Looking Back... Virginia Tech's Dell Curry
Dec. 5, 2007
"I always thought I was a better baseball player but my father told me I was going to college and that was it."
Dell Curry was indeed a pretty good baseball player. In the spring of 1982, he had led Fort Defiance High School to the Virginia state 2-A championship in baseball and the hard-throwing right-hander had professional suitors in the sport. But he also led the same school to the 1980 state championship in basketball. By his senior year in 1982, he was a McDonald's and Parade All-American in basketball with his pick of college programs. In the end academics and college basketball won out over professional baseball.
Curry grew up in the tiny community of Grottoes, Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He had four older sisters. His father, Jack, was delighted when a son showed up and the two "spent as much time as possible playing sports, fishing, being together."
The highly-recruited prepster came down to Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, NC State, and Virginia Tech, all nearby schools. "It was important to me that I pick a school close enough for my parents to see me play," says Curry. "I had grown up an ACC fan. But none of the ACC schools was an exact fit. Virginia Tech was. I got along great with Coach Moir, it seemed like a family, and I knew I would have a chance to play right away."
Moir says, "We got involved with Dell early and went to see him every chance we had. We got in really solid with his family, and he had a great family. His parents traveled with us so much we thought of them as members of the program."
The 6'4" Curry came in as the head of a talented class that also included big men Bob Beecher and Keith Colbert. Virginia Tech was in the Metro Conference in those days. That might not mean much to younger fans today but the Metro was a tough circuit that included Louisville, Memphis State, Florida State, and Cincinnati.
The youngsters proved their mettle, teaming with sophomore Al Young to lead Tech to a 23-11 mark that included a 69-56 win over Keith Lee and top-ranked Memphis State. The Hokies ended the season in the NIT, where they defeated William & Mary before losing to South Carolina. Curry averaged 14.5 points per game as a freshman.
His sophomore year was even better. By that point Curry had emerged as one of the nation's top perimeter shooters. Moir says, "He had unlimited range and a quick release. He would start making shots from almost out of bounds. Opposing coaches would look at me and hold their arms out as if to say `What can I do?' The only problem was that he didn't shoot as much as we wanted him to. He had great court vision and was a team player, so he was always looking for the open man."
Beecher adds, "Dell gave us great inside-outside balance. Most of his shots were outside today's three-point line. His range was so great and his release so quick, that he couldn't be guarded. Dell would hit outside and it would open it up for us inside. Then we'd score inside and it would open it up for him. If we were shooting well, we could beat anybody in the country. If we weren't, anybody could beat us, but there were very, very few games when we didn't shoot well."
Curry's shooting prowess obscured his other abilities. He maintains, "I always thought of myself as a pretty good player, not just a pretty good shooter."
He was a solid passer, averaging over three assists per game for his career. Curry led Tech in steals in 1983, 1984, and 1986 and is the school's career leader with 295. Curry says, "I wasn't the greatest one-on-one defender. But I had long arms and liked to gamble on defense, so I could come up with steals."
Moir maintains, "We held Dell back defensively because we needed him on the floor as many minutes as possible. We couldn't risk having him get in foul trouble, but we would turn him loose when we could and he could stop people." The keeping-Curry-on-the-floor part worked; He played a school-record 4,275 minutes, including 37 minutes per game as a senior.
Curry's 19.3 points per game helped him make first-team All-Metro in 1984 and led Tech to a 22-13 record and a deep run in the NIT. He and Perry Young scored 19 points to lead Virginia Tech to a 77-74 win over Georgia Tech in the NIT opener. The Hokies edged South Alabama 68-66 in the next game on a last-second tap-in by Al Young. Perry Young led the Hokies with 29 points, while Curry was held to 10. Curry rebounded with a 27-point performance in a win over Tennessee 72-68 in the quarterfinals.
Tech advanced to Madison Square Garden, where it was paired against Michigan. Tech led by as many as nine points in the first half before Michigan caught up. A long Curry jumper gave the Hokies a 75-74 lead with 2:06 left but they couldn't put any more points on the board, falling 78-75. Moir says, "This one still hurts. We missed too many easy shots. We should have won."
Curry led all scorers with 24. He scored 20 in a consolation win over Southwest Louisiana.
Curry repeated as first-team All-Metro in 1985, averaging 18 points per game and leading the Hokies into the NCAA Tournament, where they lost their opener to Temple 60-57. He scored 13 points, as Tech finished 20-9. Curry also represented the United States in the 1984 and 1985 Jones Cup and was invited to the 1984 United States Olympic trials.
