Remembering the Davidson Basketball Moment
Five years ago, the basketball team from little Davidson College, led by Stephen Curry, made national headlines by toppling Goliath after Goliath in the NCAA tournament. What’s happened since? Nothing. And everything
Stephen Curry, who was raised in Charlotte, became a national star that March. The run started with a comeback win over Gonzaga in Raleigh.
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They talk about all of it, or almost all of it, even still, and they always will, because together they did something remarkable, the members of that 2008 Davidson College men’s basketball team. They beat Gonzaga, the West Coast Conference champ; they beat Georgetown, the Big East champ; they beat Wisconsin, the Big Ten champ—and they had a shot, took a shot, to beat Kansas, the eventual national champ, in a game played in front of more than 57,000 people at Detroit’s Ford Field. Over those 10 days that March, Charlotte fell in love with the Davidson story. They were “young America at its finest” and “a little slice of what’s right,” sportswriters wrote, and Davidson, at least for a moment, was the No. 1 Google search in the world.
It’s been five years.
Can that be?
“It doesn’t really seem that long,” forward Andrew Lovedale says now.
“I don’t think it will ever blur or get fuzzy,” guard Bryant Barr says.
“It’s always there,” coach Bob McKillop says.
Says forward Thomas Sander: “I remember everything.”
They all do. They remember the comeback in the second half against Gonzaga. They remember the comeback in the second half against Georgetown. They remember not needing one against Wisconsin. They remember the banners and signs around campus. They remember the bus rides into town, out of town, the streets lined with so many supporters. They remember the police escorts. They remember sitting in their hotel rooms watching all the faces on the TVs talking about … them. They remember LeBron James sitting behind their bench. They remember all those well-defended, wrist-flicked, three-point parabolas from Steph Curry, Steph Curry, Steph Curry. And they remember the corridor inside giant Ford Field, from the locker room to the court, and how it felt like it would never end, and how the closer they got, the louder it got. Then finally they were out in the open, cheered on by Davidson alumni who graduated as far back as the 1930s, in what Sander describes as a “sea of red and white.”
It was a long walk to the big stage. It always is.
By the 2007-08 season, Bob McKillop had been at Davidson going on 20 years, and he had never won in the NCAA tournament. He had been close, so close, but only the zealots cling to not quite. None of the players on that roster had been recruited to play at the tip-top of their sport, not even Curry, the Charlotte native, whose dad, Dell, played for the Hornets and now works for the Bobcats. Steph Curry was too tiny, just about everybody agreed. They started that season 4-6. People forget. But their next loss didn’t come for three months. Davidson that year finished ninth in the nation in the U.S. News & World Report academic rankings and ninth in the nation in the ESPN/USA Today basketball poll.
Why did that group work so well?
Point guard Jason Richards was one of the best passers in the history of the school. Max Paulhus Gosselin was one of the best defenders in the history of the school. Thomas Sander? He was a savant at taking charges and setting screens, and at that pair of underappreciated but critical facets of the sport he, too, was one of the best in the history of the school.
Eventually, as the season evolved, December into January, January into February, then on into March, every player came to know his place in the ever-delicate mix of personalities and skills. They didn’t have to do anything they couldn’t. They didn’t have to be anything they weren’t.
Lovedale? “My job was to run, rebound, and defend,” he says.
Same with Boris Meno. Same with Steve Rossiter.
Barr and Will Archambault? Their job was to come off the bench, play as hard as they could in the time they spent on the court, hopefully hitting a shot or two or three.
And Curry? He of course wasn’t one of anything. He was, and is, the best player in the history of the school. The first key with Curry was that he was the star, and the second key, no less important than the first, was that he didn’t act like it.
People in the stands saw him shoot. But his teammates on the court? They started to see what he saw.
“Our style is not about power, speed, and quickness,” McKillop says. “It’s about seeing the game. And he saw the game better than anyone we’ve ever had.”
Because Curry could do so much, it made every other player think he, too, could do just a little bit more. “The confidence he brought,” Archambault says, “made everybody more confident.”
They talk now about preparing by watching tape the day before the game against Wisconsin, a tall team used to success. Sander leaned toward Richards and said he thought they could win. He told him he thought they could win by a lot.
They talk about practicing the day after the Wisconsin game, the day before the Kansas game, the winner of which would play in the Final Four. They talk about coming out of practice at a high school gym outside Detroit, out into the cold, and all of a sudden they were throwing snowballs. They were kids.
They talk about so badly not wanting to let each other down. It started with best friends Richards and Sander, they say, Richards not wanting to let down Sander, Sander not wanting to let down Richards, and that spread throughout the team. Nobody wanted to be the one. They adhered wholeheartedly to the program’s ethos, captured in three words McKillop had chosen years before: trust, commitment, care.
When Sander broke his right thumb, against Gonzaga, the team doctor gave him a numbing, pain-killing shot from a .22-gauge needle planted directly into the bone. With a splint and some tape, he played the rest of that game, and then the next three, thanks to those injections. After getting rebounds, he sometimes had to look down, just to make sure he still had the ball, and he made a three-pointer against Kansas with a hand he could barely feel. Almost nobody knew he was playing with a broken thumb. But his teammates did. They knew that then. They know that now.
One thing they don’t talk about, though, hardly any of them, hardly ever, is that last shot against Kansas.
“No,” Lovedale says.
“Not really,” Archambault says.
“I don’t think so,” Barr says.
There were 16.8 seconds left. Davidson was down two. Curry dribbled the ball up the court. He passed it because two Kansas defenders rushed to guard him. He had to. Richards shot it, just before the buzzer, from almost 30 feet away, because he had to.
What Richards remembers, what they all remember, or what they choose to remember, because that’s what all of us do, is that moment right before it didn’t go in, when the ball was in the air.
And when it was over, all of a sudden, those four games, those 10 days, Richards fell to the floor, folded his arms, and covered his eyes. Then Barr came to him. Then Rossiter. Then Sander. They helped him up.
“I had an opportunity to do it. I took it,” Richards says.
“It’s something I’ll have for the rest of my life.”