Starting Thursday night, Stephen Curry and LeBron James meet in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year.
Both have won championships — Curry’s Golden State Warriors bested LBJ’s Cleveland Cavaliers last year. Both have been named MVPs.
They also have this in common — both were born in Akron, Ohio.
But unlike James, no one saw Stephen Curry coming.
Not his high school coach, not college recruiters, not Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, not the six teams that selected before the Golden State Warriors in the 2009 NBA Draft.
“Who could have predicted this?” former Duke star and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told NCAA.com this year. “Sometimes you’ll see a guy and you have an opinion on him as a player and you’ll regret it, think maybe I should’ve watched more. You could’ve looked at this forever and not seen this. This was not predictable.”
Maybe because Curry, who grew up in Charlotte, where father Dell played for the NBA’s Hornets, was barely 6-0 and weighed less than 150 pounds as a high school junior. “Spindly baby-faced all arms and legs — like a pony,” said Davidson head coach Bob McKillop.
But Curry could shoot. And he had something else.
“You could see there was an instinct, there was a vision,” McKillop said. “He saw things before they happened. He never let things bother him. For a kid that young to just go on to the next play, what an extraordinary gift that was and still is today.”
In his first game at Davidson, Curry committed nine turnovers. The next night he scored 32 points against Michigan.
Curry averaged 21.5 points per game his first season, setting an NCAA freshman record with 122 3-pointers. He was Southern Conference Rookie of the Year and scored 30 points in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Maryland as Davidson finished 29-5.
“When he finished his freshman year, I clearly saw him as an NBA player and the kind of kid that was going to set the records at Davidson College,” McKillop said. “He just got better and better and better in every aspect. … Stephen improved in everything.”
Still, no one no one predicted what happened next, not even after Curry led Davidson to one of the most memorable seasons in school history.
As a sophomore, Curry set the NCAA single-season record with 162 3-pointers and led the Wildcats to another Southern Conference championship.
He rallied the 10th-seeded Wildcats to victories against No. 7 Gonzaga (82-76) and No. 2 Georgetown (80-74). He scored 70 points in the two wins, 40 on 14-of-22 shooting with eight 3-pointers against Gonzaga and 30 points against Georgetown.
Teammate Jason Richards scored 35 points in the two games.
That led to the sports moment judged the greatest in Davidson history, a 73-56 blowout against No. 3 Wisconsin in the Midwest Regional semifinals — with LeBron James in attendance. Curry scored 30 points as the Wildcats reached their first Elite Eight since 1969 under Lefty Driesell.
“No matter how many people are in the stands, it’s the same exact feeling as if I was in the gym by myself,” Curry told ESPN in 2008. “I just get into a groove that’s just my own, you know? That’s what it’s like.”
Davidson’s run ended in the regional championship against eventual national champion Kansas. The Jayhawks, with four future NBA players on their roster, won 59-57 only when Richards missed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer. Curry was held to 25 points on 9-of-25 shooting.
It remains one of the best Cinderella runs — and one of the greatest individual performances — in NCAA Tournament history.
The following season, Davidson lost in the SoCon Tournament semifinals and missed the NCAA Tournament, losing in the second round of the NIT. But Curry led the nation in scoring (28.6 ppg) and finished his career with 2,635 points (25.3 ppg), including 414 3-pointers (hitting on 41.2%), and led Davidson to an 85-23 overall record (55-3 in conference).
Six teams passed on Curry in the 2009 NBA Draft until the Warriors selected him No. 7 overall. He didn’t win Rookie of the Year, finishing as runner-up to Tyreke Evans, and wasn’t selected to an All-Star team until his fifth season.
So no one predicted what happened next.
Last season, given more freedom to shoot under first-year head coach Steve Kerr, Curry broke his own NBA record for 3-pointers. He led the Warriors to 67 wins and their first championship in 40 years. He was named MVP, averaging 23.8 points despite sitting out the fourth quarter of 17 games because of Golden State’s margins of victory.
This season, Curry revolutionized the game with a record-shattering 402 3-pointers while leading the Warriors to an all-time best 73-9 record. He became the first unanimous MVP in NBA history and helped rally the Warriors from a 3-1 deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the Western Conference Finals.
Now they’re back in the NBA Finals against James and the Cavaliers.
No one can predict what will happen next, but everyone can’t wait to find out.
Of Curry, this much is certain.
“He is the most visible alum in the history of Davidson College,” McKillop said. “That’s a pretty big mouthful to say when you’ve had a guy like (former U.S. Secretary of State) Dean Rusk here, when you’ve had as many college presidents and Rhodes Scholars, All-Americans and leaders in the academic world and business world.
“Because of the stage that he’s on in the NBA night in and night out … he’s the greatest ambassador and representative of Davidson College.”
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Tuesday: Dartmouth and Davidson
• Wednesday: Dayton and Delaware
• Thursday: Denver and Detroit
• Friday: The Web Show starring The Judge