Legendary American basketball coach Bob McKillop may be 69 next month, but he’s already signed a new five-year contract as head coach at Atlantic 10 over-achievers Davidson. Not that the length of the deal really matters. ‘Bob can coach here as long as he wants,’ Davidson athletics director Chris Clunie says. ‘He’s earned that right.’ Steph Curry would agree. Or Stephen, as the man who taught him everything, would call him.
“What did you learn from him?”
“He gave me all the confidence in the world, in terms of what I could be — in terms of being a man, the balance of on-the-court and off-the-court expectations. And he was an example of that every day.”
— Stephen Curry on Bob McKillop, for Tom Junod’s acclaimed May 2019 ESPN magazine piece, ‘Inside the relationship that unleashed Stephen Curry’s greatness’
Before we go inside and talk about everything from Vietnam to a certain number 30 who plays for the Golden State Warriors, Bob McKillop heartily greets you outside a Killarney hotel and introduces you to another man who, just like Mr Curry, played both for the Warriors and Davidson College.
To the porter by the door, Fred Hetzel might appear just another American septuagenarian, probably here on some golf tour. But he’s not. As McKillop informs you, in 1965, Fred here went number one in the NBA draft. Wow, Fred, you remark, that must mean you went head-to-head with Wilt Chamberlain, the behemoth who famously scored 100 points in a game.
“Yeah,” breezes Hetzel, “I held him to 62.”
As you’re still smiling, McKillop stops another man going by in a beige baseball jacket. Hey, Dick. This is Dick Snyder, another member of Lefty Driessel’s great Davidson team of the 1960s and the 14th pick of the 1966 NBA draft. And just like Hetzel, Snyder is charmingly self-effacing.
No mention from him that he was once among the top five in the entire NBA in both field goal and free-throw percentage, or that 40 years ago, he stood on a podium with the Seattle Supersonics with the same championship trophy that the Warriors and the Toronto Raptors are tussling for right now.
This isn’t a golf tour, or your usual kind of touring party. Instead it’s a Davidson College alumni trip, fully booked up, largely because the man that their alma mater’s indoor arena is named after has signed up to act as their de facto chaperone. Bob McKillop is one of the most respected coaches in all of basketball, for how he has taken one of the smallest colleges in all of America and elevated it to compete with the superpowers of the sport.
And, of course, he’s the only coach who recruited a scrawny, undersized kid called Stephen Curry out of high school who happened to blossom into the greatest shooter the sport has known and completely transform how it is played today. For McKillop, though, the honour of being on this trip with the likes of Hetzel and Snyder is all his.
“It’s incredible,” he says, “because these were my heroes.” Though he grew up in Queens, New York, the Davidson team of the ‘60s fascinated him.
“To me, it’s still the greatest story in the history of American college basketball. What John Wooden did with UCLA was tremendous, but Davidson had just a thousand men.
“Their academic standards were equal to Princeton and Harvard. Yet at one point, they were ranked number one [in basketball] in the nation. And these guys [Hetzel and Synder] were the foundation of that programme.”
And what makes the trip all the more special for him is that it is in Ireland. He’s long had a kinship with the country, just as its hoops community has long had a special place in its heart for him.
As the surname suggests, his grandparents hailed from the glens of Antrim, and ever since he was asked over to give a clinic in the mid-1990s by the then national team coach Enda Byrt, he’s been a regular visitor to the old sod.
He’s befriended and influenced multiple coaches such as Adrian Fulton, Paul Kelleher, Pat Price, Joey Boylan, Joe Coughlan, Deirdre Brennan, and her husband Gareth Maguire, as well as the effervescent Puff Summers, one of his former players at Davidson, but now a player-coach here.
He even came here to recruit some players. Both Michael Bree from Sligo and Conor Grace from Dublin went on to captain Davidson and to this day, McKillop hails them as key architects in establishing the culture which Davidson enjoys today. They were among the giants whose shoulders a Steph Curry stood upon. And, of course, he now has taken it to another stratosphere, another firmament.
