Wednesday December 23rd, 2015

When Dan Murphy decided to move to East Timor in 1998, one of his main concerns was whether he’d be able to play any decent pickup basketball. It’s not that he was unconcerned about the climate in Timor at the time. He knew about its history, that the small island in Southeast Asia had been occupied almost continuously for about 400 years, first somewhat peacefully by the Portuguese and later militarily by Indonesia. He knew that during Indonesia’s occupancy, about one-tenth of the population was killed and another two-tenths fled their homeland as refugees. And he knew that preventable diseases and malnutrition were plaguing the fledgling nation. But to Murphy, those facts weren’t daunting, they were inviting.

So at the age of 54, he left his family medical practice in Iowa and his post as an athletic doctor with Northern Iowa’s athletic department, bade goodbye to his two college-aged sons and flew to East Timor. He packed a small carry-on with clothes, toiletries, a stethoscope and a basketball. He had no plans to return.

“I was at the age where when my mind drifted, I started thinking about retirement and shuffleboard,” Murphy, now 71, says. “I’m so glad I want to East Timor because those are the things that would have killed me.”

The move to East Timor makes sense in the context of Murphy’s life, which has been dominated by the pursuit of two passions—basketball and medicine. In both areas, he has appreciated having an underdog status. But unlike in basketball, where’s he’s a self-described “gunner and ball hog,” in medicine, Murphy has always sought to help others, often at his own expense.

In his medical work, Murphy has almost exclusively sought out underserved people. Here he is in 2012 seeing patients in East Timor.
In his medical work, Murphy has almost exclusively sought out underserved people. Here he is in 2012 seeing patients in East Timor.
Paula Bronstein/Getty

Murphy was born in 1944 in Alton, Iowa, a town that today barely surpasses 1,000 people. His father was the area physician and delivered more than 5,000 children during his life. Although Murphy found his passion for basketball early, starring at St. Mary’s High School as a wing and earning a partial basketball scholarship to the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, he didn’t begin his path toward medicine until he transferred to Iowa and began focusing more on his education.

“I always felt most alive when I was hot in a game of basketball,” he says. “Everything else was secondary.”

Like many men of his generation, the Vietnam War drastically changed his political and social perspectives. After graduating from medical school (also at Iowa) in 1971, he worked as an intern in New York and began protesting the war with his girlfriend, Janet. When he received a draft summons that year, he became a conscientious objector. A judge sentenced him to two years of federal probation under the condition that he continue practicing medicine.

And continue practicing he did. After his internship, he moved to California to run a clinic for migrant workers under the leadership of civil-rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta for six years. In California, he and Janet married and had two boys—Liam (born in 1974) and Connor (1977). After a couple years back in Iowa, they moved to Mozambique for three years to help establish modern medical protocols in rural communities. Dangerous political conditions caused them to return to Iowa, where Murphy ran a family practice with a friend for two years, and then on his own from 1984 to '98. Ever the activist, he also got behind what was at the time a controversial idea and opened a methadone clinic for heroine addicts.

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And ever the hoopster, he devoted much of his free time to his role with UNI’s athletic department, and particularly its basketball team, then coached by Eldon Miller. To Murphy, there were two big perks to the job: the school’s once-every-four-years foreign trips and the access to its basketball courts. He and other staffers would play noonball every weekday. “You didn’t want to leave him open for a shot, that’s for sure,” says Terry Noonan, who at the time was UNI’s head athletic trainer.

Noonan says that there was nothing that could keep Murphy off the court. Murphy once dislocated his shoulder during the game. He called for Noonan to take him to the athletic training table, and then proceeded to teach him to relocate it.

“He was always calm,” Noonan says. “Nothing really got him upset. He knew what needed to be done, and he knew what was right. I’ve been an athletic trainer for a long time, and among the physicians I’ve been exposed to, he’d rank at the top.”

Murphy began feeling restless in the mid-1990s. By then his marriage had dissolved, and he began to pen a memoir. To understand how important basketball is to Murphy, all you have to do is take one look at the book, called Breakaway—on the cover is a basketball hoop. In its pages, he tells his life story through the prism of basketball, describing everything from delivering children to romantic liaisons by using hoops language and imagery. In the book, there is only one date listed—it’s not of his graduation or his first meeting with Chavez or the birth of either of his boys. It’s  Jan. 18, 1985, the day he believed he played the best pickup basketball game of his life. While writing, he realized that the old urge to help the world was rising within him again.

How to help

The Baior Pite Clinic is funded entirely through donations. It sees thousands of patients every month, but costs about $50,000 to run. If you’d like to donate to Dr. Murphy’s work, visit the clinic’s website.

Murphy’s decision to move to East Timor wasn’t easy, but he felt he had a responsibility to use his knowledge to help people who needed it most. And he wanted to be part of a political revolution.

When he arrived in East Timor, 35% of its health facilities were destroyed by the military conflict. Murphy established his clinic in a former Indonesian military clinic located among in Dili, suburb of Bairo Pite. At the time, he says, he was the only non-Indonesian doctor in the country. Although conditions in the country have improved, two-thirds of the population still lives in poverty, and infant and child mortality are far above acceptable levels in the developed world.

In the nearly 20 years he’s worked in East Timor, the number of medical facilities in the country has tripled. And his organization, Bairo Pite Clinic, has swelled to a staff of more than 80, including another senior doctor and more than 40 nurses and 20 midwives. The clinic costs about $50,000 a month to run, but Murphy takes no salary. He owns a small home, he was given a Mitsubishi truck and he covers the rest of his expenses with social security and his pension.

Unfortunately, despite the NBA’s best efforts, basketball has not penetrated Timorese culture. The Internet has made it easier for him to track his UNI Panthers online, but pickup games are erratic at best. But that doesn’t concern him as much anymore. Murphy estimates that he and his staff see about 200 patients a day, and that rapid-fire work, he says, will keep him content for the rest of his life.

“What I’m doing in East Timor of course trumps anything I’ve done on the court,” he says. “It’s also been my most important work in medicine. But that feeling of living to the fullest that I only used to get in basketball, I get it now with my work in a more meaningful way than ever.”

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