Life After Stephen Curry…
This story isn’t about Stephen Curry.
This story is about moving forward, appreciating what once was and finding inspiration to continue the tradition.
It had been nearly 40 years since Davidson College had truly been relevant to basketball fans before Stephen Curry came along. The glory days of back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in 1968 and 1969 under Lefty Driesell and Terry Holland had long since faded. The team was something of a prehistoric Gonzaga back then, the little team from the Southern Conference making all that noise with the bigger programs. The 1960′s were the best of times for the Wildcats: five regular season conference championships, three NCAA Tournament berths, three All-American selections and six consecutive seasons ranked in the AP Poll, including four times in the top ten.
Then the school slipped from memory. Sure, there were a handful of first round exits from the NCAA Tournament over the next several decades, but Davidson was nothing more than that double-digit mid-major seed that gets eliminated in brackets before the game is even played. That all changed the day that a rail thin, boyish looking assassin from North Carolina put on a red and white uniform for the first time and put an entire program, an entire community on his narrow shoulders.
Maybe we should have seen it coming because his father was NBA gunner Dell Curry. Maybe we should have seen it coming when he demolished Michigan for 32 points in only his second collegiate game. The glimpses were there, but the meteoric rise of the tiny liberal arts school led by a modern day Pistol Pete could never have been anticipated. Curry may not have been an innovator or a dominant physical presence in the game, but his nightly displays of shredding opposing defenses captured a nation’s imagination. Suddenly the media was descending on this little school of 1,700 students tucked away just north of Charlotte, wanting to know more about the team and capture this budding star in action.
Then, seemingly as quickly as it all happened, the ride ended. Curry is beginning his career in California with the Golden State Warriors and the quiet campus of Davidson has returned to its traditional state – and that is where this story begins.
When Davidson takes the floor for its season opener at Butler next Saturday there will be little fanfare for the visiting team. There will be no swarm of reporters, there will be no ESPN cameras and the five-second attention span of this country’s interest in the latest media darling will have moved elsewhere. All that means for 21st-year head coach Bob McKillop is earning praise and attention the old fashioned way – the end result.
“You had a player that was so wonderful to watch, so talented, so engaging and so charismatic,” McKillop says of Curry. “That player has left, so what is there that is going to attract people – we have to win, that’s the bottom line.”
Most aren’t expecting the victories to come as free flowing as they have in each of the last two seasons when the Wildcats won a combined 56 games. Davidson was projected to finish third in the Southern Conference’s South Division, receiving just one first place vote after having won the division each of the last three years.
No one around the program is surprised by the lowered expectations after losing Curry who led the nation in scoring as a junior. Rather than focusing on the tremendous void that will have to be collectively filled by the returning members of the roster, many of Davidson’s players are looking at this season as a chance to once again prove their doubters wrong.
“Obviously with Steph here the last couple of years there have been a tremendous amount of expectations,” says senior guard Bryant Barr. “When he declared for the draft those expectations for this season went right out the window. We have no pressure on us, we’re not supposed to be any good in conference, we’re supposed to be a lot worse of a team now that he’s gone. In one sense that’s nice to not have any weight on our shoulders, but we feel like we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Barr states that the strength of this team which used to be the explosive scoring of their star guard, will now lie with the tremendous cohesiveness the team developed in the off-season. Davidson took a two week trip to Italy this summer where the team had an opportunity to get a jump on practice time while also competing against professional teams from several different countries. The experience helped to solidify a unit that had already been exceedingly close as a result of the improbable run of the previous two years.
Still, the challenge for this Davidson team will be quickly adapting to life after Curry and learning how to redefine the roles of each player. While many of the returning upperclassmen were often relegated to the supporting cast over each of the previous two seasons, there was never a sense of division on the team. Senior swingman Will Archambault says that it was the desire to put the team and the program first before personal gains that led to the storybook run for the Wildcats.
“We knew we were a team and we all had our roles, there was never any resentment of Steph,” Archambault says. “Whether your job was to be a practice player or anything else, we knew that you helped the team reach where we did.”
“Steph is going to be irreplaceable. He’s a great guy, a great teammate and a great player. But the fact that he brought leadership to the team and he always knew how to act on and off the court benefitted us a lot.”
And the reverberations of that presence are something that will be felt for quite a while according to those around the program. Recruiting has benefitted greatly, with a solid freshman core joining the team this year, including top-50 shooting guard JP Kuhlman. As a whole the school has benefitted from Curry’s star power as well, reporting a record number of student applicants for entrance into the school following the 2008 Elite Eight run.
The immediate success of the basketball program in the Stephen Curry-era are a great source of pride for all involved, but Bob McKillop knows from his more than two decades of coaching that the true mark of greatness will be the ability to extend the accomplishments in a post-Curry world. No easy task.
“That’s the hardest thing for a program at the mid-major level to do, stay consistent and endure year after year,” McKillop says. “That’s what makes those BCS programs as great as they are. They have the advantage of the BCS tag, the exposure and the recruiting that we don’t have. We’re constantly in a fight to keep our head above water.”
McKillop is quick to praise Curry for his dynamic – albeit short lived – presence at Davidson. While he points out that the balanced offensive attack the team will feature this season will ensure that players aren’t left watching the action (much as they did when Curry was at work), he knows that the current NBA rookie has forever written his name in college basketball lore while giving his school everything he had.
“He’s given himself and there’s no greater gift – he gave himself completely to Davidson,” McKillop says. “He wore it on his heart, he still carries with him out in California and he keeps in touch with our players. His presence will hang over this program for my lifetime and lifetimes beyond. He left an indelible mark that will be with us and he gave hope to guys who are in our program now. He is a burning torch that will stay forever burning bright in our program, with our players, our fans and our college.”
Those closest to the program will continue to support with a diehard passion the team that took them on a miraculous two-year journey. Whether or not it will be another 40 years before Davidson makes its mark again and whether or not they fade back into obscurity is still unanswered. But that isn’t what this story is about. It is about what one player gave to a team, to a school and the legend that will continue to grow the further removed from it we become.
No this wasn’t a story about Stephen Curry – not entirely. It was about life after the man who put Davidson back on the map and keeping that dream alive.