From Philly to Texas: Aaric Murray now an NBA prospect again

From Philly to Texas: Aaric Murray now an NBA prospect again


Aaric Murray is on his third school in five years, undergoing counseling and being drug tested by someone you've heard of. We sat down with the Philly native before the greatest game of his life.

December 25, 2013, 9:00 am
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As of Dec. 25, Aaric Murray is averaging 24.5 points and 7.0 rebounds for Texas Southern. Question is: Why is a one-time NBA prospect playing his final college season in the SWAC? (USA Today Images)

Aaric Murray has a tattoo on his neck.

"W-o-r-r-i-e-s" runs in fairly large print across his Adam's apple. There's an elaborately drawn "N" and an equally elaborately drawn "O" on either side.

He got it done in early 2012, months after he left La Salle and right around the time he was arrested.

When asked to explain it, he could have just raised his chin. Instead, he recited the words: "No worries."

Even though he probably should have, Murray didn't really have any. That was until he got thrown out of his second school in two years.

Until he realized: "I gotta change myself.

"It's not Giannini.

"It's not Huggins.

"It's me."

Now subject to random drug tests, Murray is on his third college team, visiting a rehabilitation center twice a day for counseling, and wondering if he's ever going to make it to the NBA.

He seems much better off than he was before.

***

The Texas Southern Tigers are practicing at the Liacouras Center on a Tuesday afternoon. They'll face Temple on that same floor the following night.

Coach Mike Davis' team is working on a 2-3 zone. Davis was formerly the head coach at Indiana and UAB but took over at TSU prior to last season. There's a lot of starting and stopping and rather animated teaching from assistant coaches -- all signs that this exercise could be going a lot better. The Tigers are off to a 3-7 start this season.

In fairness, Texas Southern isn't really known as a basketball power. The same can be said for just about every other team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, a collection of historically black universities in the southern United States. Sure, you've heard of schools from the SWAC, but that's only because you fill out an NCAA tournament bracket every season and somebody has to win the league's auto-bid.

Southern University got it last season -- because the best team in the league wasn't eligible.

After a 1-12 start out of conference, Texas Southern went 16-2 in league play to win the SWAC regular-season title. Unfortunately, the university was hit with five years worth of NCAA probation back in 2012. The school apparently came close to the death penalty for exhibiting the infamous "lack of institutional control," repeatedly violating rules and even going so far as to lie about imposing sanctions on its own. Part of the punishment was that the basketball team would be ineligible for postseason play in the 2012-13 season.

"It has taken the NCAA process to learn the things that we were doing wrong," athletics director Charles McClelland said in a statement at the time. "If we had not gone through this process, we possibly could have made the same mistakes again. We concentrated on taking the breath out of these issues and now we're exhibiting excellence in the process."

Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you realize it's time to change.

***

"If you look at him, he looks different than everybody else on our team," Davis says as his players shoot free throws. "He's got pro potential."

Murray is listed at 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds. He's averaging 22.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Less than two months into the season, he's already been named the SWAC player of the week twice. The first honor came after he put up 28 points on both Stanford and Lehigh in back-to-back games; the second came after he dropped 30 on Tulsa.

In truth, Murray should probably be in the NBA by now. Even he'll admit it.

"My freshman year at La Salle, I was like No. 22 in the mock draft," he says, sitting down to talk at a media table after practice. "I could have entered then, but I didn't. I just kept getting worse."

What kind of worse?

"I was doing too much stuff off the court that was preventing me from giving my all on the court," he answers.

Murray's basketball career didn't begin until he was sent to Glen Mills. Located in Concordville, Pa., south of Philadephia in Delaware County, Glen Mills is the country's oldest continuously operating school for court-adjudicated youth. Once Murray arrived, he was immediately recruited to play basketball. Despite how new he was to the game, he showed enough potential that he was named a four-star prospect and began courting offers from Pitt, Rutgers, West Virginia, Temple, Saint Joseph's and Villanova.

Of all the schools who offered him, he picked the one nobody could have expected: La Salle.

"I wanted to be my own man," Murray told Rivals.com back in 2009. "I didn't want to go to other schools because of who else went there. I wanted to make my own path."

And so Murray arrived on Olney Ave. as something like a potential savior for a program that hadn't made the NCAA tournament since 1992. Dr. John Giannini was entering his sixth year as head coach, but had compiled only a 71-79 record with just two winning seasons. Murray appeared to be the kind of recruit that could turn around a program. He averaged 12.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks as a freshman and then 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks as a sophomore.

But the Explorers weren't getting any better, posting back-to-back losing seasons, and Murray wasn't exactly cooperating with Giannini. There were issues away from the court. Assistants would privately remark about how little Murray even cared for basketball, or for his education, or for anything else at the time. Those same assistants had to walk him to class each day, just to ensure he made it. Outside the classroom, there were issues beyond anything to do with academics -- and more to do with the reasons he's now making trips off campus twice a day down in Houston.

The basketball staff lacked any control over him, and he didn't seem to have much over himself. His final game as an Explorer came in a 96-76 loss to Temple at the Liacouras Center in which he posted a 22-point, 11-rebound double-double.

