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The Birth of Steph

When a skinny guard with a magical shot led tiny Davidson College on an unforgettable NCAA tournament run, he altered his basketball trajectory—and the entire sport. Ten years later, Steph Curry and others reflect on the March that launched a legacy.

Rob Dobi

Before we go any further, watch this:

I encourage you to watch it at full speed; I encourage you to watch it in slow motion. The reason this clip is so mind-blowing is not because of what’s obvious, but because of what’s become visible with hindsight. At that moment, with Stephen Curry on the verge of leading Davidson College to the Elite Eight as a sophomore, he was still largely known as an exhilarating shooter with a questionable basketball future; he had barely even thought at that point about having an NBA career at all. One of his teammates, Bryant Barr, called this play Curry’s “Spider-Man” layup, and when he saw it happen live, his jaw went slack, because it displayed an ornate element of Curry’s game that was still in its nascent phase.

But even then, he had no idea what was coming.

“To sit here and tell you that layup against Wisconsin was foreshadowing and I could see that there were greater things to come?” says Barr, who’s still one of Curry’s closest friends. “I hope you wouldn’t put that in print, because it’s blasphemy.”

What you see in that clip is the future, 10 years before the future became the present. There are now millions of children who were not born when this layup took place, who have never seen images of Steph Curry in a Davidson uniform, and consider him to be their favorite player. They don’t remember this play or this tournament run at all, and they don’t care. That 10-day span in March 2008 so stretched time and space that it’s hard to tell whether it feels like a thousand years ago or whether it feels like it just happened last week, but, amid a series of indelible moments like the one you just watched, it marked the beginning of what basketball has become.

March 8, 2018

John Kilgo, Davidson radio broadcaster: I didn’t talk to one soul who knew this was going to happen.

Andrew Lovedale, Davidson forward: I saw greatness in him. I didn’t know he would be a two-time MVP, though.

Barr: When you look at Steph, it’s unimpressive, right? Compared to the athletes you put him up against, he’s relatively normal. Did he think he was going to be a two-time NBA champion, two-time MVP, 10 years later? Um … maybe?

The highlights come on television every year around this time, and sometimes, Curry tells me, he sees himself amid the tableau of all that March Madness euphoria and he thinks about who he used to be before he became … all of this. He’s draped in an aquamarine hoodie, legs splayed out in front of him, his brilliant white sneakers scraping against the floor of the Warriors’ practice facility in downtown Oakland. His face is still so youthful that it’s kind of jarring to realize that, on this March afternoon in 2018, he’s six days shy of his 30th birthday. A few hours from now, in the opening moments of a game against the San Antonio Spurs, he will tweak his right ankle for at least the fourth time this season, once again raising questions about whether his body can survive the back end of what’s already been a groundbreaking NBA career.

It’s been 10 years since he exploded into the national consciousness while playing for a little speck of a college in North Carolina that virtually no one west of Gastonia had heard of until he came along, 10 years since he spearheaded that Elite Eight run thanks to a string of mind-boggling moments that we’ve now come to take for granted from him. And we know by now that it is not easy to turn the tables and boggle Stephen Curry’s mind, but for just a moment, when I ask if it does kind of throw him to reflect back on the past decade, he nods.

“One hundred percent,” he says softly, almost pensively. “I think about what I was doing with my free time on campus, and what my daily schedule was. Totally different.”

Sometimes, he admits, he sees those highlights of himself in a Davidson uniform and he thinks about who he was then, a baby-faced guard best known for his moderately famous father, a perpetually undersized shooter who went to Davidson because no one presumed he was good enough to even play in the ACC, let alone the NBA. He went to class, he goofed off with his roommates, he played basketball, he slept. And now? Now, Steph Curry has become an MVP and an NBA champion and a worldwide marketing presence; now he has completely altered the way basketball is both played and consumed. Because of Curry, the parameters of the court have been stretched farther and farther outward, and the game has become more fluid and less plodding; because of Curry, the perceived barriers to entry for aspiring players have been lowered, in both legitimate and illusory ways. “I’m sure kids growing up want to be Steph,” Kilgo says, “but he has a unique talent that I’ve not seen anybody else have.”

Those on and around that Davidson team were there for all the moments when Steph took those first steps toward becoming Steph, when he began to hone and develop the signature moves that have come to define both him and the game itself — even if, after 10 years, the exact detail and the order of things has begun to fade into a single colorful storytelling palette. All they did was watch it unfold, one little miracle at a time, until over the course of those three seasons at Davidson and beyond, the present somehow turned into the future.

