NBA executives from nearly every franchise packed a St. Louis gym in December of 2000 to catch a glimpse at the future. The game at the Shop N Save–KMOX Shootout — the marquee prep event of the year — featured Eddy Curry from Thornwood High School of South Holland, Illinois, and Tyson Chandler from Compton-Dominguez High School of Compton, California. Curry flexed a mammoth frame, the softest of hands, and the nimblest of feet. He had grown up wanting to be a gymnast and, while his body outgrew acrobatics, he maintained uncanny agility for a 300-pound frame. Chandler, by contrast, was a 7-foot string bean whom analysts compared to Kevin Garnett. He had always wanted to be a basketball player.
The game thudded dully, despite the amplified buildup and dignified audience. Chandler's team eked out a four-point victory. Curry had missed practice during the week, did not start, and subbed in at the first dead ball. He missed seven of his first eight shots. Chandler grabbed only one rebound. Both scored 16 points and claimed the spectators had not seen them at their best. "It was anticlimactic," said Sonny Vaccaro, the legendary shoe marketer, who had spent time with both players. "That's what I remember." Curry said he had the flu. "Only he knew if he was sick or not," an 18-year-old Chandler said after the game. "I was always taught not to make excuses. If he was on the court, he was playing."
A 29-year-old Chandler has the flu. The illness — along with the injuries to Iman Shumpert and Amar'e Stoudemire — evaporates whatever slim chance his Knicks had of upsetting the Miami Heat. In his first season in New York, Chandler brought a defensive presence to the Garden unseen since the early days of Patrick Ewing. Chandler is an NBA champion, a gold medalist in international play, and the newly anointed Defensive Player of the Year. He is the backbone of the Knicks, their anchor, and last resort in the middle. He is integral to the Knicks' present and future. He is the epitome of the player who blossoms late, finds his role, embraces it, and is celebrated for it.
A 29-year-old Curry is healthy for the first time, really, in years. He is in street clothes, inactive, and watching the series from Miami's bench. He is on Miami's roster, but rarely actually plays. His career has been defined by a few ups and many more downs, horrible personal tragedy, and untapped potential. He is a forgettable part of the Knicks' past, an insignificant piece in Miami's present, and has an uncertain basketball future. He is generally known as a nice1 and affable guy, traits that are enviable off the basketball court, but ones that can be detrimental on it.
"I know I can still get out there and dominate," Curry said at Miami's practice before their final regular-season game. Curry started for the first time in four years against the Wizards the following day while the Heat's stars rested for the playoffs. He scored 10 points, which amounted to one-third of his total for the entire season. "I'm just waiting on my opportunity."
Jerry Krause, the Bulls' general manager back in 2000, loved misdirection and hated tipping his hand when scouting players. He did not request a credential to watch Chandler and Curry play in St. Louis, like the other NBA executives. He instead watched from the far side of the arena in the cheaper seats with scouts B.J. Armstrong and Gar Forman.2
Chandler had been on the NBA's radar for years. He traveled about 60 miles a day from his hometown of San Bernardino to play for Compton-Dominguez, a Southern California powerhouse. Curry, in turn, prospered at Thornwood, a smaller school in the Chicago suburbs. He played against solid competition, but some wondered why he did not transfer to play for a traditional city basketball factory like Simeon or King College Prep. Years earlier, Larry Butler, who coached Curry's AAU team, tried to relay the benefits of playing against better, older competition. Curry rebuffed him. "I could never convince him," Butler said. "It was Eddy's decision and his family let him make the decision, so I questioned a lot how good Eddy really wanted to be."
Quentin Richardson, who is three years older than Curry, played for Butler's Illinois Warriors AAU squad. "[Curry] was probably afraid or didn't feel he was good enough or on that level to play because he was a kid and everybody else saw him as this massive guy that should be playing with us," said Richardson, who is now a member of the Orlando Magic. "With his talent level and everything else, he probably should have. But in his mind, he wanted to play with his teammates and guys his age and his friends."
