Great Day To Be A Wildcat: My First Row Seats For Stephen Curry’s Rise From Davidson Freshman NBA MVP
I wanted to be a rapper in college.
You know how your dad was part of a garage rock band or some Motown revival band when he was younger? Well, that’s what my generation did in college — except we rapped. And at some point or another we all thought we were going to make it big. So in November of my senior year at Davidson, I had an album done, complete with artwork and a release party at the campus hangout. Yes, it was that serious.
I had asked a few friends to come over to my dorm room and help put the CDs and CD covers in the cases for the release party the next night. The “packing party” was scheduled for November 14th, 2007. I know this because that was the day Davidson played the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Davidson vs. North Carolina game in 2007 was special. It was the first time we really felt like we were on the brink of a magical season. Coach McKillop notoriously schedules tough out-of-conference games at the beginning of the season so the team can get used to big-game feels, so we were used to watching our guys start off on the wrong end of a few beatings. But this game was different — Davidson only lost by four points against the one-seeded Tar Heels. More notably, it was Stephen Curry’s introduction to the national conversation. Steph had 24 points and was a few baskets away (he was only 2–12 from three and half the shots just rimmed out) from the biggest upset of the year. It was one of those games where you want to simultaneously celebrate how close you were to winning while wondering “what-if” for every miscue that had the team come up short.
The prevalent inclination after such games is for everyone to either party the excitement away or drink the disappointment into oblivion. Regardless, nobody usually wants to just sit around and do nothing. So I didn’t expect anyone to show up to my dorm room to pack CDs for my big night. Which is why Iwas surprised when I got a knock at the door.
It was Stephen.
He just wandered into my room and started packing up CDs like he wasn’t suddenly the top story on SportsCenter.
“I thought you’d be busy doing something else right now…” I asked when he walked in.
“Like what?” totally oblivous to the idea that there’d be any demand for his attention.
So we sat there shooting the breeze, packing CDs as guys kept walking by the door, praising Steph for his tremendous game and lamenting about how “heartbreaking” the loss was. He just kept packing, talking and not even realizing the trajectory his life was about to embark on.
I remember exactly where I was when I met Stephen Curry…because it was incredibly awkward — at least to me. It was my first night back on campus before my Junior year at Davidson and someone introduced me to Steph as a guy who is going to be great for the basketball team. There are two things I remember thinking about the exchange:
- How good can he be if he’s coming to Davidson? Now this isn’t a slight on the team at all. It’s just that Coach McKillop’s teams are built on teamwork, ball movement, defense and getting the open shot. The Wildcats never really relied on “superstar” talent, so I figured any new recruit would be someone who just fit into the great system.
2. Since when did Davidson get commitments from kids who were Sophomores in high school?
Seriously. I talked to Steph for a few minutes — exchanged pleasantries — and walked away with my friend, asking “isn’t it early in the school year to have high school kids visit?” I spent the whole conversation with Stephen thinking he was 14 years old. That’s how he looked; barely pubescent with clothes that were perpetually baggy. This kid is a freshman? And if he was, can we really expect him to make an impact this year? The conversation’s awkwardness comes from the fact that I’m pretty sure I treated him like a high school kid during that convo…I’m also sure he was used to it, though.
A few weeks later, Steph would drop 25 points in the Red & White intrasquad scrimmage.
In the first half.
Here’s how Davidson basketball games used to work: students could just walk into the gym during the game, grab a ticket and sit wherever we wanted. There wasn’t ever a huge demand or need to purchase tickets ahead of time to see masterful back cuts and box-out exhibitions. And this was how games worked for Steph’s freshman year. We’d walk to the game, casually meander to available seats and watch Stephen Curry obliterate the rest of the Southern Conference.
Steph was a shooting guard his first two years at Davidson, rolling off of screens and getting open without the ball. The most remarkable part of his game — besides his accuracy — was the footwork. The way he’d run to a spot at full-speed, catch the ball and line his feet up before the shot was magic. It seemed like he never had an off-balance shot.
We’d watch games and chant “HE’S A FRESHMAN *clap clap clapclapclap*” while he outscores entire teams for a half or gets double-teamed even when he didn’t have the ball because an idiot coach didn’t want the kid from Davidson to drop 50.
Then the tournament came. The tournament. The 2008 tournament landed Steph and Davidson in the Elite 8. The weeks when my school rallied together to make its mark. When our trustees pooled enough money to send 800 students to Detroit for the Sweet 16 for absolutely free. That Cinderella story wasn’t about the 40 against Gonzaga or the comeback against Georgetown. It was about showing the world what Davidson College was about. If anything, I’m forever grateful to Steph for bringing the spotlight to the place that helped shape me.
