By Jonah Bronstein
No less effervescent than he was when he arrived on campus as a freshman 45 years ago, Calvin Murphy came back to Niagara University on Friday night to further his legend.
In case you wondered why the weather was so pleasant earlier in the day.
“The sun always shines a little brighter,” Niagara athletics director Ed McLaughlin said, “when Calvin is on campus.”
Murphy made coaches fear No. 23 before Michael Jordan could tie his hightops, made 25-footers before the 3-point line was painted, and made such an impact as the shortest man on the floor that Sports Illustrated proclaimed him to be the greatest 5-foot-9 player in the history of basketball.
His Hall of Fame career brought him to every NBA city in the United States, and made him wealthy enough to travel around the world. Everywhere he flew, the Purple Eagle proudly spread his wings.
“Even in Europe, even in the Bahamas” said San Jose Brown, a retired schoolteacher from Houston who has known Murphy for 32 years, “people know him from Niagara.”
Wearing a gunmetal gray, four-piece, four-button suit with a jacket cut long enough for the greatest 6-foot-9 basketball player of all time, Murphy sat courtside for the Purple Eagles’ nationally-televised game against Rider, shaking hands, signing autographs, sharing stories.
He was honored at halftime as a “Niagara legend,” and received a standing ovation. When the game ended around 11 p.m., Murphy slid onto the floor in his patent leather wing tips to play the shooting game “knockout” with a group of children staying overnight at the Gallagher Center. Without letting his shirttail come untucked, he hoisted a shot from the top of the key that fell through the basket straighter than the silver tie dangled from his neck. A dozen or so kids remained in the game, but Murphy had already declared himself the winner.
Before tip-off, Murphy entertained a VIP audience in an intimate, academic auditorium on the fourth floor of St. Vincent’s Hall. A slideshow showcasing the highlights of his All-America days played on screen while he reminded everybody who already knew how brilliant of a player he was.
An image from Murphy’s first varsity game, when he scored 41 against Long Island, was shown.
“I always thought it was 42,” he said.
The box score from his 68-point outing in Syracuse, the third-highest total in NCAA history, came up next.
“You see I missed three foul shots,” he said, “so I must have been feeling pretty bad that day.”
Grainy game footage of Murphy rising above double-teams in the corner to swish shots and scoot ahead on the break for easy layups played. In one clip (only one) he drew a defender and dropped the ball off to a teammate for an easy basket.
“Run it back! Run it back!,” said Murphy, waving his arms like a coach protesting a foul call. “What’s he doing getting open when I had a sure shot?”
Except when he contorted his to emphasize a point, Murphy smiled for the entire hour. But his demeanor turned serious when discussing why he’s so passionate about his alma mater.
“I get emotional when I make these statements,” he said. “Sometimes you find out the truth under adversity. You find out who your pals are when your at the bottom of your life. You find out what’s real when you’re no longer in good graces with the press, or the world, when you get accused of some horrible things and people jump ship.
“And I went through that, we all know this. But when I looked up and saw the president of Niagara University sitting in court with me for a whole week, hearing those horrible things said about me and never flinched ... and then the day I was vindicated of horrible, horrible accusations, the next day they fly me to sit down with him in the second row on national TV in the first round of the NCAA tournament against (Oklahoma State).
“Tell me I didn’t make the best decision of my life when I came to Niagara University.”
“He shows how much pride he has for this school, so naturally, for someone like myself, it takes my pride to the next level,” said Terry Riordan, a 1969 graduate and basketball season-ticket holder.
“It’s sincere pride,” said Dave Ferris, a Lockport native who sent his son to attend Niagara. “There’s nothing canned about it.”
“He was like that when he was 20 years old on campus,” Riordan said. “He was always the star. But he always, even during his days as an All-American, he was very easy to talk to, always giving everybody time, always gracious to the fans, never had a cocky bone in his body.”
Except when the ball went up and the game was on the line.
Two years ago, Murphy came to campus and challenged Tyrone Lewis, the program’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers, to a shooting contest.
Guess who won?
Friday morning, Murphy came to shootaround wearing a Houston Rockets practice jersey and what he’d call “booty-hugger shorts.”
“I watched him make 14 foul shots in a row,” freshman guard Marvin Jordan marveled.
Murphy spoke to the Purple Eagles, mired in one of the worst seasons in years, about being winners in the face of losing.
“It’s easy to be a champion and feel good about yourself when you’re winning,” was Murphy’s message. “But its tough when things aren’t going as well.”
“Golden advise,” Jordan said.
“Not a lot of smiling going on this year, but when you saw him, the first thing you do is smile,” said head coach Joe Mihalich, whose met Murphy at least a dozen times, yet still gets starstruck. “It’s special having him around here. I just wish he was playing.”
Mihalich joked that there is a battle going on between Murphy and the university, over who loves who more.
“Hopefully,” Mihalich said, “it’s a tie.”
Murphy won’t settle for a tie, so he’s recruiting some help. San Jose Brown accompanied him on this trip after 30 years of invitations.
“He was so excited about coming and I knew it must be really special because he couldn’t get here fast enough,” she said. “It means a lot to him, it really, really does. He always told me, ‘Once you go, you’ll understand.’
“Now I understand.”
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at email@example.com