STANFORD, Calif. – Legendary singer Tony Bennett is best known for his signature rendition of the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” For Stephen Curry and his wife, Ayesha, their hearts never left Oakland and its youth despite his Golden State Warriors departing across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco three years ago.
“We’ve stayed loyal to the family that we’ve known since ’09,” Stephen Curry told Andscape recently at a fundraising golf tournament for his Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation. “And the team evolved and moved to San Francisco. But the history there, the support, the passion behind wanting to see us succeed on the court, I wanted to be able to give that back. My wife has felt that, too, [with] the interaction that she’s had with fans and people in the community.
“And even our kids, this is where they are going to learn the world. And so, we appreciate that opportunity. And even though the team moved across the Bay, we always wanted to have our flag planted in Oakland, the East Bay, and found ways to make that, again, a lifelong mission.”
Eat. Learn. Play. was founded in 2019, focusing on Oakland with a mission “to unleash the potential of every child and pave the way for amazing kids and bright futures.” The primary focus has been on healthy childhood nutrition, education, and physical activity. Since March 2020, Eat. Learn. Play. has provided more than 25 million meals and 4 million pounds of groceries to Oakland families and others in need. The foundation has also delivered 2.7 million pounds of fresh produce to 24,000 families through Oakland public schools and parks and recreation youth campsites. The foundation and World Central Kitchen collaborated with 130 Oakland restaurants to deliver more than 2.5 million meals, putting more than 850 restaurant employees back to work.
Eat. Learn. Play. also partnered with the Oakland Public Library, Oakland Literacy Coalition, and Black Cultural Zone to build and manage 150 Little Town Libraries across historically under-resourced Oakland communities. Stephen Curry also pushed for remodeling outdoor basketball parks and gymnasiums in Oakland such as at Bushrod Recreation Center, Concordia Park and Manzanita Recreation Center and plans to do more.
“When you talk about people who have definitely made an impact on Oakland, his name is on that Mount Rushmore,” said rapper Stanley “Mistah Fab” Cox, an Oakland native known for his community work.
Moreover, there is so much more that the Currys have done in Oakland outside the public and media eye.
“Steph calls me last December and tells me to hang out with him during the middle of COVID,” said Aneel Bhusri, co-founder and co-CEO at Workday. “’Come to Oakland and come to an event with me.’ We got to a few food banks and women shelters. We pack up toys. This is his day off between games.
“We got to get the world to be fair. More balanced. You think about Eat. Learn. Play. You think about what they did during the pandemic. They served more than 20 million meals to kids. I don’t know how Oakland would have got through it without Steph and Ayesha. I really don’t.”
So why so much love for Oakland from the Currys? Simply put, as Stephen Curry told Andscape in 2020, “this is our adoptive home.”
The Currys first became familiar with Oakland after Stephen was drafted from Davidson College (North Carolina) with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft by the Warriors. The Warriors’ home at that time was Oracle Arena, the aging beloved venue that had been the franchise’s home since the 1970s. After initially living in San Francisco, the Currys moved to the Jack London Square neighborhood in Oakland for three years during the early part of the two-time NBA MVP’s career.
The Currys were known to enjoy such local restaurants as the now-defunct soul food spot Pican and the longtime brunch staple Oakland Grill. They were beloved in the community due to Stephen Curry’s basketball exploits that brought three of his four championships to “The Town” and respect to a longtime hapless NBA franchise. The Currys also built a reputation for giving back to the low-income residents and the youth of Oakland.
Although the Currys now live in the Bay Area’s Peninsula, their hearts have always led them to give back to Oakland.
“What impressed us and what concerned us are kind of intertwined in terms of there’s such an energy and life and uniqueness about Oakland that has a lot of historical significance in a lot of different ways, but I could feel it right away,” Stephen Curry said. “I didn’t know much about the city when I first got drafted. And when I came out here, we lived right [in] downtown Oakland for the first three years. We understood, one, just the passion around the Warriors and sports. But also, just the passion for this area and what’s come out of the city, how people from Oakland, when you ask them where they’re from, they tell you, and there’s a different tone that comes out of the pride of what the area means.
“And I think that struck me from day one. And then obviously, as I’m going through my career, going to games, meeting fans, meeting people where they are, it only continues to impact you more. But also, there’s so much talent in Oakland from a cultural perspective, but there’s not a lot of opportunity. And that’s from generations of barriers that people had to overcome, families, parents struggling to find ways to essentially support themselves and their kids.”
