Before he became a superstar with the Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry was a little-known basketball player who was trying to make a name for himself during his senior year at Charlotte Christian high school. The son of former NBA player Dell Curry, Steph was a scrawny teenager who stood 6’0 and weighed 160 pounds.
As a senior, Curry hoped to get a Division 1 scholarship to continue his career and showcase his phenomenal shooting ability. Curry was a 3-star recruit coming out of high school and didn’t’ end up pursued by many traditional NCAA basketball powerhouses.
Steph wound up accepting a scholarship close to home, joining the Davidson Wildcats, a school of just 1,700 students at the time, for the 2006-07 season.
By Curry’s sophomore year, Davidson’s basketball program was establishing itself at the national level. The Wildcats made it to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, where Steph’s All-Word performance introduced him to the world.
This is an oral history of the lead up to Curry’s explosion and the remarkable run Davidson went on in March of 2008.
I spoke with Davidson head coach Bob McKillop, assistant coach Jim Fox, teammates Jason Richards and Brendan McKillop, as well as former Georgetown player and current Denver Nuggets executive, Jon Wallace.
Curry’s high school days and commitment to Davidson
Curry had a fantastic run while at Charlotte Christian, helping the team to three conference championships, three state tournament appearances, and was named to the All-Conference and All-State teams. He reportedly only received a walk-on offer from his father’s alma mater, Virginia Tech University. Coach McKillop and coach Fox zeroed in on Steph as their top recruit.
Coach McKillop: I remember we went to his house on a midweek afternoon. Dell and Sonia were there. Matt Matheny, who is one of our assistant head coaches, and I sat down in his living room about 4:00 in the afternoon. And out of the blue, he gets up, maybe halfway through our presentation, and says, “I want to come to Davidson.” Matt and I drove home, and it was as if we didn’t need our car. We were sitting on a cloud that entire ride home. We both understood what he meant to our recruiting.
Coach Fox: Oh, it was awesome. I mean, we circled him as our top guy, felt he could be somebody that changes our program. At Davidson, at that point in time, we didn’t really recruit a lot from the area around Charlotte. Being able to get a guy like that, who’s kind of a hometown hero, getting him to come to Davidson was a huge win for us. When Steph said yes, there was a lot of good wine drank that night.
Coach McKillop: Some unsavory people in the Div. 1 ranks tried to get him to look elsewhere, to de-commit, so to speak, even though he has signed with us. But, with the honor and the integrity that the Curry family always has, they wanted none of that. They didn’t want to hear anything about it. I had the experience of going to an alumni luncheon in Charlotte, maybe in October, and boldly proclaim that Steph Curry was going to be one of the greats ever to play basketball at Davidson.
Coach Fox: I know SEC and ACC team coaches that were definitely trying to tell him, “hey, you don’t have to go there, even though you signed your letter of intent with Davidson, all you got to do is go to prep school for you get out of that.” So they were giving him the way to do it. And Coach McKillop, he’s a New York City guy, so he’s tough. He was ready to drive down to talk to these coaches. There was no doubt people were doing that. But the feeling that we had, was that Steph comes from a tremendous family, and he was excited to come to Davidson. And, you know, he really never wavered on that commitment.
Steph arrives on campus for his freshman season:
Richards: When he came in as a freshman, coach McKillop knew right away what Steph had in him. What we didn’t know and but we came to know, that is apparent now is that his work ethic was top-notch. That’s something that you don’t see every day as a freshman coming in at the collegiate level. He was a sponge to coach McKillop; he was a sponge to the rest of us who had been there and played two years of college basketball already. And he had a business-like work ethic, bring my hard hat and lunch pail to workouts, individuals, to practice every day. We knew he was going to be a very important piece to our success at Davidson even when he first stepped foot on campus.
Coach Fox: Before Steph came in, we graduated, I think seven seniors or maybe eight seniors, and I think they scored about 95% of the points. Davidson with Coach McKillop had been consistently good, near the top of the Southern Conference, so when some of those guys left — some really good players — people thought Davidson was going to die down.
