Before Steph Curry had to worry about knocking down a pull-up three-pointer on the fastbreak an ocean away from home with a gold medal on the line. Before he had to worry about chasing Zoran Dragic around off-ball screens from 250-pound Slovenian forwards. Before he had to worry about staying in front of slick Ukrainian point guard Pooh Jeter in transition—before all that there was Kelsey Minato.
Kelsey Minato? She’s a 5-foot-8 guard on the U.S. Army women’s basketball team, and on Aug. 18—12 days before the U.S. Men’s National Team’s opening game in Spain at the 2014 FIBA World Cup—she was Steph Curry’s opponent. And not just any opponent.
Minato is a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year, and the only player in league history to nab the award as a freshman. But the stat that really mattered on that Monday afternoon was this one: 44.1 percent—Minato’s shooting clip from three-point range.
That’s because on that August day, in front of thousands of Army students at Christl Arena on the West Point campus, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski had arranged a shooting competition.
Curry vs. Minato: First to 15 three-pointers.
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In 1969, after captaining the U.S. Army men’s basketball team to a spot in the NIT, Mike Krzyzewski graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. His playing career was over but his connection to the game—and to Army—was about to grow stronger. Krzyzewski spent five years in the service, coaching the U.S. Military Academy Prep School and service teams.
When he re-entered civilian life in 1974, Krzyzewski joined his former USMA coach, Bob Knight, who, by then, had already landed the job at Indiana. Krzyzewski spent a year as an assistant with the Hoosiers, but when the head-coaching job at his alma mater opened up, he returned to the famed service academy overlooking the Hudson Valley.
Krzyzewski coached the Black Knights for five years, racking up a 73-59 record in the process. But then, in March 1980, Krzyzewski departed for the head job at Duke.
Today, Krzyzewski has won more games than any other Division I coach—even more than Knight. He has led the Blue Devils to four national championships. And, since 2006, he has been the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team, leading the Americans to gold medals at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics and the 2010 and 2014 FIBA World Championships.
With the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant on board for those competitions, Krzyzewski’s teams were expected to win gold. But the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain was a different story.
With the Red, White, and Blue’s usual stars sitting out, Krzyzewski was left with a group of younger players whose experience playing with each other or at the top level of international competition was scant.
Furthermore, Spain—which had given the Americans trouble in the gold medal games at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics—would be playing on home soil with its familiar core of Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Serge Ibaka, and Marc and Pau Gasol back together.
The Americans needed to gel fast. A team trip was in order.
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On the morning of Aug. 18, Krzyzewski and the U.S. National Team took a 50-mile bus ride from New York City to the West Point campus.
“To spend a day here is better than any offensive or defensive drill you could have,” Krzyzewski told the Associated Press. “It bonds the team together, and that’s what today was about.”
The first stop was the West Point Cemetery, where Academy graduates are buried.
“It grabbed you right away because you were somewhere where people sacrificed and people dedicated their whole life to serving,” U.S. point guard Derrick Rose said.
The team also got to spend time with cadets, sharing conversations over lunch and watching them participate in a grueling obstacle course.
“It’s a testament to what these guys do for us,” Team USA center Anthony Davis said. “You think about all of the stuff that these guys do for us here, and representing us and fighting for us each and every day, so this just makes us want to work even harder and makes us want to go get the gold even more.”
“It makes you want to play a lot harder,” Andre Drummond agreed.
There was a lighter moment when the team checked out old photos from Krzyzewski’s Army playing and coaching days.
“This is Brady Bunch Coach K,” U.S. point guard Kyrie Irving said, pointing to a picture.
But it got a little more serious toward the end of the trip, when Krzyzewski brought his team to Christl Arena. The squad would be working out in front of the cadets, and the Army men’s and women’s basketball teams would be there too.
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With the stands at Christl Arena packed, Mike Krzyzewski spoke into a microphone at center court.
“Kelsey challenged Stephen Curry,” he said, then paused, letting the name hang in the air. The murmurs from the crowd rose into a cheer. A few steps away, Kelsey Minato clasped her hands together and placed her weight on her back foot. The coach continued: “… to a three-point shooting contest.”
Curry let out a long breath, wiped the sweat from his brow—first the right, then the left—dried his hands on his white USA jersey, and walked onto the court.
Minato and Curry set up at opposite baskets—Curry at the international three-point line, Minato at the college line. She smiled and, as the crowd grew louder, mimicked a jump shot.
“First one to 15,” Krzyzewski said. “Here we go!”
On their first shots, both players missed. Curry missed his second. But then he started to get hot, knocking down one, two, three in a row. Meanwhile Minato began to find a rhythm, the cheers from the crowd growing louder with each basket. Her next shot landed on the front of the rim, softly bounced off the middle of the backboard and then down into the hoop. More cheers. But her following shot missed. On the other end, Curry was burying the ball in the hoop, hitting No. 8, 9, and 10.
Then Minato reached 10, but Curry was already at 13. His next shot clanged off the back of the rim and ricocheted out to the elbow. The next kissed the back of the rim and went straight down through the net. 14. On his first try for the win, Curry fired at the hoop, landing off-balance, his right leg far in front of his left. The ball hit the right side of the rim and then careened left. On other end, Minato notched No. 11, then No. 12.
But Curry collected himself, correcting his form. He jumped straight up and down, landing on both feet. His right arm dangled in the air as the ball sailed through the hoop.
“Hold it, hold it,” Krzyzewski bellowed. “Kelsey, hold it up.”
She turned toward center court.
“It was 15 to 12,” Krzyzewski said. He paused, the crowd silent. “But I was watching the line,” he continued. Krzyzewski lifted his arm and pointed at Curry. “He went over the line five times. The winner is Kelsey Minato.”
She raised her arms in the air, high-fiving Irving and Chandler Parsons as she walked off the court smiling. Curry tugged at his jersey, then burst into a smile himself. He didn’t know it then, but that little bit of extra practice would seem to pay off. During the next few weeks in Spain, Curry would hit 21 of 48 three-pointers—43.8 percent—and Team USA would go undefeated en route to a gold medal.
What’s next for Minato remains to be seen. The Black Knights opened their season on Nov. 15. Army was picked to finish first in the Patriot League preseason poll and Minato was projected to take home Player of the Year honors—again. Sure, there’s still a full season to play, but Kelsey Minato doesn’t often miss.