The buzz began to build on the bus ride to Ford Field.
Stephen Curry and some of his Davidson teammates marveled at the possibility that one of their basketball idols might show up to their Sweet 16 game that night.
LeBron James already stunned Davidson players earlier that week when he revealed that he had been following their unlikely 2008 NCAA tournament run and was an admirer of the baby-faced sophomore spearheading it. James spoke glowingly to reporters about Curry’s crowd-pleasing game, calling him a “very, very, very, very, very good basketball player.”
The notion of James wanting to watch Curry in person didn’t occur to anyone at Davidson until they realized the Cleveland Cavaliers would also be in Detroit to face the Pistons the next night. Then came word that Nike had sent enough boxfuls of red-and-white “Witness” T-shirts to outfit Davidson’s student section. And whispers that James’ representatives had called Davidson’s athletics department seeking game tickets.
Only minutes before tip-off, sharp-eyed Davidson players spotted the heads of some of the fans behind their bench begin to turn. Flanked by a group of friends was James, clad in a brown zip-up hoodie and a Nike T-shirt.
“Steph got excited. We all got excited,” former Davidson forward Andrew Lovedale told Yahoo Sports. “We were kids. We were in college at this small school. And here was this great NBA player. For us, it was like, ‘Wow, LeBron is coming to watch us play basketball.’ ”
Before their transcendent 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 advocates. He lent further credibility to a special talent by twice making an effort to come see him play for Davidson in person and by displaying genuine appreciation for the scoring feats he witnessed.
Curry and James exchanged phone numbers during that time, establishing a bond that has withstood four NBA Finals showdowns and their current clash in the Western Conference semifinals. Still hanging in Curry’s childhood bedroom in Charlotte is a gift he received from James during his junior year at Davidson: An autographed No. 23 jersey with a message that reads, “To S. Curry, The Best Player in N.C.”
“He signed it and I kept it,” Curry said last November on an episode of JJ Redick’s podcast, "The Old Man and The Three."
“It’s still wild just to think about the journey since then. Who would’ve ever thought?”
Steph brings LeBron out of his seat
To a once-unwanted recruit like Curry, that validation from James was surreal. The elder son of former Charlotte Hornets sharpshooter Dell Curry grew up in the heart of ACC country without securing a single ACC scholarship offer. Even Dell’s alma mater, Virginia Tech, wanted Curry only as a walk-on.
Only a few months after he chose Davidson over VCU and Winthrop, Curry stopped by campus to meet his future teammates and play some pickup basketball. Lovedale remembers sizing up the wisp of a newcomer and “wondering how he was going to keep up.”
It didn’t take long for Curry’s Davidson teammates to stop judging him by his peach-fuzzed face and slight physique. He soon began to showcase flashes of the crafty dribbling, deft finishing and lethal perimeter shooting that remain staples of his game today.
“Even in that first pickup game, you could tell there was something special about him,” former Davidson forward Steve Rossiter said. “He already had such a great feel for the game.”
The cult of Curry grew with every impossibly deep 3-pointer and every scoring barrage. Fans packed arenas across the Southern Conference to witness Curry’s exploits. Then a national audience fell in love with Curry when he racked up 128 points in four NCAA tournament games to carry 10th-seeded Davidson within a missed 3-pointer of the 2008 Final Four.
Curry was still known as Dell’s son when that NCAA tournament began. By the end he became so popular that Dell was relegated to Steph’s dad.
The inescapable question facing Curry at the time was whether he could replicate what he was doing at the mid-major level against long, athletic power-conference defenders. That skepticism was moot after the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend when he torched Gonzaga for 40 and Georgetown for 30.
Lefty Driesell, the former Davidson and Maryland coach, was sitting alongside Davidson radio play-by-play announcer John Kilgo during the Georgetown game. After Curry made a difficult shot, Kilgo remembers Driesell blurting out, “That little sucker not only can play in the ACC, he can play in the NBA.”
When James showed up to watch Curry try to topple third-seeded Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, Kilgo sensed an opportunity. He asked if James would be willing to be his halftime guest and offer his perspective on Curry.
At first, James’ representatives said no. Eventually, they gave in — but only on the condition that Kilgo keep him no longer than five minutes.
Exactly five minutes into the interview, Kilgo felt a tap on his shoulder. Someone who worked for James said his time was up. Sensing that James was enjoying talking about Curry, Kilgo took a gamble and ignored his time limit. James went on to describe Curry as one of the best shooters that he’d seen and to predict 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 with a laugh. “If the second half wasn’t starting, he wouldn’t have left.”
Curry looked worthy of James’ praise that day, shredding Wisconsin’s vaunted defense for 33 points in a 73-56 rout. Twice he brought James out of his seat, the first time on a deep left-wing 3-pointer in the midst of a game-turning Davidson surge and the second on a startlingly athletic reverse layup.
When asked about playing in front of James after the game, Curry admitted, “It's pretty cool to give him something to cheer about and just entertain him.”
From admirer to friend to foe
If James’ presence at their game was exciting for Curry’s teammates, it was their subsequent personal relationship that left the rest of the Davidson players starstruck. Lovedale recalls the Wildcats crowding around Curry’s phone anytime he received a new text message from James.
“Whenever we heard he got a text from LeBron, it was just the coolest thing,” Lovedale said.
The growing bond between Curry and James was apparent the second time that the NBA star showed up to a Davidson game. James made the effort to attend the Wildcats’ matinee matchup with NC State on Dec. 6, 2008, even though the Cavaliers were facing the Bobcats the very same night.
With just over a minute to go and Davidson clinging to a one-point lead, Curry buried a dagger of a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from closer to the mid-court logo than the top of the key. Curry then back-pedaled downcourt smiling and pointing at James, who was standing at his seat with his arms in the air.
Curry finished with 44 points in Davidson’s 72-67 victory. 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 its conference tournament that season and settled for an NIT bid, but that didn’t prevent Curry from solidifying himself as a surefire NBA lottery pick. Curry spent more time at point guard instead of running off screens as a catch-and-shoot specialist. That enabled him to showcase the passing and playmaking skills NBA teams needed to see to complement his lethal 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 wrote in his GQ diary the following week that they went bowling, watched "Family Guy" episodes and talked about “everything but the next day’s game.”
The relationship between Curry and James seemed to become more complicated when Curry went from looking up to James to trying to dethrone him. Golden State overwhelmed the injury-riddled Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals. Six months later, on the eve of the Warriors’ first game in Cleveland since the title clincher, Curry made a remark that reportedly irked James and other Cavaliers players.
"Obviously, walking in the locker room, it'll be good memories,” Curry told reporters. “Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like Champagne."
Cleveland enacted revenge the following season, rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to secure James’ signature achievement and to dish the Warriors their most bitter loss. At the championship parade, James wore an “Ultimate Warrior” T-shirt. A few months later, he threw a Halloween party replete with tombstone cookies with Curry’s and Klay Thompson’s name on them.
“The dessert table was phenomenal!!!,” James wrote on Instagram.
Despite those occasional jabs, James and Curry have mostly displayed mutual admiration toward 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 signify how many championships they each have won. As recently as Thursday night, they shared a laugh together at the scorer’s table while waiting to check back into Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
As they watch Curry and James face off in a playoff series for the fifth time in the past decade, some of Curry’s former Davidson teammates can’t help but chuckle at how much has changed. The baby-faced mid-major guard with no power-conference scholarship offers now shares equal billing with the NBA’s biggest superstar.
“It’s cool looking back now that they’ve become rivals and they’re two of the best players in the game,” Rossiter said. "I think it only adds to the story that LeBron was there when Steph was just emerging on the national scene.”