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?
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OVER THE LAST eight or so months, while working on a book about Davidson basketball, I've spent more time thinking about and talking about Stephen Curry than I probably should admit. I've talked to Stephen, his parents, his high school coaches, his college coaches, his high school teammates, his college teammates, local media folks, national media folks—shoot, I've talked to the kid's freshman-year hall counselors—and so I feel comfortable stating the following: he is in fact what he seems to be.
His apparent humility?
It's not an act.
He's practically bashful.
When he was on Conan, he walked out onto that stage, everybody was clapping, he sat down, crossed his legs, uncrossed them. He seemed jittery. Nervous. People at Davidson noticed it, and loved it. Nobody, not even off to the side, not even in disappointed hush-hush, has suggested to me that Stephen's getting a big head.
It makes some sense when you know that Dell Curry grew up in tiny, rural Grottoes, Virginia, helping his dad, a day-shift machinist for the General Electric factory in nearby Waynesboro, keep the rows of the family's large garden meticulously weedless and straight. Also, this: when Dell Curry came home after his first season in the NBA, he told his dad he wanted to buy him a new pickup truck, and so they went down to the local Chevy lot, and his dad picked out the one he wanted, a nice blue and white one. Used. Stephen might have grown up with the kind of material privilege associated with a father who for sixteen years made NBA money, but he comes just as much from Grottoes, that garden, that pickup. You, son, Sonya Curry often tells her first born, are blue collar.
Barr has lived with Stephen his freshman year, his sophomore year, and lives with him now.
He found out his teammate and good friend was a Wooden Award finalist by reading it on ESPN.com.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.
Before his freshman season, before any of this, McKillop, the cerebral, silver-haired Davidson coach, told people Stephen was special. He told reporters, told alums, told friends, and he did that because (1) he believed it, and (2) he thought the freshman, eighteen at the time, could handle it.
NOW COMES THIS season. It feels different. Expectations are higher than they've been since the late 1960s, when Davidson was a national power, but back then, of course, there was no ESPN.com poll asking America if Davidson can make the Final Four. Heading into this season, for the first time ever, Davidson could be not underrated, but overrated. Stephen is the person most associated with that hype, not because he wants to be, not because his school wants him to be, but because ESPN and CBS want him to be. Because we want him to be.
The people who know Stephen the best say he's ready for all this.
"Remarkably poised," McKillop told me in September. "Remarkably prepared."
But back to the most compelling question.
Can he stay that way?
Can Stephen stay Stephen?
Last spring, in the aftermath of the tournament spotlight, he didn't take the instantaneous hype and turn it into immediate cash by going pro. We find that reassuring. But it also scares us. We wanted him to make the "right" decision. We now want for him to not get punished for it.
WHY ARE WE drawn to him?
He scores a lot of points. We like the guys who pass the ball or rebound the ball or dive on the floor, but we love the guys who score, and Stephen has a chance, if he stays for his senior year, to become the NCAA's second-best scorer of all time, behind only Louisiana State legend "Pistol" Pete Maravich.
People say Stephen looks like the water boy, like the kid next door, like the kid who cuts your grass, he looks twelve, he looks fourteen, he looks like he's just been bar mitzvahed. Meg Kimmel, the editor of the Davidson Journal, the alumni magazine, puts it like this: "He's still pupating."
How he looks adds to the allure of what he does.
We look at LeBron and say he's strong. We look at Shaq and say he's huge. We look at Kobe and say he's quick. We look at Stephen and say…
Those who know Stephen and know the game talk about how he uses screens, his quick feet, his quick release, his high fatigue threshold, his unusual ability to stop and then start again. Gym jargon. That, or vague discourse on nature and nurture: exposure to the game at a high level at an early age, shot form somehow bequeathed through bloodlines, the notion of some sort of organic, ongoing basketball osmosis thanks to his NBA dad.
When Dell Curry was with the Hornets, and Stephen was a boy, Sonya Curry would sit next to her son at games and ask him: "See your dad?"
Stephen watched those games as a boy in a way that in retrospect was highly unusual. He didn't watch the ball. He watched his dad. What that meant was that he grew up watching the movements of a man who for a decade and a half was one of the world's very best shooters and users of screens. Stephen, of course, didn't think of it that way at the time. He was just a kid who wanted to watch his dad. But still.
When Stephen got to Davidson, the fall of his freshman year, he was bigger, stronger, faster, and taller than he had been at Charlotte Christian. All of that, though, was not what struck the Davidson coaches the most.
Stephen was able to take the information given to him and correct mistakes almost immediately. It wasn't that he never made mistakes. He made a lot of them. He just usually didn't make any of them a second time. McKillop has been coaching for three and a half decades, and he says he has never had a player like that. It was as if Stephen listened to what he was told, painted a picture of the movements in his head, then channeled those movements onto the court, at full speed, the very next play.
ESPN college basketball analyst and Charlottean Jay Bilas said a few months ago on the phone that Stephen is one of the smartest players he's ever seen.
"Not just in college," he said. "Period."
Stephen, he said, has a brain for basketball that is "Einstein quality."