Tod Murphy: Nice Guys Finish First
This story appeared in the Feb. 27, 1990 edition of Timberwolves Tonight.
by Kim Knutson
Let's be honest. Tod Murphy expected this. Tod Murphy is a nice guy. And nice guys deserve chances. For Murphy, his chance has arrived. He is finally an important part of an NBA franchise.
Near-misses continue to hound the Timberwolves' season thus far. Despite letting a handful of games slip away in the fourth quarter, the team has provided exciting basketball for the 24,000 strong that turn out at the Metrodome.
The scoring of Tony Campbell, the development of Pooh Richardson, the addition of Minnesota native Randy Breuer and the rebounding of Murphy are four reasons the team is hanging tough.
A Bill Musselman protege who was not expected to make the final roster cut, Murphy has provided the Wolves with valuable defense and consistency since becoming a starter in early January.
Rebounding his way into the Timberwolves' record books, helping his team win three straight and spoiling Kevin McHale's homecoming are a few highlights of Murphy's season.
Tod Murphy notes
Aug. 16: Murphy signs
Technically an NBA veteran (he logged 19 minutes for the L.A. Clippers in their 1987-88 season opener before being waived), Murphy has constructed a balanced, well-rounded basketball career. He is the all-time leading scorer at UC Irvine and has done stints in the CBA (under Musselman) and in Europe.
Murphy started the first five games of the season before settling in as a reserve. His role took a drastic change, however, on January 2 against the Clippers, his former team.
"I really hadn't considered my role at the beginning," said Murphy. "I just knew I had to make the team and concentrate on rebounding and playing defense. Being on an expansion team is a great opportunity. Being in the NBA was my number-one goal and I have achieved that. Now, for some strange reason, the coach sees a reason to start me."
Like Musselman, Murphy is extremely competitive and hates losing. Known for his scoring ability in college, Murphy has re-adjusted his game to the kind Musselman professes.
"Defending and rebounding are offsprings of the fact I'm so competitive," Murphy said. "Coach Musselman realizes I'll do whatever it takes to win. The team was lacking a rebounder, and in the last two months, I've rebounded well. That's why I've been playing more."
Against the Dallas Mavericks on February 8, Murphy not only attacked the boards, he drove the lane. Ten rebounds and 17 points made Murphy the highlight of the boxscore. It's no longer the same two or three players doing the bulk of work. A juggled lineup has produced some unlikely chemistry.
Richardson replaced Sidney Lowe as point guard, Donald Royal provided bench depth and Breuer's inside strength filled a noticeably missing gap. "Our defense is much improved with Breuer," Murphy said. "We had no inside man and Campbell was a post guard. Breuer is diversified. He makes it easier on outside shots.
"The defense is the backbone of the team so far and will continue to be as long as Coach Musselman is here. We realized early on we had to play defense to be competitive. Our rebounding with Breuer has been a huge improvement. He's so big, he loosens up the middle because he takes up so much room, he prohibits players from driving."
Realistically, the team should have at least five more wins, Murphy said. And it's a relief not to occupy the Midwest Division cellar, a distinction that belongs to Charlotte.
"It's been somewhat frustrating," said Murphy about the close games. "One or two breaks can be the difference. We have to remain optimistic. We had a chance to beat Los Angeles (Lakers) and Detroit. That shows the type of character this team has.
"We're doing really well," he said. "We weren't real goal-oriented as far as number of wins. What was meant to happen in the first year was establishing a winning attitude. We're improving every single game. That's why I consider the first half of the season successful."
Defeating the Boston Celtics by nine points February 2 was a surprise to many. But Murphy grabbing a team-record 20 rebounds against the Clippers on January 2 was an even bigger surprise. "If I'm going to be in the record book for anything, it would be rebounds," he said. "To be honest, I don't recall a rebounding game like that in my life. It had to be luck. Every missed shot came toward me."
One would expect Murphy to consider that his best NBA game, but here's another surprise. "Twenty rebounds were nice, but we lost," he said. "It would have to be the first game we won, against Philadelphia. I played a lot and felt I contributed. I was proud to be a part of the first win in franchise history. It was almost as if we won our first championship. With 30 seconds left I realized we were about to win. We were smiling during the game. Up to that point, we hadn't done that."
While Murphy is smiling now, it hadn't always been that way. He ended his four-year college career as UC Irvine's all-time scoring leader (1,778 points) and second-leading rebounder (837). A two-time All-Pacific Coast Athletic Association selection, he averaged slightly over 20 points and seven rebounds per game his senior season.
A third-round 1986 draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics, Murphy was released during training camp. Instead of another NBA camp, he decided to try Italy. While playing in the Italian League, one of the more physical European leagues, he sustained knee cartilage damage and came back home. Following a complete recovery, Murphy signed with the Clippers in 1987, a team for whom he played one game. He never had a chance to prove himself in Los Angeles, being cut after holdout Michael Cage reported to the team.
"It was awfully hard to take," Murphy said. "It was crushing. I felt I'd done a good job throughout training camp. It was depressing to know I was next on the chopping block. I did cry the day we left for Denver. That was the day they told me they were signing Michael Cage and I'd be cut.
"My dream was always to play in the NBA. After I was cut by the Clippers, I knew I was close to making it, but if I went overseas I'd be forgotten. I talked to Coach Musselman during the summer, and he convinced me the CBA was the place to get exposure."
Murphy played alongside current teammates Scott Roth and Tony Campbell in Albany. Murphy played in 32 games after joining the Patroons in the middle of the 1988 campaign. He averaged 9.5 points per game in helping the team to the best record in professional basketball history (48-6) and the CBA title. Murphy was named MVP of the CBA championship series after averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds.
Murphy attended training camps in Golden State and Boston, but when he didn't see an opportunity in either place, he figured another year elsewhere would benefit his career. This time, he packed for Spain.
"I needed a year to grow, and getting out of the country was a good move to help me get back in the NBA," he said. "I gained a lot of experience and became a smart player, one of the team leaders. My teammates looked upon me to score, rebound and defend all together."
For Villalba, Murphy averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. But his dream was still the NBA, and Musselman persuaded his return.
Murphy attended two Timberwolves training camps and the Midwest Revue in San Antonio. Musselman was instrumental in giving Murphy the confidence he needed to make the squad.
"I don't think I'd be in the NBA without him," Murphy said. "He knows what I can do. The bottom line is winning and I respect that in him; he respects that in me. In the CBA he tested players. He kept guys down at times to see how they'd react. I kept positive. That's how I earned his respect."
Tod Murphy is not the average NBA veteran. With just one game under his belt prior to this season, Murphy is, in fact, a veteran in name only. But Musselman afforded Murphy the chance to demonstrate his rebounding and defensive abilities in the NBA. You don't need a Top 10 List to see why Murphy belongs here. He's a nice guy who makes a difference.