How Warriors’ Steph Curry juggled earning his Davidson degree and NBA stardom

Stephen Curry was getting anxious. Practice with the Golden State Warriors in Minneapolis had run late, and he was about to miss an important meeting.

After hoisting his final jumper on that late-February night, Curry took the first team bus to Golden State’s hotel, raced to his room, opened his laptop and clicked on a Zoom link. On the screen was Dr. Clark Ross, an economics professor at Davidson College overseeing Curry’s independent-study course — one of the last requirements for his bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Never mind that his net worth of roughly $160 million, status as a global celebrity, three Larry O’Brien trophies and two NBA MVP awards suggested that he didn’t need the validation of a piece of paper. Thirteen years removed from his final college game, Curry was intent on making good on a promise to his mother, Sonya, and earning his diploma.

“More than anything,” Curry said, “it’s about finishing what you started.”

This would prove difficult. Over the past four months, Curry video chatted with professors while in the Warriors’ training room, jammed out papers on the team charter and conducted research during breaks at endorsement shoots — anything to complete his coursework by the May 9 deadline.

Former Director of Athletics Jim Murphy and Dr. Susan Roberts on either side of Chris Clunie with the Stephen Curry fathead at Davidson’s 2022 commencement.

Chris Clunie/Davidson athletics/

The late nights and early mornings all became worth it when he FaceTimed with Sonya on Mother’s Day. As her oldest son told her he was about to graduate from Davidson, Sonya began to cry. Stephen had kept his return to school a secret. In case a bad grade or credit issue further delayed his commencement, he didn’t want to disappoint the woman who had taught him the value of education.

As a kid, Stephen and his two siblings, Seth and Sydel, attended the Montessori school Sonya ran in Huntersville, N.C. A big reason Stephen chose Davidson — a prestigious liberal arts college— was because his mom wanted him to be challenged academically.

In the decade-plus after Stephen left school a year early to declare for the NBA draft, Sonya often went out of her way to mention that two of her three children were college graduates: Seth from Duke and Sydel from Elon. Saturday morning, as she reviewed Stephen’s final grades during a Zoom call with Stephen, Davidson president Carol Quillen, men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop and athletic director Chris Clunie, Sonya said with a smirk, “Now I have nothing to tease Stephen about.”

Stephen chuckled. For a long time, he wanted desperately to hear those words, only for a chaotic schedule and a pandemic to scuttle his plans.

Two years after Curry went No. 7 overall to the Warriors in the 2009 draft, he re-enrolled at Davidson during the NBA lockout. For several months, he attended 8 a.m. classes, where he took tests and contributed to group projects as classmates stared at him in awe.

Director of Athletics Chris Clunie and Dr. Clark Ross with the Stephen Curry fathead at the Davidson commencement.

Director of Athletics Chris Clunie and Dr. Clark Ross with the Stephen Curry fathead at the Davidson commencement.

Chris Clunie/Davidson athletics/

By the time the lockout ended in December 2011, Curry had completed three more courses. All that remained between him and a diploma was a research paper on tattoos (the final requirement for a 300-level sociology class), a senior thesis and an independent study project.

Shortly after Curry broke his left hand early in the 2019-20 season, he called Clunie and asked for help putting together a plan to graduate. Clunie, a former Davidson basketball player who has known Curry since Curry’s senior year of high school, began to contact professors. But then any potential classes were put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It wasn’t until this past January that Curry finally enrolled at Davidson again. The school had expanded its online offerings during the pandemic, which allowed Clunie to work with Curry’s manager, Tiffany Williams, and several faculty members to map out an itinerary that fit Curry’s schedule.

On numerous occasions, Curry Zoomed with professors at 10 or 11 p.m. ET because that was the only time his basketball, parenting and sponsorship obligations afforded. During those meetings, he discussed assignments and reviewed his progress.

“This has really been a team effort,” Ross said. “So many people put so much into this, which really speaks to how much we care for Steph. But ultimately, he was the one doing the work.”

The Davidson Women’s Basketball coaching staff poses with the Stephen Curry fathead at the school’s 2022 commencement.

The Davidson Women’s Basketball coaching staff poses with the Stephen Curry fathead at the school’s 2022 commencement.

Chris Clunie/Davidson athletics/

It helped that Curry’s life experience was applicable to much of his coursework. While working on that paper about tattoos, Curry used his teammates as research subjects. During long flights, he interviewed Gary Payton II, Draymond Green and others about the meaning behind their body art.

Curry’s senior thesis consisted of a 24-page paper and a half-hour podcast about advancing gender equity in sports. As a father to two young daughters, he has spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about how girls often aren’t given the same athletic opportunities as boys.

