50 wild photos of athletes before they were famous
Believe it or not, Stephen Curry hasn't always been the guy you want to pass to, down two points with one second left on the clock. Despite being the son of an accomplished NBA guard, he wasn't exactly swaddled in an NBA All-Star jersey at birth. In fact, in high school, Steph was a middling three-star recruit without a single offer from college basketball's powerhouse programs. So he ended up at Davidson, a small liberal arts college about an hour north of his high school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
They hadn't won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 1969.
Davidson was down 11 in its first-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Gonzaga. But Curry was overdue for his shining moment. The sharpshooting sophomore scored 30 points in the second half, erasing the Zags' 11-point lead and helping the Wildcats earn that first tourney win in almost four decades.
It was the moment many basketball fans — and NBA scouts — recognized that he wasn't just another dime-a-dozen undersized guard. No, what we were witnessing in 2008 was a kid stepping into greatness.
Keep going to see more photos of your sports heroes before they became household names.
Venus and Serena Williams
The Williams sisters were four (Serena) and five (Venus) when they first started playing tennis in Compton, California. The two showed talent quickly. And when the girls were 9 and 10, the family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida so young Venus and Serena could attend Rick Macci's tennis academy.
In this photo, Venus and Serena hang from the fence at a Compton park where they had just finished up tennis practice. Between the two of them, they've won 30 Grand Slam titles and eight Olympic gold medals.
LeBron James attended St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school in Akron, Ohio. As a freshman, he helped lead the Irish to an undefeated season and a Division III state title. When James was a sophomore, the team played some of its home games at the University of Akron. Why? They needed the extra seats to accommodate all the fans and scouts who wanted to see this young phenom play in the flesh.
Here, James makes a familiar face during a game his senior year. By the time this photo was taken, basketball fans knew the name LeBron James, but it would be a few more months before he would become a household name around the world.
Here, a teen Tiger gets in some practice swings on the Griffith Park golf course in 1991. He already had one USGA Junior Amateur title under his belt when this photo was taken.
Woods went pro five years later, in August 1996. He signed endorsement deals with Nike and golf brand Titleist. Since then, he has racked up 15 major championship victories including 5 Masters wins and 4 PGA titles.
Like Stephen Curry, Tom Brady also wasn't predestined for fame and glory. That's right. The winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history had to fight for playing time in college, even after he earned the Michigan Wolverines' starting role.
In this photo, Brady throws a pass in the 1999 East-West Shrine Bowl, a postseason college football all-star game.
Following his senior season and an underwhelming NFL Combine performance, Brady was drafted No. 199, on the second day of the 2000 NFL Draft (ouch).
Before Clayton Kershaw threw his first major league pitch, before he won the the pitching Triple Crown or a World Series ring, Kershaw was a young lefty in the Dodgers farm system.
In this 2007 photo, a 19-year-old Kershaw pitches in the All-Star Futures Game, an annual exposition of the best Minor League Baseball prospects.
This photo of Shaq and a tiny kitten was taken before the start of O'Neal's third and final year with the LSU Tigers. The bulky center was well-known in the college basketball world, but he would soon become one of the biggest names in sports, period.
In June 1992, the Orlando Magic drafted Shaquille O’Neal first overall. Four years later, he would sign with the Lakers in free agency. That same year, the Lakers drafted a teenager out of Pennsylvania. You may have heard of him — Kobe Bryant. From 2000 to 2002, Kobe and Shaq won three consecutive NBA titles together.
Shaq won his fourth ring in 2006 with the Miami Heat.
David "Big Papi" Ortiz was a standout baseball player in the Dominican Republic. The Seattle Mariners drafted him in 1992 when he was 17 years old. Ortiz bounced back and forth from MLB play to the minor leagues from 1997 to 2000. In 1999, he returned to the Dominican Republic to compete in the Caribbean Series.
The Tigres del Licey took their eighth Caribbean Series title when Ortiz hit a two-run, walk-off liner in the 12th inning. This photo shows the celebration following the heroic at-bat.
