Court-side friendship

Although their careers took dramatically different turns after high school, senior forward Melvin Buckley is now poised to reach his goal of joining Eddy Curry in the NBA.

The two former teammates at Chicago’s Thornwood High School hope to live out their dream. Even though Curry has already made his mark in the NBA, he is looking forward to Buckley joining him.

“It’d be great to see Melvin in the league,” Curry said. “He definitely has the talent to do it. We’ll just see what happens. I’m a Melvin Buckley fan. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Buckley has become the Bulls’ offensive catalyst this season, leading the team with 15.9 points per game. USF has responded to his play by winning two more Big East Conference games than last season, including an upset of No. 21 Notre Dame on Saturday.

His time at USF has allowed him to further develop his game and be more prepared to take the next step of playing professional basketball.

“I’ve learned how to expand my game and become more versatile,” Buckley said. “The last couple of years playing with coach (Robert) McCullum have really allowed me to showcase the abilities I have.”

When Curry was in his senior year and Buckley was a junior, the two led Thornwood to the Class AA Championship game but fell short in the final round. Buckley’s contributions to the team weren’t over shadowed by Curry’s dominant play.

“Melvin always had his head on the right way,” former Thornwood coach Kevin Hayhurst said. “He was very positive in multiple ways and really contributed to our team. When teams double teamed Eddy, Melvin was able to make them pay.”

During that season together, the two formed a bond that continues today.

“He was a cool guy, fun to be around, just everything about him,” Buckley said. “He’s a real down to earth guy. We’re like family.”

Curry agrees.

“Every time I see him, I treat him like family because for a few years we were,” Curry said. “There’s a lot of love between us, I think.”

Buckley began his collegiate career at Purdue and made his mark during the first round of the NCAA Tournament, when he scored 20 points to lead the Boilermakers to an 80-56 victory over Louisiana State.After two seasons at Purdue, Buckley transferred, seeking a change of scenery from the Midwest.

“I spent my whole life out there and just felt pressured,” Buckley said. “I needed to escape, and coming to Tampa was perfect. To get an opportunity to play in the Big East was something I wanted to do.”

Despite a short time at Purdue, Buckley made a lasting impact.

“I was very impressed with him in high school and liked the way he played,” former Purdue coach Gene Keady said. “I know he has the shooting ability (to play in the NBA). It’s up to him; his biggest strength was he could shoot.”

Curry’s professional career has taken a path similar to Buckley’s collegiate career.

Curry originally committed to DePaul but decided that declaring for the 2001 NBA Draft was his best option. The Chicago Bulls selected him with the No. 4 pick.”When he became a lottery pick, it’s one of those situations where he couldn’t pass up,” Hayhurst said. “His opportunity came at an early age.”

During his first year with the Bulls, Curry struggled to find consistent playing time and only averaged 6.7 points per game. New York Knicks guard Jamal Crawford spent three seasons with Curry in Chicago and saw that Curry felt pressure from playing in his hometown, which took a toll on his play.

“Sometimes, it’s tough to play from where you’re from,” Crawford said. “So I think that got to him a little bit.”

Prior to the 2005-06 season, after four years in Chicago, Curry was dealt to the Knicks and has felt a different kind of pressure with the infamous New York media.

“I go from a tough situation to an even tougher situation,” Curry said. “I’m definitely under a huge microscope in New York.”

The escape from the Midwest seems to have benefited Curry as well. Crawford is now a teammate of Curry’s in New York and has seen the difference in his confidence since switching teams.

In his second season with the Knicks, Curry is averaging a team- and career-high of 19.5 points per game. Everyone on the team feels he should have been selected to the All-Star Game.

“He’s our All-Star; he’s been playing well the whole season,” Crawford said. “Eddy’s one of the best in the league.”

While Curry may have found a permanent home in New York, Buckley’s future could land him on an NBA team or elsewhere. But Curry said he is willing to do what he can to help Buckley.

“When it’s time for Melvin to come out, I’m definitely going to put some words into (Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas’) ear,” Curry said. “But if he plays the way I know he can play, I won’t need to put words into anybody’s ear.”

Even if Curry can’t talk Thomas or any other team into selecting his friend, Buckley knows he will still be playing basketball next year.

“I’m not worried about a lot,” Buckley said. “If I get picked up (into the NBA), I get picked up. If not, there’s a lucrative job overseas waiting for me.”