See Stephen Go
Davidson guard Stephen Curry's decision to enter the NBA draft was a difficult one, but not for the reasons you might think
He could have stayed. He could have spent his senior year with his classmates and teammates and friends. He could have graduated next May with his degree in sociology. He could have come close to breaking Pete Maravich's career scoring record. He could have—would have—finished his four seasons at Davidson as one of the very best players in the history of college basketball.
Stephen Curry chose to go.
Staying Stephen (Nov. 2008)
What It Means (March 2008)
Lefty, Bob & the Kid (Dec. 2007)
That is not a comment one way or another on his decision to skip his senior season at Davidson and go straight to the NBA. It is only to suggest why it was a decision that clearly was so hard for him to make.
It's been a week now. Since last Thursday, when Stephen ended nearly a month of private back-and-forth and public speculation by making an announcement in a press conference on Davidson's campus, I've been asked what I think in e-mails, in texts, in phone calls, in person. I'm a Davidson guy, class of 2000, and I put out a book after last year's remarkable run to within a foot of the Final Four. I've also written about Stephen and the team for Charlotte magazine. I keep a blog about the stuff.
What did I think? I think it doesn't matter what I think, basically, but I was curious how he made his decision, and why.
So I called him. And I called his coach (Bob McKillop), and I called his parents (Dell Curry and Sonya Curry), and I called his two closest friends on the team (Bryant Barr and Steve Rossiter). I also called maybe a dozen fans and local folks to talk about the feel and the vibe on campus and around town.
Here are my thoughts, then, after listening to their thoughts.
Stephen has a good chance of being a lottery pick in the draft in June. That's what Dell has heard from people he's talked to around the league, a league, of course, in which he played, and played well, for sixteen years. That's what McKillop has heard, too, and he told me earlier this week that he talked to eight NBA general managers to try to gather information to help with the process. The NBA's "lottery" refers to the top fourteen picks of the first round of every year's draft. Stephen said money had nothing to do with his decision, not even a little bit, and I believe him, but I'll just take this moment anyway to point out that the NBA's set rookie salary structure says the No. 14 pick makes almost a million and a half dollars his first season, and the pay rate goes up from there.
Also, there was the belief that Stephen might not have been able to improve his projected draft position next year, almost no matter how well he played during a potential senior season at Davidson. As a junior, and as a point guard, rather than a shooting guard, he did what he needed to prepare for the NBA. Another year would have been another opportunity for scouts to sit and watch and nitpick. And there was, of course, as always, the threat of injury.
Dell told him all these things. Dell told Stephen it was his decision, totally his decision, and he had to be comfortable with it -- but that his advice was to go. Now.
It was, in Dell's mind, at least from a basketball standpoint, a pretty simple risk-reward equation: what could have been gained by coming back was not enough to outweigh what could have been lost.
"And I'll tell you what he told me," Dell said the other day on the phone. "He said, ‘Dad, if it was another school, or if I didn't like the guys, my team, it'd be a no-brainer.' "
It wasn't a no-brainer.
First, he wanted to graduate, and he still wants that, and in fact he's taking one independent-study class this summer, and it looks like there's a decent chance he'll end up taking five classes next year by doing his reading and writing on charter jets and in five-star hotels. That setup would leave one class in his major for which he almost certainly needs to be on campus, which is the sticking point—but still. He's close, and he seems to be committed to doing this in any way possible.
Second, and maybe even more importantly, actually, Stephen's a pleaser. He cares about the people around him. The people closest to him.
He doesn't want to let them down.
I thought for a while over the weeks as he thought this through that it was possible that the only thing holding him up -- preventing him from doing what he really wanted to do, and had wanted to do since he was little—was the thought of having to tell his coaches and his teammates that he was leaving, and how extraordinarily hard that was going to be for him.
And that was true.
Only when he heard from his teammates that they would support him either way, he said, and when he felt they were being "real" with him, did he come to some kind of clarity. That freed him to think in a way that doesn't necessarily come natural to him.
