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Witness: That time LeBron James came to watch Davidson sophomore Stephen Curry play

NBA star Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers signals a 3-pointer by Davidson Wildcats guard Stephen Curry as fans celebrate during the second half of a victory over N.C. State at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte in 2008. Curry scored 44 points that day.
NBA star Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers signals a 3-pointer by Davidson Wildcats guard Stephen Curry as fans celebrate during the second half of a victory over N.C. State at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte in 2008. Curry scored 44 points that day. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The rumors reached Ford Field long before NBA star LeBron James did. LeBron had been saying nice things about Stephen Curry, Davidson’s sophomore star, and he might show up to watch Curry in the 2007-08 Midwest Regional against Wisconsin.

To get to Detroit, the 10th-seeded Wildcats had beaten seventh-seeded Gonzaga and second-seeded Georgetown. Davidson is a small school full of smart students, and in 2008 the Wildcats featured an excellent basketball coach and a charismatic leader. Curry, who plays the game with a smile, had scored 40 points against Gonzaga and 30 against Georgetown.

If fans were captivated, perhaps LeBron would be, too. And his Cleveland Cavaliers were in Detroit for a game that night against the Pistons.

Not long before tipoff, the heads of some of the more than 57,000 fans in the building began to turn. In the center of an entourage of about 10 was LeBron.

Davidson coach Bob McKillop had no idea LeBron was there.

“We didn’t notice him,” says Jason Richards, then the Wildcats’ very good senior point guard. “Because of coach McKillop we were so focused we didn’t know he was there until after the game.”

John Kilgo noticed. Kilgo, who did and does play-by-play for Davidson’s radio network, is an excellent journalist. But you don’t have to be an excellent journalist to realize LeBron would be an acceptable halftime guest. Since Kilgo was working he sent somebody across the court to ask LeBron if he’d talk about Curry. LeBron told whomever Kilgo sent that he didn’t do radio.

You don’t tell John Kilgo you don’t do radio. Kilgo crossed the court and recruited LeBron. Kilgo admitted that he worked for what probably was the smallest radio station in the building. Because he’d heard LeBron was a big Michael Jordan fan, Kilgo mentioned that he had done broadcast work with Jordan and Dean Smith at North Carolina.

LeBron said he’d think about it and let Kilgo know five minutes before halftime. Five minutes before halftime a note was delivered. LeBron would do the show.

Even then, LeBron knew

I was sitting next to Kilgo and had no idea how much space LeBron required until he sat. Kilgo was neither nervous nor intimidated by his famous guest, and within seconds they talked as if they were friends.

This will sound ludicrous, but at the time the question was whether Curry was good enough to play at Virginia Tech or in the ACC. Almost nobody talked about whether the slender and smallish Curry was good enough to play in the NBA.

“LeBron said Steph had a chance to play in the NBA,” says Kilgo. “And that when he did he would improve his shooting and his ball handling.”

That will be obvious Thursday, when Curry’s Golden State Warriors open the NBA Finals against LeBron’s Cavaliers. LeBron is the best player in the world and Curry this season was the most valuable player in the NBA.

But back in Detroit, LeBron was 23 and Curry had turned 20 only two weeks earlier. That afternoon is when their relationship began.

“I think halftime lasted 20 minutes because it took players so long to get from the locker room to the court,” says Kilgo. “We had LeBron on for all but about three minutes. He had some of his entourage with him and they kept saying ‘last question, last question.’ But LeBron ignored them. He was absolutely delightful.”

So was Curry. He scored 33 points, many on passes from Richards. The Wildcats beat Wisconsin by 17.

“After the game, we thought it was pretty special that the guy who would be the best basketball player in the world came to watch us,” says Richards, now video coordinator and director of analytics for the Pittsburgh Panthers’ basketball team.

Two days later Kansas, the eventual champion, ended Davidson’s season, beating the Wildcats by two.

LeBron’s visit

Davidson went home. Three days after the Kansas loss the Cavaliers played the Bobcats in Time Warner Cable Arena.

Curry, Richards and teammates Bryant Barr and Steve Rossiter had tickets. When they walked into the arena fans stood and cheered. Curry signed autographs in the concourse and upstairs at the long media table where they sat. Finally, security joined them.

After one basket LeBron pointed to Curry, and after the game the Davidson players went to Cleveland’s locker room.

“LeBron was talking about our run and he congratulated us college kids,” says Richards, who still sounds impressed.

Why wouldn’t he be? LeBron scored 29 in Cleveland’s 118-114 victory. Yet he wanted to talk not about his work but about the work of the Wildcats.

“I thank Steph every day for being good,” Richards says.

A second viewing

On Dec. 7, 2008, Curry and LeBron returned to the arena. Davidson played N.C. State during the day and Cleveland played the Bobcats that night.

LeBron texted Curry and told him he might show up. But he has a routine that revolves around a pregame nap. Thirty minutes before tip-off LeBron decided to watch Curry, and somehow was able to find a courtside seat. LeBron cheered throughout and even leaned on officials, whom he had decided were pro-N.C. State and anti-Curry.

With 90 seconds remaining the Wildcats were up by a point. Curry, who at that juncture had scored 39, found Will Archambault alone in the left corner. Archambault’s shot hit nothing but air and the shot clock continued to run.

The Wildcats flung the ball around the perimeter and, because Davidson is a fine academic institution, got it to Curry. Curry had to get a shot up immediately. He took an awkward off-balance, high-arcing fadeaway that should not have gone in. It went in.

LeBron stood up, jumped up, took several steps and thrust both arms in the air. As Curry ran down the court he pointed at LeBron. Curry would finish with 44 points and his team would win by five.

Did Bob McKillop, Davidson’s coach, notice LeBron that afternoon?

“I did become aware of him,” McKillop says.

I ask him who his LeBron was. That is, when McKillop played college ball first at East Carolina and then Hofstra, who was the NBA player he most would have noticed at courtside.

“Walt Frazier or Bill Bradley,” McKillop says about his hometown New York Knicks. “But they never went to my games.”

Trip of a lifetime

Richards still goes to Curry’s. He’ll fly from Pittsburgh to San Francisco on Thursday and watch games one and two of the Finals. He’ll leave Sunday on a 10:45 p.m. flight, land in Pittsburgh at 6:15 a.m., work with players individually at 7:30 a.m. and work a basketball camp at 9 a.m.

On Tuesday, he’ll make the two-hour drive to Cleveland for Game 3. He’ll drive home and return to Cleveland Thursday for Game 4.

This, I tell him, is a once in a lifetime trip.

“I know,” says Richards. “It’s going to be fun.”

The two best players in the NBA this season will share the court, and those of us in and around Charlotte will feel as if we’re along for the ride.

Jason Richards, how big is your car? 

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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