Gone in 3.9 seconds: Where basketball took JamesOn Curry

ByRoyce Young ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

HE'D REHEARSED THIS moment in his mind thousands of times.

Pop off the bench like you're sitting on a spring. Tear off your warm-ups, toss them aside and trot to the scorer's table.

Lean against it? Sit on the floor? Kneel?

Pull the strings on your shorts tight and tuck in your jersey. Adjust your headband and make sure your shoes are tied tight. Not that tight.

Listen for your name echoing through the speakers, hoping the announcer says it correctly.

Checking in for the Clippers, JamesOn Curry.

Savor the moment. Look around the arena, and in this one, see the numbers hanging from the rafters. Maybe dream about yours hanging somewhere someday. Take a deep breath, snap back to the present and call out your assignment. Take your spot on the floor, wait for the whistle to blow, and officially begin your NBA career. Three-point-nine seconds are left on the clock.

You made it. You fulfilled a promise to yourself and your family. You are playing in the NBA.

Three seconds.

Get in your defensive stance. The clock is running, your name is in a box score now.

Two seconds.

Stay with your man.Do your job.

One second.

Another second passes and the buzzer sounds. Run back toward the bench and get in the huddle. You don't know it at the time, but you won't step foot on an NBA court in a game again.

"We just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'Well, there'll be other days.' I didn't realize that that was the only day."

-- Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, "Field of Dreams"

INSIDE BOSTON'S TD GARDEN, the Los Angeles Clippers had just witnessed a one-point halftime lead transform into a five-point third-quarter deficit.

It is Jan. 25, 2010, and, headlined by Baron Davis, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman, the Clippers are 20-23, four games out of the Western Conference's No. 8 seed. DeAndre Jordan is in his second year. They're one year away from Blake Griffin's debut, two years away from Lob City.

The Celtics are 28-13 and the juggernaut of the Eastern Conference -- led by Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- that would go on to lose in seven games to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Rondo draws a foul with 3.9 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Clippers head coach Mike Dunleavy yells from his perch on the sideline.

Called up three days earlier on a 10-day contract, Curry checks in.

Wearing No. 44, he jogs onto the court. He's guarding Rondo, who maneuvers toward the baseline under the basket. The Celtics inbound, Pierce swings the ball to Allen who takes a couple dribbles into the paint. Rondo drifts a few steps to his left to clear the way for Allen's drive. Curry stays next to him. Allen loses the handle on the ball and can't get his shot up before the buzzer sounds. Curry is still there, right next to his man.

"It was the quickest four seconds ever," Curry said after the game. "I wish it would've lasted longer. Being out there, I just felt like a regular person, felt like a regular basketball player. I felt like I was home, like this is where I belong."

To start the fourth, Jordan subs in for Curry, who sits on the bench for the rest of the 95-89 loss. The Clippers waive him 12 hours later.

He didn't take a shot. He didn't grab a rebound. He didn't touch the ball. According to Basketball Reference, there have been nine players who have appeared in only one career game and played a minute or less. None played less than Curry's 3.9 seconds.

NEARLY 10 YEARS later, Curry has nothing from the night he took the court for the Clippers. He doesn't know what he did with the jersey or the shoes or the headband he used.

He looks the same now as he did as a player, a wiry 6-foot-3 guard with a charming grin and an electric demeanor. His name is one part for his great uncle James, and another for his father Leon.

Curry talks fast and bounces around topics at hyperspeed. He reads everything, and like a living college paper he cites each randomly dropped quote midflow. Something from T. Harv Eker's "Secrets of the Millionaire Mind" here, or Napoleon Hill's "Laws of Success in Sixteen Lessons" there. Curry's mind hums non-stop.

His phone is full of notes, quotes, thoughts, poems, songs he has written only for himself. He has a list of goals for the year, two above the rest: get married and buy a house.

He's 33 years old now and hasn't played professional basketball in five years.

"You know, if you think about it," Curry says now with a smile, "I'm probably the highest-paid player per second in NBA history."

That kind of optimistic perspective wasn't always there. There was once a feeling of shame and embarrassment about where he'd been and what he'd done. His dream had betrayed him, turning a chosen one to a cheap piece of trivia immortalized on YouTube.

He rose, he fell, he would be broke, he would be broken. But basketball would find a way to changeJamesOn Curry's life, just not in the way he ever thought it would.

