Sprawled on a leather couch in the Notre Dame locker room not long
ago, Troy Murphy was watching the MTV show Jackass with Irish
teammate David Graves and a couple of other pals. "Dude," Murphy
roared approvingly, "these guys are great." Considering the crew
of knuckleheads on the screen before him--a green-haired
skateboarding midget, a man voluntarily blinding himself with
pepper spray and a self-described "Greg Poo-ganis" braving the
inside of an overturned Port-A-Potty--Murphy's fascination with
the bizarre tableau spoke volumes.
"Some of the off-the-wall stuff they do on the show, it's the
kind of stuff Troy does," explains Graves, Murphy's best friend
on the team. "He is a jackass, basically."
Or to put it another way, Troy Murphy, All-America forward, is a
college kid, with an emphasis on kid. On one midnight snack run
with his buddies to the Meijer's convenience store, Murphy bought
himself bedsheets--Winnie the Pooh bedsheets. On Halloween this
year Murphy allowed a female friend to dress him as an angel,
complete with halo and wings, and he went trick-or-treating in
the dorm. Ever since he saw The Shining two years ago, he has
scrawled REDRUM (murder spelled backward) on his sneakers, in
homage to the wackjob portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Then there was
the time last summer when Murphy tried to bleach his hair to look
like Eminem's and failed miserably, turning it bright red. "I
looked like Ronald McDonald," he says.
About the only time Murphy doesn't clown around is when he's
lighting up overmatched opponents. With deadly efficient moves
from the post to the perimeter, the 6'11", 225-pound southpaw was
averaging 22.4 points and 8.0 rebounds a game at week's end,
staking an early claim for national player of the year honors
while validating his decision to forgo the NBA draft and remain
in South Bend for his junior year. What's more, given the 5-2
Irish's recent defeats by Indiana and Miami (Ohio), losses in
which Murphy was hobbled by a sprained ankle, it's safe to say
that no player in the land is more valuable to his team.
December 25, 2000
So polished is Murphy's game that he can even take a Wizard back
through time. "There's so much showmanship these days that it's
hard to find a well-rounded player anymore," said 90-year-old
John Wooden after watching Murphy's 30-point, seven-rebound,
six-block performance in the Irish's 69-51 win over Cincinnati at
the Wooden Tradition on Nov. 25. "Troy is a well-rounded player.
He's much better now than he was even a year ago."
While new Notre Dame coach Mike Brey (a former Duke assistant)
compares Murphy's prodigious inside-outside skills with those of
Christian Laettner, Murphy says his main influences have been
three other big men who were similarly dangerous in college:
Keith Van Horn at Utah, Austin Croshere at Providence and Pat
Garrity at Notre Dame. "All of them could shoot the three," says
Murphy, a 33.3% three-point shooter this season, "so the other
team would put a smaller guy on them, and then immediately they
would take that guy into the post. They created so many matchup
problems." Small wonder, then, that on the desk in his dorm room
Murphy keeps a blown-up photograph of Croshere, Garrity and
himself from last summer's Pete Newell Big Man camp.
To understand Murphy's competing personalities, listen to Notre
Dame junior Harold Swanagan, who in one breath calls his teammate
"a five-year-old in a 30-year-old's body" and then pronounces him
"the hardest worker I've ever seen in my life." Whenever Graves
gets a phone call at 1 a.m., he immediately knows who it is.
"Hey," Murphy will say, "let's go shoot."
Brey, whose favorite adjective for Murphy is maniacal, forbade
him from training for a week in August because he thought Murphy
was pushing himself too hard. Murphy defied the order, waiting
until the wee hours to sneak into the Joyce Center, where he's on
a first-name basis with the overnight security guards. "I don't
want to be one of those guys that you say, 'He used to be good.
What ever happened to him?'" Murphy says. "That really scares me,
and it pushes me too."
Even so, it's one thing to shoot for hours in an empty gym or on
a long driveway in Sparta, N.J., the quiet suburban town where
Murphy grew up, or with your friends at the Delbarton School,
the Catholic academy in Morristown where Murphy attended high
school. It's another thing to overcome what John McPhee
described in his classic portrait of a young Bill Bradley as
"the handicap of wealth." That is why, at 15, Murphy accepted an
invitation to play on weekends at St. Rocco's Church in the
heart of Newark. "It was an awful area," says Murphy's father,
Jim, who along with Troy's mother, Chris, drove him 80 miles
round-trip every week. "Broken glass, prostitutes, drug dealers
everywhere. Nobody called any fouls, and the guys just banged.
That's where Troy got tough."
Recalling his first day at St. Rocco's, Murphy says, "I was the
only white guy in there. I walk in, a bunch of guys are sitting
on the stage. Then we get into layup lines. I was 6'8" and
everybody at my high school thought it was the coolest thing that
I could dunk, but then a guy who's six inches shorter than me
goes up and does this ridiculous stuff. I was like, What did I
get into? I didn't do very well the first time, but I'm glad I
stuck with it. After a while it was just basketball."
