Stephen Curry Wanted to Play in New York, but Fate Intervened


[h=2]Coveting Sharpshooter, Knicks Just Missed[/h][h=1]Stephen Curry Wanted to Play in New York, but Fate Intervened[/h] DEC. 13, 2014

On a Wednesday evening in mid-November at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, with the hometown Pacers about 90 minutes from hosting the Charlotte Hornets, Larry Riley strolled onto the court and spotted Donnie Walsh in his familiar station, a sideline seat, watching players go through warm-up rituals.

Riley, scouting for the Golden State Warriors after being shifted in 2012 from his previous role as general manager, sat down alongside Walsh, the longtime Pacers executive, who in 2008 detoured to his native New York in a tumultuous three-year effort to fix the downtrodden Knicks.

One year later, in June 2009, the career intersection of Walsh and Riley ? through their mutual desire to draft point guard Stephen Curry ? set in motion events that turned the long-lackluster Warriors into a rising N.B.A. power while denying the Knicks perhaps the one addition most likely to lift them from a decade of misery.

Inevitably, the subject of the Curry draft arose. Riley was mindful of Walsh?s misfortune and careful to keep the conversation casual.

?He was very cordial,? Riley said of Walsh in a recent interview, ?but you could tell there was regret because of what might have been. I remember him saying, ?Stephen has the kind of character to handle New York, for that stage.? But it?s part of life. All of us have stories like that.?

This is a story that Knicks fans should scorn with every fiber of their tormented souls, but should also be unable to resist, like a chain of rubbernecking drivers easing past a flaming wreckage. Instead of Curry, chosen seventh in 2009 by the Warriors, the Knicks, with the eighth pick, wound up with Arizona?s 6-foot-10-inch Jordan Hill, now with his third N.B.A. team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and, to be fair, averaging a respectable 13.1 points and 9 rebounds a game.

Hill never completed a season with the Knicks, playing in 24 games before being traded to Houston. But Curry has become one of the sport?s most compelling entertainers, often resourcefully unstoppable, and the charismatic leader of a team that has won 20 of its first 22 games, posting the league?s best record.

The Knicks are dealing with the trauma of their worst start in franchise history, with reports surfacing of locker-room discord weeks into the first full season of Phil Jackson?s team presidency.

For Walsh, the most painful part of the episode is that leading into the draft, Curry wanted no part of the Warriors and, assuming he was not going to be drafted higher, pointed to the Knicks as his preferred landing site. Curry refused to so much as visit or work out for the Warriors.

In a telephone interview, Curry?s father, Dell, who played 16 N.B.A. seasons as a sweet-shooting guard, said: ?The Warriors had some questionable characters on their team, the Knicks really needed a point guard, and we felt that Stephen would fit perfectly with a coach like Mike D?Antoni, playing that fast, up-and-down style. He loved the idea of playing at Madison Square Garden.?

In his final season at Davidson, Curry appeared in an early December game at the Garden against West Virginia and missed 12 of his first 13 3-point shots. But as a close game wound down, Curry heated up, finishing with 27 points, 10 assists, 4 steals and even 2 blocks.

Watching close by was Walsh, who ignored Curry?s early misfiring and was smitten by his court presence, his natural flair.

Walsh knew that Curry ? at 6-foot-3, one inch shorter than his father ? had an N.B.A. shooter?s pedigree. But Curry was much more creative, a multitalented offensive force.

?He?d get the ball in the backcourt, and boom, he was gone,? Walsh said by telephone from Indianapolis. ?It wasn?t just his quickness; he saw everything. I?m sitting there thinking, ?We?ve got D?Antoni coaching our team, and this kid would fit perfectly.? ?

Later that month, on a college scouting trip to Indianapolis, Riley took a look at Curry in a game against a physical Purdue team ranked 13th.

?I was curious to see how he handled that foul-you-and-beat-you-up style that Purdue liked to play,? Riley said.
If there was any concern about Curry?s prospects as a professional, it was whether he could physically deal with the N.B.A. game, given his slender frame. Curry was averaging 31.9 points, but Riley watched Purdue hound him into a 5-for-26 shooting night, with only 13 points.

?And you know what?? Riley said. ?I walked out that night thinking that he would be a very good N.B.A. player for 10 years. I didn?t worry about what he shot. I knew he could shoot. The reason I really liked him was that he never backed down.?

As the season progressed, Walsh and Riley remained fixated on Curry. But as draft positions settled in the annual lottery selection, Riley was engaged in trade negotiations with Phoenix. Steve Kerr, the Suns? general manager at the time, was eager to deal his All-Star forward, Amar?e Stoudemire, who was entering the final year of his contract and whose future was clouded by troublesome knees.

