Feb. 21, 2000
By ALAN TIEULI
Troy Murphy just may be bigger on cable than The Sopranos, no small statement considering the pop culture fascination with the HBO series focusing on a New Jersey crime family.
If you approach Murphy with that thought, however, you're likely to get a big smile and a self-effacing "fuhgetaboutit." The 6-10 sophomore from Morristown, N.J., adores his home state -- he has printed "I-95" on his sneakers in tribute to the Jersey Turnpike and chose three community colleges from the Garden State to make the Final Four in this year's Notre Dame basketball media guide. But he's too humble to boast about his potential status as an All-American and cable television celebrity.
Make no mistake, though, just like Tony, Carmela, "Paulie Walnuts" and "Uncle June" have fascinated viewers the past two seasons on The Sopranos, Murphy has earned an equal level of respect in the college basketball world. He gained even more acclaim this past Saturday night with an ESPN televised 35-point effort in the New Jersey swamps in Notre Dame's pulsating 76-74 victory over 25th-ranked Seton Hall.
"I've said this many times," said Irish head basketball coach Matt Doherty, "but I am lucky to be Troy Murphy's college coach. He's a special kid that brings enthusiasm to everything he's involved with."
And, thanks in large part to Murphy's performance, enthusiasm is back in general for Notre Dame hoops. Sellout crowds are back at the Joyce Center, and the Irish, with victories over five ranked teams, are in contention for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1990.
Through the first 26 games of the season, Murphy led all BIG EAST Conference scorers with a 23.4-point per game average. His 10.8 rebounds per contest were also tops and he had been named Conference player of the week six times. He's a strong contender for BIG EAST Player of the Year and also a legitimate candidate to be selected as Notre Dame's first consensus All-American hoops selection since Adrian Dantley in 1976.
If he stays on his current scoring pace, and Notre Dame (16-10) goes into the postseason, Murphy will finish the season in the top 20 of Irish all-time scorers and will be more than halfway to Austin Carr's school record 2,560 points with two years of eligibility remaining.
"I'm just having fun, we all are," said Murphy. "You want to play as many big games as possible against great teams. We've had some success this year and we want more."
Picked to finish ninth in the pre-season BIG EAST coaches' poll, the Irish started the season by knocking off number-four ranked Ohio State on the road, with Murphy scoring 21 points. In the BIG EAST opener on January 5, the Irish showed no respect for defending national champion Connecticut, besting the Huskies on their home court, 75-70, while Murphy turned in a 33-point, 16-rebound stunner.
It's been "Murphy Mania" ever since. Not a day goes by when the Morrissey Manor resident is not summoned to the Notre Dame sports information office for a media interview or two. He's the first request of every newspaper, radio and television reporter on the road. Students and fans have snatched up virtually every available ticket to BIG EAST tilts at the Joyce Center this year.
Even the Notre Dame game-night crew has been smitten with Murphy. In the running score sheets provided to the media, Murphy baskets have been described with breathless comments like "Murphy is god" and "He's an All-American."
You'll be pleased to know that none of this has expanded Murphy's opinion of himself.
"This is what makes college basketball special," Murphy begins. "It's nice to go and play a game like UConn. We played the game in front of 11,000 people, everyone going crazy. But then after the game you can go back to Morrissey and just have a good time and be yourself. You don't always have to be a basketball player, especially at Notre Dame."
Murphy, successfully recruited to South Bend by former head coach John MacLeod, was attracted to Notre Dame because of its similarities to his Northern Hills, N.J., high school, the all-male Delbarton. "The emphasis on academics, on doing things right, that nothing is given to you," Murphy said. He also liked the prospect of helping to turn around a struggling program while having the opportunity to come East for a handful of games each year.
Ask him now if he made the right choice, Murphy smiles broadly. "This is Delbarton with girls."
Curiously, Murphy was not heavily recruited out of Delbarton. Vanderbilt entered the picture aggressively late, but during Murphy's junior year it was primarily Notre Dame and Rutgers. "(Rutgers coach) Kevin Bannon began talking to me in about eighth grade, when he was still the head coach at Rider," Murphy said. "I became very comfortable with him and his staff. But Notre Dame had so much to offer."