A BASKETBALL PRODIGY at Eastern Alamance High School in Mebane, North Carolina, Curry was the kind of talent that seemed chosen by a higher power, destined for greatness: a pure jumper, a tight handle and a feel for the game that's gifted and never learned.

He was a five-star recruit putting up 40.3 points a game, committed to play at the University of North Carolina since his sophomore year.

A newspaper sent a photographer to chronicle his senior season. A UNC fan site traveled to all his games to relay glowing reports of what Tar Heels fans could expect from their super-recruit.

He stood toe-to-toe with other top players from the state, including Chris Paul, whom Curry outshone at the 2002 Hampton Five Star Camp (The "yo-yo dribble"CP3 does to perfection? Curry claims he taught him that at the camp, though Curry gives original credit to streetball legend and former NBA veteran Rafer Alston, who taught him.)

Curry was becoming a state scoring legend. With Lawrence "Cotton" Clayton in the house, the former state all-time scorer, Curry dropped 65 points against Western Alamance in January, then 54 against High Points Andrews five days later.

On the night of Feb. 3, 2004, in a packed gym against crosstown rival Graham, Curry erupted for 47 points, adding to his then-state-record total of 3,307 career points -- more than Michael Jordan, David Thompson and James Worthy (Curry's record was broken by Chicago Bulls rookie Coby White in 2016). The Eagles were undefeated in conference and were hosting Northwood in a couple days.

The next morning, Curry was in art class when he was called into the principal's office. Sheriff's deputies were waiting inside.

He thought they just wanted autographs. They placed him in handcuffs instead.

While he was lighting up the Red Devils, law enforcement officials were prepping a warrant for Curry's arrest; he was one of 60 students from six different high schools in the Alamance-Burlington district arrested as part of a drug sting. Three of his teammates were also arrested.

Curry had been caught selling marijuana to an undercover police officer, who was posing as a student and had a hidden camera in the strap of a backpack -- two deals in the fall, one in the bathroom after first period and another in the parking lot three weeks later. His total take was $95.

He was charged with six felony counts of possessing marijuana and selling it on school grounds. He pleaded guilty to all of them.

A judge suspended his sentence, placed him on probation for 36 months and ordered him to perform 200 hours of community service. He was kicked off the basketball team and expelled.

North Carolina rescinded its scholarship.

On May 5, 2004, three months after his arrest and 20 days before his graduation from an alternative school in the area, he committed to Oklahoma State, picking it over Memphis and Cincinnati. Curry made the most of his second chance.

His freshman year, in 2004-05, he sparked a run in Madison Square Garden in a win against No. 4 Syracuse. Dick Vitale called him a Diaper Dandy. The Cowboys won the Big 12 and reached the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels won the title.

Everywhere he played, Curry heard the heckles and the chants -- "James-On Crack!" was the most popular one. He started all 33 games as a sophomore, averaging 13.5 points and 4.0 assists. As a junior he averaged 17.3 points and 3.7 assists, making third team all-conference and drawing interest from NBA teams.

Against the advice of head coach Eddie Sutton, he declared for the draft.

The Chicago Bulls, who played a part in persuading Curry to leave school with a rumored promise they'd take him, selected him in 51st overall in the 2007 draft and immediately sent him to the D-League.

"I wasn't worried about getting picked," Curry says.

Another call-up, another demotion, another incident. At the D-League Showcase in January 2008 in Boise, Idaho, during his first season of professional basketball, he was caught by a police officer urinating in an alley outside of his hotel at 2:30 a.m. He ran and was arrested and cited for two misdemeanors. He was suspended one game.

A month later, he was called up again. On a road trip in February of his rookie season, Bulls coach Scott Skiles told the team the next practice was an open tryout. Curry was ready. He dominated the scrimmage with this passing and scoring. He thought he'd get his chance. Skiles pulled him aside after practice.

"You'll be the best player in the D-League," Curry remembers Skiles telling him.

Maybe it was supposed to be an insult, maybe it was a compliment, but Curry was crushed. The Bulls waived Curry after the season.

He blames some of it on the incident at the D-League Showcase and some of it on missing a team flight to New York because he got lost in Chicago driving to the airport. His past left him little margin for error. "This isn't the only reason, but that's a big reason I'm not in the NBA," he says. "When I missed that flight, it really messed things up."