“Stephen Curry has been our imprimatur,” says McKillop when we take our table. “And I use that term all the time. You know the way the Pope stamps his approval on a book? Well, Stephen Curry is our pope. He has stamped the approval on Davidson basketball.”
To which Curry — whose Golden State Warriors are locked in battle with Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals, — would probably say, Sure why wouldn’t I, when you and Davidson practically wrote my bible?
“So much of it was his [Curry’s] size. Who knew? McKillop knew. I wish I knew… He’s a phenomenal coach.”
—Mike ‘Coach K’ Krzyzewski, three-time Olympic-winning coach to Team USA and five-time NCAA champion with Duke
KS: In that excellent piece Tom Junod did for ESPN last month, he didn’t just ask Steph what he learned from you — to which his response was “Everything” — but he asked what you might have learned from him. Steph said, “You’d have to ask him.” So what did you learn from Steph?
BMcK: Confidence and humility. And freedom and discipline.
KS: What? That they can be bedfellows rather than polar opposites on a spectrum?
BMcK: Yes. The two keys to Stephen Curry is the tremendous balance in his life between confidence and humility, and freedom and discipline. Everyone want freedom. Kids today, the culture is all about freedom — to do this, to do that. But before freedom comes discipline. Stephen Curry wanted freedom to shoot the ball but Stephen Curry had the discipline to practise to the point of [attaining] perfection to shoot the ball.
KS: So he had to earn the right to that freedom.
BMcK: Exactly. He earned the licence [to shoot]. That’s the term we’d use.
KS: You knew him from when he was as young as 10, playing baseball with your son.
BMcK: Yeah, Brendan and Stephen played baseball and basketball together for the same AAU team. Stephen was really good at baseball. If he’d decided at that point in his life that he was going to focus on baseball, I don’t exactly know if he’d have gone on to be as good at it as he is right now at basketball, but he’d have been at a professional level in baseball. He was that good.
KS: What kind of kid was he back then?
BMcK: He had tremendous poise. And he was mischievous. A rascal.
KS: In what way?
BMcK: In a playful way. He’d put a glass over the edge of the table so that the glass would just pour on somebody. That kinda thing.
KS: When you were watching him as a high school player, what did you see in him that everyone else missed?
BMcK: Probably the standout trait was that he would miss a shot and it would not affect the next play. He would make a bad pass and it would not affect the next play. A teammate wouldn’t throw him the ball and it would not affect the next play. The referee would make a bad call. It would not affect the next play. He had this mindfulness that allowed him to live in the present moment which at that age was absolutely extraordinary. We have great performers right now in American sport. Tom Brady is a classic example: this capacity to be present and live totally in the moment. Stephen Curry had that at 16, 17 years old.
KS: But the other schools…
BMcK: They didn’t look at that stuff. They looked at his baby face, the way those long uniforms back in those days hung on him like drapes on a window. When someone lifts weights, they tend to look in the mirror and look at their muscles and see if they’re getting any bigger. But what they don’t see is what’s in the heart. And that’s what a lot of people misjudged about Stephen Curry. They looked at his muscular definition rather than his heart’s muscular definition.
KS: So how did you see it?
BMcK: You watched the way he responded when a coach yelled at him. The body language was perfect. He’d just look at him in the eye. A lot of players today, they’re like this [mimics avoidance of eye contact]. He was connected with his coach, trying to get better.
KS: Were you at that point going, “I can’t believe our luck here!”? The only other people to even look at him were his dad’s alma mater, Virginia Tech, and they were only offering him a spot as a walk-on [no scholarship].
BMcK: I could not believe that people were not recruiting him.
KS: So the likes of Duke and North Carolina, on your and his doorstep, they’re not even looking at this guy?
BMcK: Not even close. [He’s] not even on their radar.