In 2003, Ortiz signed with the Boston Red Sox where he would spend the rest of his baseball career. From 2004 to 2016, Ortiz made ten MLB All-Star appearances and won three World Series rings.
Slovenian basketball phenom Luka Dončić made his debut with the Real Madrid basketball team when he was 16 years old. His was the youngest player ever to play for the team.
The Atlanta Hawks selected Dončić in the 2018 NBA Draft and traded him to the Dallas Mavericks. Luka made an immediate impact with the Mavs, scoring more than 20 points per game and receiving the NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
Odell Beckham Jr.
When Beckham showed up on LSU's campus in 2011, scouts regarded him as the sixth-best wide receiver in his class and the No. 40 freshman in the country. This is his first-year portrait.
Three years later, the New York Giants selected Beckham in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Despite being sidelined with an injury for training camp and the first four games of the season, this talented wide receiver still managed to break several NFL rookie receiving records and win Rookie of the Year honors.
Here's a photo that will shock some Laker fans. Before the 1996 NBA Draft that would cement Kobe's future as the face of the Lakers franchise, Bryant actually tried out for the Boston Celtics — and wore this Boston Celtics shirt.
But, as history shook out, Boston took Antoine Walker with their No. 6 pick, leaving Bryant on the table for the Lakers to scoop via a trade with the Charlotte Hornets.
Twelve-year-old Cassius Clay was mad, really mad, when he discovered his bike had been stolen from outside a black merchants' bazaar in Louisville, Kentucky. The pre-teen ranted that he would fight the bike thief, should he ever find him.
As legend has it, boxing coach Joe E. Martin overheard Clay's promises to reclaim his bicycle by force and suggested the boy learn a thing or two about fighting first.
Clay (later Muhammad Ali) would become the greatest boxer of the 20th century, heavyweight champion of the world and an activist for peace and civil rights.
Over there on the far right, you'll see a young JJ Redick at the 2002 Jordan Brand Classic.
Redick mentioned in a podcast that there was something of a rivalry between him and Carmelo Anthony way back when. Redick had earned MVP honors at the McDonald's All-American Game earlier that season, and Anthony had no intention of getting outplayed again.
Unfortunately for both future stars, their team lost by 46 points, and Co-MVP honors went to Sean May and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Powerhouse gymnast Simone Biles is one of the most famous faces in sports today, but way back in 2013, she was an up-and-coming teen competing for USA Gymnastics in Germany.
Three years later, Biles would make her first Olympic appearance. She took home four gold medals from the 2016 Rio Olympics and won the hearts of American sports fans.
Who's that kid in this scene from 2002 basketball rom-com "Juwanna Mann"? That's Seth Curry, of course. The movie was filmed in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Seth and big brother Stephen Curry lived with their family.
The Curry brothers' dad is retired Charlotte Hornets guard Dell Curry, and some scenes in "Juwanna Mann" were filmed at the Curry family home. Young Seth wound up playing a neighborhood kid in one of the scenes.
Seth has come a long way from Carolina driveway pickup games. You can catch him in a 76ers jersey these days.
After spending four seasons in the Marlins' farm organization, Cabrera got the call to suit up for the show in 2003. In this photo, 19-year-old Cabrera warms up before a spring training game that same year.
Cabrera made his major league debut in June 2003, hitting a home run in his first MLB game. Since then, he's made 11 MLB All-Star appearances, earned the American League's MVP honors twice and won one World Series.
Veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen has seen a lot in his 12 years in the major leagues. He earned the Silver Slugger Award four times, a Gold Glove in 2012 and was named the National League MVP in 2013. But before he made it to the big time, he was a three-sport athlete at Fort Meade High School in central Florida.
In addition to playing baseball, McCutchen ran track and played football at Fort Meade. In this photo, McCutchen warms up before the AFLAC High School All-American Game in 2004.
Before his many NBA All-Star appearances, gold medals and retired jerseys, Charles Barkley was a short, stocky center at Auburn University.
The Philadelphia 76ers drafted Barkley fifth overall in 1984 and moved him to the power forward spot. Barkley enjoyed a 16-year career in the NBA before he retired and joined the crew of TNT's "Inside the NBA."
The Dallas Cowboys' running back started his college career as a backup option behind Carlos Hyde on the Ohio State football team. In this photo, the freshman reserve runs the ball against Florida A&M.
But Elliot quickly earned his stripes and moved up to the starting spot before his sophomore season. His third and final year in college, Zeke was named Big Ten MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
The Cowboys drafted Elliot No. 4 overall in 2016, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Toronto Raptors drafted Chris Bosh No. 4 overall from a strong 2003 draft class that included familiar names like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
Chris' dad, Noel Bosh, was holding this baby photo when the Raptors introduced their new draftee out of Georgia Tech.
In 2010, Bosh joined LeBron and D-Wade with the Miami Heat. The trio, known as the "Big Three," went on to win back-to-back NBA championships in 2012 and 2013.
A few days after his 20th birthday, German hoops phenom Dirk Nowitzki became a lottery pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. But the start of his rookie season was delayed by a player lockout. So, Nowitzki packed his bags and headed back to Würzburg, where he could continue to play while he waited out the strike.
This photo shows young Dirk in September 1998, during the 13-game stint between the NBA Draft and the beginning of his rookie season.
Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway didn't settle on football until fairly late in the game. He played both baseball and football at Stanford and even spent some time in the Yankees farm organization.
As we know, Elway ended up being a juggernaut quarterback in the NFL, playing 16 years with the Denver Broncos. His career yielded 9 Pro-Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl victories. Today, he's still making an impact in Denver — he's the Broncos' president of football operations.
Here, 15-year-old Tyus Jones walks the halls of his high school in Apple Valley, Minnesota. By his freshman year, Jones was already the state's top basketball prospect.
In his one year at Duke, Jones earned the nickname "Tyus Stones," a reference to his cool-under-pressure, unflappable play. The team won a NCAA Tournament championship that year.
The Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Jones in 2015 and quickly traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves. In July 2019, Jones signed a three-year deal with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Dodger third baseman Justin Turner is well known for his scruffy red beard. But, before his major league debut, Turner was a fresh-faced upstart from the Baltimore Orioles.
He was waved by the Baltimore squad and subsequently non-tendered by the Mets. Turner hit his stride in 2014 with the Dodgers. In February 2021, Turner re-signed with Los Angeles with a two-year, $34 million contract.
Here's yet another quarterback who didn't leave the baseball diamond until college. Russell Wilson was a member of the NC State baseball team from 2008 to 2010. When Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his final year of eligibility, he decided to focus on football.
Wilson has played his entire NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks. He has helped lead the team to one Super Bowl victory.
Lonzo Ball made national headlines during his time at UCLA, but before that, he was still, more or less, a regular high school kid in Chino Hills, California... as "regular" as one can be as top-rated point guard prospect in your class.
Here, the 17-year-old Ball poses at the Adidas Nations camp in Atlanta. It would be another six months before Lonzo would sign a letter of intent with UCLA.
The Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball second overall in 2017.
In this photo, future National League MVP and MLB All-Star Christian Yelich looks on during a game at his alma mater, Westlake High.
Yelich received a scholarship offer from the University of Miami but opted to sign with the Miami Marlins instead. He made his major league debut with the Marlins in 2013.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson wasn't even sure he'd ever play NBA basketball when he arrived at Michigan State as a freshman. But by his junior season, it became pretty clear that at 6-foot-9, his elite ball-handling skills made him a serious threat on offense. He could pass. He could shoot over smaller defenders. He was the real deal.
So, it didn't come as much of a surprise when the Lakers drafted Magic first overall in 1979. Beginning in 1980, the Lakers, with Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the roster, won five NBA championships in eight years.
Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant played baseball at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas. In this photo from 2010, Bryant, then a senior, bats in a playoff game against local rival Sierra Vista.
After high school, Bryant went to the University of San Diego for three years. There, he improved his game — and his draft stock — to become one of the best baseball prospects in the country. The Cubs selected Bryant second overall in 2013. He's won one World Series ring with Chicago.
Lamar Jackson has impressed as the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. He even won the NFL MVP honors — by a unanimous vote — in his second season as a pro. But before Jackson made it big in the NFL, he was a college freshman with something to prove.
Here, Jackson, a freshman, prepares to pass in Louisville's very first game of the 2015 season. And though the Cardinals would go on to lose this game, Jackson was running the offense when they scored all 24 of their points.
As a high school player in North Carolina, Ingram helped lead Kinston High School to four consecutive state championships. Here, Ingram gears up for his senior season at the Adidas Nations camp in 2014.
He played a year with the Duke Blue Devils before hopping to the NBA Draft and the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2019, the Lakers traded Ingram, Lonzo Ball and others to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis. In 2020, Ingram made the All-Star team and was voted the NBA's Most Improved Player.
Felix didn't even discover her knack for track until after she tried out for the team as a high school freshman. At LA Baptist High, her teammates nicknamed her "Chicken Legs" because her slim frame belied impressive strength.
Since those days, she's assembled an impressive collection of gold medals — 6 Olympic gold and another 13 from the World Athletic Championships.
Mays is considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. His 22-year major league career yielded 20 All-Star appearances, 12 Gold Glove Awards, 2 National League MVP selections and a World Series title.
But in early 1951, Mays was still a minor league player with the New York Giants AAA club, the Minneapolis Millers. He would get the call to join the Giants in May 1951. He smacked a home run off the left-field roof in the 13th at bat of his career.
It was a long road for this first-year Marquette reserve to the NBA Finals. Butler attended Tyler Junior College for one year after high school before accepting a scholarship offer at Marquette. That first season with the Golden Eagles, Butler averaged a modest 5.6 points per game.
Butler played for four different teams in his first ten seasons in the league. In the 2020 NBA Finals, he became the second player in NBA history to register multiple 30-point triple-doubles in the same Finals series. LeBron James was the first, in 2015.
Before he made his major league debut, Chicago Cubs outfielder Joc Pederson played for Israel's national baseball team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The following year, in 2014, he joined the Dodgers 40-man September roster.
Pederson won a World Series with the Dodgers in 2020. In February 2021, he signed a one-year contract with the Cubs.
Fresh off a turn representing his home country, Australia, at the 2012 FIBA Under-17 World Championships, 16-year-old Ben Simmons poses here at the Adidas Nations camp in Long Beach, California.
A few months later, in January 2013, Simmons moved to the United States to focus on basketball and finished up high school at Montverde Academy in Florida. The Philadelphia 76ers drafted Simmons first overall in 2016. He made the All-Star team three times in his NBA career, so far.
With hardly any beard to fear, a 17-year-old James Harden, then a senior at Artesia High, smiles with the Los Alamitos High School coach, Russ May.
Just a few months later, Harden would suit up for Arizona State University. Two years later, in 2009, the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted the young guard third overall.
This photo shows Pau Gasol, age 20, celebrating his NBA Draft selection in 2001. The Atlanta Hawks selected the Spanish big man third overall and quickly traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies.
In February 2008, the Grizzlies traded Gasol to the Lakers for a handful of reserves, two draft picks and the rights to Pau's younger brother Marc Gasol. In 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won back-to-back NBA titles with Gasol and Kobe Bryant leading the way.
Damian Lillard was only regarded as a two-star recruit coming out of high school in Oakland, California. Shortly after this photo was taken, Lillard began at Weber State.
Lillard impressed in the Big Sky Conference and went into the 2012 NBA Draft as the top-rated point guard in the country. Lillard has made six All-Star appearances so far in his career. And he's led the Portland Trail Blazers to the playoffs every year since 2014.
Here's a young Michael Phelps at the 2001 World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, one year removed from his first Olympic appearance. Phelps did not win a medal in his first Olympics, the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
While in Fukuoka, Phelps broke the world record in the 200-meter butterfly, becoming the youngest man to ever set a world record in swimming. Since that day, Phelps has won Olympic gold 23 times at four Olympic games.
Karl-Anthony Towns led his high school team to three consecutive state championships before reclassifying, graduating a year early and heading to Kentucky to play for the Wildcats.
