DAVIDSON, N.C. — On the first day of the fall semester in 2007, Stephen Curry sat in a class on gender and society at Davidson College, a small, liberal arts school 20 miles north of Charlotte, N.C.
Prof. Gayle Kaufman, who was teaching the class, began the roll call alphabetically.
At the end of the Cs, she called out, “Steven Curry?”
The students erupted in laughter. Curry smiled. “It’s Steph-en,” he said, politely.
Kaufman had been on sabbatical the year before, which was probably why she seemed to be one of the few people in Davidson — both the college and the town of 10,000 people then — who didn’t know how to pronounce his name.
Five months before, Curry had led Davidson to the N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball tournament in his freshman season, gaining local celebrity status that would eventually be dwarfed by his superstardom as a four-time N.B.A. champion with Golden State. But to his fellow students, Curry was just one of them. He made mix CDs and funny videos with his friends, studied in the library and ate at the Outpost, the only late-night eatery on campus. Curry said he “was always a breakfast-at-night type guy.”
“Everyone is truly a student at Davidson,” said Jason Richards, Curry’s friend and college teammate. “There are no superstars. There’s no one walking the pathways like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s so-and-so.’ You knew who you’d pass on your way to class, and you knew everyone in class by first name. It’s what makes Davidson so special, and so special to Stephen: No one is bigger than the college itself.”
But as the past few days showed, Curry comes close.
‘Isn’t that the place where … ?’
Marshall Oelsen walked into Stephen Curry’s freshman dorm room at the start of the fall 2006 semester and saw oversize pairs of Charlotte Hornets basketball shorts on the floor. He asked whose they were. Curry said they belonged to his father, Dell Curry, who spent 10 seasons with the Hornets.
“Those first months, he was just known as Dell Curry’s kid,” said Oelsen, who lived down the hall.
But one October afternoon, Bryant Barr, Stephen Curry’s roommate and teammate, told some friends: “Guys, Steph is the real thing. He’s going to be huge.”
Chris Clunie, the school’s director of athletics, played on the men’s basketball team for four seasons before Curry arrived. “I describe Davidson basketball as B.S. and A.S. — Before Steph and After Steph,” Clunie said.
Clunie’s squad was successful, earning a No. 15 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament the year before Curry came. But once Curry arrived? “It was a launchpad,” Clunie said.
Curry became Davidson’s career leader in points and 3-pointers. The Wildcats made it to the tournament in his freshman and sophomore seasons, including a magical run to the round of 8 in 2008. Curry scored 40 points and made eight 3-pointers in a first-round upset of Gonzaga.
After his junior year, Curry left for the N.B.A., and Golden State drafted him seventh overall.
Chris Gruber, Davidson’s dean of admission and financial aid, said applications surged after the 2008 tournament run. “It allowed us to be known in many cases,” he said. “It put us on a map in terms of, ‘Isn’t that the place where …?’ ”
Gruber said even now the school is “riding that wave.”
Davidson men’s basketball relies heavily on recruiting international players. Coach Matt McKillop, whose father, Bob, coached Curry, said the first conversation often starts with the recruit saying, “I know Davidson — that’s where Steph Curry went.”
Jane Avinger and her husband, Bob Avinger, started attending games when they moved to Davidson in 1967. Curry, she said, made them go consistently. When the Wildcats made it to the round of 16 in Detroit in 2008, they bought plane tickets and traveled there to cheer on the team. “We’d never done anything like that,” she said.
Signs of Curry are everywhere in town. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop on Main Street has a dipped, rainbow-sprinkle waffle cone called #30, after Curry’s jersey number. Sabor Latin Street Grill on Jetton Street has a large mural of Curry painted on a wall inside. At Main Street Books, a basketball-themed children’s book by Curry titled “I Have a Superpower” is displayed by the register.
On Thursday, Curry announced that the basketball court at the Ada Jenkins Center, a nonprofit in Davidson, would be refurbished by his Curry Brand with Under Armour; the Eat.Learn.Play. Foundation he started with his wife, Ayesha Curry; and The Summit Foundation.
During Davidson’s 2008 tournament run, Joanne Shackelford hung a bedsheet with words of support from her front porch. Hundreds of town residents joined her. This past week, with Curry returning to town for a special celebration, townspeople were encouraged to hang their sheets again. “Proud of you #30,” read one. “Congrats, Steph,” was written in black and red ink, Davidson’s school colors, on another.
