Lefty, Bob, and the Kid
With Coach Bob McKillop calling the shots and star sophomore Stephen Curry taking them, Davidson’s basketball team is looking to make national waves this season. And Charlotte just might rediscover a long-lost love
Written by Michael Kruse
Photos by Chris Edwards and courtesy of Davidson College
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At the 2007-08 season tipoff "Night of the Cats" ESPN analyst Hubert Davis interviews former Hornets star Dell Curry and his son, current Davidson phenom Stephen Curry. (Courtesy Davidson College)
In the beginning there was Lefty. Charles G. Driesell, who went by Lefty and sounded like grits, came to Davidson College in 1960 to coach the basketball team. What he did in the next nine years was, and is, one of the most amazing, most improbable accomplishments in all of college sports—top ten national rankings for the small school, trips to the national quarterfinals, big, loud crowds in the old Charlotte Coliseum. Before the Panthers, before the Hornets and the Bobcats, before UNC-Charlotte was what UNC-Charlotte is today, Lefty's Wildcats were this town's team.
Then Lefty left, in 1969, and went to the University of Maryland, where the pep band played "Hail to the Chief" when he walked into the gym.
Back down in Davidson, the team slipped, first just a little in the early 1970s, then more than that, and by the early 1980s the school's brief, bright blip on the national basketball scene had long since faded to black.
Over those years, and in the years since, Charlotte changed, too. It got bigger, in geography and in population, and with its pro sports teams, its shiny skyline, its creeping reach into the suburbs. Davidson? Even in the mid-1990s, it felt near Charlotte, all the way up in north Mecklenburg County, but it didn't feel like part of Charlotte—too much grass, too much field, too much space, in between, say, exit 18 and exit 30 on Interstate 77.
Now it's almost forty years post-Lefty. Bob McKillop has been Davidson's coach for almost half of those. His team won a school-record twenty-nine games last year, is returning every player of any consequence, is in line for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance, and has on this season's schedule games at Charlotte Bobcats Arena against North Carolina and Duke.
This year could be the year the Wildcats win back Charlotte.
All it took was the legacy of a coach who did his thing and left, the development of a coach who's done his thing and stayed, burgeoning suburbs, and finally a skinny, unafraid nineteen-year-old kid who could end up being the most important player in the history of Davidson basketball.
BUT WAIT. That's getting too far ahead. This is, after all, a story about Davidson basketball, and any story about that has to start on the afternoon of April 18, 1960, when athletic director Tom Couch stood up at a Wildcat Club meeting and introduced the school's new basketball coach to the fifteen supporters who cared enough to come.
Lefty Driesell was twenty-eight and balding. He had won a state championship at Newport News High School in Virginia. His first-year contract at Davidson was for $6,000.
"We don't have anything to sell but education," he told the people there that day. "There must be eight or ten good basketball players out there who can get in here. And we're going to find them."
Understand something right now: Davidson does something it shouldn't do when it plays Division I sports. It is a 1,700-student liberal arts school for bookish, serious-minded students, and it has produced doctors, lawyers, pastors, CEOs, and twenty-three Rhodes Scholars. But back in 1960, it was a 900-student, all-male campus, with thrice-weekly chapel and compulsory Sunday evening vespers, a dry campus in a dry county in the middle of nowhere.
The year before Lefty arrived, the basketball team won five games and lost nineteen. None of those wins had come in the Southern Conference. It was, by almost any measure, one of the last places anybody was going to build anything close to a basketball power.
But Lefty was a seller. He sold encyclopedias as a high school coach. He sold the dream of big-time basketball to Davidson prospects and the reality of the education to their mamas. Then he sold Davidson to Charlotte.
He stomped his feet and flailed his arms and slammed doors and kicked volleyball stanchions in locker rooms and called newspaper reporters and talked to them all folksy and nice. He did something that good Presbyterians don't usually do. He evangelized. He sought and got attention.
In his first game as coach, in December 1960, in tiny, brick-walled Johnston Gym, Lefty's Wildcats beat Wake Forest. Billy Packer, now a CBS commentator, played point guard for Wake, and he was so humiliated he went back to Winston-Salem and stayed in his room for the next day and a half.
Before long, the Wildcats were playing in the old Charlotte Coliseum, which is now Cricket Arena, capacity 11,666. There were, at that time, no major pro sports on the East Coast between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and the Carolinas' major college teams were in other places, like Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem, Columbia, and Clemson. The Wildcats' first game in the Coliseum was on December 18, 1962, and the opponent was Duke, and Duke was ranked second in the country, and Duke was the team that lost.
Charlotte had its team. That didn't change for the rest of the decade.
Sports Illustrated ranked Davidson No. 1 in the nation going into the 1964 season. Lefty's teams, in his nine years, beat the teams from Ohio State, Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi State, Pittsburgh, Temple, Memphis, St. John's, Villanova, South Carolina, Maryland, Michigan, and Texas. One team Davidson never beat, though, was North Carolina, and both those losses came in regional finals of the NCAA tournament, by a combined six points, to end the season in 1968 and again in 1969.
Then Lefty left, and that was that. But what happened at Davidson in the 1960s, of course, happened at a different time in a very different Charlotte.
Some dates to consider here:
- Man-made Lake Norman was built in 1963.
- UNC-Charlotte was created by the state General Assembly in 1965.
- Davidson, meanwhile, went coed in 1972.
- Interstate 77 from Winston-Salem to Charlotte was finished in 1977. That meant old Highway 21 was no longer the main way to get from Charlotte up to Davidson.
- The NBA's Hornets played their first game at the second Charlotte Coliseum in 1988. The NFL's Panthers played their first game in 1995.
Here, then, is the key: All of these dates say something about how Charlotte has changed. The city's population in 1969, when Lefty left, was 240,000. It was 540,000 in 2000, and has gone up by another 100,000 just since then. This isn't just about Charlotte, either, because the transformation of the city made it grow out and up, up I-77, up to the Lake Norman area with all that red-clay shoreline, new roads, new Harris Teeters, new movieplexes, new Starbuckses, fancy roundabouts off Exit 30, hotels, offices, condos to come.
Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson—they're all doubling in population lickety-split, Huntersville up to 40,000, Cornelius up to 20,000, Davidson up past 10,000. North Mecklenburg High School's student body by now is almost twice the size of Davidson's. The Charlotte Observer opened a Lake Norman bureau two years ago. The volunteer fire department in the town of Davidson has had its calls go up more than threefold in just the last ten years.
All that grass between Exits 18 and 30, all those fields, all that space? There's not so much of it anymore. A gap is being bridged.