What It Means: Davidson's 2008 Elite Eight Run
The Davidson College men's basketball team did something no one thought it could do. Stephen Curry did things no one thought he could do. Here's what it means
On the first day of March, in Statesboro, Ga., after the Davidson basketball team beat Georgia Southern to finish the regular season in the Southern Conference at 20-0, I was with Steph Curry with a couple other reporters, and when he was talking to somebody else I happened to look down at his shoes, and what I saw in black Sharpie on the side of one of his Nikes was this: Romans 8:28.
"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."
Last week, in the NCAA tournament in Raleigh, a photographer captured something similar, in the same neat script, on the side of his shoe.
"I can do all things …"
So it was that on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Steph scored against Gonzaga and Georgetown a total of 70 points, 55 of those coming in improbable second-half comebacks on the way to the Sweet 16 – and I'm trying here not to be too, TOO heavy-handed – in which the Wildcats, it could be said, rose from the dead.
Last fall, I wrote a long story for Charlotte magazine about this highly anticipated '07-'08 Davidson basketball season, and in that story I posited the theory that this kid, all of 19 at the time, and just turned 20 now, could at the end of his four years be the most important player in the history of Davidson basketball. That idea got stronger and stronger in the course of my reporting. Still, though, I wouldn't have voiced it in public like that if people at the school, in the president's office, in the basketball office and around the athletic department, had at all dismissed the notion when I threw it out there.
Jim Murphy, the athletic director, said it wasn't out of the question.
Bob McKillop, the basketball coach, said Steph had a chance to be a "poster boy" for the program.
Now, sitting here in the Davidson Inn, still trying to process what happened this past weekend in Raleigh, and also what it means and could mean in the future, looking at Steph on the front page of not only the Charlotte Observer but the USA Today, seeing Wildcat red on the sports front of the New York Times, scanning stories online from ESPN.com, SI.com, Yahoo! Sports, CBS SportsLine, the Washington Post, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, Slate, and on and on and on, I have to say:
We all might have sold the kid short.
He might, in some ways, right now, be the most important PERSON at Davidson, basketball or otherwise, and it took him TWO years, not four.
What he did this past weekend in Raleigh was this: He scored 40 points against Gonzaga. He scored 30 points against Georgetown. He outscored Georgetown's entire team in the last 14 minutes and change on Sunday. He did things to put little Davidson in the Sweet 16 that were unbelievable even to those of us who have been trained to just about expect the unexpected with him.
But what he did, in a broader sense, and what he IS doing, and will continue to do, goes way beyond basketball, and way beyond this week heading into Friday's game against Wisconsin. Here's the thing, and I say this as a Class of 2000 Davidson grad, and also as someone who now makes a living as a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times: The small college in the cute, wee town in northern Mecklenburg County, it seems to me, always has had this institutional reticence about being too forward or loud in telling or selling its story, even as the college over the last generation or so has gone from regionally fine to nationally excellent. The thought, rooted, I think, in the school's Southern, Presbyterian makeup, is that braggarts are unbecoming.
It's as if we say, We know what we are, we know what we have. And we leave it at that.
But we want people to know.
We don't mind answering the questions. What's Davidson? Where's Davidson? But we'd really rather not have to.
And this, I think, is where Steph comes in.
Before I go any deeper, though, I should say that he's not the only guy – he's the star of the show, but he's not a one-man band.
McKillop is the perfect man for his job. He is OF this place, in a way that can come only with time, and an emotional investment and attachment, too, that for him looks like this: His older son played for him. His younger son plays for him. His daughter went to Davidson and is engaged to a Davidson man. He's more than just a coach in this community.
He is 57. Next year is his 20th year here. He's the program's all-time winningest coach and the Southern Conference's all-time winningest coach. Five NCAAs, three NITs, all those league titles, all those coach of the year awards, all those international pros he's produced. Within this sustained success, and at a really hard place to win in Division I basketball, he's the constant.
I've often thought of the Davidson basketball story as the chase of the chance. The chance to win in the NCAA tournament. The chance to beat the big boys. The chance to match the precedent set by Lefty Driesell way back in the '60s in a very different time. It's the narrative that never ends.
