By Neil Beldock
Quicker than quick and tougher than tough would be a good way to describe Calvin Murphy. Quickest player to ever play. I don’t think there was or ever will be a player quicker than Calvin Murphy to play in the NBA. And for those who saw him play, I doubt that assertion would be questioned.
Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden had a great saying about how to play basketball. The saying went: “Be quick, but don’t hurry”.
In the case of Calvin Murphy, he was so quick that if you saw him play it was hard to think that he wasn’t in a hurry…….all the time.
But whereas the underlying meaning within the words spoken by Wooden were meant to emphasis that you can be too quick and thus make mistakes, never was that the case when it came to Calvin Murphy. He was quick upon quick, without being out of control.
Standing only 5 feet 9 inches tall, he had to be quick, and he was.
But to play in the NBA during the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, a time when the game was far more physical than it is today, just being quick would not be enough.
Calvin Murphy was not just quick, he was tough and physical as well.
Said his teammate on the Houston Rockets, Major Jones: “He was like a bantamweight who dared to make his living in the heavyweight division”.
Calvin Murphy, in his NBA Legends profile, is described as having “speed, quickness, great hands, ball handling skills, great leaping ability and the shooting eye of an eagle”.
His NBA Legends profile also states “Murphy played pressure basketball at both ends of the court. He was a premier player on offense 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”.
In many ways, although Calvin Murphy was more of a 2-guard / scoring guard than a true point guard, a combo guard by today’s vernacular, based upon the way he played, a comparison of sorts can be made to Isiah Thomas of Detroit Piston fame.
(Calvin Murphy & Isiah Thomas)
Although Murphy was quicker than Thomas was, but definitely not as dominant an overall player as Thomas was, physical attributes and style-of-play comparisons can be made.
Both lacked height by NBA standards, but both were very solid physically and very, very strong for their height. Both were incredible penetrators with the ball. Both could shoot and score. Both played tough, physical defense, and neither would ever back down against a bigger opponent……Ever!!!
In what could be considered another accurate analogy, although very different in body-type, the quickness with which Calvin Murphy played the game can be compared to the out-and-out speed with which Russell Westbrook plays the game today. (Again, Murphy was not nearly as dominant as Westbrook, but the quickness-to-speed analogy can create a visual describing how quick Murphy was.)
(The Quickness of Calvin Murphy) (The Speed of Russell Westbrook)
Not only was Murphy the smallest player in the NBA when he played, but he is believed to be the smallest player to ever be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
But boy could he play.
High School Years: “Inch for Inch The Greatest High School Player I Ever Saw”
His prowess as a basketball player started early when, as a high schooler during the summer of 1965 he played at the legendary Five Star Basketball Camp.
The camp founder and undeniable guru of high school basketball Howie Garfinkel, years later when talking about all the great players he had seen play at Five Star over the years, many of whom went on to long and distinguished NBA careers, had the following to say about Calvin Murphy:
“Calvin Murphy, inch for inch, pound for pound, shot for shot, was the greatest high school player I ever saw.”
To put what Garfinkel said into a certain perspective, consider that the players who played at the Five Star Camp over the years include the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Patrick Ewing, Vince Carter, Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Shawn Kemp, Chris Mullin, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins and many, many more.
But for Garfinkel’s money, Calvin Murphy was the best of them all.
Murphy would be a 3-time All- State selection and 2-time All-American selection at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Connecticut. People who saw him play in the two most prestigious high school all-star games of that era, The Dapper Dan Classic and Allentown Classic still speak with amazement at the performances he put forth.
Murphy scored 37 points and was the MVP at the Dapper Dan Classic, and followed that up with a 66 point MVP performance in the Allentown Classic. And unlike the fashion with which the NBA & even high school all-star games are played nowadays, back then players actually played hard and played defense in all-star games.
Off To Niagara University: “We Were So Scared Of Him”
After high school Murphy would matriculate to Niagara University where he would be a 3-time All-American, averaging 33.1 points per game over his 3-year varsity career for the Purple Eagles.
In his first season of varsity play at Niagara (1967-68) Murphy would average 38.2 points per game, second in the nation in scoring behind only Pistol Pete Maravich. He would be the leading scorer in 23 of the 24 games in which he played.
His second season at Niagara, with teams building their defenses to specifically stop Murphy, he still averaged 32.4 points per game which included a 68 point game against Syracuse.
As a senior, with teams consistently double and triple teaming him, he still averaged 29.4 points per game and was the leading scorer in 25 of the 29 games played.
Over his college career he scored 30 or more points in 42 of 77 games, 30-39 points 23 times, 40-49 points 13 times and 50 points or more 6 times. He was a 3-time All-American selection and a 2-time 1st Team All-American selection.