After a brief time with pro teams in France and Cyprus, he returned to the D-League, playing for the Springfield Armor in Massachusetts. He was the Armor's first call-up when the Clippers signed him in 2010.

After he was released, he played two more seasons for Springfield, making the D-League All-Star team in 2012. He was maybe the best player in that game, scoring 25 points for the East. He thought for sure another call-up was coming.

"We had three call-ups that season," says then-Armor coach Bob MacKinnon, "and I thought JamesOn would be the next guy. It still bothers me to this day that he didn't."

After another stint in Europe -- Italy, this time -- Curry came back to the Armor in 2013, and then was traded to the Bakersfield Jam in 2014. Before that season, he was arrested in Midwest City, Oklahoma, for marijuana possession. He pleaded guilty and the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.

He suffered a season-ending ankle injury in March 2014 and was waived for the final time in his pro career.

"The NBA's funny. There are what, 450 jobs?" MacKinnon says. "And in my mind, if you take the top 200 to 250 players and the next 150 to 200, you can interchange those out with the next group of guys and the NBA wouldn't change.

"JamesOn was on that next group of guys and, unfortunately, because he had a reputation, that's what hurt him. If you're going to overcome a bad rep, you've got to be really, really good.

"It's easy to get a rep. It's hard to get rid of one."

IT IS OCTOBER2014 and Curry is living in Edmond, a suburb 15 miles north of Oklahoma City. His girlfriend, Christy, is from there. They met as freshmen at Oklahoma State and have three children together.

Riding as a passenger in a silver Cadillac with its tail lights out, he is pulled over near the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma at 1 a.m. when an officer finds marijuana and a handgun. He tells the officer his name is James Davis.

He is charged with two felony counts: possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute within 2,000 feet of a school and false impersonation. He pleads not guilty.

With that case still open, in February 2015 he is arrested again for possession of another controlled dangerous substance -- this time Alprazolam, better known as Xanax.

"I was hustling," Curry says now. "I ain't going to lie."

After months of the cases bouncing around in court, he accepts a deal and pleads guilty to all charges. More felony convictions. Starting in April 2016, he serves 10 consecutive weekends in Oklahoma county jail, plus 40 hours of community service.

Curry doesn't like to go into much detail about it -- those were the "dark days," as he calls them. He points to his left eye where there's a scar across his upper cheekbone. He got it in a scuffle in Tulsa, where someone hit him and a wristwatch cut him.

"All that thug s---, yes. Hood s---, yes. But I'm not some bad guy," Curry says. "Ain't no stealing, no killing, none of that. Some selling, some hustling, that s--- I did."

With his life legally complicated, his relationship with Christy in flux and a belief of being targeted by police in Oklahoma, Curry moves back to North Carolina to try to reset his post-basketball life in the fall of 2016. He concedes now he was just running from his problems.

"It was a bad eight months," he says.

Curry comes from a large, tight-knit family with siblings and aunts and uncles. Being back home, driving the country roads, smelling the tobacco-drenched air from the nearby fields, might give him something sturdy, he thinks.

Being back around his grandmother, Georgia Parker, whom he describes as his spiritual guiding light, could recenter his life. He's still training and thinking maybe there's one more comeback in him.

It is April 2017. After a late-night workout, he's driving down Highway 49 in his dad's white Nissan pickup. It is around midnight and he is on his way to Johnny Brewer's, the only store open outside of Pleasant Grove. He wants a cigar.

He drops his phone. He reaches down to grab it.

"Looked up. Wheel turned, it flipped," Curry says now. "Of course, they thought I was drinking."

The truck is on its side, propped up in a ditch by scraggly roadside bushes. Every window is smashed, the cab is turned inside out. He had dislocated his ribs, broken his back and had blood pouring from his head. He remembers a man walking up to his truck as Curry crawled out and stood up.

Wiping blood from his eyes and his breaths short and staggered, Curry had asked the man to drive him home.

"You look bad, bud," Curry recalls the man saying. "But if you can make it to me, bud, I'll take you home."

The next thing he remembers is waking up in the emergency room. Two steel rods are implanted in his back, with two eight-inch scars running parallel on each side of his spine. He needs help going to the bathroom and can't walk for a month.

Three months later, still rehabbing from surgery, the hope of a comeback gone, Curry moves back to Oklahoma to be with Christy and the kids.

"I was so depressed when I came back from North Carolina," Curry says now. "That whole year."

