The Year of Magical Shooting
How Stephen Curry became a basketball folk hero.
The Curry phenomenon has unfolded in similar fashion. His story has been worn mostly smooth by now. Everyone knows about his father, former NBA gunner Dell Curry; about his mother, Sonya, the woman often captured by cameras during games doing the last scene from Madame Butterfly; about last year's NCAA Tournament, when he poured in almost 32 points a game in four contests, three of them upsets and the last a two-point loss to eventual champ Kansas; about the 1,200 percent increase in transfer inquiries to the Davidson admissions office after the team's Elite Eight run and about his "recession-proof" stardom; about the inscription on his shoe that is taken from Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me," only it seems Curry ran out of sneaker and wrote instead, with more balls than piety, "I can do all things ..."
Despite the wide proliferation of these details, the legend of Stephen has been helped along by the fact that it was built largely behind our backs, at a tiny school in an out-of-the-way conference that gets only occasional notice from ESPN. Curry wasn't ruined by premature ubiquity. He is the closest thing we have today to a species that has become extinct in the age of sports television: the star who came from nowhere. It's worth considering how we'd feel about, say, J.J. Redick had he, too, been found deep in the bulrushes.
Which is why, to my mind, the defining Curry moment came this season, in a game no one watched against Loyola of Maryland. It wasn't just the fact that Loyola's coach, Jimmy Patsos, elected to double-team Curry whether or not he had the ball, or that Curry decamped to the corner on every possession, taking all of three shots and going contentedly scoreless, or even that Davidson, effectively playing 4-on-3, won by 30. It was also the fact that the game took place in a land beyond ESPN, which made it seem all the more unbelievable, like something from another era. A few days later, in response to the pasting he took in the media and the praise lavished on Curry's unselfishness, Patsos wrote a letter that should be filed away in the epistolary pantheon somewhere between St. Paul and Jack the Ripper. "As an American," he snarked, "I wish we had leaders like [Davidson coach Bob] McKillop and Curry, who could have gotten the CIA and FBI to talk so we could have prevented the 9-11 tragedy, or saw that Fannie Mae was creating a mortgage crisis coming which could cripple a country."
Since then, Davidson has been exposed against decent competition as a solo act, though it's a wonder anyone who watched the Wildcats ever felt otherwise. (Curry aside, they look for all the world like a team of coaches' kids.) Still, there was palpable sadness in the hoops world when Davidson effectively eliminated itself from tournament consideration, dropping a listless, heavy-legged game to the College of Charleston in the Southern Conference semifinals this past weekend. In the aftermath, Deadspin fought down the lump in its throat and asked gravely, as if the kid had a busted fetlock and laminitis, "Is This the End of Stephen Curry?" Mother of mercy!
But it is indeed a sad state of affairs when college basketball's most exciting player is forced to spend his March in the decidedly off-Broadway NIT, relegated to the outer provinces of basic cable. He will be worth watching, even there. In fact, if geography permits, I'd urge you to see him live, which is always the best way to see folk heroes. I watched him against West Virginia, in the midst of a massive and boisterous walk-up crowd on a night when Madison Square Garden for once earned the right to call itself a basketball mecca. Fans yelled "Shoot!" every time he touched the ball, and more often than not he would do so, sometimes from roughly the Palisades, sometimes with the West Virginia defense draped around his shoulders like a shawl, and everyone cheered the minor miracle of his even squeezing off an attempt. Then came his shimmying little flick of a crossover, and his defender was on his heels, and the fans were on their toes. We all said "Shoot!" and he did, and for a moment it was like a great big magic act everyone was in on.