Brendan McKillop: One thing I tell people about Steph is that he’s one of the most humble superstars I’ve ever crossed paths with. He’s a better person than he is a basketball player. I think that speaks volumes of his upbringing in his household and Mr. and Mrs. Curry, raising Steph and their children. Coming in, there was no entitlement. He had to come in and earn his spot. I think having the mentality he had is what made him even better. He was ready to get going right away.
Curry plays for Team USA in the summer after his freshman year and comes back a different player.
Davidson went 29-5 overall in Curry’s freshman year and lost in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Curry spent part of the summer playing with Team USA’s U-19 World Championship squad that earned a silver medal, playing alongside the likes of Patrick Beverley, De’Andre Jordan and Michael Beasley.
Coach Fox: I think what he was able to prove to himself is how good he could be with all those players on that under-19 team. Steph’s confidence just grew even more. Steph was never a vocal, you know, like in your face type of guy. But, the way he did things, the way he handled himself, you saw that he exuded confidence. When your best player works the hardest and exudes that kind of confidence. As a coach, and I’m sure coach McKillop will tell you this, you feel pretty good about your team.
Richards: His game changed significantly from his freshman to sophomore year in terms of what he was able to do on the basketball court. That summer, he went and played with Team USA. When he came back to campus and started working out again, and we’ll be replaying one-on-one, I mean, he was pretty much nearly impossible to stop. His game took a big leap, and I think that’s a lot of people have to understand is in the summertime, that’s when you make your progress as a player, and Steph made a huge jump.
The Wildcats see their potential and begin preparing for an extended run at the 2008 NCAA Tournament with a stacked non-conference schedule:
The Davidson players wanted to test themselves against the best teams in the nation. Coach McKillop obliged and set-up non-conference games against powerhouse programs.
Richards: His freshman, my junior year, we went to coach Coach McKillop and said, ‘you know, we want to play a tough schedule. We want to prepare ourselves for the NCAA Tournament.’ So that’s when coach and the staff at Davidson put together that non-conference schedule. We played North Carolina, played Duke, played NC State, played UCLA, which really prepared us for the NCAA Tournament down the road.
Coach McKillop: What those games taught us was that we could compete, and we can play with anybody. Those games were in Charlotte, the Duke and North Carolina games, and we were in both for the duration. We go out to Anaheim to play UCLA, and we jumped out to a 15 or 17-point lead. You have to realize how good UCLA was with Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison on the roster. After those three games and we had just tremendous confidence. Because we knew we were right there, we had terrific senior leadership. We had maturity. We had a tough-mindedness that I think is a unique skill for a team. It’s a skill and mental ability, but that tough-mindedness, I’m convinced, is one of the true tests of greatness. We had that, and of course, Stephen was the master of that.
Coach Fox: a lot of people thought Davidson has no shot of winning those games. And, you know, all of a sudden, you played North Carolina, and about two or three plays cost you the win. Our guys weren’t getting pats on the back during film study the next day; they’re getting their butts chewed out for the fact that we had a chance and blew it. Coach always called it to grab the golden ring and win a big game like those ones. But we didn’t make all the plays we needed to, and I think that really set the tone for the year.
The 2008 NCAA Tournament
The Wildcats finished the 2007-08 season 29-7 (20-0 in conference play) and were the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region. Davidson drew a first-round matchup against the seventh-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs led the Wildcats by 11 points in the second half, but Curry went off, bringing Davidson back from the dead. He hit the go-ahead bucket with 1:04 to go, on a play coach McKillop remembers fondly.
Coach McKillop: Three Gonzaga players, I think, went after Andrew Lovedale, our power forward. He just was relentless in going after that rebound, got the possession, and immediately looked to the arc for Steph. I think Steph had been going back on defense because he thought they would get the rebound, not realizing Andrew could actually get that board. Steph sprint’s from half-court to the arc, Andrew looks, which he did instinctively and habitually because all of our guys did, for Steph at the arc. He catches it in full-stride with a new shot clock. Do you think Steph’s going to say, “okay, let’s hold it out, call a play and get a great shot?” No, he just fired it in. And that was us, that was Steph, and that was what we call a dagger.
