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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Stephen Curry

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Here's what I remember most about watching Stephen Curry play basketball in the NCAA tournament. The smiles. No, not his smiles. I remember the way everyone around him smiled -- the adoring fans, the on-deadline sportswriters, the big-time announcers, the opposing cheerleaders, LeBron James, everyone.

I smiled too. You couldn't help yourself.

These weren't the normal smiles you see during March Madness, no, these were big, wide ones, the smiles of children at Disney World. Sure, every NCAA tournament has a hero, a player who emerges and scores a bunch of points or blocks a bunch of shots or makes one as the buzzer sounds. This guy was different, though. There was something about watching Steph Curry play basketball that just made everybody happy.

Maybe it was because he looked so young, like a 12-year-old kid who had been called from out of the stands. Maybe it was because he played ball for Davidson, the little school in North Carolina with the game-show host name. Davidson had a history. Back in '64, the year the Beatles hit America, a young coach named Lefty Driesell stormed the Davidson sidelines, and Sports Illustrated picked the school No. 1. Something about Davidson sparked Beatles nostalgia from the days when little schools had a chance.

Maybe it was Curry's story. College basketball, more and more, seems like a one-year layover for high school stars on their way to the NBA. None of the big schools wanted Stephen Curry. Even Virginia Tech, the place where his mother and father had both been athletic stars, only offered him a chance to walk on. He was considered too slight, too small, too delicate to play in the big time. He went to Davidson instead and, as a freshman, set the NCAA record for most three-pointers in a season. As a sophomore he led Davidson to 22 consecutive victories to end the year.

Then, for two wonderful weeks in the tournament, he showed the big schools and America what too many had forgotten: Basketball is not a science; basketball is art. He swished long, high-arching jump shots that leaped from his fingers as if pulled by a string. He had the quickest release since, well, since Dell Curry, his father, who scored more than 12,000 NBA points by getting off shots with hands in his face.

Gonzaga's defenders swarmed, but Curry scored 30 in the second half. Georgetown's players bumped and battered, but Curry scored 25 in the second half. Wisconsin had perhaps the best defense in all of college basketball, and coach Bo Ryan prepared his players for a week to make life miserable for Curry. He scored 33 points, and added four assists and four steals. Davidson kept winning.

Finally, Kansas, on its way to a national title, rotated four defenders on Curry and wore him out. Davidson had a final shot to win the game, but those Jayhawks defenders hounded Curry and made him give up that shot. Davidson lost.

"Yeah, I was tired," Curry said after the game. And he smiled. Why not? It had been so much fun.

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