Freshman Year: November 10, 2006

Davidson 81, Eastern Michigan 77

Matt Matheny, Davidson assistant coach: His first college game, against Eastern Michigan, Steph has nine turnovers at halftime. But Coach [Bob] McKillop keeps him in the game.

Barr: I started to question it. I was like, “I could go in there and turn the ball over 10 times.”

Jim Fox, Davidson assistant coach: He has an unbelievable second half. I think we were down 16. And then the next night he scores 32 against Michigan.

Barr: In the moment, I was like, “Dang, that’s annoying.” That’s hard for an 18-year-old [like Curry] to do, to have a short memory like that.

Kilgo: He had 13 turnovers in that Eastern Michigan game. Some of his passes were hot dog one-handers that no one could get to. But some of them, he may have been seeing things that were too advanced for his teammates. I remember after that Eastern Michigan game he came up to me and joked, “Killer, I got a double-double.” I said, “You almost got 20 turnovers, too.”

Curry: That was all just Coach McKillop seeing the long game. He could have sat me down after that first half. But he let me play through my mistakes.

It’s been well documented by now, the stories of all the schools that overlooked Curry despite his father’s NBA pedigree, the fact he came to Davidson largely because none of the big schools had the imagination to see what he might become. He had a wicked hot-air balloon of a jump shot — he always had the range — but he was raw and he was impossibly skinny, and McKillop, a native New Yorker who had already been at Davidson for nearly two decades, was one of the few coaches who somehow understood how much of the game Curry actually perceived.

McKillop also had no choice: Davidson had lost seven seniors from the previous year’s NCAA tournament team, and he needed someone who could score. Here was a kid who had shown flashes of his potential in high school, but here was a kid who regularly threw passes to phantom teammates, and who seemed like he might get overpowered by larger and more physical defenders.

“Freshman year, I think he passed the ball to me during a few of those games,” McKillop says.

Given all of that — given that Curry was kind of engaging in his own little experiments in passing and shooting, given that he was toying with the inherent structures of basketball from the moment he stepped on the court in college — here’s something Kilgo and others have pondered: If Curry had gone to North Carolina, or if he’d gone to Duke, would he have been afforded the same freedoms that McKillop gave him? And if he hadn’t had those same freedoms, would he possess the same levels of self-confidence and imagination that allowed him to develop into a singular talent? “McKillop allowed him to shoot those shots and make mistakes and play through them,” Kilgo says. “Maybe that wouldn’t have happened at somewhere other that Davidson.”

Davidson v Wisconsin Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

That Davidson team proved to be very good, and Curry proved to be a deadly shooter, often from places and in positions that seemed increasingly unfathomable. A few games into the season, Kilgo began to realize that he should never criticize Curry on the radio for taking a shot before he saw the result. The Wildcats reeled off 13 wins in a row from January into March, dominating the Southern Conference before losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Maryland. This was a 29-win team, but the players who came back the next year believed that season could have been better.

That summer, in 2007, Curry went off to play with the USA Basketball under-19 team. When he came back, something was different, even if — as was often the case with Curry — the growth was almost ineffable. The USA Basketball experience of playing with and against bigger and more inherently talented athletes, McKillop says, had “validated” to Curry that he belonged. He was stronger, harder to bully on defense, in part because of what he’d learned playing internationally and in part because he was growing more mature; he could create more shots off the dribble. He and Jason Richards, the Wildcats’ point guard, would play one-on-one before that season began, and Richards couldn’t figure out what to do against him anymore. “It was like a new Steph,” Richards says. “How do you guard this guy?”

I heard stories like this from nearly everyone who was on or around that team: Curry just kept getting better in ways they hadn’t foreseen. After that 2006–07 season, McKillop spoke with his coaches about the necessity of getting a better tournament seed than the no. 13 they’d gotten in 2007. He asked his returning players what kind of nonconference schedule they wanted — did they really want to challenge themselves? Did they want to see what they could become?

Sophomore Year: December 8, 2007

UCLA 75, Davidson 63

Richards: That UCLA team was loaded — [Darren] Collison, [Josh] Shipp, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook.

Fox: We’re up 18 against UCLA [in December], John Wooden in attendance. Westbrook and all those guys were guarding him really well. That’s the one game he was not efficient in.

McKillop: Anytime Stephen cut below the foul line extended, his defender would not let him back off the baseline. Westbrook spent a lot of time guarding him that game.