KS: Puff Summers talks about when Steph first showed up at Davidson and….
BMcK: When I threw him [Curry] out of practice?
KS: No! I didn’t hear that one! What happened there?
BMcK: His first practice, I threw him out. Because he came late.
KS: No warning? No, “In future…”?
BMcK: He was three minutes late, so I told him, “You can’t practise today. Come back tomorrow.’” I want players to think that practice is a privilege. And if you don’t want to be disciplined, then you can’t have the gift and the freedom of practising.
KS: How did he respond?
BMcK: [Smiles] Next day he was at practice early and was a killer.
KS: You’ve said that he had a shot before you ever worked with him, that you didn’t need to teach him that, his father Dell [a former NBA player] and others already had.
KS: So as a coach, what had you to do?
BMcK: To just recognise what we had. He was taking shots that most guys could not take. But he was making them! And I knew that if I pulled him back, I would be limiting him.
KS: Would you ever him pull him up on his shot selection?
BMcK: No. He’d earned the licence right from day one. And he had his teammates believing in him. His second game in a college uniform, he scored 32 points. Against Michigan. Now, this is an 18-year-old, from Davidson College.
Yet afterwards when he was asked by the media about his performance, his response was something like, “Well, I would never had any of those shots unless Thomas Sander and Andrew Lovedale and Boris Meno screened for me. And I probably would never even have got the ball unless Jason Richards and Max Paulhus Gosselin passed to me.”
That was the confidence-humility factor right there. He was not taught that at 18 or 19 by us. He got that from his mother and from his father. And that was part of what attracted us to him. He was just that way.
And he’s still that way with the Golden State Warriors. Kevin Durant needs the ball, [Stephen] gets it to him. He doesn’t say, “I’m Steph Curry, I’m not passing you the ball.”
I agree with that description — if you remove the ‘et’ from ‘asset’.
— Stephen Curry, February 2017, responding to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank describing Donald Trump as “a real asset to the country
“When I think of Coach McKillop, there are three words that come to mind and that’s trust, commitment and care. The way he coaches his players, he really cares about them to his core, not just as basketball players but as human beings and sending them off into the world much better men. I’ll be forever grateful for that. I can’t say enough how great of a man he is and what he has done for me in my life and Davidson College as a whole.”
— Stephen Curry, October 2017
Almost 50 years ago, Bob McKillop majored in history but didn’t live it. The summer before his senior year, he was called for a mandatory physical to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, only to fail it. Even though I was a collegiate basketball player, I had a subluxated shoulder. They laid me on my back, asked me to lift this weight, and my shoulder came right out of the socket.”
With a father who had served as a New York cop, was he disappointed or relieved? What do you think?
“Well, most of the people my age who were going into the draft were getting killed. I had close friends that went over and never came back. And those that did never came back as they were.”
By the time Saigon had fallen, McKillop was teaching history and coaching basketball in a Long Island high school. Initially he specialised in European history but soon copped that the kids would be more intrigued about the exploits of Muhammad Ali and Tommy Smith and John Carlos than Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, so he created a course for them: sport in American history and society.
Now in his 30th year as Davidson College head coach, he no longer teaches history or sociology but he remains passionate about such things. At one stretch in our conversation, he laments everything from Neville Chamberlain and the Munich pact — “Are you kidding me?” — to British imperialism — “How could such a great country subjugate people like it did in its colonies? How could they do what they did to the Irish?” — and slavery —— “How could America do what it did to the blacks?”
Such episodes offend his ideas of leadership and decency. There’s something almost presidential about McKillop, in the Jed Bartlet, not Trump, mould, that is. Outside of declaring a similar political party allegiance, he ticks almost every box that Aaron Sorkin’s central character did — white-haired, fresh, blue-eyed, dapper, and staunchly Catholic, with a fierce intellectual as well as moral rigour.