With felony convictions haunting him, Curry was lost -- and wandering. "Burger King wouldn't even hire me, man," he says.

He signs on with a temp agency and works various jobs -- at a Purina dog food factory in Edmond, which is next door to the Oklahoma City Thunder's first practice facility. He delivers packages for UPS as a driver's assistant. After playing pickup at a church rec center he decides to apply for a job as a trainer. They run a background check. Denied.

He is a convicted felon, low on money and thin on options. Looking for somewhere cheaper to live, he moves from Edmond to Enid, some 80 miles farther north. He gets a job working 12-hour days, 60-hour weeks loading and driving trucks. He admits the only reason he got the job was because his supervisor is a big Oklahoma State fan.

After a couple months, his supervisor, Justin, asks if Curry could fill in as a weekend coach for his kid's team at the YMCA. He knows the game, but doesn't have any coaching experience.

"It was the hardest thing ever," he says. "But I enjoyed it."

Justin also asks if Curry could do extra one-on-one training with his kid. For 20 bucks, sure, Curry says. He works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., then at 7:15 he's at the Y, ready to train. He sheds the interim tag and takes over as coach of the youth team. And they are terrible.

"Walking in there and guys knowing me, 'That's JamesOn Curry!' And then guys walking out saying, 'Man, JamesOn Curry's team sucked!'" he says with a laugh.

He conducts workouts for a couple more kids; an extra few bucks a week in the pocket. Parents start noticing how much better the kids doing private workouts are getting. With nothing but word of mouth and positive reviews for his coaching and teaching, Curry adds more workouts. He starts coaching an additional team.

Three months later, he quits his job driving trucks and working in oil fields.

He starts a new dream.

IT'S A 60-SECONDdrive through Drummond, Oklahoma -- a straight shot on Highway 132 -- with no stoplights or even a stop sign to slow you down.

If you're coming from the north, a big metal white cross in a cracked concrete parking lot of a Baptist church greets you. Windmills spin in the distance against a painted pastel blue sky, tinted a slight shade of orange because of the red dirt kicked up by tractors tilling the earth. Black oil derricks tower in yellowed, sun-baked fields. The flat landscape clears the way for classic Oklahoma gusts that feel like someone has a blow-dryer pointed in your face.

Directly across the street from the fire department sits Drummond High School, with a domed gym sitting behind the main building. It's the practice gym, but it's also the school's safe room, built to withstand an F5 tornado.

Inside, bouncing balls echo off gray cinder-block walls and joyous screams of children pierce the air. Curry blows a whistle and 60 or so kids drop their basketballs and hustle to form a semicircle around him.

It's the first annual D.R.I.P. camp -- Dedication, Respect, Integrity, Preparation. Curry's spirit is boomeranging as he talks, his hands popping with energy. He throws himself down on the floor, pantomiming what happens if a teammate doesn't call out a screen for you. Everyone laughs, including the parents who stayed to watch.

According to the 2017 American Community Survey, of the 432 residents of Drummond, 86.6 percent are white, with small percentages of Hispanic and Latino, and American Indian. There were zero African-Americans on the survey. And that's pretty clearly reflected in the demographics of the camp.

"I'm a six- or seven-time felon, a black guy with tattoos all over my body," Curry says, "And I'm also a respected mentor and trusted coach to a Trump supporter's kid."

He's inside the dome in Drummond all day, every day. Principal Jarrod Johnson -- who was a student at Oklahoma State the same years as Curry -- gave him a key a few months ago.

"I talked to him and told him, 'I know you've had some stuff happen, but the past is the past,'" Johnson says. "'But if anything happens again, I can't have you around.'

"But I believe people need second chances, too," Johnson says. "When I got to sit in front of him, man-to-man, and talk, you just get this feeling where you say, 'I know this guy is for real.' This is what he wants and his priorities were right in line and that's what matters.

"There was no hesitation. It seems like he's a changed man."

Johnson is a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Enid, and one Saturday a month he's part of a group that cooks and serves meals to about 100 people in need. Curry volunteered himself and his basketball players to help.

"He has been nothing but awesome," Johnson says.

Curry says he has three players whose parents are in law enforcement. He knows they've surely looked up his record. He once feared the police, but he gets along great with the parents.

Coaching and training is his full-time job now. Nothing excites him like watching incremental development. He has a unique patience, praising the smallest of steps for struggling kids. He lays out two hula hoops on the left block of the lane.