Watch Murphy these days, and the lessons learned at St. Rocco's
are plain to see. Inevitably, opposing coaches will send out the
equivalent of a hockey goon to pummel him. "Every team has one,"
Murphy says. "Most of them aren't even trying to play offense,
but that's what you have to deal with. If some of that stuff
happened on the playground, you'd fight the guy, but you can't do
that [in a college game]. So you get to know where he is, and all
of a sudden you could let your arm swing and accidentally hit him
in the face."
Not that Murphy has mastered every facet of the game. According
to Brey, his star could be more fluid in his reactions to
changing defenses. What's more, after the Irish played zone for
much of the past two seasons under John MacLeod and Matt
Doherty, the new coach wants his guys matching up with teams
nose-to-nose. "For two years Troy didn't have to guard anybody,"
Brey says. "For us to reach our potential we have to play some
man-to-man, but I also said, 'Troy, let's be selfish. Those NBA
guys know you can shoot and score, but can you guard your guy?'"
Whether or not Murphy improves as a defender, nobody will ever
accuse him of being unaware of the competition. On the wall next
to his bed he has tacked up photographs of a Who's Who of college
basketball, including three pictures of Duke's Shane Battier--the
guy who beat out Murphy for all the preseason magazine covers.
Three Battier photos, Troy? "Motivation," he says. "Shane Battier
is the college basketball player." The other pictures? "I like
most of them because they make the dudes look badass."
Intimidation is one of Murphy's favorite topics. "Everybody wants
to be a badass," he says, "but people can intimidate in different
ways. Everybody tries to do it with tattoos or yelling, but if
you go out and look all nice and have your hair parted and then
you give somebody 30 and walk off the court, I think that says it
Before you go calling the tattooless, earringless Murphy a hoops
Luddite, though, recall his other side. Befitting a man of
extremes, Murphy produces enough pregame wattage to light a small
city. "He gets so wound up," Brey says. "When I'm talking to the
team, it'll be like he's at a Baptist revival. He'll say, 'Oh,
yeah! That's right, Coach!' The first couple of times I'm
thinking, This is unusual, but he really does get focused about
This season Murphy has a simple goal: to take the Irish, ranked
No. 21 in this week's AP poll, to their first NCAA tournament in
11 years, making as deep a run as possible. "Not just to show
everybody else," he says, "but for the guys on this team. With
the way Notre Dame let Coach MacLeod go [forcing his resignation
after Murphy's freshman season] and then last summer with Coach
Doherty resigning, we want to prove that we're still here."
Then what? Most pundits are convinced that Murphy, a sociology
major, won't be in South Bend next season--his AAU coach, Tony
Sagona, says he fields five to 10 calls a week from agents.
Murphy, though, actually likes college. Not long ago he tried to
reschedule a dorm dance because it conflicted with a basketball
road trip. He'll often linger in the dining hall for as long as
two hours. Who knows where he'll be? "No matter what happens
this season," he says, "my leaving isn't a done deal."
Notre Dame's housing department certainly hasn't done anything to
entice Murphy to stay--his dorm room brings to mind solitary
confinement at Leavenworth. His 8-by-12-foot Morrissey Hall
quarters are so tight that he can almost touch opposite walls
with his outstretched arms. When he sleeps, his legs comically
extend a foot beyond the end of the 1950s-era bed. Murphy's
friend Jessica Rinaldi calls it "the worst room in the worst dorm
on campus," and rare is the night when Murphy doesn't imagine the
master suite that he could be occupying in some NBA city.
Yet Murphy keeps a sense of humor about his Gulliver-in-Lilliput
accommodations, a sign that the women of Troy--who perceive
Murphy not as a lovable jackass but rather as a laid-back kid
who retains a childlike wonder about the world--might be right
after all. Murphy's mother tells the story of the night last
summer when she was rebounding for her son at a city park near
her Scottsdale, Ariz., home. At 10:30 p.m. the park lights went
Murphy kept shooting. "Let's go home, Troy," Chris said. "It's
"Naw, I want to keep going."
"But you could step on something and break an ankle! And there
might be snakes out here!"
Ninety minutes later Murphy canned his last shot. "Mom," he said,
without a hint of irony, "I love this game."
Likewise, Rinaldi volunteers that before every Irish game, Murphy
finds a quiet place where he can sit alone, tune out the noise
and--no joke--read the Dr. Seuss classic Oh, the Places You'll Go!
from start to finish. Surprised? It makes sense when you get to
the following passage, on page 31:
Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You'll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Granted, it's not Keats. But could any verse better capture the
spirit of its most loyal reader?
"If you look all nice and have your hair parted and then go out
and score 30 on someone," says the tattooless Murphy, "I think
that says it all."