Curry first committed to nearby DePaul. As his stock rose, the odds of him attending dropped. DePaul's program would be greatly diminished with the defections of Richardson, Bobby Simmons, Steven Hunter, and the narrow loss of Curry. Curry's enrollment would have been a watershed moment for the program, which tried to lure a national audience.
"I remember Mrs. Curry asking me if Steven Hunter was going to be there, how much playing time her son was going to get," said Bill Bradshaw, DePaul's former athletic director. "Here was a kid who was going to be a lottery pick in the NBA if he wanted to be, one of the best freshmen in the country if he decided to go to DePaul, and his mom was legitimately concerned about how much playing time he was going to get if Steven Hunter was there. I said, 'As much playing time as he wants.' He was a man-child. He could do a standing backflip. He was one of the most agile, athletic, quickest, huge human beings I've ever seen. But he was a raw product."
Chandler, Curry, and a fellow prep phenom, Kwame Brown, bypassed prom for workouts and often went up against one another leading up to the draft. The confluence of three skilled big men waiting to be molded had scouts drooling about their future. "They were the big three," Vaccaro said. "There was no doubt about it they were going to go one, two, three [in the draft] no matter how much people want to change their minds now." Brown had the most mature body and dominated most of the workouts. Curry impressed Krause during his Bulls workout, as did DeSagana Diop, a 7-footer from Dakar, Senegal, who also bypassed college and became a lottery selection. "Every workout, he could have a great workout where he could earn money, millions of dollars," said Tom Lewis, a mentor to Chandler. "Or he could have a terrible workout and it could cost him millions of dollars. For an 18-year-old kid, to have that on your shoulders, it's a lot of pressure and stress."
Krause wanted to rebuild from the inside out. He did not know much about Yao Ming, who arrived to the league the next year. He was told not to look at a young Spaniard named Pau Gasol. "This is not to demean anybody, but we were told not to see Gasol," Krause said recently. "Whoever was in charge of that thing kept saying, 'Don't see him.' We said OK. Was that a mistake? Probably yes. We should have seen him. We didn't."
In Chandler and Curry, Krause thought he "might have cornered the best big people for a long time." The situation reminded Krause of when he landed Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in the 1987 draft. "There were a lot of people who said we were nuts, and we took those kids in the same year."3
Krause played the greatest all-in hand with high schoolers the NBA would ever witness on draft night. The Clippers drafted Chandler and then dealt his rights to Chicago for former no. 1 pick Elton Brand. The deal was contingent on Curry still being available when the Bulls selected fourth. Krause wanted both, and the deal passed when Gasol snuck between Curry and Chandler to the Atlanta Hawks.
Chandler, Krause thought, seemed more mature. Curry needed the shortest time to develop an NBA game. Krause filled out the rest of the roster with veteran players like Charles Oakley and Greg Anthony. "We knew taking two of them was a risk," Krause said. "But we also felt they were the two best players available at that point. Obviously, we didn't think it was enough of a risk to stop us."
Jamal Crawford had hosted Chandler on an unofficial visit to the University of Michigan a few months earlier. The pair laughed when Crawford told him that Chandler had been the subject of one of Crawford's class discussions about the ethics of showering a high school basketball player with attention and adulation. Crawford also became fast friends with Curry when Curry visited the Bulls before a game during his senior year of high school.
Now the trio were teammates, known as the "Baby Bulls." Crawford already wore no. 1 on his jersey. Chandler asked to wear no. 2, but John Ligmanowski, the equipment manager, cautioned against it. Every recent player who had worn that number had been traded, cut, or injured. Chandler opted to wear no. 3. An undaunted Curry requested no. 2. "Gonna break the curse," he said.
Instead, the entire Bulls team seemed cursed in 2001-02. Under head coach Tim Floyd, the Bulls had toiled as an NBA doormat. Floyd rejected the notion that, after three years of rebuilding, he would be saddled with more of the same. Early in the season, he went with established frontcourt players like Oakley, Brad Miller, and Ron Mercer. Chandler played six minutes in the season opener and Curry did not leave the bench. The Bulls started the season by losing 12 of 13 games.