Curry’s interest in the subject only grew in November 2018, when a 9-year-old girl named Riley Morrison wrote him a letter asking why his Under Armour shoes didn’t come in girls’ sizes online. In addition to writing Morrison back, Curry corrected the problem with Under Armour’s website; founded a scholarship for girls who bring about change in their communities, and even let Morrison design her own sneaker.

The story of his experience with Morrison was a key part of Curry’s thesis. Using many of the concepts and terms he learned in his sociology courses, he detailed how major companies such as Under Amour can help take women’s sports to another level.

“I was really impressed by how much care and thought he put into this,” said Gayle Kaufman, a Davidson sociology professor who oversaw Curry’s senior thesis. “It wasn’t the kind of thing where he was doing it just to get it done. It was objectively a very good thesis.”

The Morrison anecdote was also the subject of one of four 3-4 minute videos Curry did for his independent-study project.

With the guidance of Ross and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker, Curry wrote each script, then recited it on camera as part of a class called, “The Power of Story.” Other videos featured Curry interviewing Clint Smith III, a Davidson alum and best-selling author; Curry discussing why the notion of being “underrated” means so much to him, and his sharing a story from his freshman year of college in which McKillop taught him the importance of toughness.

Though Curry was disappointed to miss the final month of the regular season with a sprained ligament in his left foot, he appreciated that the injury gave him extra time to finish his coursework. It wasn’t enough for him to merely earn his degree. Given that he knows much more now than he did when he left Davidson, Curry wanted strong grades.

His professors declined to reveal his spring GPA, but they did concede that this was one of the best semesters of his college career. Sunday morning, as he watched Davidson’s commencement ceremony over Zoom, Curry was overwhelmed with nostalgia for his experiences there.

The rap video he shot his junior year about his favorite cafeteria. The late nights working with friends on “The Davidson Show,” a variety program broadcast on campus. The community pride when Curry led the Wildcats to the 2008 Elite Eight.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during an interview following Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks at Chase Center, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. The Warriors won 112-87.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during an interview following Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks at Chase Center, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. The Warriors won 112-87.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

At a time in which many NBA hopefuls view college as a six-month pit stop before draft preparations, Curry is a bit of an anomaly. Davidson, where he scored a school-record 2,635 points in just three years after receiving zero high-major offers out of high school, is central to his identity.

His Twitter and Instagram bios proclaim himself as a “Davidson Wildcat.” Whenever the Warriors practice in the area before a game against the Hornets, Curry insists that they get up shots on campus at John M. Belk Arena.

Under Armour’s Curry Brand sponsors the Davidson men’s and women’s basketball teams. In the campus bookstore, fans can buy his jersey and know that the profits are going to his Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation. The Wildcats even have a women’s athletic-scholarship initiative in Curry’s name.

“We try to really orient what Davidson does around what Stephen wants to do, rather than what we want from Stephen,” Clunie said. “We were able to cultivate some pretty cool things, and it’s all a direct reflection of who Steph is as a person.”

Davidson's Stephen Curry (30) celebrates following Davidson's 82-76 win over Gonzaga in a first round NCAA Midwest Regional basketball game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, March 21, 2008. Curry scored 40 point in the game. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Davidson’s Stephen Curry (30) celebrates following Davidson’s 82-76 win over Gonzaga in a first round NCAA Midwest Regional basketball game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, March 21, 2008. Curry scored 40 point in the game. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Chuck Burton / AP

Added McKillop: “There’s nobody on our planet that doesn’t understand that Stephen Curry’s fingerprints are all over Davidson College athletics. More importantly, they’re all over Davidson College. And that’s all because of Stephen Curry.”

When Clunie became Davidson’s AD in 2018, he heard some variation of the same question from hundreds of alums: When will you retire Curry’s jersey? Given its academic reputation, faculty only retires the numbers of former players who graduated.

But considering all Curry has done for the tiny college 22 miles north of Charlotte, some donors lobbied for Davidson to make an exception. Curry refused. When the Wildcats stopped requiring a degree for inclusion in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, he again declined, telling Clunie that he wanted to wait until he graduated.

Now, with diploma in hand, Curry is ready to start talking about Hall-of-Fame and jersey-retirement festivities. Knowing that he made good on his promise to his mom should only make the celebrations sweeter.

“It was special,” Curry said of telling Sonya on Mother’s Day that he was about to graduate. “When I left, I knew that was a huge part of seeing something through, getting that degree.

“I’m just so glad I finally got to join my siblings as college grads. I’m not the odd one out anymore.”

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron