Checking in with ... Davidson
Can Stephen Curry engineer another Cinderella NCAA run?
Curry, a prolific scorer, turned down the NBA to return to Davidson
Though Curry can carry a team, Davidson will miss point guard Jason Richards
DAVIDSON, N.C. -- It's a spectacular fall day under a cloudless Carolina sky, with very little wind and a crisp in the air. In other words, it's a perfect day for golf. So I can't help but feel a slight pang of guilt as I stand on the green and watch my opponent line up a putt to potentially clinch our match. His ball is only about four feet from the hole, but given the enormous stakes, I refuse to concede the gimme. "I can't give you that," I tell him, "but I'm rooting for you."
Stephen Curry smiles and strides casually up to his ball. "That's all right," he says as he takes a few practice motions with his putter. "I like the pressure."
You know what happens next: Draino. Curry wins. Again.
It's bad enough that Curry is a good-looking, intelligent, well-mannered, 6-foot-3 junior guard who, after leading Davidson to the Elite Eight last March, is a preseason All-America and a near-certain NBA lottery pick. The guy is also a 5-handicap at golf. (Nauseating, isn't it?) When I decided to visit Davidson last week, I figured I could challenge Curry to a game of H-O-R-S-E or play him a round of golf. Needless to say, it was an easy decision, so we faced off on a nifty little three-hole facility that sits about half a sand wedge from Curry's on-campus apartment. After we split the first two holes, Curry, who swings with a smooth tempo and hits a high draw, closed me out on the third to win.
Now I know how Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin felt during the 2008 NCAA tournament. Curry is impossible not to like, even when he's beating you. He lit up those teams for 40, 30 and 33 points, respectively, before putting up 25 in Davidson's two-point loss to Kansas in the Midwest Regional final. Now, the Wildcats resume their quest for a Final Four without three important pieces from that team -- most notably, senior point guard Jason Richards, who led the nation in assists. But many experts are still ranking them in their preseason top 20 because of two of the pieces that did return: Curry, who decided not to enter the NBA draft, and coach Bob McKillop, who declined overtures from the likes of Providence, Stanford and Rice last spring and came back to Davidson for his 20th season.
The outside world might have just discovered Davidson during the NCAA tournament, but those of us who follow the sport closely understand that it is one of the top mid-major programs in America -- the South's answer to Gonzaga and Butler. Much of the credit for that goes to McKillop. He is a 58-year-old native of Queens, N.Y., but this small liberal arts school (undergrad enrollment: 1,700) and this sleepy little town located 19 miles north of Charlotte fit him perfectly. McKillop still wears a suit and tie every day to work because, he says, "I was a high school teacher for 16 years." He lives in the same house he bought 20 years ago when Davidson hired him straight from Long Island Lutheran High. As I rode with McKillop in his tan Toyota Avalon, I asked him to clock the distance between his house and Belk Arena. It was 0.2 miles.
McKillop loves living close to his job -- "I got to see a lot of my daughter's track meets and tennis matches when she was in high school," he says. -- and he loves that there there is no mail delivery in the town of Davidson. If you want your mail, you have to go to the post office to pick it up. "It's a gathering place," he says. "We've lost so much of that in our society." In one run-on sentence, he described his life here as equal parts Ozzie and Harriett, My Three Sons and It's a Wonderful Life. "Believe me, I pinch myself all the time," he says. "I feel like Jimmy Stewart. Like, Holy Christmas, I'm a basketball coach!"
Just because McKillop is comfortable in a small town doesn't mean he doesn't pine for the big-time. The truth is, the main reason he is still at Davidson is because the power conference schools have consistently overlooked him. (He had a shot at the St. John's and Boston College jobs several years ago, but he was passed over for Mike Jarvis and Al Skinner, respectively.) It's also fair to say that Curry would have bolted for the NBA last spring if he were guaranteed to be a top-10 draft pick. I guess it's another twist of fate. After all, Curry wouldn't have ended up at Davidson in the first place were it not for the fact that he was so small in high school (5-11 as a senior) that none of the schools in the ACC bothered to recruit him. Roy Wiliams told me he never saw Curry play in high school.
McKillop, on the other hand, saw Curry a lot, and it's telling that one of his most vivid memories is a game where the kid committed nine turnovers. Despite all the miscues, Curry kept his poise. "He never stopped playing defense, he never stopped giving maximum effort and he never stopped shooting. He was who he was," McKillop says. "Steph is worldy in his perception. He takes 20 shots a game, but we have great chemistry because his teammates know the team is at the top of his agenda."