He is a supernova now, a shooter so skilled that players scramble to locate him before he crosses half court. We’ve learned these bombs are not one-time dalliances. Steph Curry has been practicing them since he was a small boy, expanding his range through the tedious exercise of repetition. “You don’t just learn to shoot like that on a whim,” he says.
Curry can’t rely on an expansive wingspan like Anthony Davis‘, or comic book Avengers muscles like LeBron’s. He’s the everyman superstar, one who resembles the postal carrier who stuffs annoying flyers in your mailbox, the neighbor who grills burgers on his back deck, the guys you ran pickup with at the YMCA last Saturday.
And while he might well be one of the most feared weapons in the NBA today, when Steph Curry was 12 years old, a kid named CJ Young owned him.
You’ve probably never heard of Young. But Curry has never forgotten him.
THEY PLAYED TOGETHER and against one another on the North Carolina AAU circuit, their initial introduction as teammates on the Charlotte Stars.
“Steph was kind of frail, kind of small, and I could push him all over the court,” Young says. “My job was to toughen him up.”
“CJ was a monster,” Curry says. “He was a physical specimen who had speed, athleticism and hand-eye coordination. He was the measure of a 12-year-old basketball player in Charlotte.
“I was clearly overmatched.”
Forecasting adolescent talent is an inexact science, yet it was Young who looked like the legitimate prospect. He had size, presence, a great motor, a charismatic personality — which perhaps explains why, all these years later, friends and family still lament the day his basketball dreams collapsed in a heap.
“CJ was one of those fearless kids who held people accountable,” says Duane Lewis, Young’s high school coach at North Mecklenburg, a regional school in Huntersville, North Carolina. “He was so confident, and so strong. Kids listened to him.”
While the barrel-chested Young looked older than his peers, the wispy Curry was often mistaken for a younger player. He was an easy mark, shoved aside on the block, mowed over in the open court. His only retort was to balance the playing field with long-range marksmanship.
“I was a zone-buster,” Curry says. “I was so small and skinny, that was my only role. I knew I could do a bit more, so I was trying to push myself.”
Young was there to help. He was Curry’s teammate on the Charlotte Stars from ages 10 to 12, and his father, Carl, a Stars coach, instructed his son to “work Steph over.” CJ bodied Curry, bumped him, pounded him in the gut, delivered karate chops to his shooting arm. After an hour of this, Curry would lose his composure and retaliate in frustration.
“My ribs would be so sore after practice from Steph elbowing me,” CJ says.
When the games started, CJ would roam the court as Curry’s enforcer. If players tried to manhandle him, Young would deliver a hard pick or menacing glare, whichever proved more effective. “I could always hear them talking when we got in the gym: ‘Which one is Dell’s son? Let’s go at him.’ I didn’t like that,” Young says. “I had to nip that in the bud.”
During one of their games, Carl Young remembers, Curry drilled seven 3-pointers in a row over an increasingly agitated defender. When Curry lined up for the eighth, the boy guarding him didn’t even try to contest the shot. Instead, he plowed into Curry and catapulted him past the bench to the front row of the bleachers, where Curry’s horrified mother, Sonya, was sitting.
“It was a brutal hit,” Carl says. “Steph didn’t stop crying for the next two games.”
CJ couldn’t shoot like Steph, but he was the more complete player — and more highly regarded. He was recruited to play for the AAU Carolina Celtics, which meant his physical tactics on Steph were implemented as the opponent. The two continued to trade elbows and buckets for the next two years, their friendly rivalry intensifying as their skill sets evolved.
“We never got into any fights or anything,” Steph says. “It was a nice challenge for me to understand what physical basketball was about. CJ took me outside my comfort zone. It was a good test at that point of my life to see if I could handle it or not.”
As Curry grew older — and taller — he enrolled at a private school, Charlotte Christian, and no longer crossed paths with Young. But he still kept tabs on him. Curry was pleased to read that in March 2005, North Mecklenburg won its first — and only — state championship behind star Jamie Skeen, with junior CJ Young playing a major role in the victory.
“After that,” Curry admits, “I kinda lost track of him.”