And once Murphy made the decision to join the Blue and Gold, he put an already solid work ethic into overdrive.
With his dad, 6-6, 200-pound James Murphy, serving as his workout partner, Murphy would spend hours honing his shooting skills at a single-hoop in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church. Weather was never a factor.
"If it was too hot, there was some shade trees that hung over the court, if it was snowing the trees would keep the court clear," Murphy said. "But did you ever try shooting with gloves on? It's not easy."
Some days his workouts would be uncannily single-minded. "I'll pick a spot on the floor, say 18 feet to the left of the basket, and just shoot bank shots," said Murphy. "I wouldn't move from that spot until I hit 10 in a row. Sometimes it would take a couple of hours."
Blessed with long arms and quick-off-his-feet leaping ability, Murphy's shooting range immediately made him the most dangerous inside-out threat in the BIG EAST his freshman year. In his first conference tilt, at Providence, he scored 30 points, matching a record for first-game scoring by former Georgetown and current NBA player Allen Iverson.
Murphy scored in double-figures of 26 of 27 games in 1998-99, averaging 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds, while earning conference Rookie of the Year honors. He scored 30 points or more three times, had 14 or more rebounds on four occasions.
A marked man this season on a squad that lacks true team speed, Murphy has simply raised his game to another level. In a 73-60 victory over St. John's on January 29, he was virtually perfect -- 11-for-13 from the field, 30 total points and a career-high 18 rebounds.
And, typical Murphy, all he wanted to talk about afterwards was the game-turning dunk by teammate Jimmy Dillon.
"That was a great play by Jimmy," Murphy stressed, laughing at the memory. "I didn't think he was going to dunk it, it just caught me by surprise. Ivan (Kartelo) and I were jumping like kids at one end and we ran over and congratulated him. It was a great play."
The lasting image of that play is of Murphy bear-hugging Dillon under the basket with a smile that defines his happy-go-lucky mien. Watch Murphy on the floor. He's constantly patting opponents on the butt after good plays, always active, always passionate.
"Not many players come in and (dominate) a conference like he has," said Bill Raftery, the ESPN and CBS college basketball analyst whose son, Billy, was a Murphy teammate at Delbarton. "Oscar (Robertson) in the Missouri Valley Conference, (Bill) Bradley in the Ivy League. Those are the type of names you conjure up when you think of a kid doing what he's doing."
Rutgers' Bannon was effusive in his praise of the "One That Got Away."
"It's not like there's an answer to stopping the guy. He's too good," said Bannon. "He can hurt you in too many ways. He's a human double-double."
Well, not really. Murphy has only achieved a double-double (double-figures in points and rebounds) in 16 of 25 games this year. Only.
And he hasn't forgotten his roots. After games or practices he's likely to go back to Morrissey and communicate via e-mail with at least 15 Delbarton classmates he stays in regular touch with. It's far more likely they chat about The Sopranos than BIG EAST basketball.
"He was the kind of guy young kids would look up to in more ways than one," Father Giles Hayes, headmaster at Delbarton, told the Newark Star-Ledger. "He was never full of himself. Everybody was his friend. Many students referred to themselves as one of his best friends." About two dozen of those buddies were at the Continental Airlines Arena Saturday night for the Seton Hall contest.
Murphy attracts friends because he knows how to have fun. During a snow storm during semester break in Murphy's freshman year, the basketball team was literally sequestered at the Jamison Inn in South Bend. One night, the team watched Stephen King's "The Shining." For Notre Dame's next game, Murphy wrote "Redrum" on his sneakers, a nod to one of the movie's more haunting scenes. For his senior team picture at Delbarton, he put aluminum foil in his teeth to resemble the "Jaws" character in the James Bond series of films.
When the Irish visited ESPN this January during their Connecticut road trip, Murphy had a great time. Except for one thing.
"Melissa Stark wasn't around," he said, noting one of the cable giants more attractive reporters. "I really wanted to meet her."
So defines Troy Murphy, the prototypical 20-year-old college kid. Just one who also has the ability to also help turnaround the Irish men's basketball program.
It's doubtful that even Tony Soprano wields that much power.