Monday, March 24, 2008
Where exactly is Davidson? In the Sweet 16, that's where
By Anna K. Clemmons Special to Page 2
For most of my post-collegiate life, whenever someone asks me where I went to college, I answer in two parts. "Davidson College it's outside of Charlotte in North Carolina." Why the geographical tag? Because few people outside the Tar Heel state have heard of the small, liberal arts college 30 minutes from the Queen City.
But thanks to a guard named Stephen Curry, a coach named Bob McKillop and a team of hard-working, strong-willed players, that changed this weekend. Led by point guard Jason Richards (who led the nation in assists this season) and Curry (70 points in two tournament games), 10th-seeded Davidson took down Gonzaga and then Georgetown in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament in Raleigh, N.C.
Stephen Curry and Davidson aren't flying under the radar anymore.
I was there for both games -- but as a fan, not a reporter. Initially, I'd requested a press pass, thinking I'd sit objectively on press row and watch my Cats attempt something they hadn't accomplished since my father graduated from Davidson in 1969 (the Lefty Driesell days). But I quickly realized that wasn't possible. Luckily, the president of Davidson, Tom Ross, also happens to be one of our closest family friends and secured tickets for me. When Ross entered Davidson in 1968, my father was his hall counselor, and they've been friends ever since. Ross' daughter, Mary Kathryn, and I have been best friends since we started going to camp together at age 5, though given our parents' closeness, we claim it's really "since the womb." (We were also Davidson classmates and roommates.)
That's a lot of what Davidson is -- not just an excellent academic institution (ranked as the No. 9 liberal arts college this year by U.S. News and World Report) that does your laundry, but a foundation for lifelong friendships. Filling out March Madness brackets last week, I entered into one with my best girlfriends from college, 15 total, all of whom I'm still close to. A school with a student body of 1,700 is in some ways like a fraternity. As soon as you say the words "Davidson alumni," you've made a connection, whether you were there together or not.
Those thousands of alumni were united by basketball this past weekend. After Friday's victory, Ross received e-mails from the Ukraine, calls from China and messages from Africa. The words were a mix of elation and disbelief that Davidson, a one-and-done team the past two years, had made it to the second round. My college friend Taylor, living in Shanghai, convinced an "Olive-TGI-Bee's" (his tag for a knock-off of the American chains) to turn the game on in the sports bar so he could sit and cheer alone at midnight for the Cats.
Because while the rest of the nation is catching on, we've been following the Cats all season; and in many cases, for many seasons. Earlier this season, we were disappointed after close losses against North Carolina, Duke, UCLA and NC State, but we knew McKillop's day would come. The talented Long Island native, who often likens basketball to Broadway, would find a way to lead his team onto the biggest stage of the season.
Sitting with Ross and his wife, Mary Kathryn and her husband, and my mother on Friday, I looked around at the sea of red and black "It's a great day to be a Wildcat" T-shirts. Sure, we were a geographical favorite over Gonzaga, but even the UNC fans waiting for the evening session were cheering for the Cats. Former Davidson players from two to 10 years ago filled the stands alongside alums from the '40s, '50s and 2000s.
It's a great day to be a Wildcat. Indeed.
After the win, Curry was surrounded by so many cameras in the locker room that one reporter said it looked like the Yankees clubhouse. Later that afternoon, "Stephen Curry" was No. 5 on Google Hot Trends, which gauges the hottest Internet searches of the day.
At a tailgate that evening, Ross told me he'd recently met Barack Obama at an event. When Ross told Obama where he was president, Obama immediately wanted to talk hoops. "That's a good team you've got there," Obama remarked. "And Steph Curry -- he's one of the best pure shooters in the country." Not bad when a presidential hopeful is taking notice. And it's not just Curry, as the sharpshooter is always quick to point out: The entire roster of McKillop-recruited players -- many from other countries -- has played instrumental roles in getting the Cats to this point.
The arena was dominated by baby blue on Sunday afternoon, though the Wildcats contingent was still strong. As the Cinderella sensation slipped away into a 15-point deficit, the crowd quieted. But when Curry and the Cats came roaring back in the second half, so did the fans. UNC folks were on their feet alongside Davidson as the Cats pulled ahead. Like Friday, they orchestrated a comeback that made the words from this season's anthem, "Sweet Caroline" -- "Good times never seemed so good" -- ring true.
At the game-ending buzzer, we screamed, cheered, laughed and hugged strangers. I felt like an extra in the bar scene in "Major League" after the Indians won the pennant. Davidson's men's basketball team made the Sweet 16. We kept repeating it, as though we still couldn't believe it was true. In the RBC Center's concourse, students gathered in a large circle for more than 20 minutes after the game, chanting and singing "Sweet Caroline." When the Davidson players emerged from the tunnel to take their seats during the UNC-Arkansas game, the entire crowd paused to give them a standing ovation. The players waved and nodded, some heading into the seats to hug their families. UNC's band played one more round of "Sweet Caroline," an ode to the Davidson crowd who sang along yet again.
After the game, the talking heads couldn't stop raving about the Cats. Dick Vitale called Curry his tourney MVP and Richards the most underrated point guard in America. On "SportsCenter," Digger Phelps called the Cats the most impressive team of the Sweet 16 and Steve Lavin named Curry the tourney's most impressive player. Online articles and newspapers across the country talked of the David-sons taking down the G-town Goliaths and the Cinderella team that did it, and the first thing I heard when I flipped on the car radio Monday was McKillop being interviewed on a national radio show.
All this for Davidson? Twenty-four hours later, it's still sinking in. As a Chapel Hill, N.C., native, I'm spoiled when it comes to college basketball. I've seen the Tar Heels win three national championships and who knows how many Sweet 16 berths. But I have to admit this journey is the sweetest. My small-school team from small-town North Carolina moves on. And with it, so does an alumni wave of pride and excitement stirred to new heights.
Before Sunday's tip-off, we stood outside the RBC Center in our Davidson T-shirts. An older gentleman came up and asked us, "Now Davidson -- where is that exactly?" We smiled, patiently answering the question one more time.
Because a few hours later, there aren't many college basketball fans who don't know. We couldn't be happier. It's a great day to be a Wildcat.
Anna K. Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.