Hawking hot pretzels at halftime in the XL Center lower bowl that January night in 2000, a vendor caught the eye of an eventual two-time college basketball consensus All-American.
Power forward Troy Murphy was running through layup lines with his Notre Dame teammates in what would become a big night for a program on the verge of breaking free from a decade of irrelevance. Notre Dame would stun the defending national champions with a 75-70 victory in Hartford, Conn. But just before the start of the decisive second half, all Murphy could think about was satisfying the hunger in his belly.
One of those pretzels, he thought, would have done the tasty trick.
Murphy could be as goofy as goofy goes on and off the basketball court. Like that night in downtown Hartford. Or the time he decided to dye his hair a blondish-orange tint because he was bored. Or the times he’d scrawl different sayings in black marker on his white adidas high-tops. Or the time he rolled into a press conference to announce a return for his junior year after throwing on clothes that had been balled up in the back of his car for days.
But when it was time to compete, few were more up for answering a challenge than Murphy.
“He was a free spirit in a lot of ways,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, the lead recruiter who helped get Murphy to South Bend. “He was loosey-goosey, but I’ll tell you what, come game time, you didn’t want to line up against him.
“He was an absolute assassin on the court. That’s the one guy you wanted to go play with because you were going to do some special stuff.”
Like that night in Hartford, when Murphy, only a sophomore but already a big-time talent in the Big East, played all 40 minutes and finished with 33 points and 16 rebounds. Or when he announced his arrival on the conference stage the previous year against Providence with a debut of 30 points and 11 rebounds. He was the ultimate big-game, bright-lights guy.
There was no secret to Murphy’s magic, no switch that suddenly had to be flipped to go from goofy to great. The transition usually started around pre-game Mass, something that Murphy often couldn’t get through without becoming so locked in, so focused on doing what he needed to do to dominate, that nothing else mattered. Not the Homily. Or the Our Father. Or communion.
He didn’t want to offer peace with anyone; he was that locked in.
“You have to have fun,” Murphy said. “There were times to play and times for business. You only got so many opportunities in a season. You’ve got to bring it.
“I love the games. I loved to play.”
Following a Big East road game for Notre Dame during Murphy’s junior year of high school, McCaffery made a side-trip to the small, private Delbarton School in Northern Hills, N.J., to scout the relatively unknown left-handed power forward. It didn’t take long for the Irish assistant to fall hard for him.
McCaffery couldn’t get back to campus fast enough and share his opinion with then-head coach John MacLeod — the kid from Morristown, N.J., was a gotta-have guy. Murphy was a Top 50 college prospect ranked way behind fellow power forwards Dan Gadzuric (UCLA), Rashard Lewis (NBA), Kevin Lyde (Temple), Joel Pryzbilla (Minnesota) and Stromile Swift (LSU), all of whom were considered among the nation's Top 15.
McCaffery believed early that Murphy clearly was the best of the bunch. And it wasn't really close.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, this guy is a warrior,’” McCaffery said. “I told Coach MacLeod, ‘Coach, this is the guy. Like, this is THE guy.’”
Murphy signed with Notre Dame over Vanderbilt and immediately stepped into the starting lineup on a team that finished 13-14 the previous season. Save for one game his junior year when he served a punishment for being caught with fake identification while underage at a South Bend bar, Murphy never left the starting lineup.
He was an immediate fixture, but the force would come later. It took some time for him to figure it out.
“I made some mistakes early, but Coach MacLeod stuck with me,” Murphy said. “That gave me the confidence to go out and play. When you have that coach who believes in you as a young guy, it was really influential in your development.
“That really got me going.”
It was clear before Murphy even played a game that his skills were going to take him a long way. Classmate and teammate David Graves could see it the summer before their freshman year during conditioning work and pickup games. Murphy always wanted to win, be it in a drill or in a game or in the weight room. He usually did.
“We were trying to build a program back then and to have a guy like him be a difference-maker really expedited the process,” Graves said. “To have him as the cornerstone was remarkable.”
Murphy averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds in 33.0 minutes. He became the first player in school history to earn Big East rookie of the year. He shot 53.8 percent from the field, 30.8 percent from 3 and 74.1 percent from the foul line on a team that went 14-16 and failed to reach the postseason.
The losing was about to end.
Murphy’s word choice in a post-game interview after the second exhibition game of his sophomore year helped fuel a program turning point.
After Notre Dame lost to a rag-tag Marathon Oil touring team by 24 points, Murphy described the effort as “lackadaisical.” First-year coach Matt Doherty took exception. No team of his would ever be known for being lackadaisical. The next afternoon, on a scheduled off day, he called a practice. Sort of.
Setting up garbage cans in four corners of the team’s basement practice facility, Doherty took a seat on one baseline. Murphy and the Irish lined up on the opposite baseline. Each time Doherty blew his whistle, players had to sprint the length of the floor and back in a required time. The whistle blew. They ran. The whistle blew again. They ran again.
When it ended, the Irish had run 304 sprints in just over an hour. Some players spent time throwing up in the garbage cans. Others had to be physically carried up and back by teammates. A few ran with tears welling in their eyes.
Murphy was the ringleader of a select few that just kept going.
“He never quit; he took it,” Doherty said. “Murph was maybe one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached.”
Tough down in the post, and tough upstairs. The more Doherty blew his whistle that day, the more determined Murphy grew. Give up? Not a chance. Ever.