"This isn't like a flat tire you can fix and keep on riding," Oakley said at the time. "This is a blowout with no spare and nothing's open for 100 miles. So we have to do some walking."4
It was Oakley who provided the veteran voice that Curry and Chandler needed. He invited Chandler and fellow rookie Trenton Hassell to his home for Thanksgiving. "They were huge," Chandler said of Oakley and assistant coach Bill Cartwright. "They would always tell me you can't control offensively what type of night you're going to have, night in and night out. Sometimes the ball just doesn't go in. But defensively, you can control that. You never have to have a bad defensive game, and I kind of ran with that."
But Oakley clashed mightily with Floyd. "They tried to use them as whipping boys when I was there, blaming them for everything, losses, mistakes in games," Oakley said of Chandler and Curry in a recent interview. "I think it was a lot more about Tim Floyd than anything else. He wasn't patient with them. I was like, 'I can't let this happen. I'm a vet. I've been in this league. I see how things go. I'm not going to let you blame the season on these young guys and they just got here and you're not playing them more than five or six minutes a game and having them take the blame.'"
Floyd resigned 25 games into the season. "To be honest with you, if you're going to draft two young guys, you've got to have a game plan on how you're going to develop them," Lewis said. "[The Bulls] didn't have a game plan. [The Lakers] drafted Bynum. They had a game plan on how they were going to get him to where they wanted to get him to. Kareem got involved. They had a workout routine. They had a game plan. When Eddy and Tyson got to Chicago, there was no game plan."
Cartwright eventually replaced Floyd. "They made such an advance where you go from high school to now you're living on your own and you're making money," Cartwright said. "It's ridiculous. They had just never been away on their own, let alone being able to write a check or being able to go to the grocery store. Those guys never did any of that."5
Cartwright, who had been one of the league's most respected and feared big men during his years with Michael Jordan's Bulls, sought to teach Curry and Chandler the fundamentals of the game. "A lot of big men are just big men," Oakley said. "Teaching and doing stuff on the floor in a team concept is a different thing. We would work on drills and shoot some hoops. I'm talking about teaching. When you know you've got a raw team, you aren't going to win. You've got to teach these guys the game. Not just the plays."
The Bulls finished with 21 wins, but over the next year, they seemed to be a franchise slowly building toward something better. They landed Jalen Rose in a blockbuster trade during the sluggish 2001-02 season. And they selected Jay Williams, the All-American point guard from Duke, with the second overall pick in the 2002 draft. Both Curry and Chandler played much more, but the offense labored the following season. Cartwright ran the triangle in an effort to get everyone involved.
"It was so painful," Williams said. "That's what we ran every possession, every possession. The triangle is great when you have a guy like Kobe or Michael or Shaq. It's an offense in which you had to literally know exactly when you were supposed to be somewhere or when you were supposed to make a cut. So for every pass there was a different cut for everybody on the court. To bring a kid in from high school who never had to run such an intricate style of offense, it was difficult to ask that."
Cartwright, now an assistant with the Phoenix Suns, countered, "What's the difference between running that and anything else? The answer is nothing. You've got to run something. So whatever you're going to run, you've got to learn. A better question would be, 'Well, why is that hard to run?' And if you're saying that it's hard to run, then you don't know the triangle."
Ten years later, Curry sides with Williams's take. "Being young, we just kind of wanted to go out there and play, and we had to try and run that triangle every day," Curry said. "It was tough. It worked for MJ and those guys, but being a young guy and having so much energy and wanting to be free, it kind of didn't mix well with us."
Williams noticed differences not just in the games of Chandler and Curry, but also their personalities. "When Tyson would make a big-time play, he would come off the court and he would be so pumped up that you could see the emotion on his face," said Williams, who had his own promising career derailed by a motorcycle accident. "He had that kind of passion about the game. When Eddy would make a big play, he wouldn't have any emotion. It was kind of like a stone-cold killer. He had that look, but maybe not that mentality of a killer. You know what I mean? The biggest difference between Tyson and Eddy was Tyson always knew who he was on the court."6
Chandler and Curry remained prone to the occasional youthful missteps. A police officer once told Curry he could not drive his new all-terrain vehicle in the city after he had parked it at the Bulls' training center. Curry simply left it in the parking lot for weeks.7 Chandler had visions of playing like Garnett and often drifted away from the basket. Curry also had to deal with the scrutiny and microscope of playing in his hometown. "You're fighting things from parents who want to get things, you have friends who have their agendas, you have girls and baby mamas," said Donnie Kirksey, a former mentor to Curry. "It was just so much. It was just so much distraction for him, and if he looks back over it, he would do it different."