Steph hit eight-of-10 3-point attempts in the second half, pouring in 30 out of his 40 points over the final 20 points as Davidson went on to an 82-76 win.
Richards: With this quarantine that’s going on, I actually popped in a couple of the old tapes a while ago just to kind of buy some time because there’s not much going on. But I mean, even if I didn’t watch those games, I could tell you just there’s the thing about Steph is that any moment of time, we knew that he could string multiple baskets together and get us on a roll just because of his knack for scoring. So no matter what the deficit that we had, we knew we could get out of it. As a point guard, you got to have a feel for who you need to get the ball to, and obviously, Steph started to get it rolling. At that point, it was all right, “let’s get him the ball.”
Brendan McKillop: I was kind of just trying to enjoy the ride, and I was out of the regular rotation as a freshman. So I knew going into those games, the likelihood of getting on the court was slim to none. I kind of watched those games almost as just a fan. Knowing Steph, we played baseball together when we were growing up and knew each other from the time we were nine. Seeing a guy I knew most of my life, playing for the team I loved, and then being able to be a part of it even though I wasn’t necessarily on the court for those minutes. It was just really special. And again, to us, it wasn’t a surprise. We’ve seen what he was capable of over those past two years. It’s hard to really describe how it felt.
Next up for the Wildcats was a date with the No. 2 seeded Georgetown Hoyas, who had made it to the Final Four the year before. The game was played in North Carolina, giving Davidson home-court advantage.
Coach Mckillop: It was Easter Sunday. I went to mass before the game and said a little prayer. They had Doc Rivers’ son. They had Patrick Ewing’s son and Roy Hibbert, who was a first-round pick, and a host of other outstanding players.
It was close through the opening 10 minutes, but the Hoyas began imposing their will over the final eight-and-a-half minutes, taking an 11-point lead into the break. Davidson’s deficit found itself down 46-29 just over two minutes into the second half.
Coach Fox: Georgetown presented a lot of different challenges. The one thing we did was that we made a huge adjustment, X’s and O’s wise; we wanted to speed them up a little bit. We kind of pressured them just to where we just tried to get the ball out of their point guard’s hands. That was a big adjustment that we made. I think it sped them up a little bit.
Richards: We knew how talented they were. But the other thing is, they were big. They were a lot taller than us at every position. However, basketball is a game of runs. They’re going to go on their run, we’re going to go on our run, but no matter what, we can’t let the deficit kind of derail us from the way we play Davidson basketball. Coach called a timeout when we’re down 17. He got us in the huddle and just kind of said, “hey, just smile, have fun, because that’s what it’s all about.” I think he kind of lifted a weight off our shoulders at that point to where we started to chip away possession after possession.
Coach McKillop: Matt (Matheny) suggested at halftime that we go back to pressuring, which we had not used at all in the first half. We use the pressure and that kind of invited them into shooting quick 3s. It kind of broke down their rhythm.
Curry spearheaded a 16-2 run that saw him complete a four-point play, connect on a 3-pointer and then finish off a three-point play that gave Davidson a 60-58 lead, its first since the opening minute of the game.
Coach McKillop: They would shoot a quick-3, and we get a run out lay-up. Shoot a quick-3, we would come down, and Steph would make one from deep. The pivotal 3 Steph made was at the top of the key. He drew a foul on it. He makes that 3, and what was critical about it, is that it got the lead into single digits. So it gave us hope.
Richards: When we started to chip away and make our run, the entire arena started cheering for us. When you see Steph has that look in his eye and continue to just a shot-after-shot, it was only a matter of time that we got back in the game. And once again, Steph took over down the stretch. Everyone on our team had an integral part in their roles and winning those games. Steph is the most important part. But everyone had a part in winning those games, which was just incredible.