“It’s just so wild that he would end up here for college, to play for this team, because in hindsight, he’s obviously the best player in the world,” said Adah Fitzgerald, the owner of Main Street Books. “Like, what? He doesn’t even have to come back very often or have to pay much attention to us as a town — and we’ll just forever be die-hard fans.”
‘I’ve never seen you smile like that’
Some people had driven from as far as Florida to be among the nearly 5,000 people crowded into Belk Arena on Davidson’s campus on Wednesday. Mayor Rusty Knox of Davidson was there. Sai Tummala and Jack Brown, Davidson men’s soccer players who said they were drawn to the school because of Curry, were in floor seats with other students. So were Curry’s wife and the couple’s three children: Riley, 10; Ryan, 7; and Canon, 4.
Finally, Stephen Curry was there, too.
Dressed in cap and gown, he shook hands and offered hugs as the crowd cheered. Curry smiled as he took his seat in the front row next to Ayesha. Thirteen years after leaving Davidson, he had earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology. He missed the school’s graduation ceremony in May because he was a little busy trying to win his fourth N.B.A. championship. But now, Davidson was having a ceremony just for him.
“I made a joke the other day: Would we put on an event like this if the president was coming to town?” said Joey Beeler, Davidson’s director of athletic communications.
Afterward, Curry said it was “almost overwhelming.”
The ceremony also marked Curry’s induction into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame and the retirement of his No. 30 jersey. Davidson had long required inductees to graduate first, but the rule was changed in 2019, in part, for Curry. Still, he refused the honor, wanting to wait until he’d graduated.
He took classes in 2011, during an N.B.A. work stoppage, and in December 2019 he called Clunie, the director of athletics, to map out a plan to complete the final few classes for his degree. Then the coronavirus pandemic stalled his plans. But last winter, Curry called Clunie again.
Clunie scheduled calls and video conferences with professors before practices, after shootarounds, even after games. Curry said he completed the bulk of his work in March and April, when he missed a dozen games with a foot injury.
“Some of the professors had to tell him to slow down,” Clunie said.
Kaufman, the gender and society professor, was his adviser for a thesis on advancing gender equality in sports. As the N.B.A. playoffs unfolded, Curry still hadn’t finished. Around midnight on a Wednesday, Kaufman received an email from Curry: “Dr. K, I want to assure you, I will have everything finished, and to you, by Friday night,” he wrote.
“It was that moment where I was like, ‘holy, wow,’” Kaufman said. She added, “And sure enough, he finished the paper, and it was great.”
By completing his degree, Curry had given Bob McKillop, his college coach, a 100 percent graduation rate for his players during a 33-year tenure. McKillop, whom Curry has remained close with, retired in June, one day after Curry was named the most valuable player of the N.B.A. finals.
“He has given this community, this college, this athletic department a gift that, in my judgment, is unparalleled — the gift being his time and his love,” McKillop said. “Those are the two most prized gifts that I believe we as human beings have.”
At his graduation on Wednesday, Curry held up his diploma, grinning. He turned his tassel and threw his hat high into the air on the stage as the crowd cheered, cellphones held aloft.
“Few alumni are as well known as you are, Stephen,” Doug Hicks, the president of Davidson, said during the ceremony. “OK, actually, none are.”
As Curry stepped to the podium as the afternoon’s final speaker, chants of “M-V-P!” rang out.
“The best decision I ever made was to come to Davidson College,” he said, adding that he cried when he decided to leave early for the N.B.A.
“What Davidson stands for lives with me every time I step on the court, and every time I try to impact lives,” he said. “How we represent Davidson in every room we walk into — it matters.”
Later, in an interview, he said that his Golden State teammate Draymond Green texted him after the ceremony.
“He said, ‘I’ve never seen you smile like that — when you were on that stage,’” Curry said. “I didn’t think people could read through that.”
Curry said Davidson “was kind of the beginning of a major evolution in my life, and I have so many memories of every experience, everyone I met, and the support of the community throughout it all. That speaks volumes to why I want to come back, and why yesterday was so special. That’s such a big part of my origin story.”