CHARLOTTE — They slip off into the backyard sometimes, father and son, or sneak onto the floor of an empty arena.
Dell Curry, the former NBA player, knew years ago that the time had come to stop playing his sons in one-on-one games. He was aging, and his sons were young and hungry. But during quiet times, Dell and his two boys — Stephen Curry, the NBA’s reigning most valuable player and one of the game’s biggest stars, and younger brother Seth, who plays for the Sacramento Kings — still occasionally find a place to slip away, away from the crowds and cameras, for a game or two of H-O-R-S-E, that casual contest in which players attempt to make shots their foes can’t duplicate.
“I can still hold my own,” Dell Curry, now 51 and more than 13 years removed from his final NBA game, said of recent games against his boys.
These days, the elder Curry is mostly known throughout the country simply as Steph’s dad. He said he doesn’t mind that. But in Charlotte, where he broadcasts Hornets games and was honored by the team during a halftime ceremony earlier this month while Steph’s Golden State Warriors were visiting, he remains a local legend. During the Hornets’ golden age, the man could make anything — acrobatic, off-balance three-pointers from any angle or distance.
No wonder where his older son gets it.
“Being able to shoot the ball,” Steph Curry said recently, “I saw him do it for years and years and years.”
Not only that, but the younger Curry used to challenge his old man. And Dell Curry would oblige, his competitive drive intersecting with a desire to teach his sons the family business, grabbing a ball and heading toward the nearest basketball goal.
Fifteen or so years ago, when Steph was approaching his teenage years, the games were easy. The young man could make a few shots in those days, but he wasn’t strong enough to keep up with his father. And he had one glaring weakness, which his father didn’t mind exploiting: The kid who would one day become the NBA’s deadliest three-point shooter — who has, in recent years, somehow made the three-pointer cooler than the dunk — couldn’t make a shot outside the arc.
“I had fun; I played with him,” Dad said. “But I played to win.”
The backyard goal was sealed in the ground by concrete, and the three-point arc was from NBA range. Dell, who made better than 40 percent of his three-point attempts during his 16-year NBA career and whose 47.6 percent three-point accuracy in 1998-99 is still ranked 25th all-time, was good from most any distance. Steph, at 12 or 13, simply didn’t have the lower-body strength to match his father’s longest-range shots.
They’d play, Steph hanging a few letters on his dad, but the winner was always the same. Then they’d laugh about it, the youngster vowing to win someday. Sure, Dell would say playfully, and then they’d play again.
When the backyard games finally ended, Dell the undisputed household champion, Steph and Seth might follow Dell to Charlotte Coliseum, the Hornets’ arena in those days, and watch their dad work. The boys paid attention to how Dell practiced and played, the routines the elder Curry had honed for himself, the shots he had learned not in contests against his own father years earlier in Harrisonburg, Va., but in taking shot after shot on a rim attached to his high school coach’s barn.
Steph, unbeknownst even to his father, was absorbing his dad’s teachings and would use many of them when he became an NBA player himself.
“Just the way you handle yourself in the NBA lifestyle,” Steph, now 27 and the league’s scoring leader, said recently, “and the schedule that we have and just the stresses of the NBA life, I got to see it firsthand, up until I was about 13 or 14. I remember those things.”
Steph Curry kept growing — though his dad still has an inch on his 6-foot-3 older son — and became stronger. Suddenly the games became closer, more competitive; Dell had to get creative to continue winning, to keep fending off a son who by age 13 had become the family’s best golfer.
They played again and again, Dell attempting deeper threes, from more unusual angles.
“I was trying to win,” Dell recalled playfully, “and he struggled a little bit.”
By the time Steph was a senior at Charlotte Christian School in 2006, his father having retired four years earlier, the backyard games had become more competitive. Steph hoped to attend Virginia Tech, where his dad still holds several career records, but the Hokies offered only the chance to walk on. He decided to accept a scholarship at nearby Davidson College, and sometime during Steph’s senior year, he played his father again in the backyard.
Dell tried his usual strategy. Deep prayers and ridiculous angles, the letters collecting on each side. Steph kept making his shots, no matter the distances, no matter his dad’s experience or past dominance. Finally, there it was: He made the shot that Dell couldn’t match.
“I remember,” he said with a smile, “that I didn’t like that very much.”
They laughed about it, like usual, and recounted the game’s finer points — Dell insisting this time that it was an aberration a high school player had beaten a former NBA star. Long before Steph’s trophies and commercials, before Dell stood on a platform and described his son’s smooth shot as it sunk his hometown Hornets, before Dell was honored at halftime and Steph draped an arm over his mother’s shoulder and watched the spotlight find his dad, a father and son agreed that there was only one solution to this outcome.
They needed to play again.