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My mother and my sixteen-year-old brother, Luke, and I were headed south, our blue minivan crammed so full of pillows, bedclothes, lamps, totes, and duffel bags that the rearview mirror was useless for anything except making sure Luke's scruffy blond head was still poking through the clutter. The late August sun beat down hard. Two and a half years earlier I'd learned how to drive in this van. Now I was riding in it to college.
We trundled down Interstate 77, and I gazed out the window at the smooth lake stretching from either side of the highway and the sweeping, many-windowed houses that bloomed regally from its banks. Mom eased us off the highway to the Davidson/Davidson College exit, Exit 30, chatting about the lake. She loved that lake. So many people loved Lake Norman, we heard, that traffic on the interstate sometimes backed up because people slowed down their cars just to gape at it.
"I wonder if the coaches will be there to help us move you in," my mom mused cheerfully.
The coaches. My coaches. Deborah Katz, the Davidson women's basketball head coach, and her three brand-new assistants, all of whom she'd just hired that summer after the three assistants who recruited me quit in the spring. They said they would help us win our conference championship and get a bid to the program's first-ever Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament, the "Big Dance," the deepest dream of thousands of teenage hoopsters around the country, including me. Coach Katz told me I would be a big part of the team's success. I couldn't wait to be a Davidson Wildcat.
I grew up the oldest of five children and the only girl. Our childhood was cozy and raucous and colorful. I once had two Barbies, and I tore their heads off in my bedroom closet. My brothers and I preferred Matchbox cars. Instead of using knives at the kitchen table, we cut our food — pancakes, chicken, spaghetti — with a pair of scissors because there were so many of us and it was quicker that way.
Luke and I, the oldest siblings, spent much of our childhood in the bleachers of the gym at Saint Francis University, a liberal-arts college in the mountains of west-central Pennsylvania where we grew up. Our father, who'd been a high school basketball star in his tiny hometown of Corry, Pennsylvania, was a communications professor at Saint Francis. Because it was a small Division I school and he loved the sport, he got to know the basketball players and coaches and brought our family to their games. Luke and I obsessed over the Red Flash. We adored Sotiris Aggelou, a three-point-shooting whiz from Greece on the men's team, and Jess Zinobile, a star on the women's team who jumped for rebounds like a mermaid erupting from the ocean.
I relished those evenings, tucked snugly in the old wooden bleachers with my parents and brothers and sometimes a friend or two. We had concession-stand nachos and root beer for dinner and soaked in the electricity of what felt like a huge, passionate crowd. We watched the strange Saint Francis mascot, a plush Franciscan friar with brown robes and a huge round mascot's head, doing his goofy friar-mascot dance.
There are thirty-two leagues, also called conferences, in Division I women's basketball. In small conferences like Saint Francis's Northeast Conference (NEC), nicknamed "one-bid leagues," usually only the team that wins the conference tournament championship earns a bid to the NCAA Tournament at the end of each season. This tournament was supposed to be a collection of the best sixty-four teams in the country that then played for a national title, so the more competitive conferences sent more teams.
When I was a kid the Saint Francis women's basketball team dominated their conference. In 1996, when I was six years old, they won their first NEC Tournament Championship and went to the NCAA Tournament. Over the next four seasons, they won four more NEC Championships. By the time I was fourteen and decided that I, too, wanted to be a Division I basketball player, they'd won eight. They never won a game in the Big Dance, but they went.
I loved basketball more than almost anything else in the world. I wanted to go to college on a full scholarship, which I could do if I played Division I, to help out my parents, who had a lot of kids to put through school. Most of all, I wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament. It was a dream — a trip on an airplane (I had never been on an airplane) to a faraway city, national television coverage, the chance to play as one of the best sixty-four teams in the country.
As my mom, Luke, and I rode through downtown Davidson, I couldn't wait to see Olivia and Taylor again. The three of us, all part of the same recruiting class, had been looking forward to this since we came on our official visits to Davidson at the same time, in September of the previous year.
Olivia and I had known each other even before that. We'd played on the same traveling AAU basketball team, based near Pittsburgh, the previous summer. It was because Davidson's coaches were recruiting Olivia that they saw me. A few months later, Taylor, Olivia, and I applied early decision to Davidson, our scholarship offers contingent on our admission to the school. In mid-November of our senior year of high school, two months after our visit, we signed National Letters of Intent to play basketball at Davidson College. The NLI is a contract between a future Division I or II student-athlete and the NCAA in which the athlete agrees that, upon admission to the school, she will stay there for one year. In turn the university agrees to give her some financial aid. Most athletic scholarships are year by year; the NLI is binding only for the first year.