"I couldn't make a decision based on what other people wanted," he told me this week. "Basically, simply put, this is my life. I can't live it through other people."
That might read self-centered. It didn't sound that way when he said it.
"This was my future I was making a decision on," he said. "I felt ready. Now was the time to go."
So the Stephen Curry Era is over at Davidson. Davidson basketball is not over—the program, after all, went to the NCAA tournament the year before Stephen got there—but certainly one heck of a chapter now comes to a close.
The Stephen story at this point looks to me like a three-act play.
Act 1, his freshman year, was an eye-opening introduction, innocent and giddy, a communal what … have … we … here.
Act 2, his sophomore year, was a steady drumbeat, a season-long sense that something special, really special, could happen here, and then it did—ten days that changed everything, Stephen's life, the life of the program, the wins over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament, and that shot that came this close to sending to the Final Four a bookish college of 1,700 students. It's hard, if you're a Davidson person, to talk about March 2008 without sounding hokey or melodramatic, but it was, for those who know the school, and love the place, a rare, rare moment, watched by so many wide, wet eyes.
Then … Act 3. Stephen's junior year was always going to be a question: can it happen again? And the answer to that question in the end was …
Of course not.
How could it?
What Act 3 became, I came to think, as I watched Stephen and the Davidson team in Davidson and Charlotte, in New York and Indianapolis, in Charleston and Chattanooga, was something that at times seemed to straddle the line between sport and circus.
The thirty-five-foot three to beat N.C. State with LeBron there to watch, the back-to-back late-game threes to beat West Virginia in Madison Square Garden in front of a crowd that was there to see him, Bob Huggins saying we hadn't seen anything like him in the sport in more than a generation, Bob Knight calling him the best passer in the history of college basketball, the people holding up fingers outside in the cold trying to get into a Davidson game over winter break against Samford, the people cited by the Davidson town cops for scalping tickets on Main Street, the road conference sellouts from Boone to Birmingham, the seventy-five-foot swish in Chattanooga, Dick Vitale crowd-surfing in Belk Arena, the grown men wanting autographs waiting for him when he left the hotel or got off the bus—Stephen, not even twenty-one years old until the last month of the season, was one of the faces of college basketball, maybe the face, and this was his new normal.
And somewhere along the way I started to wonder if he was still having fun.
The burden of expectation was palpable throughout the year, especially later in the year, given what had happened the year before, and that was true for the whole team—but let's be honest: Stephen was the focus. He was the star. He was the reason so many people were coming to watch Davidson play basketball on weeknights around the Southern Conference. The year ended in the NIT, but still with twenty-seven wins, which made it by that measure the third-best season in the 101-year history of the program. But for many—players, coaches and fans—it seemed to feel very much like a letdown.
Was it -- Fun?
I asked Stephen that this week.
"It was -- " he said.
"If you compare it to my sophomore year—" he said.
"It was fun," he finally said, "to take on new challenges."
By the end of the season, though, he was as tired as he's ever been at the end of a season, he said. So many minutes. Lots of different defenses geared toward stopping him, him, him. All of it, he said, was exhausting.
I asked if that contributed at all to his decision.
"A little bit," he said.
Sonya, too, said something interesting about that. She went into this season hardly even entertaining as an option the idea of Stephen leaving early. That started to change, though, the longer the season went on and the more she watched her son.
"On some level," she said, "I was just looking at how hard he was working."
Perhaps Stephen's story at Davidson had come to its natural end. It wasn't the end many Davidson fans had in mind, but certainly it was an understandable, justifiable end.
What was Act 4 going to be?
Just about every night, he would have passed names on the career college scoring list, huge names, names from history books, and it would have been impossible not to watch. But would it have been basketball? If Act 3 was part encore, part basketball and part circus, Act 4 could've been mostly circus.
There is no infrastructure at Davidson to support what happened with the basketball program from March 2008 to March 2009. That's in part what made it so interesting. There also, I think, was no blueprint for fans' and alums' reactions to Stephen's decision.