Along with winning and a public profile, another reason the Currys are so popular in Oakland is that it has been able to move them.
Stephen Curry took a picture in front of Oakland’s legendary Fox Theater to commemorate his 10-year anniversary with the Warriors in 2019. He joined Warriors teammates who walked with then-teammate and Oakland native Juan Toscano-Anderson to protest the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in 2020. Ayesha Curry opened her first retail store and cafe in Oakland, Sweet July, in 2021. The Currys also are legendary in “The Town” for surprising rapper Cox when they attended his annual backpack giveaway block party at Pepsi Park on 44th Street in Oakland in 2019 without any security.
“The day of the event I called him and said, ‘Today is the backpack giveaway.’ He said, ‘I know. It’s on the schedule,’” Cox said. “He called me 30 minutes before and said, ‘Do I make a left off the freeway or right?’ I’m like in my mind, ‘Yo, you really about to pull up!’ When he pulls up, it’s him and his wife. … Everybody goes crazy, ballistic, insane. ‘Oh, my God, it’s Steph Curry!’
“He’s just cool, calm, collected. Mrs. Curry sat down on the bench, held the babies, they took pictures all day. This is the most iconic moment where I realize this dude is just different. We’re playing basketball in a celebrity tournament, and he jumps on the court, and he starts playing basketball. In my mind I’m like, ‘Yo, you got to chill. You tripping. If you get hurt, they’re going to hate me forever. You got to chill, big fellah!’ He gets out there and plays basketball. A whole game. One guy makes a shot. The competition is on. He is coming down, dribbling. I was like, oh, he is different, different. He loves the game that much, but he loves the people even more. For him to make a memory like that you can tell your children’s children.”
Said Stephen Curry: “That was special. I even got schooled on a couple of possessions. It was beautiful thing. And we have icons who pave the way for what it means to give back in an authentic and genuine way, and Fab is one of those, for sure. And we’re trying to love that the same way we love Oakland.”
Right now for the Currys, the focus in helping the Oakland youth is “Learn.”
Less than 20% of Oakland’s public elementary schools have a library. Eat. Learn. Play. plans to fill the void by stocking libraries and continue to use its eclectic Eat. Learn. Play. bus to distribution books, with frequent free book giveaways and events. Last month, the Currys announced, it was partnering with Workday on a new initiative to increase childhood literacy in Oakland. Money raised from a charity golf tournament at Stanford Golf Course, attended by such sports stars as Curry, former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, Stephen Curry’s father Dell Curry, and his brother Seth Curry, and former NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr., will support this initiative, which includes teacher-led classroom literacy projects and help distributing 300,000 new books through the Eat. Learn. Play. Bus and Little Town Libraries. There are also plans to fund the creation of a comprehensive analysis of literacy opportunities and gaps in Oakland.
“Our main focus this year has been activating our literacy pillar,” Ayesha Curry said. “At the core of that is literacy, especially in the Oakland community. And upward of 15% of Black students and 12% of Latino students are not meeting the level of literacy in order to succeed in school. That is just uncalled-for. It’s inappropriate. It doesn’t need to be the case.”
Said Stephen Curry: “Look at the school systems and a lot of things that need to improve across the board, from a literacy standpoint, from nutritious meals that they serve and things like that. All those things are wrapped into the work that we want to do.”
On July 20, the Currys attended the Oakland Athletics home game against the Houston Astros to both throw out the first pitch and promote their foundation. The Currys and the Oakland A’s hosted more than 1,000 kids from Oakland at the game. Afterward, the children slapped the 2022 NBA Finals MVP’s hand as they ran past first base.
While the Currys are making a lasting impact on Oakland’s children, those kids are affecting the power couple with three children as well.
“One of them asked why I was there, why I was choosing to spend time with them,” Stephen Curry said. “It kind of breaks your heart that that’s a question because they just are looking for people to see them and to feel seen. And it might seem like such a small gesture to be out there, and it’s a two-second interaction to high-five somebody.
“You never know what type of impact that’ll leave on a kid to know, ‘Hey, I showed up somewhere, and Steph gave me a high-five and told me it’s great to see you.’ Maybe that boost of confidence will get them through a tough challenge that might be ahead, get them through it. Who knows how that story will be written? But those type of interactions are so meaningful and rewarding. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I miss that, because it means a lot.”