Sports Nut

When Stephen Curry Became Stephen Curry

How the best shooter in basketball history nearly led Davidson—Davidson!—to the 2008 Final Four.

Curry, Richards
Stephen Curry and Jason Richards of Davidson during the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, March 21, 2008 at RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In March 2008, Stephen Curry and Davidson College—total undergraduate population: 1,674—beat Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats then took out Georgetown, and a week later they beat Wisconsin. In the Elite Eight, the baby-faced, rail-thin sophomore and his liberal-arts–school teammates took on No. 1 seed Kansas. Davidson had the ball, down two, with less than 20 seconds to go. If Curry, who’d scored 128 points in the tournament to that point, could sink a three-pointer, then Davidson—Davidson!—would beat the mighty Jayhawks.

But Curry didn’t shoot. With the chance to send his team to the Final Four, the future MVP and world champion passed the ball to a teammate. The best shooter in the history of basketball deferred to a guy who never played in the NBA.

The player who hoisted that potential game-winner was far from a scrub. The irony was that Jason Richards, the Wildcats’ senior point guard, earned his reputation by passing the ball to Curry: He led the nation in assists in 2007-2008, setting up his running mate for countless layups and open jumpers.

Richards, who’s now on the basketball staff at the University of Pittsburgh, told me that a brutal non-conference schedule helped set that Davidson team on the path to NCAA glory. The Wildcats challenged some of the best programs in the country, including North Carolina, Duke, North Carolina State, and UCLA. Davidson lost them all, but only by an average of six points per game.

Curry and Davidson took out their frustrations on the tiny schools in the Southern Conference, winning all 18 regular-season games and sweeping through the conference tournament. Though Curry averaged 26 points per game and was a second-team All-American, he wasn’t yet a basketball folk hero. He would be after March 2008.

Davidson opened the NCAA Tournament against the school that defines mid-major basketball prowess: Gonzaga. The Wildcats, a No. 10 seed in the Midwest region, were actually favored against the No. 7 seed Bulldogs from Spokane, Washington. That was thanks in large part to the tournament committee, which placed Davidson in Raleigh, North Carolina, roughly 150 miles from the school’s campus.

“I kinda felt bad for Gonzaga,” Richards says. “They had to fly across the country and play us in our backyard.” But the Zags showed no signs of jet lag, holding Curry to 10 points while opening a five-point halftime lead. And then Curry got hot.

He sank a three-pointer 20 seconds into the second half, then flipped in a lefty playground shot while being fouled moments later. He added another three-point play as Davidson was in danger of falling out of the game, down 11 with 14:50 to play. Five minutes later, Curry had brought his team all the way back, pouring in his now-trademark array of high-arcing rainbows from deep and twisting layups in the paint.

Gonzaga tied the game at 74 with 1:45 left, setting the stage for Curry’s first iconic moment of the tournament. The Bulldogs extended their zone almost to half-court to deny Curry the ball, and Quebecois guard Max Paulhus Gosselin—MPG to his teammates—missed a rushed jumper. But junior forward Andrew Lovedale, born in Nigeria and raised in England, chased down the offensive rebound. He knew where to pass it.

“We always worked on special situations like that in practice, and attention to detail was key to our success,” Richards notes, “so Andrew’s rebound and kick-out to Steph was just second nature for him and us.” Curry had begun to retreat back on defense, but raced to the three-point line when he saw his team still had the ball. It was just the kind of chaotic situation Curry thrives on in Golden State.

He released the three-pointer with 1:05 to play, and it was so pure it barely moved the net.

“Are you kidding me?!” yelped CBS’ Billy Packer. Curry pointed to his parents in the stands as he retreated down court, even then playing to the moment. Davidson went on to win 82-76. Curry finished with 40 points, 30 of them in that mind-blowing second half.

“America had heard about him, now they know about him!” exclaimed Jim Nantz at the buzzer.

Second-seeded Georgetown and its tough defense, anchored by 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, was next up. The Hoyas appeared to be too much for Davidson, taking a 17-point lead in the second half. But Wildcats coach Bob McKillop kept things light, asking his team during a timeout if they were having fun, despite the large deficit.

“We never felt we dug ourselves too big of a hole,” Richards says. “We knew how much firepower we had offensively and that our shots would eventually start to fall. We were in a similar situation against UNC–Greensboro earlier in the year when our perfect conference record was on the line. We were down [20 points] to them at their place. But we fought back and ended up winning the game.”

Georgetown wasn’t UNC–Greensboro. Curry missed 10 of his first 12 shots against the Hoyas, but he never stopped running defenders around and through a myriad of screens. Once again he went bananas after halftime, scoring 25 of his 30 points while leading a furious rally. In short order, Curry converted a four-point play, hit another three, and dished out a perfect pass to Lovedale for a layup. Richards, who scored 20 points of his own, found Curry for yet another three that gave Davidson the lead. Another Curry three, his fifth of the game, put Georgetown away.