“That was fun,” Murphy insisted. “There was no way I would give in. It wasn’t going to happen.”
As good as Murphy was as a freshman, he was better as a sophomore as Notre Dame went 22-15. He averaged 22.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in 35.6 minutes. He became the first player in Big East history to lead the league in scoring and rebounding. He did it against routine double- and triple-teams.
After league games, his arms would be covered in bruises. He’d have deep scratches, almost cuts, along his shoulder blades from being raked by an opponent's fingernails. His knuckles would be bleeding. He took a pounding, but kept producing.
“You had to earn everything,” said the 6-foot-11, 245-pounder. “Nothing was given to you. Guys came at you hard and you just tried to match their will. It was great.”
At season’s end, he had earned the first of his two Big East player of the year awards. He also became the first Irish since 1976 named first team Associated Press All-American. He had already scored 1,000 career points, already accumulated a trove of trophies. Playing in the NBA was right there.
But that could wait.
The summer before his junior year, empty Papa John’s pizza boxes and Gatorade bottles lay strewn around the dorm room Murphy shared with teammate Matt Carroll. They had a routine where they would hit the Joyce Center late at night to work out, then try to pack on some pounds by pounding down pizzas. Murphy eventually switched to a diet that included large helpings of cottage cheese.
That decision did little to help the overall odor in the dorm room, but his determination was in overdrive. Following a special sophomore season, Murphy decided to stay in school and pushed himself to be even better. Carroll had no choice but to elevate everything he did on the court. If he didn’t, Murphy would leave him behind.
Both would play in the NBA.
“He showed me how to really want something,” Carroll said. “The success he had motivated him beyond belief. He was the best player in the league, and that’s how he was working.”
Murphy also was working for his third head coach in as many seasons when Mike Brey arrived in the summer of 2000. Skepticism and cynicism should have been a part of Murphy’s mindset with the revolving door in the coach's corner office, but that never became the case. Murphy embraced yet another boss, one who knew well the tremendous pressure that came with coaching the reigning league player of the year and an eventual NBA lottery pick.
“His biggest concern (was) is this guy going to mess me up?” Brey said. “I don’t know if it was very fair that he had to play for three coaches in three years (but) he made me look pretty good in my first year.”
In a home game during that 2000-01 season against No. 11 Syracuse, Brey wanted Murphy to consistently position himself at the foul line as the best way to attack the Orange 2-3 zone. Late in the second half of a close game, Brey reminded Murphy to stay at the foul line where he could turn and quickly shoot his feathery jumper.
Murphy balked. He would get deeper into the paint against Billy Celuck. He would dominate.
“I said get up at the foul line (and) he said, ‘(Heck) no; (Heck) no. I’m sitting right on Billy Celuck in the middle of that zone,’” Brey said. “Thank God he didn’t listen to me.”
The first time Murphy had operated against that Orange 2-3 zone defense as a freshman, he scored five points and was 0-of-11 from the field. The last time he saw it as a junior, he scored 34 points with 16 rebounds in 39 minutes. That night was way different, in part because Murphy’s game had come full circle.
“He,” Brey said, “is a unique talent.”
Murphy averaged 21.8 points and 9.2 rebounds his junior year. He joined Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Richard Hamilton as the only players in Big East history to twice earn league player of the year honors. He again was a consensus All-American. He also helped drive Notre Dame to a Big East West Division championship and first trip in 11 seasons to the NCAA tournament.
He had done it all, and after a second-round tournament loss to Mississippi, he was done. His college career was over. It was time for the next challenge.
All the awards and honors Murphy accumulated likely would not be seen in today’s one-and-done college basketball world. Nobody would have been surprised had Murphy left after his sophomore year. That he returned for another — and was even better — is amazing.
“To do what he did and stay for three years, that’s rare,” Carroll said. “You may never see it happen again.”
Murphy sits seventh in school history in scoring (2,011) and rebounding (924). He’s fifth in career scoring average (21.4) and in blocks (126). He’s second in career free throws made (587) and attempts (755). He’s the only player in Irish history with at least 2,000 points and 900 rebounds. He scored 999 points in 47 Big East games. He played 3,298 minutes (35.1 average). In 94 career games, he had 45 double-doubles for points and rebounds.
“His productivity was staggering,” Graves said. “He did it against the best.”
On Saturday, Murphy steps into Purcell Pavilion for an Irish game for the first time since he went for 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in a 79-72 loss to Georgetown on March 4, 2001. It was his last home game in an Irish uniform. Weeks later, he declared for the NBA draft and was a lottery pick of the Golden State Warriors.
Murphy played for six teams in 12 NBA seasons. Last month, he finished work on his undergraduate degree at Columbia University in New York City. Following graduation, Murphy moved from the place he's long called home in New York City to Laguna Beach, Calif.
At halftime of the Boston College game, a banner with Murphy’s No. 3 will fall from the arena rafters and stand alongside some of the fellow greats in program history in the school’s Ring of Honor. Earlier this week, the 35-year-old Murphy talked more about “team” and less about “me” when asked how fans should remember him.
His former coach and two of his closest friends had no problem putting Murphy’s collegiate career in perspective.
“Murph was the beast of the Big East,” Carroll said.
“He was the best player I ever played with,” Graves said.
“You point to one person that led to the rejuvenation of Notre Dame basketball, you point to one guy,” Doherty said. “It was Murph.”