The Davidson women's basketball team had at that point only once made it past the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament. (That was in 1999, when they lost to Appalachian State in the finals.) They had never made the Big Dance. I didn't commit there because the program had a tradition of excellence and championships — it didn't. It had a tradition of being near the top half of the middle of the pack. But I fell in love with the campus and its people, and I believed, deep in my heart, that we were an underdog on the prowl. Coach Katz had helped convince me that with this new freshman class, the team had all the talent we would need to surprise everyone — win the Southern Conference and go to the Big Dance. After all, the Davidson men's team had done it. Why couldn't we?
In March of our senior year of high school, after Taylor, Olivia, and I had signed our letters and been accepted, Elon University beat the Davidson women in the first round of the Southern Conference Tournament and eliminated them. Davidson finished its season with a record of 19-11. The Davidson men's basketball team was still playing.
That year the Davidson men won their third straight and tenth total Southern Conference Championship. Because the Southern Conference was weaker than many other Division I conferences, it was, like the NEC, known as a "one-bid league" for both men and women. Davidson headed to the Big Dance as the Southern Conference representative. As a ten seed in their bracket, the Davidson men were obvious underdogs. They faced seventh-seeded Gonzaga in their first-round game and won, a minor upset. Then they played second-seeded Georgetown, fell behind by seventeen points in the second half, and pulled off an incredible comeback victory to upset the Hoyas and advance to the round of the sixteen remaining teams, affectionately known as the Sweet Sixteen. This was such a big deal that Davidson College's trustees, in an extraordinary move that a bigger school couldn't have pulled off, personally paid for the buses, lodging, and tickets of several hundred Davidson students to watch the next game against Wisconsin in Detroit, 610 miles away from campus.
Olivia Lowery had just gotten off a plane in Pennsylvania one morning in March when she checked her phone and found a voice mail from Taylor Patton, who was driving to Detroit with her dad and a friend and wanted Olivia to come. Coach Roe, an assistant for the women's team, had gotten them tickets to the men's Sweet Sixteen game.
"You're going," Olivia's mom said.
They called me from the students' hotel in Detroit after Davidson's 73–56 trouncing of second-seeded national powerhouse Wisconsin. National Basketball Association (NBA) star LeBron James, wanting a better look at the Cinderella team of the season, had sat behind Davidson's bench that game. The Wildcats would stay in the city to play top-seeded Kansas in the quarterfinal round, the Elite Eight, two days later. Davidson basketball fans were in a state of gleeful shock.
"You have to get here for the Kansas game somehow!" Olivia yelled to me over the phone when I picked up. In the background I could hear loud, excited chatter and a thumping bass.
"Hi, Amanda!" a chorus of voices hollered. "Come to Detroit!"
I grinned into my flip phone. College kids wanted me to come hang out with them! The next day I rode my first Greyhound bus by myself, 286 miles northwest from Pittsburgh to Detroit.
Most of the players on the Davidson women's basketball team were there. They'd ridden the buses paid for by the trustees and brought their Davidson basketball practice jerseys to wear to the games, establishing their presence, announcing their existence to the world. They were almost celebrities, famous by association, these tall, powerful women who shared a basketball court with the Davidson men. I was in awe of them. I was somehow one of them.
At a restaurant near the arena before the regional final against Kansas, two middle-aged men spotted Olivia, Taylor, and me in our Davidson gear. "You ladies are tall," they said. All three of us were around six feet. "Are you basketball players, too?" When we proudly told them yes, we were high school seniors who would play for the Davidson women's basketball team in the fall, they asked to get their picture taken with us.
Those two men in the restaurant were not the only strangers fascinated by Davidson. It was the only Division I school in the country that also consistently ranked in the top-ten liberal-arts colleges. Sports journalists and basketball fans across the country fell in love with the smart, hustling Wildcats. They were enamored of sophomore guard Stephen Curry, whose jersey hung loose from his slim shoulders like a shirt off a clothesline, who was a genuinely good kid, and who scored 103 points in the team's first three tournament games.
Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions usually played, had been converted into a basketball arena and rocked now with the tones of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," the team's unofficial anthem, the song Davidson's pep band always played during the second half. The New York Times ran a story on the team, quoting that song in the headline — "Good Times Never Seemed So Good." Davidson graduate and writer Michael Kruse gushed that Stephen Curry was "the kind of face America loves to love." The pep band played the school's fight song. The cheerleaders spelled out "C-A-T-S" with their pom-poms for the ESPN cameras.