After one year at Kentucky, Towns became the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. In 2016, he was voted NBA Rookie of the Year. So far in his career, Towns has made two All-Star appearances.
Kevin Love, son of former NBA player Stan Love, started playing basketball as a very young child. He grew up in Lake Oswego, Oregon and attended high school there. His team made it to the state championship three times during Love's tenure, winning once.
Love stuck around UCLA for one season, helping the Bruins to a Final Four appearance. The Memphis Grizzlies selected Love fifth overall in 2008 and traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves. In 2014, the Timberwolves traded Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs won a championship in 2016.
Around the same time Bradley Beal competed in the Jordan Brand Classic in 2011, he was named Mr. Show-Me Basketball — the award given to the most promising boy's high school basketball prospect in Missouri.
After high school, Beal played for a year at the University of Florida, helping his team advance to the Elite Eight. The Washington Wizards drafted Beal third overall in 2012. He's made the NBA All-Star team three times so far in his career.
Tim Tebow never actually attended the high schools where he played football. Florida law allowed Tebow to continue with homeschooling while participating in local high school sports.
He gained national attention in his junior season with the Allen D. Nease High School Panthers. His senior year, Nease won a state title.
Tebow played four years at the University of Florida and won the Heisman Trophy in 2007. His NFL career was comparably lackluster. He appeared in just 37 games in three seasons.
His senior year of high school, Kawhi Leonard was named California's Mr. Basketball. But as the eighth-ranked small forward in his class, Leonard was passed over by college basketball's big names. He ended up at San Diego State University, a team that hadn't made the NCAA Tournament in six straight seasons.
Leonard was an instant-impact player for the Aztecs. He helped the team to back-to-back Mountain West Conference Tournament titles in his two years there. His sophomore year, SDSU advanced to the Sweet 16. He went 15th to the Indiana Pacers in the 2011 NBA Draft, and the Pacers dealt Leonard to the Spurs in a draft-night trade.
Kawhi has two NBA Championship rings, one with San Antonio and another with the Toronto Raptors.
Tony Parker could have ended up being a soccer player were it not for his family's summer trips to Chicago. It was there that he saw Michael Jordan become a worldwide basketball sensation and decided that his dreams were hoop dreams.
He played basketball in France before declaring himself eligible for the 2001 NBA Draft. The San Antonio Spurs selected Parker at the end of the first round. He won four NBA Championships in San Antonio.
This photo was taken at Joyner-Kersee's first Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. She won a silver medal in the heptathlon that year. Four years later, she would emerge as a track and field superstar, taking home two gold medals from the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
She is considered among the all-time greats in the heptathlon and long jump. Joyner-Kersee attended UCLA from 1980 to 1985. In 2001, NCAA member schools voted her the top female college athlete of the past 25 years.
Ja Morant wasn't ranked by any media outlet coming out of high school, and he certainly didn't have any scholarship offers. That was until Murray State assistant coach James Kane got up to grab a snack while visiting a combine in Spartanburg, South Carolina. While on that snack run, Kane noticed Morant playing three-on-three in an auxiliary gym near the concession stand.
Murray State started tracking Morant and offered him a scholarship soon after. After two seasons with Murray State, Morant was taken No. 2 in the 2019 NBA Draft. Morant earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2020.
Before Anthony Rizzo was an MLB All-Star or a World Series champion, he was a hardworking minor league prospect playing for the Portland Sea Dogs in the Red Sox farm sytem.
The Red Sox traded the up-and-coming prospect to the Padres after the 2010 season, and the following summer, Rizzo made his major league debut in San Diego. In 2012, the Padres traded Rizzo. This time, he was headed to Chicago.
Rizzo has been with the Cubs since then and helped the team to a World Series in 2016. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 season.
This photo, from May 2006, shows Misty Copeland backstage at the American Ballet Theatre Spring Gala. A little more than a year later, when Copeland was 24 years old, she would be promoted to a soloist at ABT.
Under Armour tapped the ballerina to star in a run of ads in 2014. A year later, Copeland became the first Black woman to be promoted to principal ballerina in the history of the American Ballet Theatre.