Jan. 22, 2016
January 22, 2016
By John Heisler
A December Tuesday night in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1998 foretold what loomed for a 6-foot-10, honey-blond-haired rookie power forward from the University of Notre Dame.
What turned out to be John MacLeod’s final Irish men’s basketball team came to town for its BIG EAST Conference opener against first-year Providence coach Tim Welsh’s Friar team that had won six straight games. Notre Dame, meanwhile, stood an ordinary 3-5, one of those losses a 111-82 pasting by top-ranked Duke (the Blue Devils eventually fell in the NCAA title game that season) in the Great Alaska Shootout (followed the next night by an overtime defeat at the hands of Alaska-Anchorage).
Former Irish assistant coach Fran McCaffery remembers the night well. As the teams warmed up, McCaffery stood next to Ed O’Rourke, a 1949 Notre Dame graduate and Chicago lawyer who had been traveling with the team to virtually every Irish game since the John Jordan years.
As McCaffery (now head coach at the University of Iowa) recalls, O’Rourke pointed at Irish freshman Troy Murphy and said, “I think that guy may be the best to ever play here.”
Austin Carr and Tommy Hawkins? Adrian Dantley, John Shumate and John Paxson? Pat Garrity, who had just graduated the previous May? O’Rourke knew them all, so this qualified as high praise.
“Coming from someone who had seen all the great ones, that statement had a ton of credibility,” says McCaffery.
If McCaffery (or MacLeod or anyone else) had any thoughts of disagreeing, Murphy’s performance that night effectively ended those.
Murphy hit 11 of his 16 shots and finished with 30 points. That tied former Georgetown great Allen Iverson for the most points by a freshman in his first BIG EAST game. Murphy added 11 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal. His freshman teammates, David Graves and Harold Swanagan, added 17 and 13 points, respectively, and the Irish won 93-90 (after trailing 13-2).
Though Murphy came into that contest having scored at least 15 points in seven of his first eight outings (including 23 points and 16 rebounds versus Indiana), that night effectively marked his coming-out party.
And it marked the start of an amazingly successful, consistent and productive ride for the Morristown, New Jersey, product who this weekend joins the Notre Dame Basketball Ring of Honor inside Purcell Pavilion.
Previous Ring of Honor selections have been Carr (2011), Dantley (2012), Hawkins (2015), Luke Harangody (2010), Irish women’s standouts Ruth Riley (2010) and Skylar Diggins (2013) and former Notre Dame men’s coach Digger Phelps (2014).
Fifteen years after he departed South Bend, the portrait left behind of Murphy in an Irish uniform exhibits a talented, versatile left-handed demon of a player who was as comfortable operating around the rim as he was softly draining a three-pointer.
Current Irish assistant coach Anthony Solomon, who coached Murphy in Troy’s last year on campus, referred to him as a human “double-double” based on his ability to both score and rebound in major ways.
Murphy finished his Notre Dame career with averages of 21.3 points and 9.9 rebounds in 47 BIG EAST starts. His three seasons with the Irish included 45 double-double efforts, 25 of those against BIG EAST opponents. On 17 occasions, he scored at least 30 points.
Those who were around Murphy the most at Notre Dame remember him for his work ethic and the manner in which he toiled almost nonstop to make himself a better player, despite his prodigious skills.
After current Irish head coach Mike Brey was hired in the spring of 2000, Solomon came to campus for the first time to interview to join Brey’s staff.
“I’m with my wife, Tracy, we walk in the Joyce Center, it’s 10 o’clock at night and there’s Troy working out,” says Solomon. “Who knows how long he’d been there that night? And it was certainly not the last time he was seen after hours working on his craft.”
Sean Kearney, another former Irish assistant from Brey’s first season (and only one with Murphy) recalls the damage inflicted on the ceiling in the Pit, Notre Dame’s below-ground auxiliary gymnasium and practice spot.
“Troy would spend hours getting up jump shots down there,” says Kearney, now director of player development for the University of Colorado men’s program. “When he’d get frustrated he’d either throw or kick balls into those ceiling panels, and it was evident.”
After-midnight phone calls from Murphy to Graves, inviting his teammate to join him in the gym, became commonplace.
Says Torrian Jones, an Irish freshman guard in Murphy’s last season at Notre Dame and now a counselor in Notre Dame’s Academic Services for Student-Athletes department (and also an analyst on the Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network):
“What Troy impressed upon me most was his work ethic and focus. He was the kind of guy that was the first to the arena to get in a full workout prior to games. He was a total gym rat.
“I can remember a few times where he did not shoot the ball to his standard or play his typical outstanding game–and those situations were few and far between in the year I was around him. He would go to the Pit to get, literally, hundreds of shots up until he felt satisfied with his accuracy.
“I’ve played with some great players in my time–Jay Williams from Duke, Eddie Griffin from Seton Hall, Dahntay Jones from Duke–but none were better than Troy. His combination of size, skill, toughness, clutch performance and competitiveness was second to none.”
All that work paid off handsomely.
A two-time BIG EAST player of the year, the two-time consensus All-American became the first player to lead the league in both scoring and rebounding in the same season. He became the first freshman to lead the BIG EAST in rebounding (10.3 per game in league play in 1998-99). As a junior he rubbed elbows with fellow All-Americans Williams and Shane Battier from Duke.
Murphy’s first college game came at home against a Miami (Ohio) team led by veteran Wally Szczerbiak, just a few weeks removed from appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Szczerbiak finished with 19 points and six rebounds. Murphy’s stat line? Nineteen points and six rebounds. Four months later the BIG EAST Conference named him its rookie of the year. No Notre Dame freshman has scored more points than Murphy’s 519 that season (he surpassed Dantley’s previous high by eight points).