Said NBA great Bob Lanier who played against Murphy while attending college at St. Bonaventure (and then in the NBA): “We were so scared of him. We were like everyone else. We read all the press clippings about this guy scoring 50 points, and a guy who scored 70 points in a game. We were happy when we held him to 55 points the first time we played against him”.
Lanier continued: “Calvin Murphy was something else. He was feisty. We had never seen anything like that before. We would focus some of our pre-season preparation just to get ready for Murph”.
Upon completion of his illustrious collegiate career, the NBA loomed. But at 5 feet 9 inches tall, there were some doubts amongst NBA scouts.
Entering The NBA: “How Dare They Treat Me That Way”
Murphy was drafted in the 2nd round by the then San Diego Rockets (a year before they moved to Houston), but even after drafting him, the Rockets had questions.
Pete Newell, the General Manager of the Rockets placed a call to Murphy’s college coach Frank Layden (who would go on to coach in the NBA from 1976-1988 and be the 1984 NBA coach of the year) . Newell wanted to know if they made the right decision and if Murphy could “make it” and play in the NBA.
Layden’s response was simple and to the point: “He’ll play for you for 15 years”.
From Murphy’s standpoint, the fact that he wasn’t a first round draft pick would be more than just a minor irritant. It would place a giant chip on his shoulder to prove he belonged in the NBA in spite of his diminutive size.
Said Murphy of not being drafted in the 1st round: “My feelings were hurt. I was a 3-time All-American and nobody took me in the first round because of my size. I remember thinking ‘how dare they treat me that way'”.
It wouldn’t take Murphy long to prove to everyone that this 5 foot 9 inch dynamo did in fact belong in the NBA.
In his rookie year he would average 15.8 points, 4.0 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game playing, on average, just over 24 minutes per game. He would also be an NBA All-Rookie-1st Team selection.
During his rookie year, teaming with 1st round selection Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rockets improved their win total from 27 wins the year before to 40 wins.
In his second season in the NBA, given 7 more minutes of playing time per game, Murphy upped his scoring average to 18.2 points per game, upped his assists to 4.8 per game and still grabbed 3.1 rebounds per game. His first season was no fluke.
Murphy’s second NBA season also marked the first season for the Rockets in Houston. After seeing Murphy play, a Houston sports columnist described his game as being played “with ferocious speed and a fiery demeanor, but with a jump shot as soft as cotton puffs in a wastebasket”.
During the 1976-77 season Murphy, together with new additions Moses Malone and John Lucas, led the Rockets to their first-ever division title.
From the 1973-74 season through the 1979-80 season, Murphy would average over 20 points per game in 5 of those 7 seasons, including averaging 25.6 points per game during the 1977-78 season.
By the 1980-81 season, behind Murphy’s 16.7 points per game (2nd on the team) and the dominating play of Moses Malone, the Rockets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time ever before losing in 6 games to the Larry Bird led Boston Celtics.
(Calvin Murphy and Moses Malone against the Celtics – 1981 NBA Finals)
Murphy would go on to have a very distinguished NBA career. He played 13 years and posted career numbers of 17.9 points and 4.4 assists per game. And just for good measure, at 5 feet 9 inches tall, the shortest player in the league, he grabbed 2.1 rebounds per game as well.
In recognition of his outstanding exploits and accomplishments, the Rockets provided Murphy with the ultimate honor; they retired his #23.
And He Has Other Talents……..
As a basketball player, Murphy was quick, and tough, and physical, and one of the most exciting players in league history for fans to watch play. But Murphy had another talent which perhaps many may not be aware of……
Calvin Murphy, believe it or not, was a world-class baton twirler who won many local, regional and national baton-twirling competitions.
In 1963, as an 8th grader, he won the Baton-Twirling National Championship. So talented was he at baton-twirling that he also performed at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. And, in 1977 while playing for the Houston Rockets, he won the Texas State Men’s Twirling Championship.
How did this come to be? Murphy claims he was “bullied” into learning how to twirl a baton as his mother and all six of his sisters were baton-twirlers.
(Calvin Murphy with his baton in front of his many baton-twirling trophies)
A Human Dynamo: “The Edge Of Excitement”
But it was basketball where Murphy set a different standard. Renowned basketball writer and author Charlie Rosen had the following to say about the way Murphy played:
“Calvin Murphy was effervescent….he played basketball 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.”
Calvin Murphy, at 5 feet 9 inches tall, truly was a human dynamo……………..
Writers Note: I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t include the below information in a history piece about Calvin Murphy:
Sadly, Calvin Murphy would suffer a tragedy in his life. In 1996 his then wife died in a car accident.
He was also acquitted in 2004 after being accused by 5 of his out-of-wedlock daughters of sexual abuse-Murphy, it is reported, fathered 14 children by 9 woman.
Murphy is currently, and has been a long-time member of the Houston Rockets broadcast team.