Steph Curry – the ‘everyday guy’ who defied the odds to triumph in the NBA
The young Curry was considered too small to succeed. His college coach thought differently
Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry speaks with Davidson head coach Bob McKillop prior to Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals in Oakland, California. Photograph: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
“I was shocked we were able to get him,” Bob McKillop says agreeably, recalling that strange thrilling moment when he – and probably he alone – understood that Steph Curry was the best-kept secret in all of basketball. The long-serving Davidson College head coach is in Barna on a bracing late May evening. The Galway village is the latest stop on a tour of Ireland he undertook with his wife, Cathy, and some friends including old basketball royalty.
Strolling across from the bar is Fred Hetzel, the number one pick in the NBA draft of 1965 and a former Los Angeles Lakers team-mate of Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain. Fred’s height is the abiding clue to that stratospheric basketball life: at 6ft 8in he is comfortably the tallest person in the room – and probably Connemara.
“Nineteen-sixty-five,” he emphasises with a laugh when asked about the year. “Not 1865.” Dick Snyder, another Davidson graduate and NBA veteran, is elsewhere. The friends had all spent a day together on the Aran Islands: a few photographs, a few Guinness, gulps of salt air.
McKillop was entertaining the idea of arriving back home to Charlotte on Wednesday, then flying to San Francisco to see Curry playing in game three of the NBA finals on Thursday and somehow making it back to give an alumni address and to greet some of his returning college players in Davidson on Friday afternoon. The logistics didn’t make sense. But after four decades of coaching basketball at all grades, McKillop wants to continue to bear witness as closely as possible to this, the otherworldly era of Steph Curry.
At 31, the slender, untouchable point guard for the Golden State Warriors has simply changed the way that people believe basketball can be played. He has redrafted the parameters of the sport through the finesse of his game and that unfathomable long-range shot.
“I had nothing to do with it,” McKillop says of the Curry three-point shot, likely to be launched anywhere past the half-court line.
“Dell Curry, his dad, was the teacher. Steph is the master. Dell was a great player with the Charlotte Hornets and he was a magnificent shooter. He taught Stephen how to raise the shot and they practised and practised. And practised. Stephen is an everyday guy. He is 6ft 2in and normal, and it’s not impossible to imagine yourself in his position.
“He plays with great joy. Stephen is a mischievous. He is fun loving and comical. Now he is shooting these shots and is on the global stage and everyone wants to be like Stephen Curry. He had the ability to live in the moment. He did not allow a missed shot to impact his next shot. He did not allow a bad play to impact his next play. He transcended time. Very few people can live in the moment. The greatest athletes have the capacity to do that. They can slow down everything for that precise moment they find themselves in.”
Like all truly inimitable specialists, Curry has inspired a million imitators. The freakish long-range three-point shots, the sleight-of-hand(s) trickery off the dribble, the uncanny feathery shots of the glass backboard are so thrilling and fun to behold that children learning the game want to “be” him. The best way to understand Curry’s omnipotence is to watch the opposition players defending him.
Almost all are bigger and stronger, most are faster, many are superior athletes but they are visibly tentative and inhibited by the fear of being left flatfooted by the sudden long-range bombs or looking foolish by the feinting, unorthodox array of dribble moves with which he has dazzled the game. That Curry was all but largely ignored by the elite colleges, considered too light and small to make that grade, has become one of the great moral lessons of world sport. He didn’t look the part.
“Yeah. He was baby-faced, skinny,” McKillop says. “The uniforms draped on you then and it made him look skinnier. In the NCAA rules, for the first month and half of school you could only work with three guys at a time. Up until October 15th you can only have three-man workouts and I saw him for those first two weeks.
“We were trying to promote the season and I told some alumni on phone calls that Stephen Curry was going to go down as one of the greats in Davidson basketball. That was before he had played a game. His work ethic, his sense of being a team-mate, his precision, his IQ and quick-twitch eyes and quick feet, his skill . . . it was connected. Everything about him was connected to excellence.”