As a sophomore he scored 33 points (11 of 18 shooting) and added 16 rebounds in a 75-70 upset of second-rated Connecticut in Hartford. He went for 30 and 18 a few weeks later in a home win over 23rd-rated St. John’s. He scored 35 in a road win over 23rd-ranked Seton Hall.
He did all that while playing for three head coaches in South Bend–MacLeod as a freshman in 1998-99 (the Irish finished 14-16), Matt Doherty as a sophomore in 1999-2000 (Notre Dame ended up 22-15 as the National Invitation Tournament runner-up) and Brey as a junior in 2000-01 (the Irish finished 20-10, won the BIG EAST West Division title and played in the NCAA Championship for the first time in 11 years).
Pro-rate Murphy’s career averages over the 30 additional games he might have played as a senior–and the Irish all-star would have finished with 2,653 points (Carr is the all-time Notre Dame leader with 2,560) and 1,218 rebounds (exactly 100 behind the total of career leader Hawkins).
Murphy’s approach didn’t change when he jumped to the National Basketball Association (he opted out of his final season of eligibility at Notre Dame and was selected 14th overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 2001 NBA Draft), so much so that his coaches advised him to dial it back.
Bob Fitzgerald, a Notre Dame graduate and television play-by-play voice of the Warriors, recalls how Murphy went about his business early on in his pro years:
“On most NBA game days the team will hold a shoot-around at the arena for the game to be played that night–usually at 10:30 a.m. for a 7:30 p.m. game. As a rookie, Troy had so much energy he would attend the shoot-around with the team and then secretly return to the arena again in the afternoon to take additional shots and then still play in the game.
“Eventually, the coaches finally told him that most players take a game-day nap and that he actually needed to stay away from the arena a bit more. His passion and energy as a young player and his obsessive desire to succeed and improve always struck me as amazing qualities.
“He wasn’t the fastest, he wasn’t the most athletic and he couldn’t jump the highest. Yet his work ethic was beyond relentless. He made himself into a solid NBA pro.
“Rebounding in the NBA is all about hard work, toughness and just pure pursuit of possession of the basketball. Watching Troy rebound against the best athletes in the world was watching willpower in action.
“I will always remember him for those two things–the incredible amount of hours spent honing his shooting skill and his battles on the glass–as a testament to his will.”
In one sense Murphy simply was terrified of failing. He once said, “I didn’t know if I could play in the BIG EAST. I had people tell me I was too slow, I didn’t work hard enough. I was scared I was going to be the guy who went away to school and people would ask, `What happened to him?’
“I used to go to basketball camps and they’d talk about potential. They’d explain if someone comes up to you and says you had potential, they’re insulting you. They said never let anyone tell you you had potential. You want to fulfill your potential. That’s something I always remember.”
Following his retirement after 12 seasons of NBA play, Murphy enrolled at Columbia University and recently completed requirements for his bachelor’s degree (he was a sociology major at Notre Dame).
And yet, even with his at-times fanatical approach to basketball, the carefree Murphy could laugh and joke like any other college student.
“Troy was one of the silliest guys I ever came across,” says Jones.
“I was only around him for my freshman year, so it amazed me to see a guy so competitive and dialed in have the ability to turn it off completely in his day-to-day life and have you laughing nonstop. He was just a unique individual athletically and socially.”
Murphy scribbled “Redrum” on his basketball shoes (that’s murder spelled backward), in a tribute to Jack Nicholson and the movie “The Shining.” He also added “Mr. M,” a nickname he said he received in the hospital nursery not long after his birth–since he qualified as the biggest baby in residence.
When Sports Illustrated published a feature piece on him during his junior season, the magazine included a photo of Murphy reading the Dr. Seuss classic (and Murphy favorite) “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
Murphy was secure enough to kid about someday marrying one of the Spice Girls (or Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears), and hair-color changes were not out of question.
“But he was never a guy who liked to party or get into the extra-curricular stuff,” said Jones. “You could tell he was so determined to be successful in the sport that he never allowed any distractions to compromise his focus.”
Murphy told Sports Illustrated in 2000, “I want to be a great player, but I try not to take myself too seriously. Hey, I go to school for free, and thousands of people come to watch me play a game. These are good times.”
Fitzgerald also saw another side to the heavy-duty, on-court competitor, and he came to appreciate it on an intensely personal basis:
“Since Troy is an only child he was a young man moving out to the Bay Area and beginning his NBA career with the Warriors without siblings or a whole lot of family. So he became an adopted member of our family, and our Notre Dame connection was the basis for the beginning of that friendship.
“He has always been terrific with children, and his affection for Dr. Seuss books was always interesting. I will never forget him playing at the park with my small children and engaging them in hide and seek. To see three toddlers trying to find a 6-10 man was just comical. He is a thoughtful, generous person who has never lost his childlike appreciation for simply having fun.
“My son Ryan will be attending Notre Dame in the fall of 2016. Surely having his father attend the school created a connection, but his association with Troy Murphy also made Notre Dame seem like a very special place.
“In fact, Troy wrote a letter of recommendation for Ryan’s application. From playing hide and seek with him as a child to helping him attend Notre Dame, it is those lifelong relationships that make Notre Dame so special.
“It shows why Troy Murphy exemplifies so much of what it means to be a member of the Fighting Irish.”
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
— DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky
— 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview
— Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes
— One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football
— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On
— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:
— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:
— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father
— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: