Stephen Curry asks me the same question nearly every time we chat.
"How’s Darin doing?"
For more than four years, the answer has been the same: "Darin is doing great." It’s thanks to the Golden State Warriors star who’s asking the question.
Darin is Darin Johnson, a college freshman on the Washington Huskies basketball team this season. Four years ago, he was a 14-year-old freshman at Franklin High School, outside Sacramento. He was as stubborn as he was lanky, giving his JV coach headaches at a supreme rate that matched only his talent.
I know, because I was his head coach.
I witnessed a kid who could already dunk in transition and easily slice through defenses with natural footwork. I marveled at a young teen who was blessed with a complete gift for the game.
I also saw the other side: a poor work ethic, an embattled attitude and a frustration for all things difficult. Johnson, despite his self-confidence, was at risk of peaking as a high school underclassman.
"Back then, I didn’t think work ethic was that important because I relied on my talent," said Johnson, now 18. "If I wanted to get to the hoop, I’d just get there because I had more talent than the other kid. But as time went on, and I began seeing other kids were getting better, I realized I was falling behind."
Johnson was always a good-hearted, likable kid. He simply didn’t understand the dedication and commitment to drudgery it takes to evolve in the ultra-competitive landscape of basketball.
He liked to do things his way. He won sprints during practice only when he wanted to, he looked the other way when we talked defense and he pouted when I made him do push-ups as a penalty for taking pull-up jumpers instead of running the offense.
Johnson comes from an incredible family, and both mom, dad, sisters and brothers were regular positive influences. Yet he still had that typical teenage attitude that most kids carry.
The difference, however, was that Johnson’s exceptional talent demanded he rise above just "typical." Darin wasn’t meant to be average in basketball.
I can recall one of his teammates telling me, "Coach, don’t bother. That’s just Darin. He’s never listened to coaches before. It’s always been the same thing."
It was hard to settle for that. While there were brief victories in terms of his maturation as a freshman, the setbacks were equally as common.
Immaturity can tear up young talent more than athleticism can save it. I feared Johnson might waste his opportunity to excel in the game I knew deep down he loved so dearly.
He was my player, and I was worried about him.
Then, in stepped Johnson’s hero.
He idolized Curry, the older kid at just 21 years old, who was already a star fresh out of Davidson and now an NBA rookie 90 minutes down the road in Oakland.
During this time, the 2009-10 season, I was covering the NBA out of Sacramento. One night, when the Warriors came to visit, I had a conversation with Curry and mentioned my concerns about my talented young high-school player.
"Why don’t you just bring him to a practice? I’ll talk to him," Curry said.
He said it so nonchalantly, as if it was normal for an NBA player to act with such generosity of his time.
I didn’t simply give Johnson the pass to meet his favorite player right away. It didn’t seem right to reward his disinterest in hard work. High school freshman, meet the ultimate carrot.
And surprise, it worked. Johnson turned it up in practice, his attention sharpened, and he even started to properly run the offense.
After a month of hitting his marks as a student-athlete, Johnson had earned an opportunity to meet his hero. So, along with his dad, he made the trip along I-80 to the Warriors practice facility in Oakland.
"When I first got there, I didn’t know what to expect," Johnson said. "I thought he was just going to just say hi and bye."
Instead, it’d be a much more meaningful exchange.
After Curry handled his post-practice media session, he walked over to shake hands with Johnson. He pulled him over to an area near the court with exercise equipment, and the pair of hoopers each took a seat on a medicine ball.
They talked like old friends for 45 minutes.
It was a heart-to-heart between strangers, just sitting and chatting.
Curry shared his story with Johnson. He told the high school kid, bluntly, how many young talents he’d seen wasted. Some players, Curry told him, weren’t willing to put in the arduous hours of practice to get better and they eventually faded away with each new level. He talked about the importance of character, patience and maturity.
"I remember the conversation a good amount and him coming to practice," Curry said recently. "The biggest thing I told him is be good at controlling what you can control. There are so many things that can happen in the game of basketball when it comes to injuries, coaches or the bad situations you can possibly get in. The things you can control are your attitude, your effort on the court and your attention to your personal mission.
"You have to be blind to all those things going around you because you can’t control those things. You can’t control how many shots you make on any given night. It’s all about playing hard and not thinking that you’re bigger than the game in any given situation because it won’t get you anywhere."
Curry wasn’t supposed to be an NBA star. He received three scholarship offers out of high school (Davidson, VCU and Winthrop). Many of his AAU teammates were all projected to have better basketball careers than Curry.
It was Curry’s devotion that set him apart, and he didn’t sugarcoat any of that when he spoke to Johnson. Curry said while in high school he was up at 4 a.m. to eat breakfast and get hundreds of shots up. If Johnson wanted to succeed, he’d need to invest that level of effort.
Here Johnson was sitting with his idol, who was pleading to him that tangible, hard work isn’t some cliche. Real talent doesn’t magically develop. It has to be earned.
Curry’s message jolted his new 14-year-old friend.
"He told me how hard he works," Johnson said. "I looked at myself and then at him, and he’s in the position I want to be in. I was like, ‘Man, I really got to pick it up’ because for him to get there wasn’t easy. The little things he was doing turned into big things. I felt to get to his level, I was really going to have to start working.
"That was really a wakeup call for me. It still is for me now, watching him succeed at the level he’s at, knowing he still works that hard."
A change in work ethic occurred during the summer before Johnson’s sophomore year and carried him to his scholarship at Washington.
"When I started my sophomore year at the varsity high-school level I began to wake up early and start shooting," Johnson said. "I wasn’t the greatest defender so I was even in there doing defensive slides. What he told me absolutely helped me."
Now, Johnson is a 6-foot-5, 200-pound combo guard earning minutes as a true freshman.
When I saw Curry in the Warriors’ locker room following the team’s season-opening win against the Los Angeles Lakers, Curry, as usual, asked about Johnson.
"I remembered that he was beginning in college," Curry said. "That’s why I asked you when I saw you in the locker room, because I remember the conversation and thought about it when I saw you. That’s important and I wanted to check in."
Curry said he welcomed that talk years ago because people, mostly teammates or friends of his dad, Dell Curry, once did it for him. When he hears of Johnson’s successes, he shares in it.
"It’s really cool how far he’s come in four short years," Curry said. "I remember hoping to make him understand the game of basketball, how he should focus and what was important. I guess you never know if he will actually listen or what will come on the backend of that conversation. Maybe just one sentence out of that whole 45-minute conversation will go a long way."
I texted Johnson that night to let him know Curry was checking in, and Johnson’s response?
"Tell him I’ll see him on the court soon, haha." The confidence hasn’t been lost.
In Darin’s first game at Washington on Nov. 6, he had two points on 1-for-6 shooting from the field and 0-for-4 from the free-throw line in 17 minutes. I texted Curry to report Darin’s first line.
He responded: "Tell Darin that in my first college game, I had 13 points and 13 turnovers. It only gets better from there. Keep grinding."
A day after I passed along that text, Johnson played his second game. In that one, Johnson was 5-of-15 for 16 points but 5-of-5 from the free-throw line in 29 minutes.
"I saw his text," Johnson said. "That’s why I picked it up in our next game."
The mentoring continues.
Curry didn’t have to step up years ago. But he did. He took some extra time and it changed the course of one kid’s future.