From admirer to friend to foe

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 2: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter in game one of the Western Conference Semifinal Playoffs at the Chase Center on May 2, 2023 in San Francisco, California.  NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photograph, the user agrees to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

LeBron James and Steph Curry have faced each other five times in the NBA playoffs. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The excitement began to build on the bus ride to Ford Field.

Stephen Curry and some of his Davidson teammates wondered about the possibility of one of their basketball idols showing up for their Sweet 16 game that night.

LeBron James stunned the Davidson players earlier in the week when he revealed he had been following their unlikely 2008 NCAA tournament run and was an admirer of the baby-faced sophomore leading it. James spoke glowingly to reporters about Curry’s crowd-pleasing play, calling him a

It never occurred to anyone at Davidson that James wanted to see Curry in person until they realized the Cleveland Cavaliers would also be in Detroit the following night to face the Pistons. Then word broke that Nike had sent enough cases of red-and-white “Witness” shirts to stock Davidson’s student department. And whispers that James’ reps called Davidson’s athletics department to request tickets to games.

Just minutes before kick-off, sharp-eyed Davidson players saw some fans behind their bench starting to turn their heads. Flanked by a group of friends was James, dressed in a brown zipped hoodie and Nike t-shirt.

“Steph was excited. We were all excited,” former Davidson forward Andrew Lovedale told Yahoo Sports. “We were children. We went to this little school in college. And here was this great NBA player. For us it was like, ‘Wow, LeBron is coming to watch us Play basketball.’ ”

Before her towering talent, unmatched marketability, and thirst for championships spawned the rivalry that has defined the NBA for the past decade, James was once one of Curry’s earliest high-profile proponents. He lent further credence to a particular talent by making two efforts to see him play for Davidson in person and by showing genuine appreciation for the goalscoring he witnessed.

Curry and James exchanged phone numbers during that time and formed a connection that has endured four NBA Finals showdowns and their recent Western Conference Semifinals clash. in Charlotte is a gift he received from James during his junior year at Davidson: an autographed No. 23 jersey that read “To S. Curry, The Best Player in NC”

“He signed it and I kept it,” on an episode of JJ Redick’s The Old Man and The Three podcast. “It’s still wild just thinking about the journey since. Who would have ever thought that?”

Steph pulls LeBron out of his seat

For a once-undesirable recruit like Curry, that endorsement from James was surreal. The elder son of former Charlotte Hornets sniper Dell Curry grew up in the heart of ACC country without securing a single ACC scholarship offer. Even Dell’s alma mater, Virginia Tech, only wanted Curry as a sidekick.

Just months after choosing Davidson over VCU and Winthrop, Curry stopped by campus to meet his future teammates and play some pickup basketball. Lovedale recalls gauging a newcomer’s whiff and “wondering how he’d keep up.”

It wasn’t long before Curry’s Davidson teammates stopped judging him by his peachy face and slim frame. He soon began showing flashes of cunning dribbling, skillful finishing and deadly perimeter shooting, which remain staples of his game to this day.

“Even in that first pickup game, you could tell he was special,” said former Davidson forward Steve Rossiter. “He already had such a great feeling.”

The Curry cult grew with every incredibly deep 3-pointer and every shot on goal. Fans filled arenas across the Southern Conference to witness Curry’s exploits. Then a national audience fell in love with Curry as he accumulated 128 points in four NCAA tournament games to carry Davidson to 10th place.

Curry was still known as Dell’s son at the start of the NCAA tournament. In the end, he became so popular that Dell was relegated Steph’s father.

The inescapable question Curry faced back then was whether he could repeat what he did at mid-level against long, athletic power conference defenders. That skepticism was mooted after the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, when he torched Gonzaga for 40 and Georgetown for 30.

Former Davidson and Maryland coach Lefty Driesell sat next to Davidson play-by-play spokesman John Kilgo during the Georgetown game. After Curry pulled off a difficult shot, Kilgo recalls Driesell blurting out, “Not only can this little sucker play in the ACC, he can play in the NBA.”

When James showed up to watch Curry try to put third-placed Wisconsin into the Sweet 16, Kilgo sensed an opportunity. He asked if James would be willing to be his guest at half-time and offer his perspective on Curry.

At first, James’ reps said no. Eventually they gave in – but only on the condition that Kilgo didn’t hold him for more than five minutes.

