March 18, 2008
All three swivel chairs are occupied and all three barbers are busy at work. "Doing what we do -- cutting hair and talking basketball," as Ron Raeford puts it. He's the owner and proprietor of Raeford's Barber Shop on Main Street.
"They're about where they want to be right now," says Thomas Marsh, snipping away on the far end.
"Yeah, they're jellin', " Raeford agrees.
At 79 years old, it's Kenneth Norton's endorsement that carries the most weight. "Yes," he says, his words slow and soft, "I believe we're ready."
The three are talking about the only topic in town -- Davidson College, located a jump shot away from the barbershop. The Wildcats carry a 22-game win streak -- the longest in the nation -- into the NCAA tournament. Despite a No. 10 seed and difficult tournament path, national analysts have already bestowed Cinderella's glass slipper on Davidson.
"Oh, we're ready," Raeford says. "Gonna beat Gonzaga by five, six points."
"At least a touchdown," Marsh says.
Pulling off Interstate-40 and driving about 20 minutes south, I arrived in the tiny town of Davidson in the early afternoon. Lunch at the Soda Shop consisted of an orangeade and egg salad sandwich. Yes, the entire town really does have that Mayberry-feel. The population is about 7,000; the school's enrollment, about 1,700. Quirky city ordinances ban drive-thru windows and cul-de-sacs, and the walls of local businesses are covered with photos of Davidson athletes. It's a town blueprint ripped from black-and-white television.
"The town and the college are really so woven together that you just can't pull them apart," says John Woods, the town mayor. "Historically, the college was here first, formed in 1837 and the town was officially formed about 40 years later. And the town has always been a small college town. And as far as I know, we've just about always loved basketball."
The games have the feel of a block party or a weekly reunion. This the Wildcats' third straight trip to the NCAA tournament, and many think this is the year they finally win one. When the brackets were announced Sunday night, the school's allotment of 550 tickets sold out in five minutes.
In Raeford's Barber Shop, the low hum of the clippers is drowned out only by the occasional passing car. The three men cutting hair are talking about the Wildcats first-round opponent. The Wildcats open play in Raleigh, N.C., 160 miles away. Not much is known about Gonzaga, but they have a few days to scout. Marsh mentions Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga's 6-foot-5 guard.
"Which one? The big guy -- the one with the hair? What's he -- a two? A three?" asks Raeford.
"I think he's a big guy," says Marsh.
"They got to put Mad Max on him. Mad Max will put the 'D' on him."
I turn to Norton, who's cut hair here for 65 years. Tell me about Lefty. Has there been anyone who can even touch him?
Norton thinks for a bit and softly replies, "I think this guy's doing an awful good job right now. But Coach Driesell, he put Davidson on the map."
Before Driesell was hired away by Maryland in 1969, he turned Davidson basketball into one of the nation's best. In fact, prior to the 1964-65 season, Sports Illustrated anointed the Wildcats with a No. 1 ranking. All around town, they still tell stories about Lefty today ... about him sleeping in front of a recruit's house ... about him parking around the block and calling a cab, so a recruit might think he flew in for the visit ... about him lending his car keys to a high school player, so he'd have wheels to the senior prom.
Davidson's current coach Bob McKillop can't escape Lefty's shadow. And he doesn't really want to.
"What Lefty accomplished in the 1960s is one of the great stories of college basketball," McKillop says. "I don't think what Lefty accomplished can be duplicated by any program."
He keeps that Sports Illustrated issue in his office as a reminder. "It's not a burden," McKillop says. "It's something that is clearly in front of us that tells us that Davidson is a special place."
How special? McKillop blew into town two decades ago. Young, cocky, ready to takeover the coaching world. He thought he'd be in town four years. Five tops.
"Had to get brought to my knees with the very humble experience of losing before I realized what the real importance of coaching is," he said.
Back in the barber shop, Norton has a Davidson student in the chair, and Marsh is talking about Wildcats guard Stephen Curry, son of former NBA player Dell Curry who also seems destined to a professional career. "His shot hardly ever even hits the rim," Marsh says. "I'm dead serious. The way this cat shoots is just crazy."
As I leave, stepping out onto Main Street and again hitting the road, the barbers are still going at it. Still doing what they do -- cutting hair and talking basketball.
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