Humility is knowing who you are -- not thinking too highly of yourself, but also not thinking too little of yourself. Simply put, it means having sober judgment. Do you know who you are as a player on the floor?
At the start of a college basketball season, it's all free chaos and beautiful possibility. During the dwindling days of the NCAA Tournament, there are rules, regulations, and schedules with start and finish times that end in twos and sevens. There are periods of "media availability," tiny timeframes during which players and coaches are brought in front of reporters, who in turn stamp those spoken words into story templates for public consumption.
On the day between the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, at each of the four regional sites, the NCAA holds a pair of time-staggered press conferences for the two remaining teams. After half an hour of facing general questioning up at the dais, the top student-athletes from each school move to what are called "breakout rooms." These are less rooms than cubicles separated by blue cordoning curtains, and in each is an elevated chair and table for the player that faces a bank of seats. The sessions generally last an hour, and represent the only times in late March when you're going to get the kind of quotes to build a feature story around.
Near the top of the 3 o'clock hour during the late afternoon of March 29, 2008 at Detroit's Ford Field, Stephen Curry's breakout room was the place to be. He was the star of that year's NCAA Tournament, having scored a total of 103 points in victories over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin -- three games his team were not supposed to win. Now the Davidson Wildcats were one win away from the Final Four in San Antonio, and everybody wanted a piece of Stephen Curry. Poor Jason Richards, the team's senior point guard. The nation's assist leader, the one who regularly passed Curry the ball, sat in the next booth over, nearly all alone. Hardly anybody wanted to ask him
Curry's session was far more awkward, however. The reporters' questions were specifically engineered to elicit superstar responses, and the team's leading scorer wasn't offering them. They asked him about his shoes, upon which he had written the phrase "I can do all things." ("Oh, that," he said. "It's always been one of my favorite Bible verses.
") They told him the LeBron James had come to the Sweet Sixteen game. How did that feel, to have the pros' best player as a fan? Curry shrugged it off. He'd always been around NBA ballplayers
, and there was one
who tucked him into bed at night when he was a kid. The reporters asked him to describe having such great talent. "It's nothing special that I do," he replied.
The reporters demanded that he take some sort of credit. Wardell Stephen Curry II wasn't taking any of it. He deflected it all to Richards and his other teammates. He was more humble than Pat Conroy in "My Losing Season," but he was three games from the National Championship. The superhero feature stories just weren't going to work, so call your editors
. The breakout room eventually emptied out, but there was still half an hour remaining. Soon, I was the only one left. It was just me and Stephen, one on one.
I wrote one of the first national feature stories about him, back in December of 2006. I sort of wandered into it, by way of covering a Southern Conference regular season tilt at Chattanooga between the Mocs and Wildcats. Curry was still just a curiosity back then, another in a long list of mid-major players-to-watch underneath the shortlist with full paragraphs (Rodney Stuckey, Nick Fazekas, Kyle Hines, etc.). He was a raw recruit who had slipped through the cracks. Virginia Tech, the ACC school his father Dell attended before embarking on his six-year NBA career, wanted the son to walk on. In his first collegiate game at Davidson, he turned the ball over 13 times against Eastern Michigan of the MAC. The next day, he turned around and dropped 32 on the Michigan that plays in the Big Ten.
These were the things we talked about, Stephen and I. We discussed how to navigate the high highs and low depths of performance, and how to hold the center at all times. I asked him about "the zone," that pinnacle of mental geography where everything goes right, all the shots go in... the domain of champions. He said it felt like being alone there, by himself, as if he was shooting jumpers at Belk Arena late at night. He told me how he had adjusted to the (enormously) larger audiences and (much) bigger media contingents. "Don't play for anybody other than your family, or God, or whatever you believe in," he said. "It's easy to get caught up in playing for the crowd, trying to play a game you're not capable of... I try harder not to do things that are over my head, not do anything too special."
Back in the media room, which was the size of a football field (the 2008 Midwest Regional was a dress rehearsal for the 2009 Final Four), there was much less humility. Most reporters wanted to solve this Stephen Curry puzzle for the public, but they seemed to want control and ownership of his narrative more. They clucked paternally about how he was such a great kid from a great family, so grounded. They argued about where in the pantheon of Top Ten great weeks at the NCAA Tournament ranked, and nodded approvingly about his NBA Draft potential. When the Wildcats were eliminated, and they would be and soon, they'd be on to the next one.