Davidson's small sports information office was overwhelmed with media requests. In less than two days they had received 332 email requests for interviews with Coach Bob McKillop alone. The idea that a team from Davidson College — a tiny, bookish school that held its athletes accountable for their grades — could compete on the same court with a nationally ranked perennial power like Kansas was news. Davidson College players went to class, lived on campus, and ate in the cafeteria with everybody else in the student body of nearly 1,700, graduated at a rate of 100 percent for every senior who passed through McKillop's program, and followed the school's strict Honor Code: no lying, cheating, or stealing.
Davidson, the lakeside town of ten thousand people that had grown around the college since its founding in 1837, had long adored its men's basketball program. The team had a history of success. Dean Rusk played varsity basketball at Davidson in the late 1920s and later became U.S. secretary of state. Coaching legend Lefty Driesell guided the team through the 1960s — when the school had an all-male student body — to three conference championships, three trips to the NCAA Tournament. He coached two Davidson teams that nearly made the Final Four. The head coach now was McKillop, who, in his nineteenth season at Davidson, had been at the school longer than any other coach. He and his wife sent all three of their children to Davidson and lived across the street from campus, next door to a Harvard PhD named Cynthia Lewis, who taught in the English Department and would later become one of my favorite professors. The "townies," as Davidson students called the townspeople, knew the players on the men's basketball team personally. They saw them over sandwiches at the Soda Shop on Main Street. They met their parents at games. They taught them in class and chatted them up around campus and at church.
Some of the townies were professors, and others worked in Charlotte's booming finance industry, twenty-some miles south. They lived in bright, spacious houses; dressed in crisp, well-made clothes; and on weekends brought their babies out to breakfast at the homey, sunny restaurant near the Soda Shop. People talked with just a kiss of drawl and smiled and said, "Hey, how ya doin'?" when you walked past them. You could leave your laptop on the table outside the coffee shop and nobody would touch it, because nobody needed one. Davidson was a bubble full of good, comfortable, happy people, and in 2008 this bubble lit onto the men's basketball team with earnest enthusiasm. Their home, now being described by the national media as a picturesque and "sleepy little town" in the South, home of tiny Davidson's David in all his Goliath-trampling glory, was a hard place to describe to others. Now they could just point to the television. "This is Davidson," they could say. "These are our boys."
The people of Davidson, for the most part, adored the students of Davidson College, athletes or not — women's basketball players were greeted warmly on the street and in restaurants, too. The men were different, though. They represented their town to the nation.
The women's basketball team considered the men's players to be like their brothers. They shared a gym and a training room and hung out on school breaks when both teams were stuck on campus for practice. Players went to Taco Bell together at night and did karaoke together, and they had TV nights together when they were all too tired to do anything else.
In the students' hotel the night before the Kansas game, the mood was ebullient. A drunk Phi Delt wearing a blond mullet wig sprinted across the lobby and belly-flopped into the decorative fountain.
If Davidson lost to number-one-seed Kansas the next day, their season would be over. If they won, they would advance to the national semifinals, the Final Four, and be the first tenth seed ever to do it.
We had seats near the floor in the huge arena. "Davidson College ... Google It," one student's sign read. "why not?" another asked. "I know where Davidson is, but where is Kansas?" a third wondered.
The game was close all the way through, and the crowd buzzed with a palpable energy. With under a minute left and Davidson down five, Stephen hit a quick long three on an out-of-bounds play to make the score 59–57. The place exploded again as Davidson played an entire shot clock's worth of defense and a Kansas shot clanged off the rim, out-of-bounds.
Davidson ball, 16.8 seconds left. Down two. Would Stephen take the last shot, even though all five Kansas players and all fifty-eight thousand fans expected that? Would it be a three-pointer for the win, or would he look to dish or drive inside for a layup and send the game to overtime? Next to Olivia and Taylor, I squinted at the court and adjusted my backward Davidson baseball cap nervously as Stephen trotted the ball up the floor.
He dribbled left off a Thomas Sander screen and got double-teamed at the top of the key. Thomas set him another screen, and Stephen turned off it into another double-team and got stuck on the right side of the court, in NBA three-point range, with three seconds left.
It was a shot Stephen had made before, but the Kansas players were all over him. He dished to point guard Jason Richards. With 1.5 seconds left in the game, Jason put up a long three from the top of the key.
Every Davidson fan leaned forward and gasped. I smacked both hands to my forehead. The ball soared up and up and up and bricked hard to the left of the rim. The buzzer sounded. Kansas 59, Davidson 57.