Sometimes you get lucky in this life — and by “this life,” I mean the sportswriter’s life. Sometimes you’re let in on a secret before anyone else knows about it. Sometimes you get a glimpse of what’s to come.
Scribes for the Providence Journal and Hartford Courant surely got an eyeful of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as minor leaguers. Someone for the Oshawa News surely watched 14-year-old Bobby Orr play for the junior-league Generals. Maybe it isn’t quite so obvious in the moment. But in retrospect: It was good to be there.
It was good to be in Buffalo early on the afternoon of Thursday, March 15, 2007. The very first game of the 2007 NCAA Tournament paired the Maryland Terrapins and the Davidson Wildcats, a 4-13 matchup that figured to be very much a one -sided case. Sometimes you can afford to skip that game. But there was some extra interest attached.
A son of a famous athlete played for each team.
The most notable one was Maryland’s DJ Strawberry, son of Darryl, who over the course of four years had become an awfully good ACC player, averaging 14.9 points his senior year. A day earlier, he had been besieged at a press conference at what was then known as HSBC Arena.
“I’ve never seen it as a burden to be named Strawberry,” he’d said then. “I’ve always seen it as an honor.”
The other? That was Dell Curry’s oldest sound. Dell Curry never reached the level of fame — or infamy — in the NBA that Darryl Strawberry had reached in MLB, but hoops aficionados, even then, acknowledged that Dell had owned perhaps the sweetest shooting stroke of all time, one that allowed him to make 40.2 percent of his 3-point shots across 16 seasons with the Jazz, Cavaliers, Hornets, Bucks and Raptors, a career that had ended five years earlier.
“Want to hear a secret?”
Bob McKillop asked me those words. I’d known McKillop for years, since attending his summer camp at Long Island Lutheran. His was already one of the iconic Long Island basketball careers, and this Davidson team, at the time, was his masterpiece: 29-5, 17-1 in the Southern Conference.
“I love secrets, Coach.”
(And yes, to the end McKillop was one of the few coaches that I still referred to as “Coach,” since I always felt forever 14 years old in his company.)
“Kid shoots it better than his old man.”
That was absurd, of course, but I nodded politely. The next day, during warm-ups, I kept my eye on Dell’s kid. His name was Stephen. He was, maybe, 160 pounds soaking wet, and when he turned sideways he practically disappeared, he was so skinny. Despite the strong bloodlines he’d been underrecruited, which is how he wound up at Davidson.
Curry took a shot from beyond the corner 3-point line, out of bounds. Swish. He moved a few steps to his left. Swish. He moved his way around the 3-point circle, keeping himself a good 10 feet behind the line. He made every one his first turn, corner to corner. He made every one his second round, back the other way. When he finally missed one, he reacted as if he’d forgotten his mother’s birthday.
It was, in a word, extraordinary.
The game? Well, as you can imagine the Terrapins didn’t treat Davidson’s Wildcats as they might have treated, say, Kentucky or Villanova. Davidson was within 43-42 at the half. The Wildcats stayed in the game a good chunk of the second half, but Maryland had too much, and won 82-70. Strawberry had 12 points and eight rebounds.
Curry scored 30, and while he wasn’t nearly as perfect in the game as he’d been before — 5-for-14 from 3 — every time it seemed Davidson was about to get rolled out of the gym he made a shot, made to play.
“I feel like I belong out here,” Curry said. “I know I have to prove it every day but that’s OK. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
It was probably the last game Curry was in any way a dark horse. A year later, the Wildcats came within a shot of the Final FourReminiscing. As a junior, Curry was so unstoppable one coach opted to play a triangle-and-two defense — the two defenders on him. And, well, you know what he has done in the NBA, capped by his first Finals MVP Award and fourth championship this week.
It turns out McKillop was underplaying it. The kid not only shot it better than his old man, but better than anyone who ever has played basketball. And it’s been that way for a while.
Bob McKillop was a terrific player at Chaminade and Hofstra, a remarkable coach at Holy Trinity (where he coached Matt Doherty) and Lutheran (where he coached Bill Wennington) and these last 33 years he ran a master class at Davidson, winning 634 games and doing so with a grace and dignity that honored his profession (and should’ve gotten him the St. John’s job on at least four occasions). Here’s to a prosperous retirement.
Readers have been quick to pounce on one glaring omission from my list the other day of all-time New York offensive seasons: Don Mattingly, 1985: 35 homers, 145 RBIs, 48 doubles, 370 total bases, .324/.371/. 567. Error on the scribe.
I’ve mentioned this before when it first started airing but “The Offer,” on Paramount+, was about as good a limited series as I’ve seen in years. Everyone in it is terrific, but special mention to Giovanni Ribisi as Joe Colombo.
Whack Back at Vac
Spencer Ross: Steph Curry deservedly was awarded the MVP of the Finals. But without Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors don’t win that title.
VAC: Spencer on hoops is like the old EF Hutton commercials: when he talks, people listen. Or at least they should.
Tim Doyle: Isn’t it illegal or unconstitutional or just plain un-American that there will be no baseball played in New York on the 4th of July?
VAC: It is all of these things. How the Yankees—the Yankees! — have a day off that day is just beyond explanation.
@gorevidal: As the Yankees play tougher rivals, the gravy train will be over. Again, who have they played?
@MikeVacc: Pretty soon the Yankees are going to need to schedule a friendly against the ’27 Yankees to find opponents who don’t qualify as “easy.”
Alan Hirschberg: Lee Trevino famously said, “You don’t know what pressure is until you play for five bucks with only two bucks in your pocket.” The guys who took the LIV money up front will never feel pressure to win one of those bogus tournaments. So if it doesn’t matter to them who wins, why would a single fan care?
VAC: That is a very fair question.