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An interview with Michael Kruse

12/9/2008 - Davidson Wildcats
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Michael Kruse is a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times; he's also a graduate of Davidson College, and has turned his love for the Wildcats into a new book titled Taking the Shot: The Davidson Basketball Moment, which takes a look at his tiny alma mater's rise from obscurity to basketball's Elite Eight. We caught up with him on the eve of the book's release, and asked him about Steph Curry, Bob McKillop's international recruiting touch, and the White Lobster.

You're a Davidson grad. What was the team like when you were in school?

My freshman year, 1995-96, the team went undefeated in the Southern Conference in the regular season, just tore through the league. That season, one freezing cold night in late January in Huntington, W.Va., a Bob McKillop-coached Davidson team beat a Billy Donovan-coached Marshall team by 49 points. The score was 106-57. You can look it up. I was there, for the Davidsonian, the student paper, and at halftime I was in the bathroom and the guy at the next urinal over said: Well, shoot, those guys can't keep THAT up. And then they did. That team ended up getting upset by Western Carolina in the league championship game. Went to the NIT. That's life in the Southern Conference, but the team my junior year went to the NCAAs. After I graduated, the team went to the NCAAs in 2002, and 2006, and 2007. Point being: Davidson basketball? Under Bob McKillop? Been pretty good for a while now.

Most hoops fans didn't know a thing about the school until Steph Curry started putting on a show. Does this sudden outpouring of love for the Wildcats feel real to you?

Very real. In the course of my reporting for the book, many of the guys from the not-as-successful teams from the early '90s and the starting-to-be-successful teams from the mid-'90s told me they'd been asked similar questions in March in Detroit at the team hotel and at bars and at Ford Field. Does it feel real? Can you believe it? Did you ever think THIS would happen? I'm thinking of Chris Alpert and Brandon Williams in particular here. Chris was a walk-on from Long Island who ended up starting at point for four years, and Brandon committed to McKillop when Davidson was going 4-24 and 10-19—and they were seniors on that '95-'96 team that won 25 games. They never made it to the NCAAs, those guys, but they did start to build the foundation for what they were seeing on that Ford Field floor in that 17-point win over Wisconsin and the shot-in-the-air near-miss two days later against Kansas.

Stephen Curry came into the program underrated by the outside world, and has garnered so much attention since then. How has he reacted to his acquired status as everyone's favorite mid-major baller?

This past August, Stephen and teammate Steve Rossiter were on what's called the orientation team, greeting cars with new students and their parents and then helping to carry their TVs and refrigerators up stairs and into dorms. He did that not because he was trying to prove a point, but because a hundred or so Davidson students do that, every year, and Stephen's a Davidson student, and likes being a Davidson student, and so he signed up for the orientation team. He told me that a few kids were taking pictures of him with their cell phones, so I asked, 'What do you do when that happens?' and he says, 'I go introduce myself to them.' The kid's still Stephen.

Was Stephen's ability obvious from the start, or did he have to learn how to assert himself on the court?

The Davidson coaches were excited when Stephen committed in September of his senior year at Charlotte Christian. They thought he could be really, really good, and help them a lot. When he first started working out with the team, he made plenty of mistakes. He just didn't make too many of them a second time. McKillop, who's been coaching for three and a half decades, had never seen anything like it. Here's how he put it to me one morning last summer at the Soda Shop on Main Street in Davidson: It was as if Stephen listened to what he was told, painted a picture of the movements in his head, and then channeled those movements onto the court, at full speed, the very next play.

Bob McKillop has filled the roster with players from all over the world. How on earth did he track down that great blend of international players?

That pipeline started when he was a high school coach at Long Island Lutheran. His first recruit at Davidson was a German, Detlef Musch, who had played for him in high school. It's been that way at Davidson ever since. Irish point guards. Croatian shooting guards. French African wings. British bigs. Seven-footers from the Czech Republic. Defensive hounds from the suburbs of Montreal. At first, McKillop did it because, well, he kind of had to. Davidson wasn't very good his first few years. He needed players. He knew people overseas. Also: Those international prospects weren't quite so hung up on the differences in perceived prestige between leagues like the ACC and leagues like the Southern Conference.

How did a New York guy like McKillop become a Davidson lifer?

McKillop is a New York guy, was a boy in Queens, was a teen out in Merrick, graduated college from Hofstra, lifelong Yankees fan, always talking about Broadway. He came to Davidson in 1989 to try to go somewhere else. Get a better offer somewhere bigger. That was the plan: to leave. He could have left in 1994. Hofstra was looking for a new coach. But he had just been to his first Southern Conference championship game with Davidson. He came close in '98. He interviewed twice at St. John's but Mike Jarvis got the job. McKillop had just been to his first NCAA tournament with Davidson. He almost left in '99. He actually TOOK the job at Stony Brook—the AD there was a close friend—before changing his mind two days later. His daughter had just finished her freshman year at Davidson. And here, really, is the answer to the question: his daughter went to Davidson. Kerrin graduated in 2002. His first son went to Davidson. Matt played for his dad and graduated in 2006 and is now an assistant coach. His second son goes to Davidson now. Brendan is a sophomore on the current team. McKillop lives across the street from campus. He walks to the gym for games. He gets his coffee in the mornings at Summit Coffee in downtown Davidson. He has called the little village Camelot.

So, our readers seem to love this White Lobster kid. What can you tell us about him?

That his parents cook a heck of a lobster dinner up in Falmouth. That he's a heck of a shooter. That he makes sure his roommate Stephen has his shirt ironed when he goes out in public. That he baked pies with Pi logos on them to celebrate declaring his math major last year. That he's also an economics major. That those are two of the hardest majors at Davidson. That HE is the guy who helps the OTHER KIDS with their calculus work. That his nickname has spawned the sale of a T-shirt with a grassroots ad campaign that includes the following words: "The White Lobster is a truth to be held self-evident."

In a similar vein: Stephen Curry can't play at Davidson forever. Who's coming into the program to keep the ball rolling? Who's Next?

Post player Frank Ben-Eze picked Davidson last spring over Georgia Tech. He's a freshman this year. Post player Jake Cohen picked Davidson this fall over Stanford. He'll be a freshman next year. That didn't happen before. Stephen will leave, maybe after this year, maybe after the next, and know what'll happen? Davidson probably won't have anybody who makes a habit of 44-spots, granted, but these guys still will win more than they lose.