As the NBA Playoffs advance in the Florida bubble more than 2,000 kilometres away from Jamal Murray‘s hometown of Kitchener, Ont., the 23-year-old guard who has dominated the court in the post-season has united many Canadians and brought them closer to the action in the absence of the Toronto Raptors.
On the evening before beginning the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Murray made a point of taking half an hour to speak with Canadian reporters about the growing enthusiasm in the country over his starring leadership role with his team, the Denver Nuggets.
“I want to come home. I want to see all of you guys — every single one of you — but I don’t want to see you guys yet, so I plan to be out here for a little longer and try to see how far we can go,” Murray said Thursday during a Zoom conference call at the Disney campus in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
“I just play basketball. That’s me: all I know is basketball. Everything I’m doing growing up until now is basketball … I put my heart and soul into this.”
In both series during this year’s playoffs, fans have watched Murray help the Nuggets escape three-to-one deficits to secure historic Game 7 wins against the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers.
The latest accomplishment comes after a meteoric rise for Murray. A former student at Grand River Collegiate Institute in Kitchener and Orangeville Prep in Orangeville, Ont., he graduated and went to the University of Kentucky in 2015.
Murray played for the Kentucky Wildcats for a year before being drafted seventh overall by Denver in 2016. He went on to re-sign with the Nuggets after his contract expired in 2019, agreeing to a five-year, US$170-million contract extension with the team (a record for a Canadian player). Murray has also played for Team Canada.
When asked to reflect on his roots, Murray was humble and said there are others too in Kitchener and elsewhere in Ontario that have ability.
“We got a lot of talent down there too, it’s not just me,” he said, talking about the Stanley Park Community Centre where he used to visit when he was younger.
“I still go back home and I’ll have runs with all those guys I know over there and all the kids I grew up with. It’s just a whole lot of fun just to be back home in that environment.
“It was cool to be pioneer of something, especially in basketball and in Canada. It’s pretty amazing.”
Continuing with that theme, he reiterated a message for children and teens aspiring to get into basketball and professional sports.
“I was out there at the court every day not knowing I’d be in the Western Conference finals at 23 years old,” Murray said.
“So all the young kids out there that have a dream in basketball or a dream in sport, I was a kid just like them, just like you guys, that put in the work and trusted the process. And I kind of demanded more of myself to put myself in positions to succeed.”
Since joining the NBA, Murray launched two charitable initiatives. His first is providing children in the Kitchener-Waterloo region with backpacks and supplies. The second was the unveiling of his first basketball court at a Waterloo Region Housing complex on Amos Avenue. He partnered with the housing agency after a toddler was fatally struck by a vehicle while outside playing.
“Yeah, I’m going to keep doing more stuff in the city,” Murray said on Thursday when asked by Global News about his work with the community.
“The basketball court is amazing and those kids now have a safe area to play.”
Rowan Barrett, a general manager with Canada Basketball and former professional basketball player, said he first became aware of Murray when he was an Orangeville Prep student. At first, he said he “didn’t know what to make of him.”
“He was really good at high school player and Canadian high school players kind of got this reputation in the States now, so they come with a lot of fanfare and a lot of hype if you’re a good one at least,” Barrett told Global News.
“When Jamal went to college, I didn’t think he was going to be one of the standouts of the NCAA that year, let alone at lead a stacked Kentucky team that far into the tournament. So it was it was shocking when he came onto the scene.”
Barrett said Murray’s father, Roger, helped play a major role in his development, but noted Murray has developed a unique skillset “in that he’s an athletic sharpshooter.”
“He’s the best Canadian at the world in basketball,” he proclaimed.
“I’m a GTA guy, so you know it’s crazy that the southern Ontario basketball scene has boomed all the way out that you can say one of the best players in the world is from Kitchener, Ontario.”
When asked about the daunting task of defeating the Lakers to advance to the Finals, Murray described this moment as a “beginning.”
