When Troy Murphy dunked, I rubbed my eyes, shook my head, pinched myself, wondered where the hell his sudden explosiveness came from, and debated whether the refs should check Murphy’s shoes for Flubber. Murphy was once a double-double machine, if not a star than at least a well-known commodity and a proven threat. But he had fallen so far that after the few times he dunked in a Celtics uniform, I couldn’t believe my own eyes.
In one season, Murphy went from one of twelve NBA players to average a double-double to the twelfth man for the New Jersey Nets. When the Nets traded Murphy to the Warriors in February, Golden St. decided not to keep him even though they have been thirsting for quality size since the Vietnam War. Murphy immediately became a wanted free agent, a byproduct of being waived that had nothing to do with his recent production. He was a big name available during midseason, at a time when the only big names available are normally on the plus side of 35 years old. Murphy was only 30. But he played like he was 40.
Murphy fell from grace even quicker than Adam Sandler. It took five years for Sandler to travel from Billy Madison to Little Nicky. Murphy never had the same peak as Sandler, of course, but he dropped in a similar fashion—like a sawed tree. The 6’10 Irishman’s legs could best be described as wobbly. They were uncooked spaghetti, tools that used to balance him for jump shots and chase him after loose rebounds but last season held him back from competing with the NBA’s finest athletes. Once, Murphy could bang with the league’s strongest seven-footers and spread the floor like a guard. But this past season, his shot went awry and his rebounding nose, though it could still scent a carom from a mile away, could not make up for his dwindling athleticism. He was Sandler’s character in Click, growing fatter and losing control of himself while everything around him sped by on fast-forward.
When the Celtics signed Murphy after the trade deadline had passed, they could not have expected him to make a big impact. Perhaps in the back of their minds the Celtics brass thought, “Maybe if he gets healthy, and maybe if he works himself back into shape.” But the chances of that were slim, at least in midseason; rarely does a player who played his way out of the New Jersey Nets rotation find himself helping a championship contender. Most likely, the Celtics signed Murphy for two reasons: 1) just in case he made a drastic midseason turnaround, and 2) to keep him away from the Miami Heat. The Heat, whose frontcourt consisted of Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony, and a cardboard cutout of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, could have used Murphy, even in his highly diminished state. If the Celtics did not sign him, the Heat were his next option, and the Celtics did not want Murphy’s potential revival to come while he donned black and red.
That revival never came, at least not last year. Murphy did accomplish one career milestone, even if it didn’t come the way he expected. When he appeared against the New York Knicks in round one of the playoffs, Murphy finally tasted the postseason. Even then, his first trip out of the lottery was bittersweet—Murphy played only in garbage time. If all of Boston’s games had been close, he would have played just as many minutes as the chairs he sat on. As it was, he appeared in only one playoff game. He played three minutes, secured one rebound and did not take a single shot. From double-double machine to well-paid cheerleader, Troy Murphy had plunged a long way.
But there’s hope, which is why I keep watching Sandler’s new movies and which is why Murphy will continue to receive offers from NBA teams. Just a short time ago, Murphy could play. He was never an All-Star, but he was the type of player who helped teams, a blue-collar rebounder with a feathery touch from outside. If he can work himself back into shape, if he can regain full health, if he can regain the confidence that last season must have punished—if, if, if—Murphy could become this free agency period’s greatest bargain. Then again, I’ve been waiting on Sandler’s next great movie for 15 years. And they just seem to get worse and worse.