Curry: But all those moments gave us confidence. It gave us that belief.

By the time the Wildcats played at UCLA that season, they had already lost (by four points) to North Carolina, and they had already lost (by six points) to Duke, and they had already lost (by seven points) to Charlotte, and they would soon lose (by one point) to NC State when Curry missed a 40-footer at the buzzer. They were 4–6, devoid of a single impressive nonconference victory, and yet at the same time something was happening that they could all feel. Curry was playing through a nagging wrist injury, but he refused to redshirt, he told his coaches, because he didn’t want to let down the seniors on that roster.

This was an eclectic and wide-ranging group: There were a pair of French Canadians and an actual Frenchman, plus Barr, who came from Maine; there was a forward from Nigeria and another from Cincinnati and a third from Staten Island. They had all congregated at this tiny liberal-arts school with roughly 1,900 undergraduates, on a campus where everyone knew everyone else. Once they saw what Curry was capable of as a scorer, they formed in roles around him. They all had their strengths: Richards was an excellent passer who would lead the nation in assists, and Andrew Lovedale, the Nigerian (who now runs a foundation to support Nigerian youth), was a big body who would fight for rebounds, and Max Paulhus Gosselin, one of the French Canadians, was a solid backcourt presence. And they had a coach in McKillop who still spoke in a New York drawl, a coach who embraced metaphors and aphorisms, who had his players drop a penny in a jar every time they had a good practice. The idea was that the pennies would accumulate slowly, over the course of the season, a representation of their own progress.

“At the end of the year,” Lovedale says, “there were a lot of pennies in that jar.”

But the main thing was, they all understood that Curry was the central focus of the offense, especially as his wrist injury slowly began to heal. Lovedale spent much of the year improving his hands — McKillop would roll a ball on the baseline and tell him to go get it, and Lovedale understood that once he had that loose ball, his first job was to seek out where Steph was. They had a code word, Dagger, and the premise of Dagger was simple: If a player grabbed a rebound or loose ball, the first thing he should do is look toward the 3-point arc to find Steph.

That was fine with them. They all knew Curry possessed something unique, even if they didn’t know how special he would become. They liked him. He was quiet, particularly among strangers; for someone who was already on his way to becoming the best player in Davidson history, he was self-deprecating. When he got nominated for an ESPY Award for Best Breakthrough Athlete after that 2007–08 season, he didn’t even tell his own roommate until Barr saw it on ESPN. He never acted as if he were something more than they were, even as they all knew that his abilities were expanding far beyond their own.

Once they got into Southern Conference play, Curry began to pile up points, and teams would throw junk defenses and multiple defenders at him to try to stop him and bully him and roadblock his view of the basket, but nothing worked. In early January against Elon, he scored Davidson’s last eight points, including a game-winning runner in the lane in which he switched to his left hand in midair; later that month, he put up 27 points in the first half against a Chattanooga team that scored 26 that same half. He would regularly spearhead, say, 15–0 runs in which he scored 14 points, and that stepback jumper that we now associate with Curry was often a part of it.

“There was always a big stepback moment,” Matheny says. “And he had the crowd in his hand. We would get a steal, and Steph would wind up with the ball, and there’s this moment in time where everything freezes, and the ball hangs in the air forever, and then, splash. And it just explodes.”

He was mostly playing shooting guard that season; he was not yet the ball handler you see in the NBA, and he was still developing the ability to take bigger defenders off the dribble the way he does now. But those signature elements were falling into place: He could create space for himself and face up to the basket in an instant. In practice, Davidson ran a timed shooting drill called Bolts of Lightning, and sometimes when Lovedale was finished, he’d just watch Steph, bombing away from angles and locations that had previously seemed illogical.

In those first 10 weeks of 2008, Davidson didn’t lose another game. The Wildcats went undefeated in the Southern Conference, won the conference tournament, and earned a 10-seed in the NCAA field. For their opener, they drew Gonzaga — but they would play in Raleigh, just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from campus.

March 21, 2008

Davidson 82, Gonzaga 76

March 23, 2008

Davidson 74, Georgetown 70

March 28, 2008

Davidson 73, Wisconsin 56

McKillop: I constantly resurrect that NCAA tournament experience. I can still smell and taste and touch so much from back then. The smell of the locker room. The walk from the locker room to the court. The smiles on the players’ faces.

Lovedale: My girlfriend — now wife — had us beating Gonzaga, but she didn’t have us advancing past that.

Barr: There are collections of moments in that tournament that make you realize how special a player Steph was. After a while, you stop trying to figure it out, and just let yourself enjoy it.

