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Murphy's Law
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Troy Murphy is that strangely memorable kid from high school with the awkward manner and the goofy face who seemed to switch from class clown to sage savant in seconds. He hummed a stupid tune in the corridors, couldn't do the math and smiled such a wildly incoherent smile that you just knew he would turn into Elvis or Alan Greenspan. Mike Brey, the first-year coach at Notre Dame, experienced that singularly un-cozy feeling of weird-out upon taking the Irish job last summer. "You're getting a helluva basketball player in Murphy," Villanova coach Steve Lappas told Brey. "But, you understand, my players think the guy is absolutely crazy."

Even those who really know Murphy admit that he's "kind of weird" (teammate David Graves), "out there" (Brey) and "a piece of work" (his own father, Jim). He scrawls sick slogans and numbers on his shoes, eats six or seven meals a day, utters peculiar non sequiturs during suspenseful game moments ("Check out the pretzel guy in row 7") and confounds the Notre Dame sports information department with bizarre replies to its questionnaires. Word characterizing the team? "Common." Final Four picks? "New Jersey Institute of Technology, Brookdale Community College, County College of Morris, Hawaii-Hilo."

At the same time, he remains the absolute pride of his family, his school and his New Jersey hometown of Sparta. Troy of Sparta? It's all Greek to Murphy, a guy who honed his skills on a ramshackle court in the parking lot of Sparta's First Presbyterian Church, but who now polishes his Player of the Year credentials in Catholicville, in the very shadow of Three-Point Jesus.

Upon enrolling at the tony Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J. -- an expensive oasis nearly an hour away from not only his home but the two public schools where his parents were teachers -- Murphy vowed to make it through all four years of high school without combing his hair. "And I did," he says. "Maybe it was just a rebel thing, going against the norm. I've sloughed off on appearance and clothes for a long time. At Delbarton we were required to dress up, and I had all the matching shirts and ties. But I'd show up in a flannel shirt and paisley tie just to make a complete mockery of the whole thing. At Notre Dame, though, I'm having to change my image. A lot of it has to do with maturity. I'm growing up all the time."

Luckily, not all at once. Peter Pan showed up to speak at a recent booster luncheon decked out in a compatibly stylin' suit and tie. "But, Troy, why didn't you shave?" asked Notre Dame publicist Bernie Cafarelli. Murphy's response: "Because we got a game tomorrow and I got to shave for that."

"That's Troy," laughs Matt Doherty, who coached him in his sophomore year and still trades e-mail with him from North Carolina. "I can't imagine Troy owns a comb. And check his locker, his dorm room -- clothes stacked up everywhere. He was always wrinkled. He's the most down-to-earth kid I ever met. Doesn't have time for anything but the basics. School, friends, ball. That's his game, too. All blue-collar, down-and-dirty, workhorse stuff. He's maniacal in his work ethic. The kid just wants to play -- and play great. He's not one for appearances."

Murphy's rough-edged, faux Jersey-thug disdain for the cool side of town was never more apparent than when he appeared in The Magazine's college hoops preview issue. Among a gallery of stars photographed in seriously macho poses, there was the 6'11", 245-pound Murphy looking slump-shouldered, bewildered and, yeah, weird after Notre Dame's leprechaun mascot spilled a plate of food on him in a school cafeteria. "I didn't know the other guys were going to look like that," he says. "And there I am with corn and beans and crap all over my sneaker. Oh well, what the hell."

Behind that crooked-nosed boxer's mug, Murphy retains a little kid's awe of his big-time surroundings, fame and celebrity. "Sometimes I still can't believe I've been so lucky to go to school at Delbarton and now Notre Dame," he says. "Growing up, I never dreamed I'd be able to play at this level."