Within that story, though, is the story of a man, and the McKillop story, just over the last few years, I think, has begun to come into sharper focus: He came here to go somewhere else, and says so, and he ended up staying put and finding a home. He lives across the street from campus. He walks to games. His children went to the school he represents. All of this is highly, highly unusual in his mostly greedy, mercenary, job-hopping profession. And it's somehow reassuring for the rest of us who live in this go-go, more-more, what's-next world.
It's instructional and inspirational without being Chicken Soupy or sappy or overwrought.
He's where he's supposed to be.
It's practically a parable.
That sort of continuity and connection seeps into his roster. Take Thomas Sander. He's a senior this year, a captain, but toward the end of his playing career in high school in Cincinnati the thoughtful kid actually was considering not playing in college because he found the recruiting process smarmy and disheartening. McKillop, he thought, was different. Now the econ major is an anchor of a class that has won 100 games – the most of any class in the history of the program – and his trademark might be as a guy who sets screens that are awe-inspiring to those who really know what they're watching when they're watching basketball. Everybody sees Steph's shots go in. Not even close to everybody sees all the things that go into creating those shots.
There's Max Paulhus Gosselin, the selfless, tireless defender from Quebec, a guy whose effort on the court is so palpable I sometimes can't look away.
There's Andrew Lovedale, a testament to the kind of consistent development so many of McKillop's players seem to experience: He started this year as a reserve. He's ending it as a revelation.
There's Stephen Rossiter, the Staten Island son of a New York City firefighter, and I don't mean to gush here, but he's one of the nicest kids you'll ever meet.
There's Jason Richards, the point guard from the suburbs of Chicago, underrated and unflappable, a history major who wrote his thesis earlier this academic year on the African-American reaction to Jackie Robinson and the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. The first hug he got Sunday night when the bus got back from Raleigh was from Dr. Sally McMillen, his advisor, and also, I should say in the interest of full disclosure, a mentor to me, too, when I was here in school and ever since. Bill Cobb, Class of '84 and one of the Wildcats' most devoted fans, said Monday: "This is our team. It's the community's team. We all won." And I think this is what he means. I don't know Jason the way I knew the guys on the team when I was in school, not by any stretch, but I FEEL like I do, I feel like I know him, and that feeling somehow is because of things like Dr. McMillen giving him that hug. That's something we share.
During my time as a student, I wrote about the basketball team for the Davidsonian, and I started a newsletter for fans that still exists, The Wildcat Report. After graduating, though, I gradually lost touch, because I had jobs, because I lived for a while up in New York, because then I moved to Florida to work for the St. Pete Times.
Last year, though, I was coming through town in December, for the first time in what seemed like years, and to see Dr. McMillen, actually, and I called up associate head coach Matt Matheny and asked if he could get me a ticket for the UNC Charlotte game. He said sure. Left it at will call. This was very early in Steph's freshman season, and I had heard about this special player, this special kid, but I didn't really have any idea. So the Wildcats won the tip, threw it to Steph, and he shot a three, and it missed and came bouncing back to him and he picked up the ball and shot it again and it went in. This was all in, like, the first seven seconds of the game. I might be misremembering. But that's at least the way it plays in my head.
I was captivated as a graduate of Davidson.
I was captivated as a watcher of basketball.
I was captivated as a professional seeker of story.
And it was immediate. Can't really explain. Just was.
So this year I came to Charlotte for the Duke game, I went to Anaheim for the UCLA game, I was in Davidson for weekends when I could get away, I was in Charleston twice, I was in Statesboro. When I wasn't at games – I do, after all, live in Tampa, and have a job that I love and would like to keep – I listened to John Kilgo and Logan Kosmalski on the Internet radio broadcast. I started clicking refresh way too often on the message board at DavidsonCats.com.
Then came Easter weekend in Raleigh.
"There's a lot of joy going through my body," Jason said after Gonzaga.
After Georgetown, McKillop, standing in a hallway under the RBC Center stands, talked about the first moments with his team after the game in the locker room. He talked about joy too. "We just laughed, we just laughed," he said, "because of the joy we felt for each other and our program."
And then there was Steph.
I look at the photo that ran huge on 5C of the Observer sports section on Monday, with him running down the court, one finger high into the air, surrounded by the noise of nearly 20,000 strong, and I remember that moment, and I STARE at that photo, at Steph, at OUR Steph, and I look at the one on the front of USA Today, the one where he's hugging Thomas, and I look at his face, I STARE at his face, and I can't stop, and I think that's because what I see is absolute, unfettered, childlike joy.
