- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Unwelcome visitors at the Roundhouse, more formally known as McKenzie Arena, have long had to deal with a small but throaty group of Chattanooga Mocs fans on the sideline directly across from the team benches. And on this Monday night, for a revenge rematch of last March's Southern Conference title game against Davidson (won by the Wildcats in an 80-55 rout), the local rowdies unleashed every possible insult they could think of.
"Hey number 30!" one leather-lunged Chattanooga fan bellowed as the teams took to the floor. "This is a college game. You're not old enough to be out there!"
At first glance, No. 30 in Davidson dark red, Stephen Curry (pronounced STEFF-in), certainly looks every bit a freshman -- a high school freshman, maybe. Or at the very least, his photogenic charm seems more likely suited to wooing young ladies with soulful R&B ballads instead of hooping it up with the big boys. At the time being, there's very little about his frame (a lithe 6 feet and 180 pounds, soaking wet) that announces intimidating basketball prowess.
That is, until the ball goes up.
Three minutes into the contest, Curry offered Chattanooga his calling card, a long-distance 3 that silently slinked through the twine. Less than a minute later, he drove the lane for a poster-perfect finger roll. When he wasn't finding teammates open for 3s of their own or directing traffic, he was putting together a few clips for his YouTube highlight reel; halfway through the first half, Curry sneaked into the paint to scoop an offensive rebound off the floor, then used expert upper body control to maneuver the ball into the cylinder around jutting and waving tree limbs. This was no fresh-faced kid -- what we had here was a baby-faced assassin.
"Steph has the green light for anything," said Davidson head coach Bob McKillop. "He's earned it. And to have earned it in such a short period of time ... you can throw out the jump shot and the dribble and the ballhandling; you can start with the foundation of accountability that his parents have taught him. It's that accountability that makes him coachable and team-oriented and getting better every game."
Curry does indeed have a not-so-secret genetic edge. Fill in the parts of his name edited for brevity and you get "Wardell Stephen Curry II." You probably remember Wardell Stephen Curry I simply as Dell Curry, No. 30 in Charlotte Hornets teal, one of the deadliest long-range bombers in NBA history. During a 16-year pro career, Curry the elder connected on 1,248 3-pointers, and his 40.1 percent mark from beyond the arc ranks him as one of the NBA's all-time top 10.
But Curry the younger wasn't born with his dad's silky 3-point shot. He had to learn it the hard way. Once he'd fully committed himself to basketball in high school after a promising youth baseball career (at 10, he played with McKillop's son Brendan on a state championship team), he spent a lot of development time with his father.
"It was the summer after his sophomore year," recalled Curry the elder, wearing a Davidson sweatshirt and sitting among a small group of Curry family members who all made the five-hour trip from Charlotte to alternately cheer Stephen on and tally his points on scorecards. "I had a talk with him. He was shooting from his waist. I told him that if he wanted to be a college player, he needed to bring his shot up higher."
"That summer was the worst time shooting I ever had," said Stephen. "I mean, I could shoot it before, but because I was so short, I had to change my shot. He helped me with that, but the transition was real hard."
Curry's reconstructed shot eventually translated into a blistering 48 percent mark from downtown during his senior year at Charlotte Christian High, and he's currently clipping at 39.8 percent on 3s as a young collegian (39-for-98). But he's no one-dimensional bombardier; intense sessions of one-on-dad have paid off on the defensive side of the ball, as well. On Monday against Chattanooga, he collected three steals, pulled down 10 defensive rebounds and also brought about caroms for his teammates by playing in-your-shorts perimeter defense on the Mocs' guards, forcing a number of bad shots and redirecting a handful of others.
"Stephen has rare traits for a freshman; he isn't focused on just one end of the court," McKillop said. "Defensively, he is years ahead of what a freshman is. Most kids in freshman years come in, they've played AAU basketball for 80 games a summer where they run up and down the floor and shoot. Steph came to us with a real sense of defensive understanding and a willingness to commit to play."
All of which begs the obvious question: How did a promising recruit with a budding all-around game -- and an NBA pedigree no less -- not end up attending a high-major school? Virginia Tech (alma mater of both Dell and Stephen's mother Sonya, a former Hokies volleyball star) showed interest, but there were steep conditions.
"[Virginia Tech] wanted him to redshirt or walk on," Dell said. "He wanted to play right away. [Davidson] was his decision ... it has strong academics and background, and we're glad it worked out."
So instead of following directly in his father's footsteps, Stephen took his résumé -- high school all-conference, all-state and team MVP -- to Belk Arena instead.
"That was a tough time," Stephen said. "Virginia Tech kinda left a bad taste in my mouth. But Davidson was a much better situation. They were on me from the start ... I knew they wanted me, and I knew I could have an impact right away."
Curry's college debut certainly made an impact on the stat sheet -- in a negative way as well as positive. It came in a fast and loose 81-77 Wildcats win over Eastern Michigan on Nov. 10 at the John Thompson Foundation Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich. Curry scored 15 points but coughed the ball up a staggering 13 times; so far in 2006-07, no D-I player has racked up more turnovers in a game. But Curry shook it off like a seasoned veteran the following day, torching the nets for 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting in a loss against host school Michigan. The freshman ended up with 63 points over the course of the three-day tourney and later was named Southern Conference Player of the Month for November.
"I don't want to confuse my game too much," Stephen said of his development. "I want to keep my game where it is but keep moving forward. I do want to improve my leadership on the court and work on being a good point guard, because in my junior year, after [Jason] Richards graduates, I'll probably have to move from the two to the one."
And while Curry undergoes his transformation from man-child to man, the Wildcats are quietly winning games they aren't supposed to. Davidson came into the season coping with the graduation losses of 76 percent of its scoring from a squad that followed up a SoCon championship with an eight-point loss to Ohio State in an NCAA 2-vs.-15 game. Since there were only 30 D-I starts among its 13-man
2006-07 roster, the media and coaches picked Davidson to finish a distant fourth in the league's South Division. But the Wildcats now find themselves 9-3, and their pair of consecutive 20-win seasons just might end up turning into a full-fledged streak.
"Surprised is the right word for it," McKillop said of his team's fast start. "But I have a group this year that loves to play together and doesn't get bored with practice, guys like [sophomore guard] Max Paulhus Gosselin and [redshirt freshman forward] Stephen Rossiter and Stephen Curry."
When the Wildcats broke open the game on Monday for that ninth victory, their superstar-in-waiting was front and center. A no-look assist to sophomore forward Andrew Lovedale in the lane opened a seven-point lead at the eight-minute mark of the second half, and then Curry's long 3 gained Davidson its first double-digit lead seconds later. When Chattanooga rallied late to pull within four, a key Curry steal with two minutes left in regulation broke the momentum for good, helping lift the Wildcats to a 90-82 win.
And once the shot clock went dark, Curry dribbled out the clock at the timeline and then left the ball on the floor near half court with three seconds left, before the buzzer broke the fallen hush of the arena. His final numbers for the night: 30 points, 11 rebounds (his first college double-double) and six assists. Nobody, not even the Roundhouse hecklers, had any sort of snappy comeback for that.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.