Sprawled on a leather couch in the Notre Dame locker room not I long ago, Troy Murphy was watching the MTV show/across with Irish teammate David Graves and a couple of other pals. "Dude," Murphy roared approvingly, "these guys are great." Considering the crew of knuckle-heads on the screen before him—a green-haired skateboarding midget, a man voluntarily blinding himself with pepper spray and a self-described "Greg Poo-ganis" braving the inside of an overturned Port-A-Potty—Murphy's fascination with the bizarre tableau spoke volumes.
"Some of the off-the-wall stuff they do on the show, it's the kind of stuff Troy does," explains Graves, Murphy's best friend on the team. "He is a jackass, basically."
Or to put it another way, Troy Murphy, All-America forward, is a college kid, with an emphasis on kid. On one midnight snack run with his buddies to the Meijer's convenience store, Murphy bought himself bedsheets—Winnie the Pooh bedsheets. On Halloween this year Murphy allowed a female friend to dress him as an angel, complete with halo and wings, and he went trick-or-treating in the dorm. Ever since he saw The Shining two years ago, he has scrawled REDRUM (murder spelled backward) on his sneakers, in homage to the wackjob portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Then there was the time last summer when Murphy tried to bleach his hair to look like Eminem's and failed miserably, turning it bright red. "I looked like Ronald McDonald," he says.
About the only time Murphy doesn't clown around is when he's lighting up overmatched opponents. With deadly efficient moves from the post to the perimeter, the 6'11", 225-pound southpaw was averaging 22.4 points and 8.0 rebounds a game at week's end, staking an early claim for national player of the year honors while validating his decision to forgo the NBA draft and remain in South Bend for his junior year. What's more, given the 5-2 Irish's recent defeats by Indiana and Miami ( Ohio), losses in which Murphy was hobbled by a sprained ankle, it's safe to say that no player in the land is more valuable to his team.
So polished is Murphy's game that he can even take a Wizard back through time. "There's so much showmanship these days that it's hard to find a well-rounded player anymore," said 90-year-old John Wooden after watching Murphy's 30-point, seven-rebound, six-block performance in the Irish's 69-51 win over Cincinnati at the Wooden Tradition on Nov. 25. "Troy is a well-rounded player. He's much better now than he was even a year ago."
While new Notre Dame coach Mike Brey (a former Duke assistant) compares Murphy's prodigious inside-outside skills with those of Christian Laettner, Murphy says his main influences have been three other big men who were similarly dangerous in college: Keith Van Horn at Utah, Austin Croshere at Providence and Pat Garrity at Notre Dame. "All of them could shoot the three," says Murphy, a 33.3% three-point shooter this season, "so the other team would put a smaller guy on them, and then immediately they would take that guy into the post. They created so many matchup problems." Small wonder, then, that on the desk in his dorm room Murphy keeps a blown-up photograph of Croshere, Garrity and himself from last summer's Pete Newell Big Man camp.
To understand Murphy's competing personalities, listen to Notre Dame junior Harold Swanagan, who in one breath calls his teammate "a five-year-old in a 30-year-old's body" and then pronounces him "the hardest worker I've ever seen in my life." Whenever Graves gets a phone call at 1 a.m., he immediately knows who it is. "Hey," Murphy will say, "let's go shoot."
Brey, whose favorite adjective for Murphy is maniacal, forbade him from training for a week in August because he thought Murphy was pushing himself too hard. Murphy defied the order, waiting until the wee hours to sneak into the Joyce Center, where he's on a first-name basis with the overnight security guards. "I don't want to be one of those guys that you say, 'He used to be good. What ever happened to him?' " Murphy says. "That really scares me, and it pushes me too."
Even so, it's one thing to shoot for hours in an empty gym or on a long driveway in Sparta, N.J., the quiet suburban town where Murphy grew up, or with your friends at the Delbarton School, the Catholic academy in Morristown where Murphy attended high school. It's another thing to overcome what John McPhee described in his classic portrait of a young Bill Bradley as "the handicap of wealth." That is why, at 15, Murphy accepted an invitation to play on weekends at St. Rocco's Church in the heart of Newark. "It was an awful area," says Murphy's father, Jim, who along with Troy's mother, Chris, drove him 80 miles round-trip every week. "Broken glass, prostitutes, drug dealers everywhere. Nobody called any fouls, and the guys just banged. That's where Troy got tough."
Recalling his first day at St. Rocco's, Murphy says, "I was the only white guy in there. I walk in, a bunch of guys are sitting on the stage. Then we get into layup lines. I was 6'8" and everybody at my high school thought it was the coolest thing that I could dunk, but then a guy who's six inches shorter than me goes up and does this ridiculous stuff. I was like, What did I get into? I didn't do very well the first time, but I'm glad I stuck with it. After a while it was just basketball."