He is the kind of face America loves to love. He was readymade for all of this: the little-guy story, the local-kid-made-good story, the father-son story with his NBA dad Dell. He's accessible, he's approachable, he's attractive. He signs backs of T-shirts, he gets pictures taken with folks' kids, he points up high when he does something good. He praises his teammates for getting him open and finding him shots and he means it.
He was all of this waiting to happen.
Wins over Gonzaga and Georgetown? A spot in the Sweet 16? That wasn't totally predictable.
But the publicity and the attention that's coming from it once this DID happen? That much was.
The other night, after driving from Raleigh to Davidson, I re-read that Charlotte magazine story from last fall.
"So," I wrote toward the end of the piece. "Stephen Curry."
Just listen to this stuff now. It's somehow simultaneously prescient and quaint.
"Around campus, important people like the athletic director and the new president like to talk about how he's such a good kid, and how he's part of the 'fabric,' and that's nice.
"The Davidson coaches use different words when they talk about him.
"McKillop: 'vision,' 'balanced,' 'gifted.' Matt Matheny, the longtime associate head coach, uses two more:
Then this: "He also, say the coaches, has some inner assassin. He hunts the big shot, and the big stage, and he has that unteachable something that allows him to miss a shot, two, three … but the next one? It's going in. …"
I think of the Georgetown game. Two-for-eight in the first half. Three more misses to start the second. Then 25 of his 30 points in the last 14 minutes and 24 seconds. He can't even explain it.
"He is the kid who can keep the Lake Norman newcomers coming to Belk Arena, and people in Charlotte, too," I wrote last fall. "He is, ultimately, the face of McKillop's rallying cry going into this huge season: 'Embrace the bullseye,' the coach has said over and over.
"What he is, for Davidson, at Davidson, is the son of arguably the most beloved basketball player in the history of the city of Charlotte. What that means, according to Jim Murphy, the athletic director, is this: 'Everybody that liked Dell now likes Steph. Which is a lot of people.' Which gets back to the premise at the start of this story. Stephen Curry could be the Davidson basketball program's most important player ever."
Now, some six months later, here we are.
What Steph has BECOME is the face of the college as a whole.
He is the biggest single reason guys from the Raleigh News & Observer and the New York Post are writing that Davidson does things the right way and that if they had to do it all over again they would want to come to Davidson. He is the biggest single reason Dick "Hoops" Weiss of the New York Daily News was on campus on Monday and couldn't stop talking about this "hidden gem." He is the biggest single reason applications almost certainly will go up, which means the already low acceptance rate almost certainly will go down, which means that already high academic ranking could climb. He is the biggest single reason that thousands of people – millions? – now know what Davidson is and where Davidson is. He is the biggest single reason all those people are starting to know something of what we've known all along. He is the biggest single reason Davidson, with 1,700 students, with an arena with 5,700 seats, in a town of 10,000 people, will play Friday night in Detroit at Ford Field, capacity 72,000.
And he is the biggest single reason I've been back to Davidson more times in the last six months than I had been probably in the previous six years. He is the biggest single reason I have reconnected with people I never should have lost touch with in the first place. He is the biggest single reason I have reconnected with the place I consider my home. And I am not alone.
THIS is what he's doing.
My favorite thing about him, though, is that he doesn't seem to know any of that.
On Monday, I was in the sports information office, and Steph shuffled in, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and his sock feet, just up from a nap in the team lounge and ready for a radio interview in Toronto. He looked like a sleepy just-turned-20-year-old kid because that's what he was. He rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat and talked to Toronto.
"Everything I've ever dreamed of happening here at Davidson," he said, "it's coming true."
"We have a game coming up against Wisconsin on Friday," he said, "and we believe we can win."
The interview ended, and he got off the phone, and we sat and we talked.
I asked him what he would say about Davidson to all the people out there who are thinking about the school and the team now who were not at this time last week. He thought about that.
"It's a very small place," Steph said, "a unique place, where, I guess – the way we enjoy things all together, with everyone knowing each other, I think the joy is more real. More deep."
He speaks for so many of us.
Michael Kruse, Davidson class of 2000, is a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. He has also written for ESPN: The Magazine and The Sporting News.