Lewis traveled with Chandler to Chicago. Chandler's family decided not to relocate with him because his siblings were still in school. Chandler and Lewis often played Ping-Pong and video games deep into the night.
"I used to watch Eddy and I felt bad for the guy," Lewis said. "I felt bad."
Curry had found his role in 2004. Few, he realized, could defend a determined Curry when he drove to the rim. The Bulls were on their third coach for Chandler and him in Scott Skiles. It was finally time for Curry to realize his vast potential and reward his hometown franchise. "We were young," Curry said. "We were having fun, working hard. We didn't really realize we were the ones supposed to turn the whole thing around. We still had guys like Ron Artest there. Ron Mercer was there. We had pretty good vets. I know I really didn't grasp it."
Skiles represented the blunt, hard-willed coach Curry needed. A reporter once asked Skiles what Curry needed to do in order to improve his rebounding. Skiles famously and simply replied, "Jump."
For much of 2004-05, Chandler and Curry became the dynamic tandem that Krause once envisioned: Curry, the scorer, and Chandler, the defender and antagonist. "He's always been a great defender," Curry said of Chandler. "He was always a real hard-nosed player. Back then, I think we really fed off each other. What I lacked in defense, he picked it up and then some."
The Bulls improved by 28 games in the 2004-05 season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since Jordan left. Curry paced the team in scoring. But an irregular heartbeat sidelined Curry before the playoffs. Doctors cleared him to practice, and the organization wanted him to undergo DNA testing to assess whether he had a congenital heart condition. Curry declined on privacy grounds even though the Bulls offered to pay him a $400,000 annuity for 50 years if the test revealed a defect that prevented him from playing. But before either side could resolve the issue, the Knicks traded for Curry in a deal that would be maligned by Knicks fans in the future.8
The dream of Curry-and-Chandler was over before either turned 23. Chandler lasted one more year in Chicago. His confidence swooned. He often did not even look for his shot on offense. His scoring and rebounding both dropped from a year earlier. The home crowd occasionally booed him. The Bulls traded Chandler to the Hornets in the summer of 2006 for J.R. Smith and P.J. Brown. Chandler represented the last Krause pick on Chicago's roster.
Isiah Thomas and Byron Scott, both guards, had battled on the court during an NBA Finals. Now they were tasked as coaches to restore the confidence and careers of talented post players who only occasionally played to their potential. Thomas and Scott found similar solutions in 2006: They would give each big man the ball and see what he could do. Curry responded with his best NBA season in 2006-07. He averaged a career-best 19.5 points and seven rebounds and scored 43 points in an overtime victory against Milwaukee.
"He was like most young players," Thomas said of Curry in a telephone interview. "He loved to play and hadn't necessarily gathered the NBA know-how. There is a certain four-, five-, six-year stage that you go through of growth in the NBA where you're still kind of learning the ropes and having a good time and traveling, meeting people, playing basketball and having fun. Then, the second stage of that is, 'OK. I've had enough fun. Now I want to win championships and be a part of a championship team and a championship organization.'"
With Curry as the centerpiece of the offense, the Knicks won 33 games and entered an offseason of changes and uncertainty. Scott, simultaneously, saw a lost player in Chandler. Scott is also from Southern California and familiar with Chandler from his high school days. He did not recognize the player who showed up to practice in New Orleans. "Most people when they first looked at Tyson wanted him to be the next Kevin Garnett, because when he was in high school he was a 7-footer who could make the jump shot," Scott said. "But when you get to the pros, you have to adjust your game for the betterment of the team, and he was able to do that. He had lost a lot of confidence on the offensive end, but could still get some things done if put in the right situation."