By his senior season, Curry, who had been spurned by major college programs, committed to mid-major Davidson. CJ Young, his father says, was being courted by many lower-level Division I schools, including some ACC programs. “I still have the bags of recruiting letters,” Carl Young says.
But CJ’s grades were an issue. Herb Sendek, then the NC State coach, encouraged him to stay in touch as he explored his junior college options. A year after his high school graduation, Young still had not enrolled anywhere, but he continued to put in hours at the gym, honing his shooting stroke. “Basketball,” he says, “was everything to me.”
Young also worked out at a fitness center with his cousin Darryl Rankin Jr., an NAIA football prospect. One sticky spring day in 2007, the cousins grunted through a circuit of weights and agility drills. They had just finished some squats when Young felt an odd sensation.
Something was wrong. He felt a tingling in his arm. Without warning, his right side went numb. His knees buckled — and he fell to the floor.
“Help me!” Young shouted to his cousin. “I can’t feel my legs!”
MOST NBA PLAYERS have a CJ Young in their past; a rival, a physically superior opponent or a wily player who used his street smarts to somehow get the best of them.
So how did the future stars separate themselves to become elite pro athletes? Much of it can be attributed to superior physical attributes, but that alone, Warriors guard Klay Thompson says, won’t take you to the top.
“People underestimate how hard we work to get here,” Thompson says. “There’s a lot of natural talent, but there’s also that commitment to getting better, to never being satisfied.”
Much like his Splash Brother, Thompson was a late bloomer. He recalls being bitterly disappointed when he was relegated to the freshman basketball team at Santa Margarita High School in California in his first season instead of making the junior varsity.
So while his friends spent the summer at the beach, Thompson spent it in the gym. He gave up football his final two years of high school to concentrate on basketball.
Soon he was one of most prolific scorers in the state. His high school nemesis was Joe Eberhard, like Thompson a big, strong 3-point shooter from Corona del Mar High school in Newport Beach. “I guess you could say we were 1A and 1B,” Thompson says.
In Thompson’s junior season, the two teams met in a holiday tournament. Corona del Mar devised a triangle-and-two defense to keep the ball out of the hands of Thompson and his teammate Zack Zaragoza, who would go on to play at Northern Arizona.
“That was a game circled on the calendar,” Eberhard says. “Klay was the best player in Orange County.”
Eberhard followed Thompson everywhere on the floor, often getting double-team help. He held the future NBA All-Star to nine points and scored 27 of his own. Yet it was Santa Margarita that pulled out the 67-57 win.
“People made a big deal about us holding Klay to nine points,” Eberhard says, “but he kept finding his brother Trayce for easy baskets. He almost had a triple-double in that game.”
Seven months later, Eberhard played with Thompson in a summer league tournament. By then, Klay had hired Joedy Gardner to help him train. Eberhard immediately noticed a difference. “You could tell,” Eberhard says, “he was serious about getting better.” Thompson went on to win the state championship in his senior season, scoring 37 points and drilling what was then a state-record seven 3-pointers.
Eberhard went to UC Irvine to play ball but suffered a groin injury, redshirted, then spent the next two years at Irvine Valley College. He spent his final two seasons at Sacramento State, where, in 2012-13, he averaged 5.9 points a game.
These days, Eberhard’s basketball is limited to the occasional pickup game. He is a sales rep for a security systems company and an ardent Warriors fan who marvels at the career of his former rival. “It just blows my mind, the success he’s had,” Eberhard says.
Curry says Thompson’s work ethic was apparent from the first day they formed one of the most lethal backcourts in NBA history. It is one of the shared traits he believes has set them apart.
“I don’t think everybody enjoys practicing and lifting and running and doing all that stuff,” Curry says. “If you love the game, if you want to appreciate those moments when the lights are on and every shot counts, then you better be prepared for those moments.
“As you evolve, it’s almost like a game within a game. When you get to college, then the pros, everything resets and it’s an equal playing field. You’ve got to figure out how to differentiate yourself. You’ve got to figure out how to get to a certain level and how to stay there. The time you put in is what will determine that.”