For him, for Davidson, education is everything. Doesn’t matter how good you are at hoops, you’re expected to graduate. And in his 30 years as the college’s basketball coach, all but one of his players has graduated.
The exception is Curry, who entered the NBA after his third year. But, McKillop points out, Stephen —— he rarely refers to him as Steph — is just a few credits short of completing his degree in sociology. Until he gets that scroll, Curry can’t have his jersey retired and hung from the rafters of McKillop Court — that’s just the Davidson way — but that doesn’t mean McKillop thinks any less than him.
Actually, to play on something Oliver Stone once wrote, a bit of Stephen Curry could save that currently malfunctioning entity called the USA.
KS: Paul Kelleher tells the story of him being a young coach at one of your summer camps, rocking up in flip-flops, and you tapping him on the shoulder when he made some comment about the other coaches’ obsession with what they wore. “Paul,” you said to him, “sloppiness is a disease.” What do you mean by that?
BMcK: Well, when our players go on the road to play a game, they have to clean their hotel room before they leave.
KS: This sounds like the All Blacks with their sweeping the sheds.
BMcK: I know of who they are. I’ve read some of those excerpts. But we’ve been doing this a long, long time. So, before they leave their hotel room, they can’t have a box from Domino’s Pizza or a Gatorade bottle laying on a table or floor, or towels thrown everywhere.
Put your towels tidily in one location, put all your garbage in the garbage can. Understand someone has to clean this up. Show them respect. I read this speech a Navy Seal [Admiral William McRaven] gave at the University of Texas and he said you should make your own bed every morning because that way you’ve already accomplished something.
Well, it’s the same with your hotel room. Sloppiness is a disease. But tidiness is a sign of respect. If you’re willing to put your garbage in the trash can, you’ve accomplished something. You’ve given the gift of respect to somebody.
But it’s easier for me to [instil] this because I’ve been there [at Davidson] for 30 years. We don’t have a team, we don’t have a programme, we have a culture. There is a tremendous difference between a team, a programme, and a culture.
You can have a [political] party, you can have an administration, or you can have a culture. So there could be a Republican party, there can be a Reagan administration, but there can also be a culture. And we don’t have that in America.
KS: Where is America right now?
BMK: [Pauses] America is in the same place as the rest of the world is.
KS: And does that worry you? Should we be worried?
BMcK: America needs what Stephen Curry has. Confidence but humility. We have no humility in our leadership in America. None. And we haven’t had humility in our leadership in many, many years. You know, Che Guevera said one of the most fascinating comments I’ve heard about leadership.
“One has to grow hard but without ever losing tenderness.” That’s one of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard.
KS:So translate. What’s that in action?
BMcK: Well, as a coach, you have to demand accountability from your players…
KS: Like pulling Steph up when he was late…
BMcK: But you cannot give up your willingness to care about them. And that story Tom Junod wrote [for ESPN] about was a classic example of that. Tim Timlin was an absolutely terrific basketball player but I was more concerned with being tough than being tender. And we lost him. He quit basketball and played football instead. That haunted me for years.
KS: Well, at the time, the most prevalent view of leadership was that of the autocratic coach, the likes of Vince Lombardi, rightly or wrongly, being the archetype.
BMcK: Or Bobby Knight.
KS: Whereas now it’s more player-centred, as you now champion. Would you be more into the implicit coaching style that’s now more prevalent than explicit coaching? Do you ask more questions now in your coaching than you would have 20 years ago?
BMcK:I wish I could have coached Michael [Bree] and Conor [Grace] the way I do now.
KS: You were still coaching Conor only as recently as 2005. Has your coaching changed that much even in that time frame?
BMcK:Yeah! [Smiles]. I was really tough on Conor. I was really on Michael.
KS: Did you yell?
BMcK: [Smiles and winces] Oh God, did I yell!
KS: Okay, so there’s a desired behaviour you want, but to get the desired behaviour, you go about in a different way. How?