Scott told Chandler that he could and should average a double-double. He called plays for him in the post. "He had some really nice moves down there that we really didn't get a chance to see in Chicago," said Jannero Pargo, who played with Chandler for both franchises. Chris Paul often put Chandler in the right situation by spoon-feeding him baskets. "Chris Paul was our superstar, we all know that," Scott said. "But Tyson was the heart and soul of the team because of the way he was able to communicate with the guys on the defensive end of the floor. He was our protector."
Chandler grabbed a career-high 12.4 rebounds and averaged 9.5 points in 2006-07. He had found his identity in the league. His confidence soared. "He didn't have the best hands," said Ben Gordon, Chandler's teammate in Chicago. "He didn't finish the best, but he always had a passion and he played the game with an attitude. He's one of the guys that you wouldn't want to play against him, but you would love to have as a teammate. What he knows he does best, he's always done it with high energy and passion. I think he's capable of changing a team around. He's that piece that every team could use if you're trying to win at a high level."
In New York, Curry's confidence plummeted. The Knicks had acquired Zach Randolph in the 2007 offseason. Thomas envisioned merging the two prodigious talents into an unstoppable offensive frontcourt. Randolph and Curry would score from either side, and no one offensive player would be able to penetrate the interior with the two big men standing guard in the paint. Instead, Curry and Randolph got in one another's way on offense. They guarded rarely on defense. Randolph, the slightly better defensive player of the two, claimed most of the minutes. Curry's minutes turned infrequent.
"We had Zach Randolph, David Lee, and Eddy Curry," Thomas said. "You had two All-Stars in Zach and David. Both of those guys went on to make the All-Star team. There definitely had to be an adjustment that needed to be made when you had an All-Star and an emerging All-Star. There's definitely going to be some growth and also some setbacks when you bring that type of talent on."
Curry was a bad fit for Mike D'Antoni, his third coach with the Knicks, who is famous for his up-and-down offense and has little use for traditional centers. "The biggest question for Eddy was, 'What were you going to get consistently?'" Williams said. "That summer before he got his contract, he was in the gym every day and I was looking at him like, 'Oh, my goodness.' He was comparable to Shaquille O'Neal. Not as big, but offensively more skilled. He could run. He could dunk, overpower people in the paint. There was nobody that could really stop him. And then kind of once he got his contract, I don't know if he got complacent, maybe he was battling some injuries. But it was kind of like that with Eddy."
Curry, along with Randolph, Jerome James, Stephon Marbury, and others, came to symbolize the struggles of the Knicks under Thomas's reign.
"I could never tell with Eddy," said Donnie Walsh, the former Knicks president. "I wanted to think he knew what kind of career he could have and that he was trying to do it. But I can't give you the answer. I think you have to ask Eddy that. I don't know."
Curry's on-court struggles paled in significance to his off-the-court financial issues and personal tragedies. Armed burglars tied up Curry and his family and robbed them at their Chicago-area home in 2007. His ex-girlfriend and infant daughter were murdered two years later.
"He had a lot of real life-altering things going on, and it was like one after the other," said Richardson, his teammate in New York for four seasons. "You could take any of those things and it would be a huge deal, and he had several of them one after another."
A bank began foreclosure proceedings on his Chicago-area home, and Curry was sued multiple times over nonpayment for jewelry and clothing. "Mr. Curry appears to be a very, very generous man," Donald David, a lawyer for Allstar Capital, who lent to Curry, told the New York Daily News. "He appears to have taken it upon himself to support every person named Curry on the East Coast."
"The NBA lifestyle is easy to get wrapped up in," Williams said. The big money often comes in fast and goes out just as quickly. "Everybody is spending money and everybody is making a lot of money, so when you're going through it — not that you're doing it maliciously and saying, 'Well, I'm going to spend this.' But you do it saying, 'OK, I'm still supposed to make $4.5 million next year. This isn't going to hurt me that much.' It's easier to get caught up in that when you have a lot of family and friends from that area who are there. When you come back home, all your friends and family members, everybody feels like they made it. I'm not saying anybody in Eddy's camp would feel that way, but you can kind of assume that by all the people who were hanging around Eddy."