Kilgo: Lefty Driesell [the former Davidson coach] asked if he could come sit with me during those first couple tournament games so he could watch Steph. At first he said, “He can play in the ACC.” During the Georgetown game, Steph just out-quicks all these big, tall guys and he blurts out, “That sucker can play in the NBA!”

Curry: Everyone talked about “Cinderella story,” but that term never popped up in our locker room. That Gonzaga game sent us on our way.

In a way, up until that Gonzaga game, he was still their little secret. The only arguments on talk radio and message boards, Kilgo says, were seemingly legitimate debates about whether Curry was good enough by then to play for a team like North Carolina or Duke. Against Gonzaga, Curry scored 10 points in the first half, and Davidson fell behind by double digits, but then he began to free himself up in the second half, hitting one long-range jumper after another, making steals, forcing his way into the lane.

“This kid’s amazing,” Jim Nantz exclaimed on CBS, and with just over a minute left and the game tied, after Gosselin missed a 3-pointer, Lovedale did what he’d been training for all season: chased down a loose ball, tore it away from Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo, and found Curry stepping into the game-winning 3.

Two days later, Curry looked exhausted against a physical Georgetown team — a no. 2 seed — with Roy Hibbert at center. Curry had five points at halftime. When the Wildcats trailed by 16, McKillop called a timeout.

“You guys having fun?” he said.

That was the trigger Curry and his teammates needed. He finished with 30 points; he created space, hit 3s, and when the Hoyas clamped down on him on the perimeter, he ducked underneath and scored on layups and backdoor cuts and passes like this one from Richards:

It all feels like foreshadowing now: How Curry finished off Georgetown on the free throw line and the way he created anything and everything he wanted — including that Spider-Man layup — in a blowout win over Wisconsin that LeBron James watched from the stands. Amid this whirlwind stretch, Curry’s game took yet another massive leap forward: “We said to ourselves, ‘He’s even better now than he was two weeks ago,’” Matheny recalls. But this was also just a group of young men living from moment to moment, taking their cues from McKillop, who seemed as bewildered by each victory as everyone else.

Finally, Davidson faced Kansas, and after Curry hit a 3 from the wing with under a minute left, the Wildcats trailed 59–57. With eight seconds left, Curry advanced the ball up the floor, dribbled to his left, saw a double-team, then saw one Kansas defender fall backward. He dribbled around a screen from forward Thomas Sander, got doubled again, pulled up on the wing and was still doubled, and passed to Richards, who pulled up from 25 feet at the buzzer …

March 30, 2008

Kansas 59, Davidson 57

Richards: The play was set up for Steph. People always wonder, what if Steph took the shot? But he had trust in me to take the shot.

Kilgo: The odds are 50–50 if Steph takes a 40-footer there.

Fox: When he gets doubled on the pick-and-roll, he passes the ball. Steph makes the right play there.

Barr: I’ve never rewatched that game, and I don’t know if I ever will.

Richards: It’s definitely something that plays in my head a lot.

Curry: Whenever you hear about a tournament run, I think about ’08, and I think about the Elite Eight, and then there’s a moment like, “Damn.”

I didn’t get a chance to ask Curry how many times he’s rewatched this play (if ever). I just know that when he’s asked about the play itself, he goes on for nearly 30 seconds, setting up the sequence, what he saw, the screen, the double-team, one of the Kansas defenders falling down, and the pass to Richards, whose shot went wayward and didn’t even catch the rim. He wonders, he says, if he should have waved off a screen and gone one-on-one, or shot earlier in the possession. Some of his teammates and his coaches declined to even talk about that last sequence at all, figuring that it would only taint their memories of that season. Some of them, asked what the Steph Curry of 2018 might have done differently from the Steph Curry of 2008, speculate that maybe he would have pulled up from 35 feet, or maybe he would have been able to split the double-team off the dribble.

Does it really matter? Nobody blames Richards, who was one of the Wildcats’ key players all season, and a solid shooter faced with a near-impossible look for anyone except maybe Curry himself. But Richards, who has been an assistant on the University of Pittsburgh coaching staff the past few years, clearly fights his own regrets, even now.

And so the ending doesn’t really matter. And yet it does, if only because they can’t help but wonder how much bigger the story could have become in that moment. Could they have beaten North Carolina and won it all, as Kansas did? Knowing what we do now about Curry, who can say?

