With three minutes left in the Golden State Warriors’ NBA championship clincher in Boston, Dell Curry and the other players’ dads and their families were ushered down the stands to wait for the celebration.
“Hey, take this with you,” Curry’s buddy said, handing him a victory cigar.
Along the way, Curry – one of four Warriors’ dads who once starred in the NBA – found himself standing under the net with his unlit cigar.
“This is as far as I’m going,” Dell Curry told himself, as the game clock ticked down and his soon-to-be-Finals MVP son Steph Curry started to tear up.
With twentysomething seconds still left in the game, the younger Curry spotted his dad and walked to the edge of the court to share an emotional embrace.
“That moment was huge,” Dell said.
For the Warriors, it meant Father’s Day came a few days early this year.
Captured on TV, the hug between the Currys mirrored the joy and tears of Warriors fans as the team beat the Boston Celtics to claim their fourth title in eight years.
The win was a pinnacle moment not only for the Currys but for three other Warriors’ fathers who shared their NBA DNA with their sons, playing pickup basketball together in the driveway and introducing them to locker-room legends with names like Magic and Kobe.
When the game finally ended, NBA Hall of Famer Gary Payton Sr. found his son, Gary II, in the growing celebration on the court. Former Houston Rocket Mitchell Wiggins caught up to his son, Andrew, the Warriors’ young breakout star. And Mychal Thompson, standing 6-foot-9, scanned over the scrum and spotted Steph Curry’s “Splash Brother,” Klay.
“I had to get his attention, grab him by the shoulders, spin him around and give him a big hug like he was back in kindergarten,” said the elder Thompson, who won two NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “As a parent, you still want to hug your children, no matter even if they’re grown men or women. You still want to hug them as if they’re little babies because that’s how much you love them.”
With four NBA titles now, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have long surpassed their fathers, and Andrew Wiggins, with one, has now done the same. But Gary Payton II, who struggled for years under the enormous shadow of his legendary father, was able to give him something he couldn’t achieve on his own: a title for both father and son.
“I told him, ‘Welcome to the club,’ Mychal Thompson said of Payton Sr., who won a championship in 2006 with the Miami Heat. “He’s got a special, unique club now where there have only been five combinations of fathers and sons who have won an NBA title, and now they joined the fraternity.”
That club also includes former Warriors great Rick Barry and his son, Brent, who won a title with the San Antonio Spurs.
Dell Curry never won an NBA championship. But as he stood under the basket as the clock wound down Thursday, he flashed back to his playing days with the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors.
“To get that feeling of what it was like for friggin’ six games – of that atmosphere, with that intensity. I felt that for 10 or 20 seconds as I stood there,” he said. “It just made me aware once again how hard it is to be in the NBA and how hard it is to win a title.”
Both Curry and Thompson also know how hard it was for their sons to recover from devastating injuries over the last two seasons when the Warriors went from five straight NBA Finals to missing the playoffs.
They were there, over the months of rehab, to reassure.
“You’re going to get healthy,” Dell Curry remembers telling Steph when he broke his hand in 2019 and feared it could be a career-altering injury. “Your body will recover.”
Being the son of an NBA star had its benefits. Growing up, Klay Thompson spent time in the locker room with Lakers legend Magic Johnson and was mentored by Kobe Bryant. Curry shot baskets before Toronto Raptors games with NBA All-Star Vince Carter. And Gary Payton II grew up as a ballboy for his father’s team, the Seattle Supersonics, grabbing rebounds from Shawn Kemp and handing out water bottles on the sidelines.
Gary Payton and Gary Payton II share a moment! 🥺🏆 pic.twitter.com/R24ky578v0
— NBA (@NBA) June 18, 2022
But relationships between fathers and sons can be complicated. Navigating the fine line between encouragement and expectation is always a challenge – especially when fathers are famous, when fans stop them for autographs at the grocery store, when comparisons are inevitable, when sons carry their fathers’ names.
It’s been particularly tough on Gary Payton II, who has vented publicly about the tension over the years with his father. In an interview with the Bay Area News Group on Thursday, Payton II said that at one point years ago, his father called him “a sorry ass basketball player.”
“He just kept it real with me. And I think the biggest lesson from all this right now is just him being real and just blunt with me and telling me things that I didn’t want to hear,” Payton II said. “But essentially, that reads the fire under me. And essentially, I’m here, right now, because of those words.”
All the fathers, including Payton’s, have expressed over the years how they wanted their sons to chart their own paths and find their own happiness. But the sons still had to contend with high expectations.
Klay Thompson’s father remembers sharing his grand hopes for his son while driving home from a high school game in Southern California after Klay had scored more than 30 points in a game against DeMar DeRozan, who now plays for the Chicago Bulls.
“That’s when I told him I was real proud of him and he’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame someday,” Thompson said. “He didn’t say much. He wasn’t thinking about being an NBA champion and Hall of Famer, he was just trying to get through the next practice in high school.”
For Dell Curry, finding that balance meant having a relationship with Steph that went “well beyond basketball.” He brought up his two sons and daughter the way his father raised him, he said, spending plenty of time together off the court, including golfing and fishing.
But these past weeks, as the Warriors advanced in the playoffs, it’s been all basketball.
During Thursday night’s game, Dell Curry sat with his other son, Seth, who plays for the Brooklyn Nets, and analyzed each play as Steph racked up 34 points, including six three-pointers. Dell’s son-in-law, Damion Lee, also plays on the Warriors.
“To be able to watch one son win a title,” he said, “and share it with the other son in the bleachers and then share it with both of them after the game – a father couldn’t ask for more.”
By the time Dell Curry found himself under the basket, Steph Curry had already taunted the Boston crowd by pointing to his ring finger and laying his head on his hands in a gesture of “goodnight!”
Dell watched as Steph’s shoulders began to shake and eyes well with tears. This is the boy who had cheered him on as a toddler from the stands, who was dismissed as too short to amount to much, who has quieted critics every step of the way.
“It’s so hard, so hard,” Dell said, “It takes so much dedication, discipline, sacrifice.”
He didn’t notice the play clock. He didn’t realize that the game was still underway when Steph stepped away from the game for the embrace.
“I’m just so proud of what you’ve accomplished,” Dell told Steph. “I know how hard it is.”
That night, at the team party with the other dads, he reads the cigar.