He means, simply, Division I -- not the lofty perch he has inhabited ever since setting foot on campus, first as Big East Rookie of the Year, then as an All-America and now as a High Lottery Lock should the lefty choose to leave early.Maybe that explains why he was so stunned and hurt last season when he achieved the ultimate mark of notoriety: Hated Villain. In a loss at Rutgers, Murphy, his family and his prep coach were harassed unmercifully by fans still angry he'd jilted his home-state school. Even a former Little League coach sent him an e-mail saying, "I couldn't be happier at what went on tonight."

But it was his October arrest during a raid at the South Bend tavern Finnigan's -- along with the arrest of a couple of other teammates and 146 of his closest schoolmates -- that really opened Murphy's eyes. Notre Dame officials were concerned that underage drinking at the college hangout was getting out of hand. And though the underage (20) Murphy doesn't drink, he was carrying a fake ID -- no doubt assuming that officers of the law in and around the most high-profile college sports town in America live under a rock. "When guys were coming in with ski masks, wearing camouflage and carrying guns, I knew things weren't looking up," Murphy told the South Bend Tribune. In fact, he pulled out his cell phone midraid and called...his mother.

"Troy's not the kind of kid a parent ever worries about," Christine Murphy says. "He never drinks. I told him to just make sure they gave him a Breathalyzer test. But the next day it was in the Jersey newspapers, and Troy's like, ?Mom, I can't believe the story got back there.' I said, ?Troy, figure it out. People know you, you're a public figure.'" Jim Murphy, who is divorced from Troy's mother, once gave up drinking so his son would have no such influences around the house. "I told Troy that him going into that bar with an ID was like Barry Switzer trying to get on a plane with a gun," Jim says. "You know you're not going to use it. All it can do is cause you trouble. But he'll get through this. Nothing bothers him. He's straight ahead, born in May, a Taurus."

"I've always loved being a, quote, character," Troy says. "Hang out, mess with the guys, do what I want. I've always appreciated that at Notre Dame athletes aren't supposed to be different from other students. I'm in the same tiny dorm as the next guy -- Morrisey Manor, hot, cramped, awful, voted among the worst dorms in the country. And eating the same awful food -- some fish they call "Sea Wonders" -- in the same cafeteria as everybody else. Then one night, I go out with my friends and my whole life changes. Arrest, national publicity, it was just a circus. I used to have so much fun around here. Then I had to get my phone number changed. On football weekends, strangers knock on my door to take pictures or get autographs. But Finnigan's was the last straw. That put a nix to me being a normal student anymore."

Murphy was ordered to pay a $220 fine and put in 40 hours of community service. He was also kept out of the starting lineup against Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 9 -- a game the Irish lost four days after falling to Indiana. Playing on a sore ankle he had twisted in practice, Murphy was ineffectual in both losses."There's nobody who means more to his team than this guy," Brey says. "Troy Murphy is the best college player in the country."

If so, it must not be the shoes -- inasmuch as Murphy's are mini-billboards alternately scribbled upon with such graffiti as "212" (the area code for New York City), "Mr. M" (his name as a baby), "I-95" (the highway) and "REDRUM" (with the second R backward, of course, as any fan of The Shining can tell you). "I've tried to keep up with Troy's shoe stuff," says Irish guard Matt Carroll. "But I just don't want to know anymore. Sometimes I think he may be nuts."

Murphy claims REDRUM was inspired by the team being stranded in a South Bend hotel during a snowstorm. But MURDER he wrote all over the Big East his first two seasons, breaking Adrian Dantley's freshman Irish scoring record and averaging a double-double (22.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg) as a sophomore -- the only player in the country to finish in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding.

Consider it all a comeuppance to those recruiting geniuses who pigeonholed Murphy as a clumsy, slow bully whipping up on shorter preppies in Delbarton's small-time, mostly alabaster conference. Despite his AAU exploits for the Jersey Shore Warriors, he was considered soft, a far-off third in the state's class of '98 behind Elizabeth's Al Harrington and Mt. Holly's Danny Miller, both of whom made McDonald's (All-American) while Murphy only stuffed his piehole there.

