How Steph Curry and the Warriors’ offense fuel a points-for-meals charity with nearly 2 million served

SAN FRANCISCO — On the day Stephen Curry signaled his playoff readiness with two scintillating six-minute bursts on the practice court, his longtime running mate recognized the deeper implications. This wasn’t just the return of a player. It was the return of a vibe.

“He just gives everybody a lift,” Klay Thompson said last Thursday.

The All-Star’s comeback wave crashed thunderously upon the playoff shores in the first three games of this series, as Curry has returned from a month-long hiatus to average 25.7 points in 25.1 minutes to help take a 3-0 series lead over the Denver Nuggets.

As always, Curry’s range tends to extend to unexpected places, and the ripples of his splashy return have made their way to some unlikely destinations. That includes, improbably, a grateful food bank in San Jose where a former Bosnian handball player counts every made bucket as a blessing. Places like this are where Thompson’s line — “he just gives everybody a lift” — has a whole new meaning.

Because for each point the Warriors score this season — by Curry, by Thompson, by jordan poole or by anyone else — a charity effort co-founded by former swingman Kelenna Azubuike provides 100 meals to local food banks. The “Swishes for Dishes” program is closing in 2 million meal donations since its inception in December 2020, and it will get to that milestone thanks to a late-April agreement with sponsoring partner Kaiser Permanente to extend the program into the postseason. Because the Warriors have averaged 122.3 points over the first three games of the series, the best bet is that the swishes reach the 2 million dishes mark at some point during the conference semifinals.

This, of course, is not something Curry thinks about while he’s lining up a corner 3 in pursuit of an NBA title.

But there are also times when he thinks about it in the same way he shoots: deeply.

“It’s a good way to make basketball an impactful element to changing people’s lives,” Curry told The Athletic after a recent practice at Chase Center. “It’s staggering. There are already food insecurities in our backyard. From the outside perspective, people think the Bay Area is thriving, which it is in certain communities. But in certain communities, there’s a huge gap in terms of access to proper resources and basic needs that support kids and their families.”

Curry and his wife, Ayesha, have their own unrelated charity—the Eat.Learn.Play Foundation — in which the “eat” part of that equation focuses on childhood hunger and has delivered more than 25 million meals since its inception in 2019.

But in this space, Curry is happy to welcome formidable competition, especially from an ex-teammate. So, he took the time last week to salute the work of Azubuike, who played five often productive Warriors seasons before his career was derailed by a knee injury.

Azubuike, now 38, has reinvented himself as a broadcaster and, more recently, a philanthropist. Those dual roles can make for some eventful nights on the air. Whenever Curry or anybody else gets scorching hot, Azubuike is simultaneously analyzing the action for NBC Sports Bay Area and doing instant math for his charity in his head.

“We try not to overdo it, but every now and then after they make a 3, we’ll say, ‘There’s 300 meals for Swishes for Dishes!”’ Azubuike said with a laugh.

Azubuike, who scored 10.9 points per game in his career, might seem like an unlikely leader in an otherwise star-studded coalition of athletes who have pledged to fight hunger. His charity of him, The Athletes’ Cornerforged partnerships with football notables such as Adrian Peterson, Zach Ertz (and his soccer star wife Julie), Jalen Ramsey and Demario Davis.


Kelenna Azubuike, the former Warriors guard (in blue), helped launch the Swishes for Dishes program to address food insecurity during the pandemic. (Courtesy: Golden State Warriors)

The original goal, starting in 2018, focused on giving athletes a platform to amplify their charity efforts. The early plan included hosting podcasts to talk about different community causes, promote motivational messages and serve as sort of a social media hub for athletes with a mission.

“We wanted to be like the foundation behind athlete foundations,” Azubuike said.

But in 2020, the pandemic required nonprofits to develop a very particular set of skills. Azubuike and co-founder Brennen Creer, an entrepreneur, recognized they needed to provide something more tangible than an Instagram post, so they settled on the most basic need of all.

“Food insecurity was a huge issue before the pandemic even started,” Azubuike said, “and the pandemic made it 10 times, 100 times worse.”

It was around this time that Lejla Bojer — that former professional team handball player from Bosnia — was already keenly aware of the need for more resources. Bojer, now the corporate philanthropy officer at Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley, thought things were rough enough already. In February 2020, Second Harvest was serving 250,000 people. By May 2020, they were at 500,000.

Lines for picking up food extended for blocks, and that sight alone was extra poignant for Bojer.

“Prior to COVID, there was so much stigma about standing in line. You were ashamed to be online,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to be seen. … But when COVID hit, there was no shame. People are coming in their cars, in their BMWs. And they’re walking up to distributions because there was so much need. The lines for picking up the food were miles long. We had helicopters hovering over and saying there’s not enough food. That was not true. We had enough food. We just weren’t prepared for miles-long lines. ”

Worse, many of the volunteers stopped coming because of shelter-in-place orders or their personal choice. As early as March 16, 2020, officials at Second Harvest had to summon the California National Guard to keep order.

“We had them come and stay with us for almost 18 months,” Bojer said. “We had about 150 guardsmen every day for eight hours to help us pack food.”

Eventually, the guardsmen gave way to a former guard. Azubuike himself showed up at several food distribution centers to help hand out meals. Along the way, he helped organize a coalition of local charities, and in a joint statement on Dec. 22, 2020, the Warriors, Kaiser Permanente and The Athletes Corner announced a partnership with Feeding America that kick-started with 100,000 meal donations to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, San Francisco-Marin County Food Bank and Second Harvest.

Since then, every Warriors’ trey has also provided a tray. Every floater off the glass is a food-bank shot. Finger rolls provide finger food.

“It’s always surreal knowing the doors that basketball has opened and the opportunities it provides,” said Curry, whose 3,645 regular-season points since the program’s inception have provided 364,500 meals. “It also requires individuals to leverage that and do it in a positive manner. So (Eat.Learn.Play) has been doing what The Athletes’ Corner is doing, what Kelenna is doing. That stuff doesn’t just happen on its own. But we have a platform and an opportunity to utilize this industry and basketball for true impact.”

Nearly 2 million meals later, Azubuike’s efforts keep expanding. The Santa Cruz Warriors of the G League eventually joined the crusade, with each point scored providing 10 meals to Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County. The Warriors Gaming Squad (esports) has the same arrangement with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Contra Costa County.

In the South Bay, as with everywhere, demand remains high, which is why Bojer keeps close eyes on these NBA playoffs. She’s become a basketball fan who coaches the St. Simon School Saints middle school girls in Los Altos. Her sons de ella, Leon and Lukas, are both high school players.

But it’s the pressure she feels away from the court that has her rooting for the Warriors to enjoy a long and high-scoring playoff run.

“We think COVID is over, right? We have been vaccinated, boosted, we’re back to normal life,” Bojer said. “But for our clients, it’s not normal. Most of them went through their savings within a few months.”

She recently interviewed a family that spent $10,000 in savings – money they’d been tucking away for almost eight years to help send their daughter to college. “And it was gone in three months because there was no income,” she said.

For that reason, she remains grateful to Azubuike and the massive assist. They shoot, and everyone scores. The funny thing, though, is the Warriors player Bojer cheers for the hardest happens to be the one who rarely reaches double-digits.

“My favorite player is Draymond Green — even though he doesn’t score a lot,” she said. “Just because I call him the ‘Fifth’ of that team. And I feel that Swishes for Dishes is the fifth that is bringing the community together.”

(Photo of Curry: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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