August 20, 2008 was move-in day for 465 freshmen at Davidson College.
As school tradition dictated — and Davidson has plenty of tradition — upperclassmen greeted newcomers and their families on the sidewalk outside a residence hall, then helped them unload their belongings.
It’s part welcoming committee, part pack mule.
That day he understood the childish, smiling face of a certain Stephen Curry.
Curry was arguably America’s most famous college junior. A few months earlier, he averaged 32 points per game in the NCAA Men’s Tournament and brought little Davidson – 1,700 registrants on a bucolic campus just north of Charlotte, North Carolina – to the brink of the Final Four .
Everyone expected him to jump into the NBA, where a spot as a lottery pick awaited him. Instead, he returned to campus. Part of that was working on his playmaking skills under head coach Bob McKillop. Part of that was doing things like this – a future global superstar humbly carrying mattresses and mini-fridges up stairs.
The NBA, he thought, could wait. Live in the dorms (95% of Davidson students, including upperclassmen, live on campus), play intramural softball, make cameos on the campus comedy sketch show, and have dozens of friends non-athletes, was worth hanging on for as long as he could.
Namely, being a middle schooler for one more year. Or even more precisely, a Davidson child.
“An incredible time in my life,” Curry said this week.
So incredible that Davidson never left Curry, even though he did eventually. A year later, after another brilliant season, the NBA opportunity was too big to pass on. He dropped out his senior year and was drafted seventh overall by Golden State in 2009. Yet thanks to three NBA titles, two NBA MVP awards, hundreds of millions in earnings, his connection to the place has hardly wavered.
“Stephen Curry has put his signature to this institution,” McKillop said Tuesday. “If you’re driving on I-77 and you see the sign for Davidson College, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t ‘liberal arts college’ or who’s the president or who’s the president. basketball coach. It’s, ‘That’s where Stephen Curry went.’ ”
The connection culminated on Sunday, when, 13 years after leaving, the 34-year-old delivered on a promise he made to his parents, his coach and, more importantly, to himself and his school. He graduated in sociology.
“He was honoring his commitment,” McKillop said. “It’s that simple.”
In high school, Curry didn’t dream of Davidson. He wanted to play for an ACC powerhouse. Leading college coaches, however, considered him too small and too light. It was comically wrong, of course, but after the initial disappointment wore off, Curry realized it was a blessing.
McKillop is an exceptional teacher and has always believed in himself. Plus, he found himself in his perfect place, a small college with no athletic dorms, majors, or distance between student-athletes and regular students.
“Tradition builds culture,” McKillop said. “And that’s something that’s especially doable in a school of this size. Tradition touches everyone here at Davidson and for Stephen it was a point of connection.
That’s why this degree meant so much. The process of making up two semesters of credit was daunting. Life in the NBA — not to mention being a businessman, husband, and father — was busy.
He got rid of it. During a work lockout, he returned to attend an in-person class, donning a backpack and walking around campus turning the heads of his stunned classmates. Others demanded distance learning and freelance work.
One article was about “promoting gender equity through sport,” he said. Another was a research project “analyzing tattoos and culture but through an athletic lens in terms of meanings, reasons, timing, regret,” Curry said Monday.
To get some first-hand insight, he interviewed his inked teammates.
“I have to use that as hard data,” he said.
There had been discussion about granting Curry an honorary degree, but he declined it. He wanted to do it right. He wanted the real one. The promise he made to his mother, Sonya, a lifelong educator, weighed heavily. She always enjoyed schoolwork and discipline, once on the bench for a college game because he wasn’t doing his chores.
“I had to tell my team, ‘Hey guys, I can’t play tonight. Four dirty plates and I didn’t make it,'” Curry said years later.
Thus, no amount of achievement in the field could protect him from his mother’s barbs over unfinished business in class. Especially after younger brother Seth (Duke) and younger sister Sydel (Elon) graduate.
“She would brag that two of her three children were college graduates,” Stephen Curry said.
By early May, her homework was done and the credits were earned. He was officially a member of the Class of 2022. (Given his current salary of $45.8 million, good luck to other graduates hoping to be named “most successful.”) It also meant he overcame another element of the Davidson culture – the basketball program won’t retire a number unless the player has graduated. Even if it’s Stephen Curry.
“[You have to] understand the traditions of Davidson and the need for this degree to have this ceremony,” Curry said.
On Mother’s Day, he broke the news to a delighted Sonya.
“I was finally able to join my brothers and sisters on [the college graduate] before,” he said. “I am no longer the odd one out.”
Then came the start of last weekend. Curry was in the Bay Area preparing for the Western Conference Finals that kick off Wednesday when the Warriors host the Dallas Mavericks. He got up early and watched the North Carolina livestream.
“I’m kind of reliving the sights and sounds of school,” Curry said. “It’s been a long time, of course, since I left campus.”
McKillop was there instead. So was a large cut-out photo of Steph, which other graduates, parents and teachers posed with. Perhaps most exciting for Curry, the photo came at the traditional McKillop party he throws for graduating seniors.
They posed for a photo while “holding a picture of me,” Curry said.
One last Davidson tradition for Stephen Curry. Unless he wants to help freshmen move in.