NBA star guard Stephen Curry hands out malaria prevention to African refugees
CAMP NYARUGUSU, Tanzania -- Freeze it:
But something's upside down.
One man wears a Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 World Champions shirt, which is weird, since the Green Bay Packers actually won it. One woman wears a Connecticut Huskies 2011 Fiesta Bowl Champs hat, also odd, seeing as how Oklahoma crushed them.
Plus, the rim is bent two inches, the wooden backboard is tilting like a drunk, and the court is red dirt. This is because we're in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where those preprinted losing Super Bowl T-shirts live. It's also a place where malaria thrives -- 62,000 cases of it last year among a population of 68,000.
Curry is here to try to fix that. But first he wants to show them his stuff.
He soars, rises up (in jeans) with his right hand and dunks, nearly causing the rickety backboard to cough up its bolts.
Nobody claps. Nobody cheers. Instead, 10,000 eyes blink.
Curry looks at them. Shakes his head.
"They don't know how hard that was for me," he shrugs.
These refugees don't know dunks, nor do they know why a 25-year-old NBA star, coming off his breakout season, would fly more than 8,000 miles and 24 hours, risk malaria, typhoid and yellow fever, just to hang bed nets in their mud huts for the anti-malaria program Nothing But Nets. On his vacation.
"Man, for a huge American sports star," said Nothing But Nets director Chris Helfrich, "he sure doesn't act like it."
Coming to Africa wasn't easy for Curry. Today is his second anniversary and his wife, Ayesha, and his 1-year-old daughter, Riley, aren't here. So he's working on a poem to try to fill the gap. One stanza reads:
When I look at our daughter
I'm beaming with pride
She's the best example
Of our love inside
Standing near two goats in a dusty field, he reads it to her on his satellite phone. At the end, she's silent for 30 seconds. Curry wonders if the line has gone dead, but Ayesha is just overcome.
That feeling would come to Curry's throat, too, when he'd meet parents who left his mouth hanging open.
He'd meet a woman named Nabwamima, who's had four miscarriages due to malaria. "God bless you, Coory," she said.
He'd meet a 25-year-old woman named Machozi, whose name means "tear" and who's had malaria 20 times already. Her 6-month-old boy on her back is bloated and rust-colored from having it three times in the last three months.
He'd meet albino kids who had to flee their villages when chopping off albino limbs and grinding the bones into a "magic" dust suddenly became witch-doctor-approved good luck in 2009.
"This is exhausting," he said during one break. "Emotionally. You know?"
Very few of these people he's helping had ever even heard of him. They don't know he broke the NBA record this year for most 3-pointers in a single season (272), or that he scored 54 points in a single road game against the Knicks, or that he was the breakout star of the NBA playoffs, including one 44-point game against the San Antonio Spurs that nearly caused Oakland to leap into the bay.
For each 3-pointer he hit, he donated three bed nets ($10 each), and now he was actually putting them up.
"I'm putting faces to nets right now," he said during a lunch break. "Like, one whole neighborhood is covered now here just thanks to Madison Square Garden. The Knicks covered Block 9, Street 11. I hope they know that."
I'm sure they're touched.
Curry is used to being guarded tightly, but not usually by AK-47s. There are three Tanzanian police carrying them in the bed of the Toyota pickup truck ahead of us as we knuckleball down the red dirt road to the refugee camp. Curry is sandwiched between two bodyguards, the one the Tanzanian government sent and the one his agent sent.
"I feel like I'm in a 'Bourne' movie," he says.
But the refugees aren't dangerous, they're just desperately poor. They beg him for his empty water bottles. They make dishes out of them. Their huts, which they must build themselves, have dirt floors. There's no electricity, and they can't afford candles to light them at night. One boy we met had only one shirt to wear, period, and that one only thanks to the Indianapolis Colts' loss to New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV.
"And to think that the day before I left I was complaining about our condo," Curry thought aloud.
And yet it's better than where these refugees came from in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where civil war forced them out of their homes in 1996. Many of them have never been outside the camp fences.
So it didn't matter what Curry did for a living. He was helping and he was strong and he was from somewhere else, so they mobbed him. A touch of Curry went a long, long way. He carried one little boy, named Obama, around for an hour. He was continually being handed taped-up balls of yarn -- refugees' version of basketballs -- to shoot at them. Once he was asked to shoot it into the giant metal pan a woman was balancing on her head 20 feet away. It rimmed out.
He tried to teach their two basketball teams to play. He'd holler "give and go!" and "backdoor!" and other instructions they'd never heard of. It wasn't exactly the D League. One kid kissed the ball just before he shot it. The big, 6-foot-5 guy only cherry-picked. The camp's best shooter, Gerrard Mubake, lost to Curry in a 3-point shooting contest, and then left me this note to give to Curry:
"don't let me in this camp. will die. here peaple killed peaple. back in 1996 my father and my mum died in the war, so i'm left alone. i want to be in your two hands."
"I don't know what to say to him," Curry says.
Stephen Curry's life has hit the turbo button since he torched the playoffs. He will be on the cover of Capri Sun juice squeezers this season. And GQ. He's going to have his own reality show on Comcast.
His All-Star snub last season looks even more ridiculous now: The man shot 45 percent from the 3-point line! He is a cinch to make the 2016 USA Olympic team. His life has changed a thousand ways. But none more than from coming to Africa.
"This has been totally eye-opening," he said at the end, covered in red dirt and sweat and joy. "I picked nets because it's a way people can make a huge difference right away. We can really save kids' lives. I've seen it now. I'll never forget it."
When I founded Nothing But Nets in 2006, I begged for help from anybody, anywhere. But I never dreamed we'd get so much from a rising NBA star. I never thought we'd find one who would look up long enough from his Twitter feed and his Piguet watch to notice suffering, much less suffering 8,000 miles from the U.S. I couldn't have imagined we'd find a young man who would not only donate us nets, but actually come to Africa and hang them with us.
Should have known it would be Curry. He's always had a beautiful follow through.