He also gave baseball another shot. Curry had mononucleosis after his freshman season and concentrated on the Olympic trials after his sophomore season. But he had the time and the health following his junior year and went 6-1 with a 3.81 E.R.A. The Baltimore Orioles selected Curry in the 14th round of the 1985 draft.
Curry gave professional baseball some thought but not too much. By that point, "I knew that my future was in basketball."
A spectacular senior season solidified his position as one of the nation's top players. He was named MVP of the Maui Invitational Tournament, scored 41 points in a close loss to Cincinnati, and helped keep Tech in the national polls most of the season.
Curry was more than just a great player. Beecher says, "There was no doubt that Dell was the team leader, not just on the court but off the court as well. He was so personable with the fans and so generous with his time, that he made friends everywhere he went."
Curry always has maintained that the highlight of his career was a February 1, 1986 game against 20-0 Memphis State. Just five days earlier the second-ranked Tigers had pounded Tech 83-61. Then top-ranked North Carolina had lost to Virginia, making Memphis State the heir apparent to the top spot if it could get past Tech.
Moir says this game "was one of the most physical games I ever coached in." The two programs didn't much like each other to begin with and tensions were ramped higher when a Memphis State player publicly declared Curry a "soft" player in the press.
The first half was a see-saw affair, with 14 lead changes. Memphis State led 46-35 at halftime. A 14-5 run gave Tech a 65-55 lead but Memphis State fought back to with 74-72 with 32 seconds left. They didn't any closer. The final was 76-72. Curry had 28 points on 10-of-19 shooting and pulled down nine rebounds.
Curry says, "We kept Cassell hopping most of my four years. But this was something else. The fans spent the entire game standing and cheering. We had to come back for a curtain call just to get them to leave. It sent chills down my spine."
Curry averaged 24.1 points per game in 1986 and was named Metro Conference Player of the Year. Basketball News named him first-team All-America, while AP and the Basketball Writers of America named him second team. On March 1, Virginia Tech retired his number, the school's first basketball player so honored.
The Hokies made the NCAA Tournament again, where they were matched against defending NCAA champion Villanova. The Wildcats' entire game plan was designed to suffocate Curry. Villanova jumped to a 27-10 lead, Curry was held to 12 points in the game, and Villanova won 71-62.
Curry says, "We thought we had a chance to get hot and do something in the NCAAs but we didn't get it done. I never played my best games in the NCAA Tournament and it's a big regret."
He ended his college career with 2,389 points, a total accomplished largely without a three-point shot; he made four in 1985 under experimental rules. A model of consistency, Curry scored in double figures 115 times in 126 games at Tech. Curry says, "Most of my shots would be worth three points these days."
Moir adds, "If he was open, he was in range. It's scary to think of how many points he would have scored under today's rules."
The Utah Jazz made Curry the 15th pick in the 1986 NBA draft. He is the only former Virginia Tech player ever picked in the first round. He spent one season there and one season in Cleveland before the Charlotte Hornets made him their first pick in the 1988 expansion draft. Curry spent 10 seasons in Charlotte, enhancing his reputation as one of basketball's best pure shooters. He was named NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 1994, when he averaged a career-high 16.3 points per game.
Following one season in Milwaukee and three in Toronto, Curry retired from the NBA following the 2002 season. He scored 12,670 points in the pros, averaging almost 12 points per game and making 84% of his foul shots and 40% of his three-point shots.
Since 2003 Curry has worked for Charlotte's second NBA team, the Bobcats, where he currently is Team Ambassador, which involves marketing, community relations, and co-hosting the team's weekly TV show "Bobcats Insider."
His current position comes after a three-month stint as an assistant coach with the Bobcats. Curry gave up coaching to spend more time with his family. He and his wife Sonya, a former Virginia Tech volleyball player, have three children. Their oldest child Stephen is a sophomore at Davidson, where he is one of the nation's top college basketball players. Seth is a senior in high school who has signed to play basketball at Liberty University. Daughter Sydell is 13 and plays a variety of sports.
Curry can see himself revisiting coaching down the road, when his family demands have changed.
Curry also remains close to his alma mater, donating time and money to a variety of Virginia Tech initiatives. He relishes Tech's membership in the ACC. "We're where we need to be, playing who we need to play. It was a great move for the ACC and for Tech."
Charlie Moir is retired now and lives near Virginia Tech. He says, "Dell was a great college player, maybe the best in Tech history. But he is so much more. He was a great teammate, working hard, leading by example. He was low-key but was a fierce competitor and he communicated that to his teammates. His charitable work has helped so many people. He's as fine a person as you could ever hope to meet."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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