By chance, McKillop first met Curry when he was an 11-year-old boy. Curry was on the same baseball team as his son Brendan and so they spent weekends driving to games across North Carolina. The preternatural hand-to-eye talent was there but it wasn’t until five years later that McKillop thought of him as a recruit for his basketball programme.
McKillop recruits on instinct. His current point guard is from Iceland. Famously, he invited Michael Bree, from Sligo town, over for trial after hearing good things about him and immediately threw him into the late stages of a game against Duke for his debut. “We’ve a better programme now than we had in ‘02. But I would take Michael again in the morning. Just tough as nails, mentally and physically.”
Curry succeeded Bree as the starting guard at Davidson. In McKillop, Curry found a perfect mentor: a 1950s childhood in Queens; a grounding in parish leagues and a Catholic education became the foundations for McKillop’s coaching manifesto. Over the years, he has learned to see himself as a kind of minister who happens to have basketball as a means to guide young men.
Curry has a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist that reads ‘TCC’. It’s McKillop’s motto: Trust, Commitment, Care. In a long ESPN piece written by Tom Junod to coincide with the Golden State Warriors’s return to the NBA finals, Curry responded with one word when asked what he had learned from McKillop: “Everything.”
Davidson is a small college with just 1,900 students and an academia-first emphasis for its scholarship athletes. In 2008, led by Curry, they became the fairytale story of the NCAA basketball tournament, streaking to the last eight of the competition before losing out to Kansas, the eventual winners, on a last-second shot. More than 53,000 people attended that game in Ford Field, Detroit. It was one of the big moments of the year in American sport.
By then Curry was an acknowledged phenomenon and went number seven in the NBA draft the following season. There was still a lingering scepticism over his physique. But his ascension has altered the national profile of McKillop, whose holistic approach now generates attention. When he decided to bring the current Davidson team to Auschwitz last summer, the Washington Post was invited to write an op-ed piece on his thinking.
“I’m a devout Roman Catholic and despite all the warts in our church there is a faith that I have that I can’t say anything about other than it is there,” he says. “What am I supposed to do? Walk away because certain people are bad people? Part of that faith has me believing that God had destined me to be a minister of kids. So whatever role you find yourself in you have to look at that as the role you are given.
“So this trip to Auschwitz is part of that. Every one of my players is like a son to me and I have to educate them as to how to navigate their journey to life. There was a Wall Street Journal piece that came out that 75 per cent of high school kids didn’t know what the holocaust was. In what went on in slavery in America, we do see that because there are so many visible, tangible, unpleasant historical aspects to it.
“But what is going on in Africa right now we don’t see. Or the sex trade in China we don’t see. And what went on with the Irish famine we do not see. So that trip had nothing to do with basketball. And they were drained by what they encountered but inspired as well.”
In the ESPN article, McKillop asks Tom Junod, who had been a student of his in high school, if he remembered a former athlete from that time named Tim Timlin. He brought it up because his mentoring of Timlin had bothered him for 40 years. Timlin was one of those athletic all-rounders who moved effortlessly from quarterback on the football team to go-to player on the basketball team.
“And in my immature judgment Tim pranced around like he was the greatest gift. He walked into the gym as the star quarterback. I wanted to test him. And I ran him. He didn’t want to continue running. But I made it like he wanted to quit and I locked him out of the gym. And his career ended as a basketball player. He was really good. One of the best seniors I had. But he never continued because I destroyed that.”
When Junod contacted Timlin, he found that the former player has a vivid recollection of the incident as well.
“And I called Tim three weeks before the article was published. I reached out and I apologised.”
It was one of his few regrets. By the time Curry dropped into his orbit, McKillop had come to see basketball as an expression of the better part of oneself. Right now, tonight, all around the world, the child in the back of the car on his way to forgotten baseball games, stands as the exemplar of that. McKillop is 69 years old and has met them all but still admits to getting the shivers when he hears the stadium announcement, “from Davidson, North Carolina”.
“He is an infomercial for us, every night. Conversely though, there are a lot of parents who think their son is the next Stephen Curry because their son is an everyday man and he made a couple of jump shots. There’s never going to be another Steph Curry. And I’d be foolish to try and search for one.”