As the ball hung in the air, spinning toward its fate inside cavernous Ford Field, Davidson’s Jason Richards had one thought: That’s in.
He could see it. The ball would splash through the net. Richards would embrace teammate Stephen Curry in a giant bear hug. Kansas coach Bill Self would fall to his knees in agony. The Davidson Wildcats — yes, tiny Davidson — would advance to the Final Four.
“If I made the shot,” Richards says, “I’d be on every NCAA highlight reel for the rest of my life.”
That was March 30, 2008, the night Davidson faced Kansas in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. It was Cinderella vs. Blue Blood, a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio on the line, and more than 50,000 fans had packed into downtown Detroit to watch Curry, the tween-looking star of the NCAA Tournament, take his shot against Kansas.
It was the kind of night that feels like a gift from the basketball gods. The kind of night that, of course, comes come down to the final possession. Davidson down two points. Sixteen seconds left. A blurry span of time that remains etched in Richards’ mind. There was Curry, walking the ball up the court. There was Curry, moving to his left as a Kansas defender fell down. There was Curry, pivoting back to his right as the clock ticked toward zero.
In the final moments, as the Kansas defense scrambled, and Curry looked desperately for any speck of daylight, the future NBA Most Valuable Player did something that nobody on the KU bench expected him to do.
The ball ended up in the hands of Richards, a 6-foot-2 senior point guard from Barrington, Ill. He didn’t hesitate.
From the other side of the court, Self’s view aligned perfectly with Richards’ look at the basket. He could see Richards catch the pass from Curry. He could see him rise to shoot. He could see the ball in the air.
“We got lucky,” Self says, “when Curry gave it up.”
Seven years later, that night in Detroit remains a moment in time for two college programs. For Davidson, it was the final breaths of a wondrous tournament run. For Kansas, it was a near-death experience that set the stage for a NCAA championship.
But seven years later, as Curry leads the Golden State Warriors through the NBA playoffs, draining impossible shots on a nightly basis, those final seconds in Detroit have taken on a deeper meaning.
Seven years later, it remains: the Greatest Shot That Stephen Curry Never Took.
In the hours before home games at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., Curry bounces and shuffles through a detailed pregame routine. In the span of 20 minutes, Curry will clip off close to 100 shots, a scripted warmup of feel and imagination. To view the process is to watch Picasso stretch out his fingers or Springsteen run through a sound check. Here is Curry, the NBA’s resident jump-shot master, dribbling two balls through his legs at once. Here he is at the three-point line, delicately hoisting a series of off-balance threes. Here he is in the middle of the floor, executing an assortment of leaners, runners and scoop shots.
Eight years ago, when Curry arrived at Davidson as an unheralded freshman, the routine was already being crafted. It was just a first draft, of course — but Richards remembers watching a young player with an almost magical feel for making shots.
“His artwork,” Richards says. “His imagination with the ball.”
In his sixth NBA season, Curry’s imagination and shooting touch have formed the foundation of an All-Star career. At 27, he has established himself as not only the greatest outside shooter of his generation, but arguably one of the greatest ever. Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, no shooting slouch himself, has called Curry the “best shooter to ever play,” and the numbers seem to bolster the claim.
During the last three seasons, Curry has shot 44 percent from three-point range while twice breaking the NBA single-season record for three-pointers made. It is, however, not just the volume — it’s the difficulty.
In NBA history, no player has perhaps made such difficult three-pointers look routine, whether it was a 62-foot heave against Memphis in the Western Conference semifinals, or a mesmerizing move against the Los Angeles Clippers that left four defenders grasping for air while Curry hit a fadeaway three-pointer off the dribble.
“That kind of confidence,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr says, “(it’s) never-ending self-belief.”
To put it another way: In the annals of basketball history, if you needed one player to make a guarded three-pointer in the final seconds of an Elite Eight game, you just might pick Stephen Curry.
Seven years ago, before the MVP honors and viral highlights and the Warriors’ playoff run, Davidson coach Bob McKillop already knew it. The thing was, Bill Self knew it, too.
On the day before Davidson faced Kansas, McKillop remembers feeling at peace. What else could he ask for? His Wildcats were in the Elite Eight, one victory away from a historic Final Four. They had won 25 straight games. They also had the best player in the NCAA Tournament on their side.
“There was nothing more we could do to prepare,” McKillop says. “We had advanced. We had gotten better. We were playing to win; we weren’t fearing failure. So we were completely at peace as a team.”
A well-respected coach, McKillop was in his 19th season at Davidson. Working in the confines of a tiny liberal arts school (1,850 students) in a small league (the Southern Conference), McKillop had taken Davidson to four NCAA Tournaments during his years in North Carolina.
Now the basketball gods had given him Curry, a baby-faced kid from Charlotte, N.C., and the 10th-seeded Wildcats had become the story of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. They had notched upset victories over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin. Curry was averaging 34.3 points per game. Kansas was next.
“That was the first time a lot of us had seen a team that was that big and that good,” Richards says. “It was a special moment, and we knew how big the stage was. We called it ‘Broadway.’”
As Davidson’s players awaited the game, Kansas’ Brandon Rush stood in a crowded locker room in another corner of Ford Field. The topic of discussion, of course, was Davidson’s boyish star.