BMcK: I called out Conor one day in a meeting, saying I didn’t think he had worked hard enough over the summer when he was away from Davidson. That was something that I should have talked about with him privately at first instead of just calling him out there in front of his teammates. I regret that. [Solemnly pauses]
KS: Have you ever told him that?
BMcK: No. He came to me alright and told me that he felt that I went overboard when I did that.
KS: So were you right in what you were saying, you just went the wrong way about it?
KS: So what way would you have done it differently? How would you do it now?
BMcK: I would have explained it to him before I called him out.
KS: So by letting him in on it, you were showing him some respect, and by challenging him in front of the group, you were sending the signal that “If I can go at Conor, I can go at all of you”?
BMcK: [Smiles] That’s what I should have done.
KS: What’s it like competing in the NCAA at the moment? Especially with neighbouring colleges adopting a one-and-done recruiting policy, hovering up NBA talent for the year?
BMcK: I don’t borrow many comments from Francis but I will borrow this one…
KS: Francis, as in the Pope or [Irish basketball coach and lifer] Francis O’Sullivan?!
BMcK: Pope Francis, though sometimes I don’t know who is the more serene! Francis once said, “Who am I judge?” I think we are in the world where there are too many judgements made. And judgements tend to be more hurtful than helpful.
The biggest challenge that the youth in our society in America faces today is the anxiety challenge. And the anxiety challenge is exacerbated because they are being judged almost 24 hours a day on social media, with people questioning what they look like, how they acted, what their size is, what clothes they wear, how intelligently they speak, what grades they got, how they performed in a basketball game.
We are in such a judgemental mode because judging people makes us feel powerful. We are all becoming gods. But ultimately it is God almighty who judges us. Not my neighbour. I’m becoming very philosophical there! Excuse me!
KS: Well, talking about the challenges of 18-year-olds. You’re well in your 60s now, yet that is the demographic you’ve to recruit and deal with. How do you connect with them?
BMcK: I’m fortunate that I have a great group of assistant coaches. I’ve purposefully hired younger coaches. They may not be as experienced but they have a sense of the culture of today. And they tune me into the pressures of social media and the mentality that kids have today. It’s an incredible asset to have, just as it is that they have come through our system. Three of our coaches played for me.
KS: So they know the Davidson Way and…
BMcK: And they also know the contemporary way. They coach me through that. So I’m a coach who is being coached by his assistant coaches. That’s wonderful.
KS: Well, speaking of former players, have you heard recently from Michael [Bree] or Conor [Grace]?
BMcK: They’d be examples of players I’d converse with about once a month.
KS: That often??
BMcK: We say [at Davidson], there is no limits to eligibility. Once their basketball eligibility ends, the relationship between them and me does not end. Of course, there are certain guys who don’t always stay in touch with you because that’s just the nature of who they are and the way life goes.
KS: Well, how are the two of them?
BMcK: They’re both wonderful. Any player we take in, we want them to prepare them to be a great teammate, a great father, a great spouse, a great worker. And I look at Michael now and he is a tremendous success.
He’s in Gothenburg, with a lovely wife, a tremendous marriage, two wonderful kids, Michaela and Cillian, who just had their first Communion. He loves what he’s doing. I look at Conor. He’s in Kingston, Jamaica now, working for [an] Irish cellular company.
They both took their game to the limit, collegiately and professionally, and now they’ve moved on to the next phase of their life. That is the greatest thing that a coach can experience. And I have so many of our players that have gone through the same experience.
Stephen is obviously still going through his [playing] experience. But already he’s a great father, a great husband, a great sibling, a great son, as well as a great teammate. I mean, he does it all.
KS: And when did you last communicate with him?
BMcK: About a week ago. I texted him that I needed a ticket for [last] Thursday’s game [Game 1 of the NBA finals] but now I have to text him that I can’t get there! Maybe if there’s a Game 5 or 6!