pronounced the last letter of alphabet “Zed” instead of “Zee.” In turn, his classmates ribbed him about his southern accent.
He told his friends that the Wendy’s and McDonald’s tasted different in Canada. But he fell in love with Maynard’s fuzzy peach candies.
Although other students were in awe of the fact that his father was an NBA player, Curry never acted as though it made him special — even if it did get him a pair of Vince Carter Shox shoes that were the envy of his classmates.
Before Raptors games at the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena), Curry often shot around on the nets as fans filled the seats before the team warmed up. He’d go back on the court during halftime and shoot around some more before the start of the third.
Sometimes, Curry would bring his friends along. Counsell, one of the lucky kids from Queensway who tagged along as a guest, can still remember the fans cheering for him and Curry as they launched shots ahead of the third quarter, before Carter, Antonio Davis, Mo Peterson and rest of the Raptors came running out. For Counsell, it was surreal. For Curry, it was practice.
After the game, Curry bounced on a large purple ball in the hallway in front of the Raptors locker room. Carter passed by and told him to be careful. Curry kept bouncing as the NBA’s slam dunk champion walked away. Moments later, the ball shot one way while Curry crashed down in a heap. Counsell and Curry erupted with laughter.
At school, Curry played setter on the volleyball team, which was coached by his mother who played varsity volleyball at Virginia Tech.
“It was hilarious because she was super competitive,” Field laughs. “We were actually pretty good, but you could tell she would get frustrated sometimes.”
Curry played football and baseball too. And he always found time for golf — a passion he and Field shared. They even skipped class near the end of the year to play a round with their fathers.
Inevitably, there was at least a little trouble. Curry and Mack rigged a couple of mechanical pencils so they could shoot staples around the classroom. When Curry wasn’t looking, Mack fired a staple at him — intending to hit him in the back.
Instead, it nailed Curry in the ear.
Curry was convinced the staple had gotten stuck in his ear canal, Mack says. He started jumping up and down, freaking out, trying to knock it out. They both ended up in the office. Curry’s parents were called to come and pick up Stephen so he could get checked out at the hospital.
“Seeing terrified Dell Curry walk into the principal’s office was probably one of the most terrifying moments of my entire life,” says Mack.
The staple was later found on the floor and thankfully Curry’s hearing was fine. Mack was suspended for a day.
The stories still swirl and swell as the legend of Steph Curry continues to grow.
Lackey remembers teams that would stick around long after being eliminated from the middle school and high school tournaments just to watch Curry and the Saints play.
The spectacle was unforgettable. There were the miraculous feats — like when Curry scooped up a ball falling out bounds and sunk a shot from near half-court.
“It’s still the greatest shot I’ve ever seen in my life in an actual game,” says Field.
Or the game-winning heroics, like when Curry hit three three-pointers in the final minute of a championship game against Hillcrest Community School — a team of several giants over 6-feet tall that seemed sure to defeat the diminutive Saints.
Or the epic student versus teacher battle, where Steph faced off against his father, playing with the staff. The Currys went shot for shot, battling into triple overtime while the entire school watched. When the buzzer went, all the students swarmed the floor. To this day, no one can agree who actually won.
When Dell Curry retired as a Raptor, capping a 16-year-career, the family prepared to move back home to North Carolina and Stephen said goodbye to the friends he made.
“America 4 Life” he wrote on the back of a school picture for Counsell — playing on the constant back and forth they had about their different nations. He added the number 30 beside his signature.
Curry left town before his eighth-grade graduation, where Lackey called out his name as the school’s athlete of the year.
“Him moving away was kind of sad for me,” says Field. “We had become pretty good friends through the year. I had never at that point experienced someone moving to a different country… It was a weird feeling of someone becoming a part of your everyday life in a pretty meaningful way and then it’s gone.”
The Queensway friends lost track of each other in the pre-social media era of high school. They reconnected through social media when Curry emerged as a college star at Davidson University — staying in touch sporadically as he went on to fulfill the NBA plans he’d laid out in that yearbook.
But as Curry became a superstar, his connection to Toronto continued to run deep. His wife Ayesha grew up just north of Toronto before she moved to North Carolina where the couple met in high school.
Through the years, Curry has stayed connected with his coach, Lackey, and several of his old teammates.
Earlier this year, he met with Counsell and Mack at Scotiabank Arena after the Warriors lost to the Raptors in overtime. The trio chatted like it was just another day at Queensway, laughing about old times and catching up on news about each other’s families.
Despite his worldwide fame, Mack says, it was like Curry was still just the same quiet kid they met in middle school.
“He’s still that humble, down-to-earth regular kind of dorky guy,” he says. “It’s great knowing that he really hasn’t changed one bit.”
When Curry steps on the court at Scotiabank Arena to play Toronto in 2019 NBA Finals all those old friends will be watching, marvelling still.
Mack — a voice actor who lent his talent to a Gatorade commercial staring DeMar DeRozan last year — is a diehard Golden State fan.
“It’s Warriors all the way,” he says. “I’ll be public enemy number one.”
Counsell is refusing to pick a side.
“I have the city that I love and I always have my brother I grew up with — what do you choose?” he says. “I’m not wearing a jersey.”
But Field has been a Raptors fan since he was a kid. His family has been season ticket holders for years. He waited for hours earlier this week just to pick up a couple extra seats in Scotiabank’s lower bowl.
“It’s surreal and it’s conflicting,” Field says. “Which side I would root for was always a theoretical question… I never thought we’d actually be playing the Warriors in the finals.”
But his allegiances are set. He has to stay true. Curry would appreciate the loyalty, he says.
So Field will be in the stands at Scotiabank Arena as the series begins, proudly wearing a Raptors jersey — one among the thousands cheering against his old friend, hoping to avoid another chapter in the new kid’s legend.