“Nobody was happy in that moment that we made it to the Elite Eight,” Barr says. “I’m freaking pissed. The next game we would have played North Carolina, and we nearly beat them early in the year. We’re pissed that we didn’t win.”

Junior Year: November 25, 2008

Davidson 78, Loyola (Md.) 48

Curry: The crazy thing is, like, right after the [Kansas] game, I honestly hadn’t thought about the NBA or the draft or anything like that. First question I got in the locker room after the game was, “Are you declaring for the draft?” I looked at the reporter like he was an idiot. I’d never thought of it. In my mind, I was never making that jump at that point.

That junior season was another crucial cog in Curry’s ongoing development, even if it was devoid of the same fresh thrill: He switched over to point guard, and improved his ballhandling, and led the country in scoring. Davidson went 27–8, but lost in the Southern Conference tournament and didn’t make the NCAA tournament. But there is one game from that season worth a brief mention, if only because it foreshadowed the inevitable pall of cynicism that attends anyone who becomes a national commodity, even (or perhaps especially) someone whose game — and whose current team — often hovers on that razor’s edge between joy and egotism. It came in November during a game against Loyola (Md.), when coach Jimmy Patsos decided to shadow Curry everywhere he went with two defenders and take his chances three-on-four against the remainder of Davidson’s team.

How did Curry respond? “Coach,” he told McKillop, “I’m just going to stand in the corner.”

He went scoreless that night. Davidson won by 30.

“After the game,” Kilgo says, “that coach acted like he was a genius.”

“I thought I could trick him,” Patsos confessed years later. “He was happy to pass.”

March 8, 2018

Barr: It feels like a lot longer than 10 years. So much has happened since that point in time.

Richards: The game of basketball has changed, and Steph has a lot to do with that. A lot of kids now think, “Well, Steph can do that, why can’t I?”

Lovedale: It’s restructured both offenses and defenses in basketball. And it’s going to affect the game for generations to come.

Kilgo: It boggles my mind and it bothers me. I don’t think the game is as pretty as it used to be. I think Steph is gorgeous in the way he plays, but other people who try to emulate him — I think Steph has changed the game for the better for him, but maybe not for the betterment of the game.

McKillop: I think people sometimes miss the fact that he’s one of the leading layup and free throw shooters in the NBA. The two most fundamental aspects of his game are layups and free throws.

For the past decade, Curry’s narrative has been in constant forward motion. This, obviously, is how he became a pivotal figure in NBA history: He never seems to stop evolving. It’s the only way a player of his size could have accomplished such things, and it’s the first thing you hear when you speak to the people who were around him 10 years ago. The Steph they see now is a far more complex figure — both on and off the court — than the Steph they played with in college; he’s a more sophisticated ball handler, a more sophisticated shooter, a more sophisticated media presence. But they also say he’s still the guy who always responds to their text messages (when Fox recently asked him how to guard a certain type of screen, Curry sent back a long reply); they say he’s still the guy who invites his old college teammates to stay at his home when they come out to visit. And they say that this ability to juggle a supreme inward confidence with an outward sense of humility is what made him different, even then.

What’s changed completely is the perception of Curry. He belongs to the world now, for better or for worse. He is a singular talent who can also be blamed for every young basketball player who thinks that they, too, can sink 40-foot jump shots while double-teamed by larger defenders; he is the reason someone like Oklahoma’s Trae Young can come to prominence, but he’s also the reason that thousands of children are now attempting to master the game from the outside-in, rather than the other way around. “He’s definitely changed the way is game is played globally,” Lovedale says, and this is the part that would blow anyone’s mind to think about. As great as LeBron James is now, everyone saw him barreling into history from the time he was a teenager. It wasn’t like that for Curry, and as he transitions into the over-30 phase of his professional career, it will never not be a little bit weird to contemplate his impact, no matter how much time passes.

“The good news is, anytime I get connected back to the Davidson community, I haven’t changed my personal identity and perspective,” Curry says. “There’s always appreciation for that time in my life that sent me on my way.”

It’s the last thing Curry says before he disappears into the locker room, before he sets off to prepare for the 624th game of his NBA career, before the ankle tweak against the Spurs opens up him up, once more, to the kind of nagging injury questions that have been the only thing to hold him back since Davidson. Maybe he’ll continue to improve in unexpected ways. Or maybe he’s already peaked. In a way, just as it was during those two weeks in March 2008, the ending doesn’t matter, given everything he’s already accomplished, given the way Curry has already expanded our perceptions over the course of this mind-bending decade. But in a way, it does, because there is still time left.

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