March Madness: Steph Curry's first impression on Davidson, the NCAA tournament and then the world
Just eight years ago, Steph Curry led the Davidson Wildcats of the Southern Conference on a magical NCAA tournament run to the Elite 8, where they fell to eventual champion Kansas. Curry flashed his smile and skills to the basketball world in those two weeks, a baby-faced assassin who gave a powerful glimpse of his potential.
Others have played a role in helping an unheralded program from a smaller conference make magic in March. But they didn’t go on to become arguably the best player in the world. This is hindsight, of course, but others did not become Steph Curry.
NCAA.com talked to those who knew him years before he became this global star and world champion. Here's what they had to say about Curry, who was barely 6 feet tall and weighed less than 150 pounds as a high school junior.
SHONN BROWN (Curry’s former high school coach at Charlotte Christian): Could shoot it good enough. Had a high IQ for the game. Physically was always a little bit of a concern.
MATT MATHENY (Davidson assistant, who is now the coach at Elon): Everybody in Charlotte knew Dell Curry had two sons. So you hear about him, “Oh he’s playing at Charlotte Christian.” Or, “Oh he had a good game -- maybe we should go down and see him.”
JASON RICHARDS (Curry’s teammate for two years at Davidson, now the video coordinator at Pittsburgh): I went to see him play in high school in a rivalry game against Charlotte Latin. He was small, skinny, had a feel for the game, high basketball IQ. Really controlled the game as a high school player. Met him after the game and we knew how good we could become.
JAY BILAS (Charlotte resident, ESPN analyst): He was very good. He could really shoot. He put a lot of points on the board. But I was like almost everyone else. I don’t know of anybody who said NBA All-Star (or) there’s your future MVP. That one got by me.
ERIC BOSSI (Rivals.com national recruiting analyst): I saw him between his junior and senior years at the NBA top 100 camp at VCU. In relation to a lot of other guys, he was physically underdeveloped. If he was open -- and I mean wide open -- he wasn’t going to miss the shot. He was just so physically overmatched that he had a hard time getting a lot of stuff accomplished, but he did a solid job running his team.
BOB McKILLOP (Davidson coach): We always had a mindset of recruiting the sons of ex-players and particularly ex-players who had the character, reputation and academic profile that Dell had. You knew he was going to be a good student. You knew he was going to have high character and you knew he had the genetic gift of Dell and Sonia Curry (college volleyball player). He was a spindly baby-faced all arms and legs -- like a pony -- but yet you could see there was an instinct, there was a vision. He saw things before they happened. He never let things bother him. For a kid that young to just go on to the next play what an extraordinary gift that was and still is today.
MATHENY: Normally when a prospect comes in (to visit), a college kid will say, “Oh, he’s alright, he’s pretty good.” But to a player everyone made a point to come by the office and say, “He can play. We want him.” Players know. We didn’t even ask our players what they thought. They came to us and said, “Yes, we want him.”
JIM MURPHY (Davidson athletic director): Watching him shoot around in the gym, practice hadn’t even started, and here’s a freshman that’s young that looks even younger than that, and you’re thinking he’s awfully skinny, hope he can keep up with the rigors of a college season. But he sure can make free throws and he sure can make jump shots. And then all of a sudden in the first couple of days, the coaches were starting to talk about him and the players were starting to talk about him, saying this kid could be special.
MATHENY: I remember walking with Dell on campus maybe two weeks before classes (before Steph’s freshman year). Dell made a comment, “Steph’s really playing well in the summer league.” Parents always feel like their sons are playing well. But that’s one thing that’s great about Dell as a father, he’s as close to realistic as a father can be. He said people are having trouble guarding him in the summer league. That was an indication that maybe he was better now than when we signed him. We had graduated seven seniors so in his first year at Davidson there was an incredible opportunity to play right away. We never promised him that but we made it clear that the opportunity was realistic.
BROWN: They had chores to do and their parents never backed down from saying, yeah, you have a nice comfortable life, but you need to work in order to get or in order to have. You want to go to Charlotte Christian? You want to start on the team? They’re not going to let you start just because you’re our son. You’re going to have to work to develop your skills. If you want to play college, same thing, you’re going to have to work.
McKILLOP: I think Dell and Sonia should write a book on parenting, because they are models as parents.
(Curry committed nine turnovers in the first half of his college debut, against Eastern Michigan. He finished with 13, but Davidson won 81-77. The next night he scored 32 points against Michigan. Curry averaged 21.5 points per game as a freshman as Davidson won the Southern Conference and finished with a 29-7 record. He made 122 of 299 3-pointers (40.8 percent) and had as many turnovers as assists (95). He scored 30 points in a NCAA Tournament first round loss to Maryland. He was named the Southern Conference Rookie of the Year)
McKILLOP: As a freshman, I thought he would have a significant impact on our program. No doubt about that. From before the season to midseason I thought he was going to have an impact on the college basketball world.
RICHARDS: I knew he was special playing with him that first year, but in between his freshman and sophomore years he went and played with USA Basketball and he came back and we were working out, playing 1-on-1. He took his game to a whole ‘nother level. That summer he really worked hard and was pretty much unguardable. He gave me fits, I’m not going to lie.
McKILLOP: When he finished his freshman year, I clearly saw him as an NBA player and the kind of kid that was going to set the records at Davidson College. He just got better and better and better in every aspect. The technical aspect, the emotional aspect, the work ethic, the understanding - you name the aspect of what makes a great basketball player today and he improved in every one of those areas. You know some guys improve their shooting but not their ball handling, some improve their IQ but not their physical strength. Stephen improved in everything.
(Early in his sophomore season, Curry was having trouble with his right wrist. Season-ending surgery was an option. He met with his coach, father, the team trainer and senior teammates Richards, Boris Meno and Thomas Sander after an early season practice in the Time Warner Cable Arena in downtown Charlotte (home of the NBA’s Hornets).
RICHARDS: We knew about the injury. He said he had two options: have surgery and sit out the year or he could tape it and play through it, because he wasn’t going to damage it more. And of course we said, “Steph it’s your wrist, it’s your career, we’re not going to tell you what to do.” It just tells you how selfless the kid is. He’ll do anything for the team and anything for his friends, and it’s funny how the wrist healed on its own and halfway through the season he didn’t have to tape it, and of course the rest is history.
MATHENY: Steph wanted to play for the seniors. He wanted to give everything he had for them. When a guy is like that, when a guy is playing for you, then that sure makes you feel like you want to play for him, and that’s what you see now with the Warriors.
(Davidson won the Southern Conference again in 2007-08 and earned a No. 10 seed in the Midwest Regional, with its first two games in Raleigh, 156 miles east of campus. The Wildcats defeated No. 7 Gonzaga 82-76 in the first round and No. 2 Georgetown 80-74 in the second round. Curry scored 40 points on 14 of 22 shooting, with eight 3-pointers, against Gonzaga. He had 30 points and five assists in the upset of the Hoyas. Richards scored 35 points in the two games.
Davidson crushed No. 3 Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 at Ford Field in Detroit. Curry hit half his shots in the 17-point rout and poured in 33 points. Two days later, Kansas, with four future NBA players on the roster, forced Curry into 9 of 25 shooting, and his lowest-scoring output of the tournament - 25 points. On the final possession, Curry brought the ball up the court, a defender stopped him near the top-of-the-key, he passed to Richards who missed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer. It remains one of the best Cinderella runs in NCAA Tournament history and one of the top individual performances, impacted perhaps even more by Curry’s current status as arguably the best player in the world.)
RICHARDS: We kind of put Davidson on the map. The whole community and college enjoyed it with us.
MURPHY: I told my staff you need to stop and not be frenetic for just a few minutes and just look around at the arena. And let’s just take a minute and remember how this feels because it only happens once. You can’t replicate it in any other way and it was just very, very special and truly a surreal experience.
MATHENY: It is a very fantastic, wonderful memory that I think about from time to time and sets the standard for what we dream about here at Elon. Our dream is to be in the NCAA tournament and advance and make the Sweet 16 in that tournament. The memory I hold on to is the feeling after we beat Georgetown, leaving Raleigh heading back to Davidson, not caring who we were playing next.
McKILLOP: I’m forever getting emails and seeing pictures around the office. Those are magical memories that I will treasure forever.
MURPHY: He elevated our name recognition beyond anything we can do ourselves and it continues. How many other NBA players do they put the college in the story. What was interesting during the tournament, everybody told the same story that Davidson provided the balance between athletics and academics. That enhanced our brand. We probably wouldn't be in the Atlantic 10 without him.
BILAS: It’s just hard to wrap your head around how transcendent he’s been. He’s not just good. He’s historically good. On this pace he’ll be one of the best to ever play the game. It’s literally unbelievable. I’m struggling to find the words to explain how I feel about it. Who could have predicted this? Sometimes you’ll see a guy and you have an opinion on him as a player and you’ll regret it, think maybe I should’ve watched more. You could’ve looked at this forever and not seen this. This was not predictable.
MATHENY: If Steph plays at this level for a few more years, he’ll be arguably in the conversation of greatest player ever. He’ll be in the debate. It’s incredible what he’s doing. I think he’s the greatest shooter ever. I always thought Dell Curry was the greatest shooter ever, but (Steph’s) passed him. What he’s doing with his handle and passing the ball is extraordinary.
McKILLOP: He is the most visible alum in the history of Davidson College, that’s a pretty big mouthful to say when you’ve had a guy like (former U.S. Secretary of State) Dean Rusk here, when you’ve had as many college presidents and Rhodes Scholars, All-Americans and leaders in the academic world and business world. Because of the environment that we live in where there is so much media exposure and because of the stage that he’s on in the NBA night in and night out, I feel confident in making that statement that he’s the greatest ambassador and representative of Davidson College.
BILAS: The whole thing is unusual. You have to separate the NCAA tournament success from everything else. We’ve seen that before. That’s not unprecedented. He did that the year before he left. They had a really good team and he was by far the best player on that team. It’s really about him. The thing I think about sometimes is, what if he had been scouted better, or we had a crystal ball, and he’d gone to a big program? Would he have wound up in the same place? Would he have been able to be the show and be in the same place? Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a helluva interesting question.
In three seasons at Davidson, Curry scored 2,635 points for an average of 25.3 points per game. He hit 414 of 1004 3-pointers (41.2 percent), averaged 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He guided Davidson to an 85-23 overall record and a 55-3 conference mark. The Wildcats won the 2008-09 SoCon regular season title, but lost to College of Charleston in the semifinals of the conference tournament and were denied another NCAA tournament appearance. Curry entered the NBA Draft and the Golden State Warriors selected him seventh in the first round. The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with the fifth and sixth picks.