“This is only my second playoffs, and there’s so much more proving I know I can make of myself and I can make in the team,” he said.
“As much as I’ve seen Lebron and looked up to Lebron and had him as my idol, now it’s time to go in there and put in the work.”
In what has become a typical characteristic of the six-foot-four guard, he reiterated he’s not alone in this Playoffs journey and that team chemistry has proven essential.
“I wouldn’t be here without the squad and they put me in a good position to score, and when they rely on me I try to gain that trust by going out there and making the shots or going out there making passes.”
“It’s a blessing to be here and I’m glad I’m healthy … It’s a dream come true for me and really tested me in a lot of different ways.”
Kitchener mayor cites community pride, enthusiasm for Murray
In the adrenaline-pumping minutes during and after Game 7 against the Clippers on Tuesday, the jubilation of Murray’s performance among Canadians was evident all over social media.
“Jamal Murray doing it for Kitchener, for Toronto, FOR CANADA! (And maybe for the Raptors team he grew up watching …?)” Suzanne Mercado tweeted.
“OK I’m on the Nuggets bandwagon now. Kitchener, Ontario’s own Jamal Murray let’s get it,” Chris Horkins tweeted.
The jokes about Murray taking a lead role in defeating the Clippers’ lead by Kawhi Leonard, who left the Toronto Raptors after the 2019 NBA Championships win, were plenty. Among those sharing their enthusiasm was Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic.
“Hopefully this is a signal of where the team is going,” he told Global News in an interview recently.
“For us as Canadians it’s fantastic because we can’t cheer on our Raptors any more this year, but it’s great when we can cheer on a fellow Canadian.
“It’s almost a storybook story for any young person who has some big dreams, who has some skill, who works hard, who has a family who supports them, and really sees those dreams come true and it’s fantastic to see that happen.”
Vrbanovic said he has come to know Murray and his father during his time as mayor, adding the Murray family has been involved in the city for years.
“This is one of the most incredibly kind, generous, dedicated, hard-working families that I’ve come to meet and certainly very reflective of our community,” he said, reflecting on a lunch he had with the pair in order to discuss the NBA season, the region and Murray’s aspirations.
“This really is a family that continues to live here, continues to be part of the community in a very quiet, grassroots way, and will continue doing that no doubt for many years to come.”
With the ongoing pandemic, Vrbanovic said it has meant difficulties publicly showing the town’s appreciation for Murray. However, he said the NBA Playoffs have been a welcome distraction for many in the community.
“COVID doesn’t need to prevent us from gathering with those that are within our social circle … and actually catching the game, cheering him on, cheering him on through social media,” Vrbanovic said, noting planning has begun on ways to recognize Murray after the pandemic.
“I think all of us are looking for a bit of hope and inspiration particularly as we’ve seen numbers going up in the last couple of weeks, but I think what Jamal’s success needs to remind us about is the importance of self-discipline.”
He also had a direct message for Murray on behalf of the city and residents.
“Jamal, Kitchener continues to be so incredibly proud of you and all that you’ve achieved through all your hard work and dedication. We’re cheering for the Nuggets to take this all the way through to the Championships,” Vrbanovic said.
Murray’s impact on Denver
When it came to Murray making his mark as a leader for the Nuggets, Ryan Blackburn, manager of the Denver Stiffs — a Nuggets community news website — said it came after Murray’s contract extension following the team’s 2019 NBA Playoffs run.
“This was the first time he really had to raise his game,” Blackburn said, noting Murray made incremental improvements throughout the regular season.
However, he said something changed in a major way for Murray after the Nuggets entered the bubble.
“The Nuggets were dead in the water in the first round of these playoffs … there was so much doubt around the team in terms of whether they could be good enough, whether there were certain things they were not doing correctly,” he said.
“He carried himself like a star. He carried himself like one of this team’s best players and most important pieces, and the Nuggets really took after his resolve and his resilience.”