The proposed trade would have sent Stoudemire to the Warriors for the seventh draft pick and other players to create a salary-cap match. Kerr liked Curry as an eventual replacement for the aging Steve Nash.

Riley said that although talks were serious, the deal was never agreed to, and as the draft drew closer, he and Coach Don Nelson warmed more to teaming Curry with Monta Ellis, another 6-foot-3, explosive-scoring point guard.

?Nelly always loved playing small ball,? Riley said. ?And there was always the thought that if it didn?t work, we could move someone.?

The top four 2009 picks were Blake Griffin to the Los Angeles Clippers, Hasheem Thabeet (a bust of a center) to Memphis, James Harden to Oklahoma City and Tyreke Evans to Sacramento. Washington held the fifth position, and Minnesota was sixth.

Walsh said he had tried to trade for a higher pick to no avail, though Washington wound up moving the fifth choice to Minnesota the day before the draft. In continual communication with Jeff Austin, Curry?s agent, Walsh repeatedly asked if Curry?s status was rising.

?I knew Donnie was concerned about 5 and 6,? Austin said in an interview. ?I told him, ?Listen, don?t worry about 5 and 6, but you?d better worry about 7.? ?

Golden State?s drafting Curry didn?t make sense to Walsh because it already had Ellis. Walsh needed a point guard badly on a roster that included forwards David Lee, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, the previous year?s first-round pick.

Austin was sympathetic and told Walsh he was trying everything he could to get Curry to New York.

?Riley calls me and says, ?Can I watch a workout?? ? Austin said. ?I said, ?No, you can?t.? He says, ?Can I talk to him?? I said, ?No, you can?t.? I tell him that Stephen wants to be in New York. Stay away from him.

?Larry, to his credit, kept saying, ?I?m still taking him.? There was nothing I could do to dissuade him.?

David Kahn, Minnesota?s president for basketball operations, took point guards with the fifth and sixth picks, the Spanish star Ricky Rubio and Syracuse?s Jonny Flynn; Flynn and Kahn are out of the league now. That left Curry for the Warriors. The Knicks followed by drafting Hill, deflating the New York draft crowd and setting up Walsh for much second-guessing.

It turned out that the 2009 draft was laden with N.B.A.-caliber point guards. Drafted after Hill were Brandon Jennings (No. 10), Jrue Holiday (17), Ty Lawson (18) and Jeff Teague (19), all of whom have been starters with levels of achievement ranging from fair to very good.

?I got roasted for that one,? Walsh said. ?To be honest, I was so fixated on Curry. And the guys who went lower, I don?t think too many people thought they?d be this good.?

Riley concurred, saying that if Curry had been chosen before his turn, ?I would have taken Hill, too.?

Austin, the agent, said: ?The Knicks, if they were one spot higher, where would they be now? It just shows you that as much time and energy they put into it, the draft is not an exact science. A lot of it is just luck, where you land.?
As the Knicks? luck would have it, here is the final, taunting tally on the 2009 draft:

Curry has become everything Riley and Walsh believed he would be, and more, while Ellis was moved in a 2012 deal that brought the defensive-minded 7-foot center Andrew Bogut from Milwaukee after the Warriors drafted Klay Thompson, a better backcourt match for Curry, in 2011.

Kerr, who rejected his mentor Jackson?s offer to coach the Knicks when the Warriors? job opened last spring, wound up with Curry after all, while avoiding the nightmare Derek Fisher has been living in New York.

Had Kerr completed the 2009 Stoudemire deal for Phoenix, Golden State probably would have cut a multiyear deal with Stoudemire, sparing the Knicks the $100 million contract they handed him in 2010, with diminished returns because of injuries. Instead, when the Knicks signed Stoudemire, the Warriors took Lee in a sign-and-trade deal for about $80 million.

The Knicks have since been through multiple point guards, currently starting Jose Calderon, who is 33 and porous on defense.

?You look back, it?s been a big issue for them, no question,? Dell Curry said. ?But Stephen, he never thinks about that anymore. It?s all turned out well for him.?

And who can say what would have happened had Curry fallen to the Knicks? Would Walsh have been forced to surrender Curry among other assets when the Garden strongman, James L. Dolan, became obsessed with acquiring Carmelo Anthony in the early winter of 2011? Or would Curry have been given the time to develop into the showcase player he has become?

From Indianapolis, Walsh can only wonder, wistfully, how Curry might have changed the course of recent Knicks history.

?Every time I see him play, I think of it,? he said. ?He was the guy I was really looking for, and his agent kept telling me he wanted to be in New York. So it just broke my heart when we didn?t get him because I knew we had missed out on something special.?

So close, but now so far from where Curry and the Warriors have ascended in five years after rolling a lucky lottery seven.