Curry asked the Knicks for a substantial advance of millions of his salary, despite contributing little on the court midway through a contract that paid him $60 million over six years. His troubles got worse. His former driver had accused Curry of sexual harassment and verbal abuse and was suing him. Curry sued Lamont Carter, his former agent, in 2009, accusing him of withholding his bookkeeping records.
"At that point, what's your escape?" asked Crawford, who also joined Curry with the Knicks for parts of four seasons. "Athletes, we love competing. We love being able to clear our heads for two hours and you're numb to it all and you don't even think about it. But if you don't even have that escape, then what do you escape to?"
Curry said he had fun during his Knicks tenure. "I had moments where I was the most dominant player on the court," he said. "I don't have any regrets there. I don't have any regrets in life, period, as far as basketball and how everything is right now."
Chandler called Crawford this winter, hoping to recruit his former teammate to the Knicks. Chandler had won his championship in Dallas and showcased his progression as a player before a national audience. But Mark Cuban, with an eye toward his salary cap in the future, did not really engage in negotiations with their center.
Chandler moved on to his next challenge: the defensively destitute Knicks. "In the offseason, all I could think about was (a) chasing another championship, and (b) going after Defensive Player of the Year," Chandler said. "Every time I stepped in the gym, that was always the motivation."
"Pressure doesn't scare him," said Crawford, who ultimately signed with the Portland Trail Blazers. "Earlier in Tyson's career, maybe he was worrying about scoring and other things. But everybody finds their role, their niche. For him, he can always play defense and he embraces that."
Several teams wanted Chandler in this truncated free agency. Miami manifested as Curry's last shot in the league. The Knicks traded Curry to Minnesota as part of the three-team deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. The Timberwolves waived him immediately. He had played 10 games in three seasons, battling his weight, injuries, and the personal tragedies that appeared to seek him out. The Heat signed Curry last winter for the league's minimum, a day after Chandler came to terms with the Knicks for a four-year contract for $58 million. Miami, which had been battered by Chandler during the Finals, needed interior reinforcements. Curry would be a project piece for them more than 10 years after his NBA career had begun.
"I never gave up hope," Curry said at his signing. "I knew this opportunity was here. I can tell you that I'm feeling good and I'm on a path to help these guys do something special."
Curry played in 14 of Miami's 66 games during the regular season. Nearly all the appearances were cameos in the final stages of another Miami blowout. He is still looking for his role. "It's really taught me how to be an ultimate professional, not just when you're playing and things are going well, but when you're not playing, to keep doing the right thing," Curry said.
There is an irony to Chandler's success on the same team that staked its hopes to Curry's downward spiral. Oakley pointed to the difference in coaches the two have had since they left Chicago: Chandler with Scott, Rick Carlisle, and Mike Woodson, and Curry with Thomas and D'Antoni. "[Curry] is a guy who needed a lot of things to be going the right way for him to do well," Richardson said. "But you can't say he's a bad guy or a bad person. That's just not true." Chandler has been traded twice as many times as Curry, and injuries threatened to prematurely end his career. No one really knows what his jumper looks like because he seldom takes one, yet his shot attempts went into the basket this season 67.9 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in NBA history. Curry, at one point, would have been the preferred player of the two for many organizations. "There were situations on the court playing with Eddy and I would look at him and say, 'Goddamn. That's an All-Star right there,'" Williams said. "There were other times when I would see him on the court going through his frustrations and I would say, 'I hope Eddy make it to his next contract.' There were glimpses of greatness and then there were times I couldn't tell you what was going to happen."
Few NBA players live up to their draft hype. Longevity in the league is based on finding oneself and one's role under public scrutiny. The careers of Chandler and Curry intersected briefly again for these playoffs. They will soon veer off again. Curry is more than a decade into his career and waiting for an opportunity with a history of squandered ones in his shadow, trying to relocate his niche in the league. Chandler knows his role and niche and holds them closely, as he did his Defensive Player of the Year trophy on Wednesday.