To me, he was more than all that. I didn't want to strip the religion and the core feeling from his story. I'd never been so inspired by somebody half my age. I was not and will never be a great basketball player, but Stephen Curry was the kind of person I wanted to emulate, and it was making it difficult for me to cover him as a sportswriter. I felt like I should have recused myself somehow, and this was some kind of conflict of interest.
Later, in one corner of that wide hall with a picture window of Tiger Stadium's tail end, I filed my feature story. I have this habit of softly repeating my paragraphs back to myself under my breath; if they sound good, there's a better chance they'll read well. Across the vinyl-wrapped table from me was a celebrity sports reporter in a black suit, jowly with thick eyebrows, rattling his laptop keys demonstratively. I knew who he was; we took checks from the same company. "Would you shut the fuck up?
" he suddenly burst out in a thick Chicago accent. "I'm on deadline here."
Albert Einstein once said, "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." It's usually used as a dramatic quote about karma, but I think the intended meaning has more to do with staying humble in the face of the divine. Those who set themselves up as little competing and crashing centers of the universe, who are convinced somehow that the world would be diminished without their participation, well, they're punchlines too. To experience Davidson's 2008 NCAA run firsthand was basketball joy, but the sharp contrast I experienced at Ford Field that weekend was a jolt and shift that altered my career orbit. It was the first time I really felt like I was somewhere I didn't belong. ***
6/29/2009: It feels like he doesn't have to be Stephen of Davidson anymore if he doesn't want it, especially now; he can be Stephen of Golden State (Stephen of Suns?), Stephen of $$$$$$millions, Stephen of Nike. And he will be those too of course, in this business he can't escape it-- but--
Three days ago he was in Belk for McKillop's basketball camp.
Two weeks ago he was writing a paper in Bobcats Arena.
- Claire Asbury, The Davidson Project
You know how the rest of the story went. Stephen Curry didn't take the final shot against Kansas, Jason Richards did. (And why do these things always fall to the left?
) The following season was agonizing to watch. The increased expectations and the judgements and the Top Tens were just as thick, but they were applied towards something that was different. The roster changed, because rosters always do. Without his backcourt partner, and with less experience and size up front, Curry wore down, got injured and frustrated, took more shots and gave shorter answers. His place within the team was all off
, there was just something wrong about the whole thing.
In this space, we talked a lot about how he had to be three superheroes in one in order to win
and called him "Flash"
, but that was all comedy because it was so sad. The Wildcats were eliminated in the SoCon semifinals by Charleston and didn't return to the NCAA Tournament.
The media machine was built to accept two narrative outcomes: total victory or a trainwreck. Most of the games were on national TV. There were packed press rooms after every game, representatives of outlets eager to document every step. I was embarrassed for being even a small part of the traveling Curry Circus. When I talked to head coach Bob McKillop, I felt compelled to throw down my notebook and apologize. "Look, I'm sorry," I imagined myself saying. He might tilt his head slightly, furrow his brow and keep the remainder of his facial expression unchanged, because that's exactly what he'd do.
"I'm not the right conduit for this story. None of these people are. I can try to convince them to leave, but I know they won't. We should all just leave,
and let you have this time to do whatever you have to do in order to make your basketball team better. OK, Coach, I'm going now.
In real life, No. 30 in red left after the 2008-09 season, one year early. I thought he would. Deep down, I'm kind of glad he did. Everybody benefitted. In 2009-10, Coach McKillop had the room and space to groom his next generation of SoCon champions. Me, I had an excuse not to bother the Davidson Wildcats -- I only came to that first game, at Butler, and went out of my way not to see them again for the rest of the season.
For Curry, well, things happened. He was selected seventh in the NBA Draft by the Bay Area-based "Golden State" franchise. The Warriors held the seventh pick because they were a bad basketball team. And they were even worse in Curry's rookie season, winning just 26 of 82 games and finishing 13th in the Western Conference. Still, though, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote. Then he became a FIBA world champion this past summer with the U.S. national squad.
He's also the pro basketball star most likely to tweet you back
or pass along your message with an RT. He is not likely to call himself a superhero and give himself a nickname, but he's probably the only NBA player who'd ride a bike through the aisles of a Wal-Mart in a goofy mask late at night
. Those are things I can do, and that you can do. No matter what, it appears, despite any high highs of low depths, he can still hold the center.
There are so many reminders. 345 teams; over 5,000 players; 310 million Americans and 6.8 billion living citizens of the world. A room full of sportswriters, a sky full of stars, countless websites. We are each a uniquely identifiable one
in amongst these. But to insist that we are anything more than a zero-padded percentage is madness. P.S. Get better soon, Flash.