That March Madness run was about the moments between the games. The road trip to Detroit. Taking shots with the school’s President. “Sweet Caroline” blaring over the speakers. And that one time in the library when we got back to campus:
“What does this even mean?” Steph was sitting behind me, checking his Facebook for the first time since the tournament started. “Is that…an infinity symbol?”
Apparently, if you get a certain amount of friend requests on Facebook, they would just put the infinity symbol. Steph, being the new big college star, had reached that level of fame. But this exemplifies why his story is so remarkable. In the era of AAU ballers and athletes getting pegged for greatness from age 11, it’s virtually impossible for a great player to come out of nowhere. Most players who go on to be stars have been preparing for that stardom since before they stopped believing in Santa. So nothing really shocks or surprises them. Steph was different. He was passed over by most schools and overlooked as anything more than a mid-major commodity. As a result, he experienced his rise to stardom with wide-eyed excitement and disbelief. And a humility that betrays his on-court tendency to chuck a three-pointer and turn around before the ball hits the net.
Perfect example: Davidson’s Dance Ensemble was happening a couple of weeks after the tournament ended and the step team I was a part of wanted Steph to make a surprise appearance as part of our show. I bumped into him a few days before the show and he told me he wasn’t going to be able to do it because he had to go out of town. I didn’t think much of it and we kept shooting the breeze. But as we were talking, students kept coming up to him and saying “congrats on Friday” and “awesome stuff!” I didn’t think much of it and we kept talking. For almost twenty minutes we talked about nothing in particular and he never let on that anything in particular was happening to him. Finally, after enough people came up to him, I asked: “Wait…what’s happening on Friday?”
“Oh, yeah,…I’m going to be on Conan.”
I could tell you that I knew Steph would be an MVP one day. I’d be lying. When people would ask what I thought about his chances in the NBA, my answer stayed the same: he’ll be an All-Star who will play in the league forever because nobody can shoot like he can. I thought he was undervalued going into his draft and I knew he’d go down as an all-time great shooter.
But this? I never saw this coming. Stephen Curry has changed the way basketball is played and watched. The three-pointer has become the definitive highlight in a sport that had been dominated by dunks for 30 years (part of that is due to rule changes and added weak sided help that’s prevented guys from blowing by a defender and getting a dunk as well as a lack of big-name centers we really want to see get dunked on, but still). There’s never been anything like a Steph Curry three in the NBA.
If most highlights are poetry in motion, then a Steph Curry three is The Waste Land. Typical great plays last a couple of seconds. Jordan would dribble to the basket in light speed, jump over or around a defender and hit an insane move before the crowd could realize what just happened. Steph’s highlights are extended dramatic sequences that start as soon as he crosses half court.
The play begins with Stephen displaying one of the top ball-handling skillsets in the NBA, garnering oohs and ahhs. Four seconds into the play, the crowd is already building to a fever pitch. Then he eyes the three-point line and everyone in Oracle and Twitter knows it. Finally, the release — the crowd up and cheering as soon as the shot leaves his hands. And we wait. Wait and watch the ball in the air for what seems like an eternity. By the time the inevitable basket is made, the crowd is going nuts and the rest of us sit back and wait for the Vines. Even the misses are must-see television. There isn’t a more exhilarating play in sports right now. And there isn’t a better person to pull it off.
Steph and I still talk a few times a year — shooting each other occasional texts or DMs and seeing each other when I was in New Orleans and he’d come to town to kill the Pelicans. And every time I see him, there’s always a moment of “can you believe it?” where he sort of takes in the moment and thinks about how incredible the journey has been — as if seeing a fellow Wildcat reminds him of how unlikely his stardom is and how simple life used to be. Still, we rarely talk basketball. Instead, we talk Saints vs. Panthers, Davidson memories and most importantly our families. And the conversation usually has some moment of reflection. Some realization that just a few years ago he was some scrawny kid with a killer jumper. Now, he’s a scrawny adult with a killer jumper, a love of God and his family, and an MVP trophy. And a constant reminder that it’s always a good day to be a Wildcat.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and editor based out of Atlanta (but it’s still WHO DAT all day). He’s currently an editor at Moguldom Media whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, CNN Money, The Source, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet. He’s a New Orleans Press Club award recipient and has been cited in Best Music Writing. He’s also a proud alum of Davidson College.