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STARKVILLE, Miss. — After fans emptied Mississippi State's basketball arena Sunday, a misty-eyed Eric Curry nearly got choked up, taking in the Gophers' upset to improve to a surprising 7-0.

The sixth-year senior forward posed for pictures with family and friends who sat behind the bench for the game. They've supported him from his time growing up in Memphis and Arkansas, and throughout his injury-plagued career in Minnesota.

And nobody beamed brighter than Curry's mother, Audrea Phipps, who spent the game cheering loudly for the Gophers, as she's done for years, even when her son's dreams of playing pro basketball were slipping away.

"She's going to forever be in my corner," Curry said with a wide smile.

With the Gophers facing a tough nonconference test against the Bulldogs, Curry delivered his best scoring game since his freshman year, and his best friend, Payton Willis, hit the go-ahead three-pointer.

Curry, 23, came out of retirement from basketball last summer, delaying plans to work as a graduate assistant coach, saying he "came back to school for these big moments" under first-year coach Ben Johnson.

Entering Wednesday's Big Ten opener against No. 19 Michigan State, the Gophers are one of the biggest surprises in college basketball. A healthy Curry's presence has been vital to their success. He's their lone returning player, an emotional leader, and a team inspiration.

“For a guy who battled injuries and had been here a long time, you want to leave the right way without a sour taste in your mouth.”
Ben Johnson

Multiple surgeries on both knees and a torn ligament in one of his feet wiped away more than two full seasons of his career, but there Curry was Sunday, battling one of the SEC's best centers. The Gophers co-captain outplayed Mississippi State's Tolu Smith, finishing with 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting from the foul line and five rebounds.

That's the type of performance from Curry moving forward that could help the Gophers compete in a Big Ten loaded with quality big men.

"He's got himself into really good shape," Johnson said. "We rely on him a lot. I think that's something he embraced, and he was excited for. Great teammate. Wants to win. So we're just really glad we got him in our locker room."

'Why me?'

That bright moment for Curry with his family in Starkville was a completely different feeling for him than two years ago on Halloween night.

He was sitting in a University of Minnesota hospital bed, shaking and in tears, fearful of another long recovery after a second ACL tear. His basketball career in serious doubt.

"Momma, why me?" said the whimpering 6-9, 240-pound Curry with his mother standing by his bedside placing her hand on his head for comfort.

Curry was being prepped for his third season-ending injury in four years after joining the Gophers as a promising four-star recruit that helped them reach the 2017 NCAA tournament.

"I know you wanted to go to the NBA and be an amazing player," she told her son. "But God is showing you he has another thing in store."

Eric Curry career statistics

Phipps had prayed for support in raising Curry ever since she'd given birth to him in Memphis as a teenage single mom in 1998.

"Growing up in the city of Memphis, it's pretty tough in itself," Curry said. "It was just me and her figuring it out on our own. I give her all the credit for being there for me."

Curry's father, also named Eric, was in and out of prison. But every Friday since he was a toddler, Curry spent the day with his grandparents on his father's side. Their support allowed his mother to be around him growing up and also raise his younger sister, Keonia.

"Eric's dad truly wasn't in his life," Phipps said, "but his grandparents always have been there and have been my backbone."

Phipps was the mom everyone remembered at Curry's games growing up. She stands 6-2, but her enthusiasm and unapologetic personality were just as distinct, unwavering in her support for her son and his teams, which dominated Pee Wee football.

Once when Curry was 10, a mother from an opposing Memphis football squad was so furious after losing that she followed Phipps to the parking lot, yelling "cheaters" since Curry was so much bigger.

"I told her that I had his birth certificate in the car if she wanted to see it," Phipps laughed.

Curry's father was 6-8 and a standout forward in high school before dropping out. "He wasn't around at all," Curry said. "It was me and my mom all along."

Eric Curry posed with his mother, Audrea Phipps, and younger sister, Keonia, after the Gophers’ win Sunday at Mississippi State.
Eric Curry posed with his mother, Audrea Phipps, and younger sister, Keonia, after the Gophers’ win Sunday at Mississippi State.

Marcus Fuller, Star Tribune

On the move

Sprouting to 6-4 by time he finished eighth grade, Curry gave up football after catching the eye of basketball coaches who encouraged him to switch his focus.

He joined the Arkansas Wings, one of the nation's premier AAU programs, who had a rising young shooting guard on the U13 team named Payton Willis. They became close friends, bonding on road trips.

"Eric's still the same funny 13-year-old that I met," Willis, a Fayetteville, Ark., native, said. "He's just probably about 100 pounds bigger. I call his mom my auntie. She's great. She's very supportive."

Phipps found a job in Little Rock, Ark., so she was able to move her son closer to the Wings program and he played at Southwest Christian Academy for his last few years of high school.

“Growing up in the city of Memphis, it's pretty tough in itself. It was just me and her figuring it out on our own. I give her all the credit for being there for me.”
Eric Curry on his mother

Johnson discovered Curry when recruiting former Hopkins star Amir Coffey in 2015. By that fall, Curry was sold on joining the Gophers' 2016 class with Coffey and Michael Hurt, helping Richard Pitino's program go from eight to 24 wins.

After playing an instrumental part on Minnesota's 2017 NCAA tournament team as a freshman, Curry endured the first of three major injuries, and he had been struggling to stay healthy until this season.

Curry's mother would try to call or text her son every day to keep his spirits up. She'd find inspirational messages from players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

"When I couldn't catch him on the tough days," Phipps said, "I told [the Gophers training staff] to watch him. His head is all over the place. My main concern was always his mental health."

The comeback

On March 22, Johnson was hired as the next Gophers men's basketball coach to replace Pitino.

After receiving congrats texts from Curry, Johnson learned Curry was hoping to join his staff as a grad assistant while working on a master's degree in youth development leadership.

Curry actually worked with the Gophers staff for a couple of weeks in the office and at workouts when "the bug kind of hit him," Johnson said about playing.

"For a guy who battled injuries and had been here a long time, you want to leave the right way without a sour taste in your mouth," Johnson said about the pandemic-stricken season. "So I sensed it."

Willis was transferring back to Minnesota from the College of Charleston, and the Gophers desperately needed a post presence after getting decimated by the transfer portal. Eventually, Curry went to Johnson about playing again.

Curry's mom didn't even know until the Gophers made it official; he was back in early July. He needed to be 100% healthy first, so he lost 15 pounds with help from strength and conditioning coach Steve Felde and trainer Ryan Dotson.

And now he's playing a career-high 28.5 minutes a game, including when he had a season-high eight rebounds in 31 minutes Nov. 24 in front of his mom and sister vs. Jacksonville at the Barn.

"Eric is in the best shape he's been in about two years," Johnson said. "Give that kid credit. What he does with his body to get right just shows how much he wants to play for these guys and this school."

As he showed in Starkville, Curry means a lot to the Gophers, coming back from his hardships to lead them with the passion and drive he gets from his mom. And don't be surprised to see Phipps at another game cheering vibrantly from the Williams Arena crowd.

"She's amazing," Curry said. "Everything I do, everything I have, I get from her. I'm just happy she's proud of me."