'A Tremendous Ornery Streak'
So imagine how Dennis Murphy felt while coaching Singler in high school.
“It gets back to he’s so competitive, so tenacious and so smart,” Murphy said. “The result is, how do you take the guy off the floor? That’s exactly who he is.”
Murphy has grown South Medford High School in Medford, Ore., a city of 75,000 about 270 miles south of Portland near the California border, into a state power during his 25 years at the school, winning 17 conference championships. But his best teams were the ones that included Singler, a four-year varsity letter-winner who led the Panthers to consecutive state title appearances where they ran into a familiar opponent led by another pretty fair player: Lake Oswego and Kevin Love.
Love’s team won when the two were juniors, 59-57, and Murphy thinks that probably was the best team he’s coached. Singler’s team came back to win in his senior year, 58-54. They were the Magic and Bird of Oregon high school basketball, two McDonald’s All-Americans headed to two of America’s marquee college basketball programs – Love to UCLA, Singler to Duke – coming from a state not known for producing all that many NBA-caliber players. According to some prep rankings, Love and Singler were two of the top five players in the country in 2007.
Late in the rematch during the final high school game each would play, South Medford point guard Michael Harthun, who would go on to become a Division I starter at Portland State, fouled out. Murphy made Singler his point guard to protect the ball and the lead. Less remembered, Murphy said, is that South Medford had already defeated Lake Oswego earlier in the season when the two met in holiday tournament.
“We beat a team out of Arizona, Mountain View, that had three Division I kids. We beat Kevin in the semis and ended up playing Oak Hill” – the Virginia prep powerhouse led that season by Brandon Jennings and a player who would become Singler’s four-year teammate at Duke, Nolan Smith – “and our claim to fame is we cut their 24-point lead to five with 1:35 to go and they ended up beating us 99-91.”
Singler’s reputation for rising to the occasion in big games started in high school and carried over to college. When Duke won the 2010 national championship, it was Singler named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four after scoring 21 in a semifinal win over West Virginia and 19 more in the national title win over Butler.
At every step of the way, Singler has surprised people for two qualities: his competitive streak and his athleticism. Like most traditionally successful high school programs with a continuity among coaches, South Medford has a program in place that grooms players long before they get to the varsity level. Murphy was well aware of Singler even before he coached him as a freshman and saw that competitive edge early.
“He’s got a very tremendous ornery streak,” Murphy said. “When we go to play or practice, you’re going to get his best shot. And if you get the best of him, be careful – he’s not going to let you do that for very long. He’s so competitive. He’ll figure out what way he can score against you or guard you. He’s got great basketball instincts. He understands the game better than most. He’s often given the task of guarding other people’s best perimeter players – I think you’ve seen that even in Detroit.”
Murphy, as many longtime successful high school coaches tend to be, is keenly insightful of what makes kids tick. With Singler, he found an unusual quality.
“As a teacher, I would tell you he was very respectful, polite, fun, artistic – and the two don’t necessarily match. I kid people. I say, he’s a little bit of an abstract-random and most athletes, as well as coaches, are concrete-sequential people. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all, it’s just kind of what Kyle is.”
Singler remains a very big deal in Medford, as is his younger brother E.J., who led Oregon to unexpected success as a senior this season. A group of around 100 Medford youths will bus to Saturday night’s game at Portland, where Singler will play in front of fans for the first time since November 2010 when No. 1 Duke beat Oregon as Singler scored 30 points. Murphy originally planned to be in the crowd, but preparations for a school trip he’ll lead to Italy next week got in the way.
“I’ll catch him next time,” Murphy said, confident Kyle Singler will have a long and fruitful NBA career for all those qualities he came to see in him during his four years on the South Medford varsity.