Legends profile: Calvin Murphy
As a basketball player Calvin Murphy had speed, quickness, great hands, ball handling skills, great leaping ability and the shooting eye of an eagle. He had it all — except for height.
Only those who saw Murphy play knew how big this 5-foot-9 dynamo was on the basketball court. Murphy played pressure basketball at both ends of the court. He was a premier player on offense who could also stop on a dime and stick a jump shot with a flick of the wrist. And his defense was aggressive, a belly-to-belly style that made him a top-notch defensive player.
He never allowed his diminutive size to become a handicap. “He was,” said former Rockets teammate Major Jones, “like a bantamweight who dared to make his living in the heavyweight division.”
Like the NBA’s heavyweights, he earned the game’s ultimate reward when he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 after a stellar schoolboy, collegiate and 13-year NBA career.
Drafted as the first pick in the second round (18th overall) in 1970 by the San Diego Rockets — who moved to Houston one year later — Murphy quickly rocketed to NBA fame.
Though the smallest player in the league, Murphy made the NBA All-Rookie team in 1971. Over the course of his career, spent all in a Rocket uniform, he averaged 17.9 points per game and ended his career with a total of 17,949 points. In the postseason, Murphy shone even brighter as he averaged 18.5 points in 51 playoff games.
His best season was 1977-78 when he averaged 25.6 ppg. He ranks third in the NBA record book for consecutive free throws made (78) and first for seasonal percentage mark hitting on 206 of 215 attempts for a .958 percentage both achieved in the 1980-81 campaign. He led the NBA in free throw percentage twice and finished among the top five eight other times.
However, Murphy’s career extends farther out than the charity stripe. He scored in excess of 1,000 points in eleven straight seasons, and his 17,949 career points currently ranks him second in Rockets’ history behind Hakeem Olajuwon whom he also only trails in numerous other team categories such as games played, minutes, steals, field goals attempted and made. The 1979 All-Star still owns Houston’s record for most assists (4,402) and is one of only five Rocket players to have his number (23) retired. In 1978, Murphy earned the J. Walter Kennedy Humanitarian Award.
Murphy began creating his legend as a youth in the Nutmeg State. He became obsessed with two things: basketball and baton twirling. Surley the only NBA star ever to claim a national championship in baton twirling — which he did as a teen in 1963 — he picked up a twirler’s baton even before he did a basketball. He inherited both interests from his mother, Ina, a one-time majorette who had also played guard with a semipro basketball team in North Carolina. But basketball had a stronger hold over him.
“We only lived a half-hour from New York City,” Murphy later recalled in the Houston Post. “My brother and I would sneak on the train to go to old Madison Square Garden and watch the pro games. I used to sit there and just visualize me being out there.” One night Murphy saw Oscar Robertson play and, on the way home, vowed he would become a pro basketball player, “come hell or high water.”
In high school, this prediction began to take on the form of reality. A 1966 graduate of Norwalk High School in Connecticut, he earned All-America honors twice and was an All-State selection three times. Folks still talk about his senior year, when he was MVP of the Dapper Dan Tournament with 37 points and MVP of the Allentown Classic with 66 points. As a tribute, Murphy was elected to the Connecticut Coaches Association Hall of Fame and is a recipient of the Connecticut Sportswriters Gold Key Award.
He also knew the key to success at the college level. He had 235 basketball scholarship offers but chose Niagara University and enjoyed an extraordinary career under his coach, the future one-time Utah Jazz coach, Frank Layden.
During the 1967-68 season, his first as a starter for the Purple Eagles, he was the high scorer in 23 of 24 games, averaging 38.2 ppg second to LSU’s “Pistol” Pete Maravich. The next season, with teams throwing up every type of defense to try and stop him, he averaged 32.4 ppg and scored 68 points against Syracuse. As a senior, Murphy averaged 29.4 ppg and was the high scorer in 25 of 29 games.
A three-time All-American, he scored 2,548 points in 77 games (three seasons) and averaged 33.1 ppg in his college career. No doubt a prolific scorer, he tallied 30 or more points in 42 of 77 games, 30-39 points 23 times, 40-49 points 13 times and 50 or more points six times.
Yet, Murphy still had skeptics among NBA scouts. “My feelings were hurt,” Murphy recalled in the Post. “I had been a three-time All-American and nobody took me in the first round simply because of my size. I remember thinking, ‘How dare they treat me that way?’ ”
The numbers 5-9 made a greater impression than his NCAA record-book statistics. However, joining with fellow rookie Rudy Tomjanovich, the second overall pick in 1970, the Rockets improved went from 27-55 the year before his arrival to 40-42 his rookie year. He wasted no time proving himself at the NBA level, averaging 15.8 points as a rookie with many 20-foot jumpers (“soft as cotton puffs in a wastebasket,” a Houston columnist once described them), ferocious speed, and a fiery demeanor.
John Lucas joined the Rockets for the 1976-77 season and became the starting point guard, with Murphy moving to the shooting guard slot. Houston also acquired 21-year-old Moses Malone early in the season, and the infusion of new talent helped the Rockets to their first-ever division title.
During Murphy’s career, the Rockets were inconsistent. But in his free-throw-record-setting season, the Rockets had their most successful season to date with Malone as the anchor. After sneaking into the playoffs at 40-42, they staged a series of playoff upsets — against the Lakers, the Spurs, and Kansas City Kings — to reach the 1981 NBA Finals.
In Game 5 of a hard-fought series against San Antonio, Murphy came off the bench to score 36 points. Prior to Game 7 against the Spurs, Malone had a stomach ailment, and coach Del Harris leaned on Murphy to pick up the slack. Behind a night of roadblock screens, Murphy poured in 42 points, helping Houston to a 105-100 victory and a berth in the conference finals.
After dumping another unsung squad, the Kings, in the Western Conference finals, the Rockets met the Boston Celtics in The Finals. The Celtics were a young team, with Kevin McHale in his rookie season, Larry Bird in his second year and Robert Parish in his fifth campaign. Still, Boston proved too tough for the Rockets, winning the series in six games.
But all this doesn’t fully tell the story of a player whose brilliance on court was apparent from his high school days. “I coached him once in a high school all-star tournament,” recalls former University of Connecticut coach Dee Rowe, “and what I remember best is that he scored about 66 points in the championship game, but he was crying in the locker room after the game because we lost. He was that kind of competitor.”
Noted basketball writer Charlie Rosen stated that “Murphy was effervescent; he lived just like he played ball — constantly on the edge of excitement. This enthusiasm infused every one of his games with the same kind of excitement that some say Willie Mays brought to baseball.
Tempered only by his humility, Murphy stood tall among great athletes. When Murphy was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Rockets’ PR department compiled a nine-page, fact-filled release exalting Murphy’s credentials.
It was a sizeable statistical package, one that could credit Murphy for the size of his athleticism. But even the Hall of Fame acknowledged that it couldn’t show the size of Murphy’s heart.