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Aug. 20, 2008 was move-in day for 465 first-year students at Davidson College.
As school tradition dictated — and Davidson has a lot of traditions — upperclassmen greeted the newcomers and their families at the curb in front of a residence hall and then helped them unload their stuff.
It’s part welcome committee, part pack mule.
On this day, it included the boyish, smiling face of one Stephen Curry.
Curry was arguably the most famous college junior in America. Just months earlier, he averaged 32 points a game in the men’s NCAA tournament and brought little Davidson — enrollment 1,700 on a bucolic campus just north of Charlotte, North Carolina — to the brink of the Final Four.
Everyone expected he would jump to the NBA, where a spot as a lottery pick awaited. Instead, he returned to campus. Part of it was to work on his point guard skills under head coach Bob McKillop. Part of it was to do things like this — a future global superstar humbly hauling mattresses and mini fridges up flights of stairs.
The NBA, he thought, could wait. Living in the dorms (95% of Davidson students, upperclassmen included, live on campus), playing intramural softball, making cameos in the campus sketch comedy show and having dozens of non-athlete friends, was worth holding onto for as long as he could.
Namely, being a college kid for one more year. Or even more specifically, a Davidson kid.
“An amazing time of my life,” Curry said this week.
So amazing that Davidson never left Curry, even if he eventually left it. A year later, after another brilliant season, the NBA opportunity was too great to pass on. He gave up his senior year and was drafted seventh overall by Golden State in 2009. Yet through three NBA titles, two NBA MVP awards, hundreds of millions in earnings, his connection to the place hardly wavered.
“Stephen Curry put his signature on this institution,” McKillop said Tuesday. “If you drive down I-77 and see the sign for Davidson College, the first thing that goes through people’s minds is not ‘liberal arts college’ or who the president is or who the basketball coach is. It’s, ‘That’s where Stephen Curry went.’ ”
The connection peaked Sunday, when, 13 years after leaving, the now 34-year-old fulfilled a promise he made to his parents, to his coach and, most important, to himself and his school. He earned his degree in sociology.
“He was honoring his commitment,” McKillop said. “It’s as simple as that.”
In high school, Curry wasn’t dreaming of Davidson. He wanted to play for some ACC powerhouse. Major college coaches, however, saw him as too small and slight. That was comically wrong, of course, but after the initial disappointment wore off, Curry realized it was a blessing.
McKillop is an exceptional teacher and always believed in him. Besides, he wound up at his perfect place, a small college without athletic dorms, no-show majors or distance between student-athletes and regular students.
“Tradition builds culture,” McKillop said. “And it’s something that’s particularly doable at a school this size. The traditions touch everyone here at Davidson and for Stephen, it was a point of connection.”
It’s why that degree meant so much. The process of making up for two semesters of credits was daunting. Life in the NBA — let alone a businessman, husband and father — was busy.
He chipped away at it. During one labor lockout, he returned to take an in-person class, donning a backpack and walking through campus spinning the heads of stunned fellow students. Others required remote classes and independent work.
One paper was on “advancing gender equity through sports,” he said. Another was a research project “analyzing tattoos and culture but through an athletic lens in terms of meanings, reasons, timing, regret,” Curry said on Monday.
To gain firsthand insight, he interviewed his well-inked teammates.
“I got to use that as some solid data,” he said.
There had been a discussion of granting Curry an honorary degree, but he turned it down. He wanted to do it right. He wanted the real thing. The promise he made to his mother, Sonya, a lifelong educator, weighed heavily. She always valued schoolwork and discipline, once benching Steph from a middle school game because he didn’t do his chores.
“Had to tell my team, ‘Hey guys, I can’t play tonight. Four dirty dish plates and I didn’t get it done,’” Curry said years later.
So no amount of on-court accomplishment could shield him from his mother’s barbs about unfinished business in the classroom. Especially after younger brother Seth (Duke) and younger sister Sydel (Elon) earned their degrees.
“She would brag that two of her three kids were college graduates,” Stephen Curry said.
By early May, his assignments were done and the credits were earned. He was officially a member of the Class of 2022. (Considering his current $45.8 million salary, good luck to the other grads hoping to be named “Most Successful.”) It also meant he overcame another bit of Davidson culture — the basketball program won’t retire a number unless the player has graduated. Even if it’s Stephen Curry.
“[You have to] understand the traditions of Davidson and the necessity of that degree to have that ceremony,” Curry said.
On Mother’s Day, he told an elated Sonya the news.
“I finally got to join my siblings on [the college graduate] front,” he said. “I’m not the odd one out anymore.”
Then came last weekend’s commencement. Curry was in the Bay Area, preparing for the Western Conference finals which begin Wednesday when the Warriors host the Dallas Mavericks. He got up early though and watched the livestream from North Carolina.
“I kind of relive the sights and sounds of school,” Curry said. “It’s been a long time, obviously, since I left campus.”
McKillop was there in his stead. So was a big cutout picture of Steph, which fellow graduates, parents and professors posed with. Maybe most exciting to Curry, the photo made it to McKillop’s traditional party he throws for the graduating seniors.
They posed for a picture while “holding up a picture of me,” Curry said.
One last Davidson tradition for Stephen Curry. Unless he wants to help the first-year students move in again.