Wallace (played for the Hoyas and had 12 points in the game): We saw how Steph led the comeback the game before against Gonzaga. It was one of the things where we lost focus. Roy Hibbert got into foul trouble that game. But you can’t just discredit the way Steph played. He shot the ball amazingly. It was just a matter of if you shoot enough, they’re going to start going in. Then just a couple of tough shots he hit, you can’t describe that as well. So it just kind of worked out in their favor.
After pulling off a second-consecutive upset, Davidson was set to take on the third-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in the Sweet 16.
Coach Fox: Our guys were ready for a battle against a good team, against a really well-coached team on an incredible stage. It was Ford Field (home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions). It was pretty awesome on those raised up courts that you see all the time now at NCAA Tournaments.
Coach McKillop: In the lead up to the game, the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big-10 said he was going to leave Stephen breathless that he was going to defend him and press him. And it egged me on to get kind of extra motivated. And as we’re walking off the court after our first warm-up, this guy is in front of me, and he’s doing flips, I mean legitimate flips, that you see gymnasts do as he’s walking into the locker room.
It was a close contest through the first 20 minutes and the game was tied 36-36 going into the break. Davidson took over at the beginning of the second half, going on a 24-9 run to open up a 15-point lead.
Coach McKillop: Now we’re in the memory bank, and we’re saying we’re even with Wisconsin; we were down double digits against Gonzaga. We were down double digits at half time against Georgetown. In both games, we played our best basketball in the second half, and we’re going to be okay. And we go out on the first play, and I’ll never forget this. They miss a shot. Steph gets the rebound, takes one dribble and throws it on the money, like a Tom Brady pass to Thomas Sander in full sprint, he shoots the layup and gets fouled. Three-point play, and we never look back.
Richards: We went into halftime with Wisconsin tied. And I think that was a little different than our past two games. Against Gonzaga, we were down. Georgetown, we were down. But against Wisconsin, we were tied, and I felt like we felt pretty confident we could win. Even as good as Wisconsin was defensively, we were able to get the shots that we want to get on offense, which is just a kind of soothing feeling, and that is that when we were writing our plays, we’re getting the ball where we wanted to. Having that confidence going the second half and then once again, Steph went on a flurry to kind of open it up to nine points.
Curry finished the game with 33 points, leading the Wildcats to a 73-56 victory.
Coach Fox: Wisconsin that whole time said, “we shut down this guy, we’re winning the game.” All of a sudden, no matter what they do, no matter how hard they try, they’re unable to do it. That is demoralizing, that eats at you a little bit, they start getting tighter. Then, led by Steph, we just got on a wave, and that wave kept on going in that second half.
Brendan McKillop: I don’t want to keep saying the word surreal, but it was. I actually watched this game from start to finish for the first time at the beginning of the pandemic. I don’t know how I never watched it. But it was kind of just a wave of Steph. The way that that run happened, we’re even a couple of minutes into the second half. It was a close game. And then, all of a sudden, before you know it, it was 15 points. It was like we just smacked them in the face. I think for them, it was probably very deflating. And for us, on the bench just sitting there in awe of what he was doing. Also, of what Jason Richards was doing, I think he had 13 assists, no turnovers and just the overall team effort. Having the crowd behind us at Ford field, it was just an incredible feeling to be there and see it all happening.
The Elite 8 matchup against the No. 1 ranked Jayhawks
Coach McKillop: There was a calm, there was a peace that we had the entire time. We never had such a calming and peaceful feeling as we prepared for Kansas. Believe me; we were realistic; we saw that roster, we watched their tape. Our assistant coaches were spectacular in the way they prepared us. Matt Matheny and Jim Fox were absolutely spectacular.
Coach Fox: They were the last game of the day on Friday. We stayed late Friday, just the coaches, to watch Kansas play. I was doing the scout for the Kansas game, and I’m watching them beat Villanova by I think 30, so I’m literally scared to death.
Brendan McKillop: After beating Gonzaga, beating Georgetown and beating Wisconsin, we were like, “man, we can beat these guys.” Watching Kansas film, and just kind of being in awe of their size and athleticism. They had a lot of abilities, from the talent on their team that we didn’t have. We knew the only way to compete with them was just to play our game stick, to our principles.
