Sports Nut

The Year of Magical Shooting

How Stephen Curry became a basketball folk hero.

Stephen Curry

Barring a miracle, the annual Elks Lodge meeting known as Selection Sunday will gavel to a close with Stephen Curry and little Davidson College left out of the NCAA Tournament brackets. This is a pity, not just for Curry and Davidson but for those of us who prefer our basketball blithe and unconstipated which is to say, those of us who are not Billy Packer. It also means that Curry, the NCAA’s leading scorer and the man who turned last year’s tournament into his own personal Vegas act, will likely close out his amateur career on college basketball’s undercard, the NIT. He will get his 30 a game, book it, and could conceivably shoot an otherwise hopeless Davidson bunch into the Madison Square Garden portion of the proceedings—and it all will be about as sad as watching Olivier do dinner theater.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like him in college basketball for decades,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told Dan Patrick, and Huggins would know, having spent the previous two decades acting as a bail bondsman for some of the finest players in the land. This was back in December, a day after Curry dropped in two dead-eye 3-pointers in the game’s final 1:15 to beat the Mountaineers at the Garden, the last on a shimmying little flick of a crossover that about juked his defender into the beer stand. Huggins, in the interview, likened Curry to the gold standard of hoops showmen, Pete Maravich.

These kinds of players appear on rare occasion, and invariably they become a phenomenon. I don’t mean the otherwordly specimens, like LeBron James and Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor, who crack open basketball’s possibilities and push the game to new dimensions. I mean the scorers who excel within the game’s given parameters, who master its angles rather than invent new ones, whom even the otherworldly specimens feel compelled to see for themselves. LeBron James watched Curry play in last year’s tournament and rose to his feet twice to applaud. This year, James again bore witness. Curry scored 44.

Curry is less athlete than folk hero, a star who shares a strand of DNA with the knife throwers, crack shots, and pool-hall massé artists of the world. Happy cults have always sprung up around players like this, and a faint air of religion seems to hang over their celebrity.A very brief and random survey: There was Rick Mount, whose jump shot lit up Indiana basketball in the 1960s. As a boy in Lebanon, Ind., he would shoot tennis balls into a Planters peanut can with the bottom cut out, and then later into a hoop contrived out of coat hanger and fishing net. At Purdue, he once scored 61 points on 47 shots—”You know how much skill it takes to get 47 shots up in 40 minutes?” he jokes to this day—and video review later determined that, had the 3-point line existed in 1970, he would’ve had 74. As a high-schooler, I once attended a basketball camp at which Mount gave a brief shooting clinic. Over and over, he’d pop in a jumper, and the ball would hit the floor with so much English that it’d return obediently to his hand. He called it “walking the dog back.”

“God was looking after me, you know?” he once said. “The jump shot he gave me, that was my special gift.”

There was Maravich, of course, who for too long after his death in a church pickup game was thought of as a parable about the wages of obsession and dizzy celebrity—like a floppy-socked Jim Morrison, only talented. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had Chris Jackson—he later converted to Islam and changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—of whom his coach at LSU, Dale Brown, once declared: ”I believe there are certain people God touches, and I believe He put His hand on Chris’ shoulder and said, ‘You’re special.’ ” (Curry’s game bears more than a superficial likeness to Jackson’s. You’ll recognize the former in Brown’s description of the LSU star’s ability to get out of traps: “They locked up Houdini, and he got out, didn’t he? Chris dances. He skates. Gee, he evaporates. It’s like Shazam!”) It’s said that one year, an 8-year-old girl called a New Orleans hotline to say she was running away from home. She planned to visit Jackson because, she explained, “he makes me so happy.” As Curry Kirkpatrick recounted in Sports Illustrated: “The counselor who took the call told the girl that if she returned home, CJ would win a game for her. The next game Jackson did just that, beating Vanderbilt with a last-second rainbow from 18 feet.” That this story is no doubt a heaping pot of beans is immaterial. The point is that Jackson was the sort of player about whom people wanted to concoct such wonderful, Bunyan-esque lies.

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.