While Nuggets centre Nikola Jokić has been another central figure for the team, Blackburn said Murray became a player that could be relied upon on the court as well as off of it.
“He has the utmost confidence in himself and the talents of this team, and he has continued to motivate them and push them in the same direction — making sure everybody knows they’re good enough,” he said, noting Murray’s praise of teammates during post-game interviews.
“When you’re going up against big-market teams like the Lakers and the Clippers, everybody says you’re not good enough. The self-belief has to come from within, and Jamal Murray’s self-belief really stands out with him.
“At 23 years old, it’s really incredible to see somebody develop into that level of a leader.”
Reflecting on his interactions with Murray and what it’s like to cover him, he said there are definitely two sides.
“He has a lot of intensity, to be clear. He’s self-driven and he’s self-made in terms of making sure he’s not discounted and discredited from all of the credit he really deserves, but once you get to know him he’s very kind, he’s very reasonable,” Blackburn said.
Going forward, Blackburn said the upcoming Lakers series will arguably bring the most pressure of Murray’s career. The Nuggets were shut out from the playoffs in 2009 by the Lakers team led by Kobe Bryant at the time.
“They can definitely (win). I think that’s pretty clear based on where they are right now. Nuggets fans, even if they lose in this series, will be very happy with what the Nuggets have done. It has brought a lot of joy to the city of Denver.”
Outside of basketball, Blackburn noted Murray’s advocacy of fighting racial injustice and supporting the families of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. During playoff games, Murray wore shoes with Taylor and Floyd’s faces to raise awareness about their deaths. After scoring 50 points in Game 6 against the Utah Jazz on Aug. 30, he became emotional when asked to comment by TNT.
“These shoes mean a lot with all the… these shoes mean a lot,” he said, pausing to fight back tears.
“I just want to win and in life you find things that hold value to you and things to fight for, and we found something worth fighting for as a NBA and as a collective unit. And I use these shoes as a symbol for me to keep fighting all around the world.”
Murray addressed the deaths of Taylor and Floyd again during his conference call on Thursday.
“We don’t want to lose the focus on that so we’ll still wear the shirts and still have the shoes,” he said.
“This is something that’s bigger than me and bigger than us and we know what we need to do to create change.”
Back in Denver, Blackburn reflected on Murray’s four-year tenure with the Nuggets and how the team’s fanbase embraced him.
“The city of Denver has been right behind him. The city of Denver, in general, is a basketball town, it’s growing in terms of its interest … and Jamal Murray is a big reason for it,” he said.
“He’s a very active community member. He likes to go out and be a part of things … He’s really grown into one of Denver’s favourite sons.”
Life in and after the bubble
So what has life been like inside the NBA bubble away from the court? Murray said his personal routine has been relatively straightforward.
“I get some food, I go back to my room, I’ll sleep, and then I’ll have a game, and then I’ll sleep, and then I’ll eat. And then I’ll walk by the pool … you see all the families walking around and I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll go back to my room.’ I’m like, ‘OK I’ll have a shower’ … and then I’ll play some video games, and then I’ll sleep,” he listed off when asked about his time.
“So you know I’ve had quite a lot of dreams lately here in the bubble … The bubble has been fun and when you’re addicted to basketball like I am, that makes it that much better.”
While Murray’s goals and aspirations remain firmly fixed on doing his best to help the Nuggets win the NBA Championship, he turned his mind back to his beloved hometown and the youth in it — reflecting on the basketball court project on Amos Avenue.
“Growing up … I had a court like that and, you know, it kept me out of trouble a lot of times, and now it’s good to do the same thing for a lot of young kids growing up who have a dream and want to go somewhere with basketball and go somewhere with the sport,” Murray said.
“So yeah, a lot of things I want to consider and a lot of ideas I want to have, but right now I’m in the bubble and now I’ve got Lebron tomorrow and AD (Anthony Davis) too.”
— With files from The Canadian Press