DAVIDSON Stephen Curry won't fool anyone with that baby face this season.
Neither will the Davidson Wildcats. Davidson – after an astonishing appearance in the Elite Eight of last season's NCAA tournament – has arrived at an extraordinary moment. Davidson enters the 2008-09 season as one of college basketball's hunted teams, ranked No.20 in both major preseason polls and boasting a preseason All-American in the wondrous Curry.
Davidson coach Bob McKillop has encouraged his team to embrace the high expectations, which exist even though Davidson lost three of its top four players to graduation and will switch Curry from shooting guard to point guard.
But McKillop has also warned his team that it is destined for disappointment unless it pushes relentlessly.
“We can't fall in love with our success,” said McKillop, entering his 20th season as Davidson's coach. “As soon as we do something like that, we're writing our own obituary.”
The small Davidson community, 20 miles north of Charlotte, has embraced McKillop's teams for years. But no previous season has been this highly anticipated.
The season ticket base has doubled in the span of a few months – from 2,000 last season to 4,000. Every Davidson home game will likely be a sellout at 5,219-seat Belk Arena. And on Davidson's tiny main street, in coffee shops and diners, talk about the upcoming season predominates.
“The basketball team energized the whole town last year,” said Misty Utech, general manager of The Soda Shop, which specializes in milkshakes and sweet potato fries. “And now everyone here wants the new season to hurry up and start. From what I'm hearing, most people in the community expect that the team will do even better this year.”
For that to happen, Wardell Stephen Curry II would need another remarkable season.
It was Curry – a 20-year-old junior with the sweetest jump shot in college basketball – who became a celebrity following the NCAA tournament last season. He appeared on Conan O'Brien's talk show and at the ESPYs. In April, more than 10,000 people asked him electronically to “friend” them on Facebook.
When Curry and teammate Bryant Barr went to Myrtle Beach this summer, they stopped at Fuddruckers to eat.
“At least 10 people came up to the table for his autograph,” said Barr, who should start alongside Curry in Davidson's backcourt. “I was just sitting there laughing. All these people had no idea I'm even on the team, but I felt for Steph. He was just trying to eat a cheeseburger.”
On Davidson's campus, where Curry says he knows most of the 1,700 other students by name, he is almost immune from autograph-seekers. But not quite.
“Sibling birthdays,” said Curry, whose first name is pronounced STEFF-en but who is called “Steph” by most everyone. “That's what I get approached about most – to sign something for someone's little brother.”
Said Barr, who has lived with Curry on campus all three years: “The juniors and seniors are used to Steph and treat him like a normal kid. The freshmen? They treat him like he's Michael Jordan.”
The kid next door
Curry has handled the acclaim with grace. He watched his father Dell treat people kindly for years as a jump-shooting icon for the Charlotte Hornets.
When Dell and Stephen Curry were together earlier this week, a kid approached Stephen for his autograph and was thrilled upon receiving it. Then, as Dell remembered it, the kid looked at Stephen's father, sighed and said: “OK – let me get your autograph, too. My dad says you were pretty good.”
Much of Stephen Curry's fame came due to 10 dizzying days in March, when he averaged 32 points over four NCAA tournament games. Davidson pulled three straight upsets – over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin – before falling by two points to eventual national champion Kansas and barely missing the Final Four.
Part of Curry's allure comes from his appearance. His teammates revel in finding pictures of him and proclaiming to Curry: “You still look like you're 12!”
Because Curry seems so much the kid next door, what he does seems all the more otherworldly. If Curry stays for four seasons at Davidson, he has a shot to be the second-leading scorer in NCAA history, trailing only Pete Maravich.
Curry didn't seriously think about turning pro after his sophomore season, but that decision will be very much in play after his junior year. “I'll wait until the last whistle blows after this season and then figure it out,” he said.
Michael Kruse, a Davidson graduate and St. Petersburg Times reporter, spent much of the past year writing a soon-to-be-published book about Davidson's 2007-08 team. He said he believes that while Curry is the “entry point” for most who have recently experienced Davidson basketball for the first time, the program's bedrock is McKillop.
“Generally, if you have the sort of success that Davidson has, your coach leaves,” Kruse said. “Because McKillop has stayed, that led to this sort of seamlessness in the relationship between the school and the town. McKillop is as much a citizen of Davidson as he is the coach of the basketball team.”
McKillop lives 2/10 of a mile from campus in the town of Davidson (pop. 9,600). He has one son on the team (Brendan) and another on his coaching staff (Matt). McKillop loves the fact that he has to go to the town post office to pick up his own mail.
“This town is like one of those great TV shows from the 1950s,” McKillop said. “You keep expecting somebody from ‘Leave it to Beaver' to walk off the set and down Main Street.”
But life won't be a sitcom for McKillop this season. The team loses point guard Jason Richards – the national leader in assists in 2007-08 – as well as two underrated post players in Boris Meno and Thomas Sander. Davidson is expected to rule the Southern Conference again, but will be undersized as usual when facing out-of-conference opponents like Duke and N.C. State.
‘The little details'
McKillop's preseason practices have been extremely intense. On Wednesday night at 9, Curry was playing his new position of point guard in an intrasquad scrimmage. He bypassed a couple of easy passes, tried an alley-oop instead and saw it intercepted.
McKillop stopped practice.
“You didn't throw those first two passes so you could throw that?!” McKillop thundered at Curry. “C'mon!”
Always a quick study, Curry didn't make a single turnover the rest of practice. Curry doesn't have Richards' unerring skill as a decision-maker, but he can make up for it by threading his way through defenses.
The question for Davidson this season will be if the Wildcats can make open shots when Curry is double-teamed.
Listed at 6-3, Curry is realistically at least an inch shorter than that. He does look more muscular. Other components of his game appear exactly the same, like the quick-release 3-pointer that lured NBA star LeBron James to Detroit during the NCAA tournament “to watch the kid,” as James said.
Curry still inks Biblical scripture on his shoes with a black Sharpie before every game. He has a single tattoo now on the inside of his left wrist – TCC 30. That stands for “Trust Commitment Care” – a team motto – along with his uniform number.
Curry's parents won't be in the stands as often this season. Their other son, Seth, is a freshman point guard at Liberty, and they plan to see him a lot. Seth was not recruited by many traditional powers because they thought he was too small (sound familiar?) He scored 28 points in a controlled scrimmage against East Carolina recently, according to Dell Curry.
Davidson actually decreased capacity this season, from 5,800 to 5,219, by adding 1,200 chair-back seats where bleachers used to be. Tickets at Davidson remain a bargain – you can buy a single-game bleacher seat for $14, or $7 for a child 12 or under – if you can get them.
“We've been able to expand our reach,” said James Hendricks, Davidson's director of ticketing. “We always thought it was a win for us if we were getting fans from Charlotte to come up I-77. Now we are getting some alums in Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia driving to games, thinking it's worthwhile to spend a couple of hours in a car to come see us.”
The players – emboldened by their success last season and McKillop's trial-by-fire practice methods – believe they can do it again.
Said Max Paulhus Gosselin, the team's defensive stopper: “We want to compete harder. To go even further. We realize here it's not the big play to win the game, it's all the little details. Of course, that's all easy to say when you have Steph Curry on your team.”
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; email@example.com.
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