Exactly five minutes into the interview, Kilgo felt a hit on his shoulder. Someone who worked for James said his time was up. Sensing that James was enjoying talking about curry, Kilgo took the gamble and ignored his time limit. James further described Curry as one of the best shooters he had ever seen and predicted that Curry would have a long career in the NBA.

“I bet it was a 20-minute halftime that day and we missed all our commercial breaks,” Kilgo told Yahoo Sports, laughing. “If the second half hadn’t started, he wouldn’t have left.”

Curry looked worthy of James’ praise on the day, shattering Wisconsin’s vaunted defense for 33 points in a 73-56 loss. Twice he got James out of his seat, the first time with a deep left 3-pointer amid a game-turning Davidson surge, and the second time with an amazingly athletic reverse layup.

When asked if he wanted to play in front of James after the game, Curry admitted, “It’s pretty cool to give him something to cheer about and just entertain him.”

DETROIT - MARCH 28: LeBron James of the CLeveland Cavaliers is interviewed at halftime in the game between the Davidson Wildcats and the Wisconsin Badgers during the Midwest Regional Semifinals of the 2008 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at Ford Field on March 28, 2008 in Detroit , Michigan (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

LeBron James is interviewed at halftime of the game between the Davidson Wildcats and the Wisconsin Badgers during the Midwest Regional Semifinals of the 2008 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament at Ford Field March 28, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

From admirer to friend to foe

If James’ presence at their game was exciting to Curry’s teammates, it was their subsequent personal relationship that impressed the rest of the Davidson players. Lovedale recalls the wildcats crowding around Curry’s phone whenever he received a new text message from James.

“Whenever we heard he got a text from LeBron, that was just the coolest thing,” Lovedale said.

The growing bond between Curry and James was evident when the NBA star showed up to a Davidson game for the second time. James made an effort to attend the Wildcats’ matinee matchup against NC State on December 6, 2008, although the Cavaliers faced the Bobcats that same night.

With just over a minute to go and Davidson holding on to a one-point lead, Curry buried a dagger of a catch-and-shoot three-pointer closer to the mid-court logo than the top of the key. Curry then stepped back smiling and pointed at James who was standing in his seat with his arms raised.

Curry ended Davidson’s 72-67 win with 44 points. James spent the game cheering for Curry and even yelling at the officials to try to get Davidson a more favorable whistle.

Davidson lost in his conference tournament that season and opted for a NIT bid, but that didn’t stop Curry from establishing himself as a surefire lottery pick. Curry spent more time at the point guard rather than running off screens as a catch-and-shoot specialist. That allowed him to demonstrate the passing and playmaking skills NBA teams needed to see to complement his deadly perimeter shot.

When the Warriors visited Cleveland in November of Curry’s rookie year, he hung out at James’ house the day before the game. Curry the following week where they went bowling, watched Family Guy episodes and talked about “everything but the game the next day.”

Curry and James’ relationship seemed to get more complicated when Curry stopped looking up to James and started trying to dethrone him. Golden State overwhelmed the injury-plagued Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals. Six months later, on the eve of the Warriors’ first game in Cleveland since winning the title, Curry made a remark that allegedly angered James and other Cavaliers players

“Obviously going into the dressing room will be good memories,” Curry told reporters. “Hopefully it still smells a little like champagne.”

Cleveland retaliated the following season, bouncing back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to secure James’ signature success and inflict their bitterest loss on the Warriors. James wore an Ultimate Warrior t-shirt for the championship parade. A few months later he threw a Halloween party crammed with

“The dessert table was phenomenal!!!” James wrote on Instagram.

But despite those occasional nudges, James and Curry have mostly shown mutual admiration for one another. At Draymond Green’s wedding last summer, James and Curry posed for a photo with the groom, all three men holding up four fingers to indicate how many championships they’d each won. As late as Thursday night, at the scorers’ table while waiting to check in again in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

As they watch Curry and James square off in a playoff series for the fifth time in the last decade, some of Curry’s former Davidson teammates can’t help but laugh at how much has changed. The baby-faced mid-major guard, who doesn’t offer a power-conference scholarship, is now put on par with the NBA’s biggest superstar.

“It’s cool to look back now that they’ve become rivals and are two of the best players in the game,” Rossiter said. I think it just adds to the story that LeBron was there when Steph just emerged on the national stage.”


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