Published November 02, 2012
PHOENIX – Jack Murphy was not what you would call a star on his high school basketball team.
His duties: Laundry, towels, hand out water, practice hard.
His line: One game, two free throws.
"When you're in high school and every girl you want to date is in the stands seeing you hand out water, it's not a good thing," Murphy said. "It hurt my dating game, but it helped out my passion for basketball and what I'm doing today."
It sure did.
Parlaying his high school managerial duties into something much bigger, Murphy went on to work under some of the best minds in basketball: Lute Olson at Arizona, George Karl with the Denver Nuggets and Josh Pastner at Memphis.
Taking what he learned from those coaches and combining it with his own infatuation for basketball, Murphy, the player who wasn't good enough to play on his high school team, now has his own team after becoming the new head coach at Northern Arizona.
"I always knew that I wanted to be a coach," Murphy said during a media tour in downtown Phoenix this week. "Everything I have done has been with that end in mind."
After his not-so-stellar high school career — at least on the court — Murphy landed a job as the team manager at Arizona with the help of his high school coach, Al La Rocque, a friend of Olson's.
Murphy spent eight years in Tucson, serving as recruiting coordinator, administrative assistant, video coordinator and eventually director of operations.
He then went on to work as an advance scout for the Denver Nuggets from 2006-09 before landing a job as an assistant coach at Memphis under Pastner, a player and assistant at Arizona during Murphy's time in the desert.
That led to his big break at Northern Arizona, a team in big need of a boost.
A fairly steady small-conference program over the years, the Lumberjacks won 19 games in 2010-11, but fell off hard last season.
Northern Arizona got off to a rough start, then coach Mike Adras resigned a month into the season, replaced by 70-year-old Dave Brown, the school's former women's coach and color commentator for the team.
Brown did his best to hold the team together, but the lack of continuity hurt the Lumberjacks, who lost their final 16 games to finish 5-24, including 1-15 in the Big Sky Conference.
Northern Arizona figured to be better this season with seven seniors returning and Murphy has already made an impact on the Lumberjacks with his enthusiasm, confidence and by providing them with a structured environment.
"It's been good to have coach Murphy because people don't think you can establish stability in the short amount of time that he's been here, but since mid-April when he was hired, you know exactly what to expect from him and he knows what to expect from us," senior guard Michael Dunn said. "It's kind of the accountability we have for each other and that helps us a lot in practice and going forward into the season."
Murphy became infatuated with basketball at an early age, growing up in Las Vegas while UNLV was in its heyday, watching future pros like Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Baron Davis and Paul Pierce play in his high school gym during the city's two big tournaments every year.
And it's not as though Murphy was devoid of hoops talent. It's just that his skills didn't fully develop until after high school and he played for a school, Durango in Las Vegas, that won two state championships while he was there and sent multiple players to Division I schools.
Even when he couldn't play the game, Murphy studied it, waiting every month for his issue of Basketball Times, watching tape, attending UNLV practices to watch coach Bill Bayno at work. He worked basketball camps with La Rocque and later with Olson at Arizona, all of it to fulfill his ultimate goal.
"I went there knowing I wanted to be a basketball coach, be around the game," Murphy said. "I started early on in that viewpoint."
Murphy continued to be a sponge for information once he started working.
He had some pretty good teachers, too.
From Olson, he learned accountability, the way the Hall of Fame coach empowered his assistant coaches and basketball staff with responsibility, but made them answerable when things went wrong.
From Karl, Murphy learned about adaptability, the way the Nuggets coach dealt with the constant changes with an NBA team — they traded for Allen Iverson a month into Murphy's first season — and always found a way to win on the court.
Murphy's time with Pastner taught him patience.
When Pastner took over at Memphis, he was replacing John Calipari at a program that was coming off its best stretch in school history. Murphy saw the way Pastner handled the pressure, realizing success isn't going to happen overnight, that you have to have a plan and stick to it.
"I've been fortunate to learn from some of the best minds in basketball," he said. "They taught me a lot."
Murphy used that knowledge to his advantage, no longer the guy handing out towels and water anymore.