"Two lines!" he yells, calling for a layup drill. "One foot for each. Right! Left!" He steps to the side. "Watch," he says with a confident grin, "They'll be able to do 'em tomorrow."

They come from Woodward, from Tonkawa, from Oklahoma City. Parents bring their kids from an hour or more away just for Curry to coach them.

"It's because he cares, and the kids can tell," says Jackie Wilkinson, grandmother of Ethan, a shy 12-year-old attending one of Curry's camps.

"I tried to get [Ethan] into basketball, but he had so much anxiety that he didn't want to," Wilkinson says. "And then here, we got him into the Y and JamesOn was the coach.

"He's come out of his shell. He doesn't want to work with anybody but JamesOn."

Jackie didn't know anything about Curry before he started coaching. Ethan told his grandmother that he was an NBA player. She Googled him.

But like every other parent that knows Curry, what she found didn't bother her.

"No," she says. "Because people make mistakes."

DRUMMOND FEELS LIKE home. Curry loves his jacked-up black Ford F-250 with broken air conditioning, the dashboard stained from driving dirt roads with the windows down.

"I want it to feel like I'm driving the tobacco fields," he says. "I want it to feel like I'm back home in the country. We're going to grow this out. We're going to work."

There was a time when every setback, every issue, every screw-up, every piece of baggage were things that weighed him down. "Every obstacle is an opportunity," he says now.

The two rods in his back? They've actually just improved his shooting mechanics because his posture is straighter on his jumper.

There was a time not long ago when Curry took offense to his 3.9 NBA seconds -- he has seen the YouTube videos -- but now he sees it as part of his story and nothing to hold shame in. He was an NBA player. He made it. And he's proud of that.

"He played. He played in an NBA game," MacKinnon says. "How many people in the world can say that? He should take a lot of pride in that. And he overcame a lot to get there."

It took foundational events for Curry to find himself. He cites two things that started a transformation: (1) his near-death experience with his car accident that forced him to reconcile a life without basketball and (2) the death of his grandmother in 2018.

"I don't want to talk about it much," he says of his grandmother. "But that changed me. It made me refocus and see what's important."

His life changed in that principal's office at Eastern Alamance, but Curry doesn't think too much about what-ifs, either.

He and Christy got married a few weeks ago in North Carolina on a beach in front of his entire family. He thinks he could still probably play in the NBA. "The way the game's changed now, man. I really could play. I know I can," he says.

Parents at his camp watch him drain 30-footers and will text him that he needs to play for the Thunder. He doesn't hold on to the past, but he does use it. He tells his players he played in the NBA -- "It's good for credibility," he laughs.

If the phone rang tomorrow and there was an offer, a tryout, a chance, would he consider leaving Drummond behind?

"No-pe," he says, turning it into a two-syllable word to make it sound more convincing. "I like this. I like building. I like planting these seeds. I know what you're thinking, but it's the truth. This is something real. This has stability. I can do this for a long time.

"Would playing in the NBA bring peace of mind? No. Would I be rich as hell? Yeah. Maybe I could outshoot 80 percent of the guards in the NBA right this second. But would I personally be happy, every single day? This is where I want to be."

A career lived in the blink of an eye, a dream brushing past like a stranger in a crowd, a purpose found in an unlikely place.

"NEVER SEEN IT," Curry says of "Field of Dreams." "But I know about Moonlight Graham."

Graham is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, some 80 miles south of Pleasant Grove. He was a real person -- not a Hollywood creation -- whose entire career spanned a single inning for the New York Giants in 1905 and he never got to bat. He became a physician and practiced medicine in Chisholm, Minnesota, for 50 years, mainly as a school doctor.

"It's pretty cool, I think," Curry says. "Both working with kids, planting seeds, seeing something bigger in this world."

One played an inning, the other 3.9 seconds. Both found a calling away from the game, trading one dream for another.

Someday, Curry sees himself owning a gym and having his own youth program. He wants players to come from all over the state to his gym and train with him.

Day 2 of his camp is over and he stands in the dome, cleaning up loose gum wrappers. A scream from midcourt turns his attention sharply back to the floor. His 6-year-old daughter Parker is trying to launch half-court shots while his 13-year-old son Braylen and 11-year old daughter Peyton cackle with laughter.

"I could be chasing a ball somewhere still," Curry says, "but I'd be missing out on this."

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