Yes, Rush said, nodding his head, Curry does look like he’s 15.
“But he plays like a man,” Rush said. ”Stephen Curry is probably the best player in the tournament right now.”
On the floor of Ford Field, inside the Davidson huddle, McKillop pulled out a clipboard, looked at his two guards and listened. The stadium clock read 16.8 seconds, and Davidson trailed 59-57 after forcing Kansas into a desperation three. The Wildcats had led by as many as four in the second half, and had trailed 59-53 with a minute left. But now they had one more possession — and a decision to make.
McKillop could give the ball to Richards, his point guard, and allow Curry the freedom to get open for a shot. Or he could put the ball in Curry’s hands.
For most of the second half, McKillop recalls, the Jayhawks had switched every screen, hounding Curry with a four-guard lineup that included Rush, Mario Chalmers, Sherron Collins and Russell Robinson. Curry had scored 25 points, but the Kansas defense had held him to just nine-of-25 shooting.
“I was concerned he was never going to get the ball back,” McKillop says. “So I put it in his hands. It was a quick judgment. We were a great screening team, and he was just not getting near the ball.”
The play call was simple. Curry would bring it up and receive a high ball screen. The Wildcats, Richards says, had run something similar against Georgetown earlier in the tournament. And once again, they didn’t even need a three. A two-pointer would send the game to overtime. The game would belong to Curry.
“Steph had been our horse in that race the entire year,” Richards says.
Across the court, in the other huddle, Self was outlining one chief directive on defense. Rush, who would one day become Curry’s teammate at Golden State, would draw the defensive assignment. The Jayhawks would switch off every screen. And then, of course, there was one final thing.
Don’t let Curry shoot.
“If he shot it from half court,” Self would say, “I would say that’s pitiful defense. Because he’s going to make it.”
It is 2015, which means that anyone can go to YouTube at any hour of the day and watch those final 16.8 seconds in Detroit. You just need a smart phone or a good WiFi connection. McKillop and Richards don’t require such technology to relive the final possession.
They can see Curry move to his left, using the high screen from teammate Thomas Sander. They can see Rush stumble to the ground, and Chalmers jump up to help. They can see Sander reset another screen, and Chalmers and Rush double-team Curry 28 feet from the basket.
For a moment, as Chalmers backed off, and Rush slid to his left, it looked as if there might be a foot of separation. For a split-second, amidst the chaos, it looked as if Curry might turn the corner or square up for a guarded three.
“It was a very quick moment,” Richards says. “Steph got double-teamed, and I saw the need to come help him out.”
As Richard curled up to the wing, Curry pump-faked, sending Rush into the air. But with 2.3 seconds left, Collins jumped toward Curry, two more hands in his face. That was the moment, and Curry saw Richards open a few feet away.
“So I swung it to him,” Curry would say after the game. “He put it up. I wished it went in, but it didn’t.”
Seven years later, Richards remembers it like this:
“As a kid you dream about that moment,” Richards says. “And so when I got the ball, I had the confidence to take it. When it left my hands, actually … I thought it was going in. And it just was too long.”
Seven years later, on an evening in May, Bob McKillop is on the phone.
His Davidson program has returned to the NCAA Tournament three times since that night in Detroit. They have won conference titles. Three years ago, his Wildcats even toppled Kansas in a nonconference game in Kansas City.
But it’s only natural. Yes, he still thinks about that Kansas game. How could you not? More to the point, he also wonders what would have happened if Curry had gotten one final shot.
“Of course,” McKillop says. “20-20 hindsight, you reflect: ‘Man, if we’d only have gotten Steph that shot.’
McKillop paused for a brief second. Yes, he wonders, but he is still at peace with how it all ended.
“That would be unfair to Jason Richards,” he says. “Jason had a great shot, and that was the shot to take at that point. It was a game-winner.”
Like any coach, McKillop has other regrets. He wishes he didn’t briefly rest Richards with 7 minutes left. He wishes he would have drawn up a play with a back cut to counter Kansas’ aggressive switching. But the moment Stephen Curry passed? He can live with that.
So can Richards, who is now a video coordinator for the Pitt basketball program. He’s still close with Curry. He still gets stopped on the street by Davidson fans. He still watches with wonder as his friend closes in on an NBA title.
“Do I think about the shot daily? Yeah,” Richards says. “Do I play it over in my head thinking about: ‘What If I made it?’ Yeah. But I mean, I don’t dwell on it. It doesn’t haunt me.”
Seven years later, Curry is not the same player he was at Davidson. He is stronger now, and quicker. He is a better ballhandler, and somehow he is an even better shooter. At 27, Curry has built himself, piece by piece, into one of the most electrifying offensive weapons the NBA has ever seen.
To watch Curry now is to witness a player who can unspool a jumper at any moment, from any angle, from nearly any spot on a basketball floor. Which is to say: It only makes you wonder even more.
What if Curry had put up a shot in the final seconds?
“People can always think about what would have happened if Steph took the shot,” Richards says. “He might have made it. He might not have made it.
“That’s what is great about sports. It’s just that moment. You never know what can happen.”