One man on the message board at DavidsonCats.com called it a "blot" on the record of student-athletes at the college. One woman saying she was the mother of a grad this week wrote a letter to the Observer saying she was "appalled" and "angered" that he hadn't stayed to finish school.
The fans I talked to weren't quite so vehement, and they weren't so much upset with him, or at him, and some of them, to be sure, wished him well and are looking forward to seeing one of their guys play in the NBA -- go get 'em, Steph -- but others were left … not quite sure how to feel. Let down? Disappointed? Unsettled? Hollow?
I think I know why some people feel the way they feel.
Stephen was still, as much as he could be, just a kid on campus. He was part of the community. He went to class. He was a guest on the student-run The Davidson Show what seemed like every week. He helped carry fridges up stairwells during freshman orientation. He had tattooed onto the inside of his wrist the basketball team's motto -- TCC, or trust, commitment, care -- and he wrote scripture in Sharpie on the sides of his sneakers. On the basketball court, he pointed up toward his God not only when he did well, but when he did not, and that meant something to a lot of people on a campus with Presbyterian roots.
In these ways, and for these reasons, over these last three years he came to be somehow more than just a basketball star at Davidson. This might sound silly, but he fit with the place. What he was doing on the basketball court, people believed, was not at all at odds with the broader mission of the college.
Something former Davidson president John Kuykendall told me last summer when I was up there reporting for the book comes to mind: "There has been, at least to date, and I hope it continues for four years, a kind of innocence, a kind of delight, to what he does," he said. "His jump shots go in from Cornelius and Huntersville, and he doesn't hang around and say, ‘Golly, wasn't I good?'
"I think that's lovely," he said.
Maybe all this sounds too highfalutin. Maybe it sounds delusional. I'm just saying those feelings were there. Maybe, probably still are. But if Stephen lost anything last week by making the decision he did, at least at Davidson, it's a little sheen off that notion, that ideal, that he so meshed with the ethos of the college that had become his place.
McKillop said last Thursday that he was sad that Stephen was not going to have a senior night. That he was not going to give a senior speech at the year-end banquet.
The leading scorer in the history of Davidson basketball—its most famous player ever—will never be on the cover of the media guide. That's something for seniors.
The last of McKillop's seven keys for Davidson basketball? Finish.
I asked the coach about that this week.
"There's a personal sadness for me," he said. "We're about finishing. We're about completing."
He then softened that, saying he urged Stephen to make the decision that he thought was best for him, not necessarily for the college or the program.
"I see how happy he is about it," McKillop said. "He told me he thinks it's the best for him."
I asked him what he thought.
"I think," he said, "he had two great options.
"In my heart, I felt it was time for him, because he felt it was time for him."
Stephen made the logical decision. He made the prudent decision. He made a serious decision, and he made it in a serious way.
He had said right after the season that he wanted to make it quickly. Then he took weeks. He told his dad a week before the press conference that he was leaning toward going, and he told Barr the same thing, in their apartment on campus, but he still waited another week. He wanted to make sure. The night before the press conference, shortly before midnight, he sent McKillop a text message saying he still wasn't all the way ready to say. He wanted to sleep on it.
Then came last Thursday.
He woke up. He went to breakfast with Rossiter at the campus cafeteria. He had a ham-and-cheese omelet. He went back to his apartment, where he called his parents, then McKillop, to tell them what he was going to do.
He got to Baker Sports Complex about an hour before the 11:30 press conference and went up to McKillop's office. Stephen sat on the couch, and McKillop pulled up a chair.
McKillop asked him if he was sure.
He said yes.
McKillop asked him again.
He said yes.
He went downstairs to the team room. It was ten minutes before he told everybody else live on ESPNews and four Charlotte stations. The whole team was there except two guys who had classes, and assistant coaches Terrell Ivory and Matt McKillop were there, too. They sat on two black couches. Stephen stood up and looked at his teammates.
His eyes got wet when he told them.
Michael Kruse is a staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times and author of Taking the Shot: The Davidson Basketball Moment (Butler Books). His blog is 16point8.blogspot.com.