But Doug Wojcik, then an assistant coach at Navy, saw something else. By the time Wojcik arrived at Notre Dame as an assistant to Doherty -- who had replaced Murphy's first college coach, John MacLeod -- he recognized Murphy's resemblance to an old teammate. "At Navy, David Robinson had to score for us to have a chance, had to get a touch every possession," says Wojcik, now at Carolina. "That's who Troy is at Notre Dame, only with a better cast."

"Sometimes," adds Brey, "white guys get pegged as lesser athletes. But Troy can really run and really jump, and he has amazing hands. His touch is so good, he's one of these guys who can be double-teamed or knocked off stride, and he'll take the bad shot and still make it."

And yet, because of his predilection for retreating to the perimeter, he somehow retains the image of weenie -- despite earning 323 foul shots last season (he hit 81%). It's a rap that teammate Ryan Humphrey scoffs at. "Whoever says such a thing never saw Murph beat on me every day for a year and a half," says the sculpted 6'8", 233-pound Oklahoma transfer. "He's a monster."

Former NBA journeyman Lloyd Daniels, a Murphy mentor in the rough 'n tumble Jersey Shore league, sounds even more impressed. "Soft? Troy soft? I've seen him go up against Rick Mahorn and Anthony Mason," Daniels says. "Guys like that whack you around and make you love it. People said the same thing about Tim Duncan, that he wouldn't hold up. Where's he gone? Hey, basketball is all about timing and smarts. Troy has the whole package -- he's a pro right now. The man is just preparing to be great."

Murphy's rep as a whiny dilettante is also taking some serious hits of late. This season's NCAA video of newly outlawed tactics features none other than most of the Rutgers student body rappelling up and all over Murphy's beleaguered torso. In questionable compliance during a Nov.25 matchup, Cincinnati unleashed 6'2" linebacker Antwan Peek to help keep Murphy in check. Mr. M responded with 30 points in a 69-51 win -- and he didn't even suggest a single nasty face doing it. "We've had several discussions about his demeanor, and I think Troy is much improved," Brey says. "Last year you could read everything from not only his face but from his body language. Now he's more even-keeled on the questionable calls. Referees appreciate that."

Last March, after Murphy missed a long shot at the buzzer against Miami (Fla.) in the Big East tourney, the Irish were denied a bid to the NCAA Tourney -- a place they haven't been for a decade. Murphy returned to school partly because he wants his legacy to read: The Guy Who Brought Notre Dame Back to The Dance. He has always been driven by fear of failure. It's what compels him to rise at 7 a.m. to work on his shot during summers by the shore; what forces him to return to Notre Dame's Joyce Center at midnight in winters to shoot some more.

A month after he started college, Murphy's parents split, his mom moving to Arizona, his dad selling the old house. The only child's safe harbor in Sparta was gone forever. At Notre Dame, he has had three coaches in three years -- another kind of abandonment -- and more hardship to toughen the soul. "My work ethic is all tied up in being scared I'd never make it here," Murphy concedes. "After freshman year, I was worried I was a fluke. I've played pickup here on campus where four older guys have come in off the street and been better than me. I have so much to learn. I have no idea how good I might be."

Here's a hint: Murphy's short history defines Irish vengeance. As a teen playing AAU ball, Troy told his father to watch what he did against the more acclaimed Harrington, then ate the future Pacer alive. In a high school all-star game, Murphy similarly outclassed Miller -- now at Maryland -- with 18 points and 21 rebounds. Last summer as a member of the Select Team that played our NBA Olympians, he was virtually embarrassed by coaches Mike Jarvis (St. John's) and Bob Huggins (Cincinnati), who not only didn't start him but granted him meaningless minutes. "Troy was furious, ?motherf-ing' everybody on the phone from Hawaii," says a friend. "Those coaches and players, they all better get ready to swallow the 30 Troy's got ready for them."

Call him weird if you want. Just don't question his game. "Sure it's motivation," Murph says of the snub. "I already got Huggins. Jarvis [Feb. 5] is next."

REDRUM. This article appears in the January 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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