It’s often interesting to look back at top athletes before they were stars, and ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan has a great piece on that, discussing some of the toughest opponents several Golden State Warriors’ players faced growing up. The section on Steph Curry’s childhood teammate and opponent CJ Young particularly stands out. Curry and Young started playing together on the AAU Charlotte Stars, but their contests in practice played a key role in Curry’s development:
“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.”
…”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.
Curry and Young would both go on to high school success, but their paths diverged from there. Curry didn’t get many big-school college offers, so he went to mid-major Davidson and led the Wildcats’ run to the Elite Eight in 2008. Young received more interest from power conference schools, but his grades weren’t good enough to get in at first, and his life took a turn in 2007 when he collapsed after a workout and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Extensive rehab has helped him walk again, but he’s still unable to work regularly and is on disability. But he still has fond memories of playing against Curry, and Curry credits him for some of his own success.
“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.”
MacMullan’s piece has a lot of additional material on other Warriors and the adversaries they faced growing up, including Klay Thompson’s high school clashes with Joe Eberhard and Shaun Livingston’s playground battles with Reggie Coleman . And it also discusses all the extra work and effort that these players put in to get to the level they’re currently at. But the discussion of Curry going head to head with Young’s particularly notable, as it illustrates how Curry learned some ways to compensate for being small and how he took those lessons with him as he got older. And Young’s story also shows how many things out of athletes’ control can wind up ending their careers. It’s certainly unfortunate that illness took away Young’s chance to play at a higher level, but it’s definitely interesting to read about him and Curry and how they bounced off each other growing up.