Both teams went blow-for-blow throughout the contest. Davidson held a 49-45 lead after Bryant Barr, who remains one of Curry’s closest friends, connected from deep. However, the Jayhawks went on a run of their own and held a six-point lead with just over a minute to go.
The Wildcats weren’t dead yet. Thomas Sander was fouled with 58 seconds left on the clock. He hit his first free-throw, and missed the second, leading to an offensive rebound by Davidson. Four seconds later, Richards found Curry for a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 59-57.
Sherron Collins missed on a 3-point attempt during Kansas’ next possession, setting up a wild final possession for the Wildcats.
The Jayhawks switched every screen that was set for Curry, giving him little-to-no space to even possess the ball. Coach McKillop knew he had to get his superstar a touch with the game on the line.
Coach McKillop: They were doubling Steph every time he touched the ball in the half-court, so he hadn’t really possessed the ball in roughly six minutes. Our feeling was that, “man we got to get Steph the ball, if we don’t have him touch the ball on the way up the court, he might not get it back.”
Everyone knew where the ball was going, including the Jayhawks, who double-teamed Curry. Steph found one of his most trusted teammates for the final shot.
Richards’ game-winning 3-point attempt was off, ending Davidson’s Cinderella run in the Elite Eight.
Richards: It’s disappointing because we wanted to win the game. That was the overall goal as a team. So when the shot didn’t go in, I was just thinking about the game. You think what if I did this on this possession and that possession?
Coach McKillop: My regret on that situation was that I did not remind our guys that if they overplayed, to go back door. Let me tell you this, Jason Richards made that shot countless times in practice, that same shot, when we went through the situation in practice, some of it live, some of it simulated. Take that shot again, and Jason Richards makes it any day of the week.
Brendan McKillop: Going into the locker room after that, and just like the range of emotions, you know we tried to understand how great what we had accomplished was, but also, you know, everyone was heartbroken, and we fully expected to win that game.
Curry’s individual 2008 NCAA Tournament numbers are ridiculous. He averaged 32 points, 3.5 assists and 3.2 steals while shooting 44% from beyond the arc over those magical four games. Even though Davidson fell short of the Final Four, Curry was named the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament’s Midwest Region.
Curry played one more season with the Wildcats before becoming the ninth-overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Since then, Steph has grown into a global superstar who captured two NBA MVPs and three championships over the next 10 years.
Coach McKillop: Stephen started on a Community House stage, a local community stage. Then he moved to a big city stage, then moved to an off-Broadway stage. Well, now he’s on a Broadway stage. I liken him to a great Broadway performer. Every time he’s been put on the stage in a pivotal role, he has taken that play, that musical, that drama, that comedy, whatever it might be, he has taken it from Podunk Town America to big city America to Broadway. I’m a New York guy, so Broadway, to me, is the most important. It’s the pinnacle. And Steph played that role and got better and better at that role. But that play also got better because Stephen played the lead role.
Coach Fox: I love going out to the Bay Area to watch him play. You watch him be Steph Curry, the world superstar. You watch him handle himself with the media and the people and the fans. But when you go back home to his house after the game, he’s the same Steph that was joking in your office 10-15 years ago. He’s still the same person. And just like when he was at Davidson, he’s a superstar, but he was just a normal guy, and nothing’s changed.
Richards: From Davidson to where he is now, I’d be lying to you If I said we all thought this was going to happen. We knew he was a special talent. We knew he was going to play in the NBA. We knew he would have a long career, but to see him continue to grow and master his craft, it’s fun to watch. I think the one thing that’s great about Steph is how he is such a great person. He never forgot where he came from.
Brendan McKillop: I think for anyone to project for him to have the success he’s had, I don’t think that would be possible. He’s just on another level in there. I mean, he’s had a couple of injuries over the past few years. But there has 100% been moments where he was the best basketball player on the planet, which is just mind-blowing to be able to say that.