Stephen Curry wouldn’t be where he is today if not for a man who once called Long Island his home. Curry said so himself on Tuesday night.
Standing at a podium during an awards ceremony in San Francisco, the Warriors star guard gave thanks to Bob McKillop, his former coach at Davidson College in North Carolina. McKillop, who moved from Queens to Merrick as a kid and played basketball at Chaminade High School and Hofstra University, began his coaching career on Long Island.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” Curry told McKillop during the Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, at which professional athletes from the Bay Area honor their coaches or mentors.
“What a magnificent feeling it was to receive this honor from arguably the greatest player on the planet,” McKillop told Newsday in a phone interview. “But I know why Stephen really is where he is. I’ve just been a piece of the puzzle. And not a big piece at all.”
A big piece of McKillop’s puzzle is Long Island.
McKillop wasn’t a starter for the Chaminade basketball team. He said he didn’t receive any basketball scholarship offers until Jack Curran, the legendary Archbishop Molloy boys basketball coach, made a phone call on his behalf. Soon he had an offer from East Carolina.
After two seasons, he felt homesick and transferred to Hofstra. He graduated in 1972 and signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia 76ers, who cut him before the season. Those 76ers went on to become the worst team in NBA history with a 9-73 record.
“I had a remarkable run as a player despite my mediocrity as a player,” McKillop said with a laugh.
McKillop assisted for a year at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville before being named the head coach. His first stint at Davidson came in 1978, serving as an assistant for a season before deciding it wasn’t the right fit for him at the time.
He then was offered the head- coaching position at Long Island Lutheran and earned five state championships in 10 years.
“I have nothing but fond memories of Long Island,” said McKillop, 65. “I’m where I am now because of everything all of the administrators and teachers and students taught me.”
McKillop became friends with Terry Holland, the former Davidson and University of Virginia coach who recruited LuHi players such as Bill Wennington. When Holland became the Davidson athletic director, he offered the head-coaching job to McKillop in 1989.
He since has had the court named after him, won more than 500 games and guided the team to the NCAA Tournament eight times. He perhaps is best known for Davidson’s Cinderella run to the Elite Eight in 2008, with Curry leading the way.
“Magic,” McKillop said of the experience. “I flip through photos and I watch clips and it brings tears to my eyes. The emotion from that time period is unparalleled in my life.”
In the late 1990s, McKillop spent his summer weekends watching his 10-year-old son’s baseball team. The team won a state championship thanks in part to a talented centerfielder named . . . Stephen Curry.
“People say Steph could be on the pro golf tour if he focused on golf; well, he’d have a shot at the majors if he had focused on baseball,” McKillop said. “I got to know his family. I had a great exposure to him when he was young.”
About a 40-minute drive south of Curry’s high school, Charlotte Christian, is Davidson College. McKillop regularly watched Curry play, constantly scanning the stands to see if other college coaches were in attendance. More often than not, they weren’t. Whether it was because Curry was too short, too skinny or too baby-faced, he was not highly recruited.
Was McKillop surprised?
“Maybe it would be better to say I was delighted,” he said, “because we knew how special he was. Being 30 minutes away and seeing him play as much as we did was a great asset for us in the recruiting process.”
Curry committed to Davidson, a small liberal arts school that more commonly produced Rhodes Scholars than NBA players. He showed up a few minutes late for his first practice and McKillop threw him out.
“I told him he had to find another place to practice because he wasn’t practicing with us that day,” McKillop recalled. “He never showed up late again.”
Curry committed 13 turnovers in his first game for Davidson, but McKillop refused to bench his freshman point guard. From that point on, McKillop said, a fire was sparked within Curry that has been raging ever since. In the next game, Curry dropped 32 points on Michigan.
“After Stephen spent two weeks on campus, I went to an alumni event and told the alums that we had this freshman that was going to be a program-changer,” McKillop said of Curry, who led the nation in scoring as a junior at 28.6 points per game.
As a sophomore, Curry helped Davidson earn its first NCAA Tournament win since 1969, hitting eight three-pointers and scoring 40 points to lead the 10th-seeded Wildcats over No. 7 Gonzaga. He then scored 25 second-half points as Davidson came back to upset No. 2 Georgetown. He had 33 points in a win over No. 3 Wisconsin to send Davidson to the Elite Eight, where the Wildcats fell to eventual champion Kansas.
Said McKillop, “He took a leading role in our show as a freshman, he had that role for three years, and he moved us from the off-Broadway theater on Sullivan Street to the Majestic Theatre on Broadway.”
On Curry’s wrist, just beneath one of the two most dangerous hands in basketball, is a tattoo that says “TCC.” It stands for “Trust. Commitment. Care.” It’s a mantra he learned from McKillop.
The lasting impression that McKillop made on the reigning NBA MVP and NBA champion is evident — not just by the tattoo on Curry’s wrist but by his words on Tuesday.
McKillop, who gave Curry a chance when most coaches wouldn’t, says Curry is where he is today not because of the coach but because of his talent, his work ethic and the support of his family. And he insists that it’s Curry who makes coaches look good, not the other way around.
“Steph,” McKillop joked, “could make the devil look like an angel.”