Not surprisingly, it all started with a basketball and wound up with leading a team.
Early on, Sydel Curry, like her brothers, embraced the sport their father played at Virginia Tech and for 16 years in the NBA. “I love basketball,” says Sydel (pronounced “Sa-dell”), the youngest of three children of Dell and Sonya Curry.
Then, as a sixth-grader, she was seated on the couch in her family’s Charlotte living room batting a basketball above her head. Her mother, once a standout setter on the Virginia Tech volleyball squad, looked on as Sydel began repeatedly propelling the ball upward with deft control. “I’m setting! I’m setting!” her daughter exclaimed.
Nine years later, Sydel Curry shares starting duties as a setter on the women’s volleyball team at Elon University, where she is a red-shirt sophomore. “Basketball is my heart,” she says. “But, there’s something about volleyball, I have a different connection to it. And then the connection with my mom. And it’s just something of my own as well.”
There’s also apparently something about being a Curry when it comes to exceptional performance on the court, as well as a willingness to embrace a leadership role.
For a time Sydel, 5-9 and uncommonly athletic, played both volleyball and basketball at Charlotte’s Christian Montessori School, an educational facility founded by her parents. Sonya Curry remains the head of the school.
“I feel like I get my laidback personality from my dad, and the competitive energy from my mom,” says Sydel. Recalling her mother’s recent participation on a recreation volleyball team in Charlotte, she adds, “She’s just so competitive, she’s like a little energizer bunny.”
Overlapping seasons eventually forced Sydel to focus on one sport. She stuck with volleyball. “It was really hard on me because I wanted to please my dad and go after what my brothers did, because I could shoot, which I guess is like a genetic thing,” she says. Even as the erstwhile point guard made her choice, basketball coaches from major programs came to see what she could do with the larger ball. “They didn’t want to miss out on the last Curry,” Sydel says amusedly.
The manner in which physically unimposing brothers Stephen and Seth Curry were spurned by major-college recruiters – notably their parents’ alma mater during Seth Greenberg’s coaching tenure – is well-chronicled.
Stephen wound up at Davidson, where he set the school scoring record and was an All-American before joining the Golden State Warriors as their top draft pick in 2009. This past season he was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, and the Warriors won the league championship. Seth enrolled at Liberty University and led Division I freshmen in scoring before transferring to Duke, where he prospered over three seasons. Undrafted in 2013, after several years in the D League he signed a two-year contract this summer with the Sacramento Kings.
The entire Curry clan, including Stephen’s wife Ayesha and young daughters Riley and Ryan Carson, were much in evidence on television as spectators during the Warriors’ run to the title. “It’s been a great year for our family,” Sydel says. “Oh, my gosh, that was such an amazing experience. Being there every step of the way – awesome.” At one point she flew cross country to take her final exams at Elon, then returned to the West Coast to resume soaking in the action.
Any time Sydel has an opportunity to observe either brother play, she is eager to see “the way they lead their teammates and the way they carry themselves on the court, and just show an exemplary-type player through their actions,” she says. “That’s what I always like to watch.”
Running the show
That’s also what Sydel Curry tries to emulate, making her choice of position in volleyball inevitable.
“The setter on a volleyball team is similar to a quarterback on a football team,” explains Elon coach Mary Tendler, a three-time All-American at Illinois in the late 1980s and later a pro player in Europe. “Their leadership is really important. They’re running the show. They’re telling the hitters what to hit, they’re moving around the passers to get in a good position, so they’re really directing everything on the court. They’re our court captains – every match we play, the setter is our court captain.”
Unlike more high-profile college sports, volleyball has no scouting services or ratings that rank and promote prep prospects. Tendler found Sydel, who chose Elon over UNC-Greensboro, and was immediately taken with her talents. “I liked her leadership on the court, I liked her quickness,” says the 13-year coach of the Phoenix. “She just took control, just a natural leader.”
Natural or not, leadership clearly is more than an innate ability. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many books written, and speeches offered, on the subject of developing leadership skills. But, at least in the Currys’ case, it’s also a family imperative. “That’s something my parents always instilled in me and my brothers – be a leader. Be the person that people want to follow, want to be like on the court and off the court, in any aspect of life,” reports Sydel, who turns 21 in October.
“She’s all about the team,” Tendler says of the psychology major, who maintains an even keel during competition. “It’s never an individual thing with her. She gives a lot to her teammates.”
In that description Bob McKillop, the Davidson coach, hears an echo of Stephen, an instant leader as a freshman on a 2006-07 Wildcat squad dominated by upperclassmen who had awaited their turn in the spotlight. “They set screens for him, they got him the ball,” McKillop says of teammates’ excellent judgment. “It was all because of the way he represented himself, the way he carried himself, the way he led himself.”
Stephen Curry’s leadership wasn’t restricted to the court. “He always praised his teammates at every press conference,” McKillop recalls, noting the guard was similarly generous in accepting the 2015 MVP award. “That’s why his teammates loved him so much, because he was that kind of a kid. There is no doubt that came from the way he was brought up. There’s no doubt about it.”
Familiar with the Currys, and with Sydel’s effervescent personality, McKillop kiddingly offered her a men’s basketball scholarship while Stephen was on the Davidson squad.
Unfortunately Sydel hasn’t had the sort of immediate impact her brothers enjoyed. For one thing, during her first collegiate practice she injured her knee and was forced to sit out the season. For another, Elon struggled last year when it stepped up from the Southern Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association. In 2014, Sydel Curry’s first full season, the squad finished 6-26, 1-15 in the CAA.
As for the ‘15 season, which began this past weekend with three Elon defeats, the Phoenix is picked to tie for eighth place in the nine-team league.
Sydel Curry, who had 80 of her team’s 109 assists over the weekend, is undeterred, her goals unchanged. She defines success as “definitely getting better every day. On an official level, it would be getting a ring. We’ve started off kind of slowly, but there’s so much promise in our future. Thankfully I’ve got three seasons left to get the job done. Being a competitive person, I want a ring.”
Just like Stephen, her oldest brother.