Last March, Davidson's Stephen Curry became an instant national celebrity. Now he returns for his junior season, and the hype is building. How will this story end?
By Michael Kruse • Portrait Photograph by Chris Edwards, all others by Tim Cowie
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NOT QUITE 1,700 students are enrolled at Davidson College, and one of them, Wardell Stephen Curry II, is one of the best, most hyped, most visible college basketball players in the country. This is not supposed to happen.
But last March, in the NCAA tournament, Davidson's basketball team won a game, and then another, and then another after that, and fell just two points short of beating eventual national champion Kansas for a spot in the Final Four. CBS took Stephen Curry, son of Charlotte, and made him America's golden boy.
In the spring, he was on Charlie Rose on PBS, The Early Show on CBS, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien on NBC, and he was a finalist for the Wooden Award for the national player of the year. In the summer, he went to the ESPYs as a candidate for breakout athlete of the year, was written about on ESPN.com, on CBSSports.com, on SI.com, and in the Observer, and was invited to the elite camps of NBA superstars like Chris Paul and LeBron James.
Kid's got it.
Stephen, pronounced STEFF-in, who won't turn twenty-one until the middle of March, is not the first basketball star at Davidson, and he's not the first basketball All-American there, either. What he is, though, and he is very much this, is Davidson's first basketball star in the televised, talked-about, blogged-about, YouTubed, sports-crazy, Internet-fueled infotainment culture in which we now live. He is a national player of the year candidate, arguably the face of the college game, certainly one of its boldest boldface names. He is a main character in ESPN's spot-lit, big-bucks college sports reality-show narrative that never ends. He is also, still, a student at little Davidson College in northern Mecklenburg County.
The Stephen Curry story for two years has been whole heaps of fun. But the truly interesting stuff is just about to begin.
People talk around town. They talk about the team, they talk about coach Bob McKillop, and they talk a lot about Stephen. The talk never really stopped after March, and just kept going through the hot, slow, studentless months, and straight into the new academic year and the approaching start of the new season.
People wonder if Stephen can shift from playing mainly shooting guard to playing more point guard. They wonder if he can play in the NBA. Is he good enough, tall enough, strong enough? "He will play in the NBA," an NBA scout told me last summer. "I see him as a first-round pick in '09." That's if he chooses to leave school early and go pro. Which is another question.
And these are fine questions, all of them, and plenty worthy of fan discussion over coffee at Summit on Main Street, or over beers at the Brick House Tavern in Davidson.
But none of them is the most compelling question.
Can Stephen stay Stephen?
We all have a stake in that.
BEFORE WE GO THERE, though, let's talk about how we got here.
It wasn't that long ago, after all, that Stephen Curry was only quasi-known just around Charlotte, and then mostly as the short, scrawny son of former Hornet and overall good guy and community man Dell Curry. At Charlotte Christian, Stephen was 5-foot-6 as a freshman, 5-foot-8 as a sophomore, 5-foot-11 as a junior. His jersey hung on his slender shoulders as if on a wire hanger in the corner of a closet. It wasn't that long ago, either, that he showed up at Davidson for freshman orientation with a microwave, his laptop, four duffel bags, and a red, white, and blue quilt he got from his grandmother as a graduation gift.
Then he went and scored thirty-two points in his second college game.
In Ann Arbor.
And it took off from there: Southern Conference freshman of the year, league tournament most valuable player, a college record for three-pointers in a season by a rookie, thirty points against Maryland in the NCAA tournament. Then, last year, his sophomore year, more, more, more: thirty-eight points against Appalachian State, thirty-seven against Chattanooga, forty-one against UNC-Greensboro, league player of the year, league tournament MVP again, second-team Associated Press All-American, and a college record for three-pointers in a season. Not by a rookie, but by anybody, ever. And somewhere in there, somewhere along the way, middle-aged men, Davidson men, serious men with serious jobs, started showing up to games in Belk Arena wearing red No. 30 jerseys.
That took two years.
The whole celebrity thing?
That took ten days.
March 21 to March 30, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin, Kansas, and in Davidson's four games in the tournament Stephen scored forty, thirty, thirty-three, and twenty-five points, and none other than LeBron, global basketball royalty, showed up with his posse behind the Davidson bench "to see the kid," and the rest of the country went bonkers for the guard with the peach-fuzz face.
The AP called him the star of the tournament. So did USA Today. So did The Washington Post. The Observer called him a "national sensation."
The suddenness of such stardom made it intrinsically captivating: Here was one of the best players in all of college basketball, seriously, and before that week and a half most folks didn't even know his name. Davidson people were gleeful, which was to be expected; what was interesting, though, was that everybody else was, too.
THINK ABOUT WHAT we cheer for these days. We cheer for home run hitters who turn out to be doped-up frauds. We cheer for star quarterbacks who turn out to be dog killers. Last year, we cheered for the Patriots' pursuit of a perfect 19-0 record, or many of us did, but that pursuit came with an embedded, uncomfortable question: were these guys cheaters? And we cheer for the biggest stars in college basketball every year, even though it's quite clear that most of the highest-tier talents are something other than "real" student-athletes, on campus doing their single, obligatory year before they can play in the NBA, largely unpaid (or at least not legally paid) props who are made to participate in this sham for the purposes of our entertainment and frankly because too many people (who aren't them) make too much money off even their just-passing-through presence.
Maybe that's too cynical. Doesn't make it untrue.
Sociology major. Lives on campus. Has every year. Lives with Bryant Barr, Steve Rossiter, and Dan Nelms, his teammates and friends. Goes to soccer games. Goes to field hockey games. Goes to frat parties. Celebrity? Superstar? College kid.
What Stephen became in March was the face of an increasingly elusive guilt-free fan experience.
CBS put the Davidson-Kansas game in pre-60 Minutes primetime for a number of reasons, but Stephen was a major factor, the network's senior vice president of programming told me. The decision worked: the ratings for the game were the second-best in that slot in this decade, higher even than the North Carolina-Georgetown game the year before.
Wendell Barnhouse from the paper in Fort Worth, Texas, called Stephen "hypnotic."
"Unlike so much of college basketball," wrote Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press, "Curry is more appealing the closer you get."
"It's impossible," The Columbus Dispatch's Michael Arace wrote, "to take your eyes off him."
Last summer, when I was in Davidson, I went to a handful of late-night pickup games at Belk Arena—current Davidson players, graduated Davidson players who now play pro overseas—and the number of people in the stands, at 10 p.m., even 11, was larger on the nights when word had gotten out that the kid was in town.
Plug Stephen Curry into YouTube. Earlier this fall, there were almost 400 videos, some of them homemade highlight reels set to songs with titles like "Superstar" and "Dangerously in Love."
That's how many points Stephen scored in the tournament last year. That's four games on CBS.
That did this.
It's a testament to TV's enormous power. TV takes what it touches and turns it into a commodity. A human commodity is a celebrity. That word makes Stephen hem and haw, but he does cop to this: since last March, his life has changed.