CJ YOUNG NEVER enjoyed the luxury of discovering how far he could go. Back in 2007, as he lay splayed on the floor of the health center, terrified by what was happening, his cousin Darryl scooped him into his arms, carried him to the car and sped off to the emergency room. Young spent the next seven hours being examined by a team of doctors.
“They thought I had a stroke,” Young says. “The scary part was it didn’t hurt.”
In subsequent days, Young underwent a battery of tests — X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, EKGs — before doctors discovered lesions on his brain.
The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. After undergoing months of extensive rehab, he could walk again, but his right side was weakened, and Young had trouble dribbling the ball. “I just couldn’t really make my body work the same anymore,” he says. Playing basketball was no longer an option.
Young has never left Mecklenburg County. He’s much thinner now, the barrel chest gone, a casualty of his illness. He takes medication for his MS and has physical therapy sessions to help keep him mobile. Some days are better than others. He cannot work regularly, so he is on disability. Once in a while, he shows up to the high school games at his alma mater.
“Just this winter,” Lewis says, “I came out from halftime and there was CJ in our huddle. He saw me, gave me a big hug and said, ‘Hey, Coach!”’
The last time Young saw Steph Curry was in 2005, when they ran into each other at the Indian Trail Rec Center on the outskirts of Charlotte, working independently on their games and preparing for the next step in their basketball journey.
“I said to him, ‘Man, you are growing,’ and I wished him luck,” Young says. “He wished me the same.”
It is during a late February road trip in Washington, D.C.. this season when Curry is initially asked to identify his childhood nemesis. He happily provides details on the great CJ Young and grins as he describes the pounding he absorbed. “I wonder,” he muses, “what happened to him.”
A day and a half later, an ESPN reporter supplies him with the answer. CJ Young, Curry is informed, has a debilitating illness. Curry, perched on a chair in the Georgetown gymnasium, visibly shudders upon hearing this news. “Damn,” he says, fiddling with his trademark mouthguard. “MS? How bad is it? Oh man, CJ. That’s rough.” He pauses for a long moment, his clear eyes fixated somewhere in the distance.
“Just make sure he knows I appreciate the challenge he presented,” Curry finally says. “He had a part in my journey, for sure.”
Maybe after the Finals, when he’s home visiting his family in North Carolina, Curry will give his old rival a call. “We’ll probably reminisce about all the great bus rides we took from Sugar Creek,” he says.
Ask Young about those bus trips and he’ll tell you that he remembers those outings like they were yesterday. His basketball memories are stuck firmly in the past, before his body betrayed him. Today, even shooting in the driveway is a challenge.
CURRY’S ASCENSION remains a popular topic in the Charlotte area. The city’s favorite son is remembered fondly in AAU, high school and college circles as a player who defied the odds the old-fashioned way: by outworking everyone.
“I smile every time someone mentions Steph,” Young says, “because I know what I put him through.”
“It’s funny,” Curry says. “When I first got into the NBA, CP3 and Deron Williams tried to post me up because I was quote-unquote a mismatch. But CJ had already been doing that to me for years. It’s crazy the confidence I drew from that going into the league.”
But Curry isn’t the only player who is remembered in these parts. Lewis says that when he goes to summer AAU tournaments, where college coaches congregate by the dozens, at least one of them will ask, “Whatever happened to that point guard of yours? God, I loved that kid.”
“That kid” Lewis says, “was CJ.”
Today, despite his Carolina roots, Young is a rabid Golden State fan. When Warriors games come on, he grabs his Steph Curry jersey. He cranks up the volume, settles into his favorite armchair and locks into No. 30, carefully monitoring movements that have an old, familiar ring to them.
Recently, while watching Curry drain one of those absurdly long 3s, Young turned to the friends who were watching with him and informed them proudly, “I know him.”
They scoffed at his claim — laughed at him, actually — until he rummaged through his closet and pulled out his old photo book. He quickly thumbed through, then triumphantly pointed to a faded AAU photo from 18 years ago, when Steph Curry was just a skinny little zone-buster and CJ Young was on top of the basketball world.