“It was crazy,” Richards remembers. “UNC played in the game after us, and all their fans were chanting for us. Steph totally won them over.” (Surely some of them wondered why the Charlotte native wasn’t wearing Carolina blue, as Curry famously wasn’t recruited by any of the Tobacco Road powers.)

The Midwest regional was held at Detroit’s Ford Field, and Davidson chartered buses to transport seemingly the entire student body and faculty to the Motor City, an 11-hour drive. “We were shocked,” Richards says. “I don’t know how they got everyone there, much less found hotel rooms for them all.”

Wisconsin, the three seed, led the nation in scoring defense and seemed up to the challenge of ending Davidson’s dream. Rugged guard Michael Flowers was the supposed “Curry stopper,” but Steph lit the Badgers up for 33 more points in a 73-56 rout. Curry personally outscored Wisconsin 22-20 in the second half, as LeBron James watched from the stands and paid a royal visit to the victorious locker room. “That was incredible,” Richards says. “When the Cavs came to Charlotte to play the Bobcats a few weeks later, the greatest player in the world—after Steph, that is!—invited all of us to be his guests.”

One obstacle remained between Davidson and the Final Four, but it was formidable. “Kansas was big at every position,” Richards says, “especially guard. But we didn’t change anything, kept all our controlled freedom, as Coach McKillop called it, and as the game went along, our confidence got larger and larger.”

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the region, led by future pros Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and Darrell Arthur, but the game was tight throughout. Kansas rotated four defenders on Curry, which wore him down and caused him to miss 16 of his 25 shots and go a woeful 4-for-16 from three-point range. Undaunted, he kept on firing. “I wasn’t worried about him,” Richards says. With the Wildcats down by five inside the final minute, Richards found Curry on an inbounds pass. He stepped back to create space and drilled a three, giving him 25 points and cutting the lead to 59-57.

Kansas missed on the other end, giving Davidson a shot at the immense upset. “We ran the same play we ran against Georgetown a lot, a high ball screen with Steph having the ball up top,” Richards says. Curry brought the ball up court against Rush, who tripped over the feet of the Davidson screener, Paulhus Gosselin. Ordinarily that would be great news for Curry. But Chalmers, who would take and make a pretty big shot himself eight days later, alertly switched on to Curry, denying him an opening.

As the seconds drained away, CBS play-by-play man Gus Johnson shouted that Curry “may not give this up.” But as Richards rotated out past the three-point line to help his teammate, Kansas’ Sherron Collins left him and and got in Curry’s face. He had no choice but to pass the ball. “It turned into a double team,” Richards says. “It was chaos at the time, so Steph dumped it to me.”

Davidson’s fortunes now rested not with the sweetest-shooting player on the planet but with … some other guy.

In fairness, Richards was no slouch as a shooter. He’d averaged 13 points and 1.6 threes per game on the season, and in the tourney he’d scored 53 points to go with his 36 assists. “I was a dual threat,” he says. But a team with Steph Curry was about to go—or not go—to the Final Four based on someone else’s skills. It was like David handing the slingshot to Saul.

Richards fired from about 10 feet behind the arc, a bit to the right of the basket. “I was confident,” Richards says. “From my angle it looked like it was going in.”

“Of course, it didn’t.”

It didn’t even draw iron, bouncing off the backboard as the buzzer sounded. “We’ve smelled and touched and seen our dream, and we missed,” McKillop said after the game. “We came two points away from the Final Four with a 1,700-student school in the Southern Conference.”

Richards was the picture of agony, falling on to his back as the Jayhawks celebrated around him. He still replays that final play in his mind, wondering if they should’ve run a different offensive set—a play where he had the ball in his hands and Curry ran off screens to try and find an open look.

“I think about it a lot, especially at this time of year,” he says. “It’s always in your mind, asking yourself, How could it have been different? But that’s life—you ask that question about a lot of things, not just basketball. I welcome it when I’m asked about it, but not that many people remember my shot, fortunately. They just think about Steph being great in the tourney.”

Richards was signed by the Miami Heat, but his pro dreams died when he tore his left ACL three times in the span of a year. With his playing career over, Richards took a job with the Pittsburgh Panthers, where he just finished his third year as video coordinator and director of analytics.

He remains friends with his former backcourt partner, even staying with him in northern California during the NBA playoffs. Like the rest of us, he watches Curry closely. “He’s the reason I bought League Pass and stay up until 1:30 a.m.,” he says. “I’m aging rapidly because of Steph.”

Read more Slate coverage of the NCAA tournament.