Two weeks later, La Salle announced Murray's intent to transfer.

"This was a very difficult decision for me, and I wish Aaric the very best for his future," Giannini said in a release, indicating but not explicitly saying that the decision was his. "I know Aaric always tried to do his best for La Salle, and we did all that we could to help him as a person and as a basketball player. We will continue to support Aaric in this process of finding another university."

Here's how Murray describes his relationship with Giannini three years later.

"No ... I mean, he ... " Murray begins, searching for the words. "I probably left there the wrong way, you know what I mean?"

"I think he probably despises me," he adds with a half-smile accompanied with some apparent regret. "He didn't like me too much.

"It was, honestly, it was my decision, but it was like, he forced it. He called me into the office and said, 'Hey, you gotta find somewhere to go, because I want to coach a different kind of team next year.' I guess he felt as though I was too hard-headed. And maybe I was at the time -- too hard-headed to listen to him."

Exactly two years later, the Explorers reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 for the first time since 1955.

Murray ended up heading to one of the schools he was expected to pick in the first place: West Virginia. In accordance with NCAA rules, he was required to sit out the 2011-12 season.

"The most important part is playing for Coach Huggins," Murray told WVIllustrated. "Even though I wanted to play in the Big East, I really wanted to play for Coach Huggins.

"This is a coach that wants you to be a better in person in general on and off the court. ... When we leave here he wants us to be better people."

In December 2011, while sitting out, Murray was arrested in Philadelphia at 9:50 on a Thursday morning. Police said he was detained after he was spotted walking down 20th St. smoking weed.

Huggins said the matter would be "handled internally," and the following season, 2012-13, Murray finally got to suit up for West Virginia.

"Coach Huggins was great for me. At first, I thought that was the best decision I could have ever made," Murray says, looking back. "But then it just turned out different."

He played just 20 minutes per game and averaged 8.8 points, about half what he put up as a sophomore at La Salle. He was also suspended briefly for what was then an undisclosed violation of team rules.

"Playing time to Huggins," he laughs, "I don't know, I can't speak on Huggins, man. It was just different. It was like, 'You don't box out, you don't play. You late to class, you don't go on a trip to go play Michigan.'"

And eventually, you don't play here anymore. For the second time in two years, Murray was being told he had to go somewhere else. He didn't appear to be leaving a better person.

***


"You always call when you hear a name go across the board," Davis says, still watching his guys shoot free throws.

He was referring to Murray, who took a recruiting trip to Texas Southern after he had been let go from West Virginia.

Here's the one thing you need to know about Mike Davis and Aaric Murray: You can't talk to Davis about Murray without hearing about "John."

And so, Davis says: "The first thing I decided to do was put him with John."

John Lucas was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1976 draft and went on to play 14 seasons in the NBA. But he jeopardized his career and his own well-being when he developed an addiction to cocaine that got him released from multiple teams. He finally submitted to an anti-drug program in 1987 and went on to play four more years and later coach for six seasons. (Local fans will best remember him as the head coach of the 76ers from 1994-1996.) In 2014, he'll reach his 10,000th straight day of sobriety.

Lucas is now the head of John Lucas Enterprises and the "Athletes After Care" program, which Lucas' website describes as:

A substance abuse recovery program for athletes that includes a holistic approach of the necessary professional services and life coaching skills to support clients through:

• Assessment
• Testing
• Counseling
• Inpatient Care at a Treatment Center
• Rehabilitation
• Developmental Treatment Programs
• Rigorous Physical Development Plan
• AA Meetings

Lucas' center in Houston is the facility Murray now visits. It was a condition that Davis put forward if Murray wanted to join Texas Southern. Being told you need to visit somebody at a treatment facility isn't exactly your standard recruiting pitch. Asked if he was receptive to the idea when first told about it:

"Yeah, I was, but I really didn't know who Coach Lucas was, so I was pretty much like, 'Oh OK,'" Murray says, imitating himself at the time, kind of sullen.

"But now that I'm there," his face lights up, "I can see it. It's the best decision I could have ever made."

Murray visits Lucas' center, 10 minutes from Texas Southern, twice a day, every day he's on campus. What exactly are they going through?

"Basketball-wise, it's one thing," Murray says. "He'll help me with weights and try to form my body.

"The most important is off the court, making sure I'm not messing with the substances, making sure I'm not doing no drugs at all, no alcohol, getting counseling. He set up counseling for me. I'm getting drug tests -- random drug tests. Whenever he calls and he wants to come take one, I take one.

"He's trying to help me not do the negative stuff anymore."

As is Davis, who Murray says is working to strip away the embattled center's "negative image."

"When I first met Coach Davis, I felt like he was one of the realest coaches. He said stuff that I could believe. Most of the stuff he was saying, it was like, I had never heard it before. He wanted me to do good in basketball and help the team win, but he was more focused on helping me off the court, on changing my personality, changing how I approach things."

After going through two other coaches and two other schools, this supremely talented but constantly troubled 24-year-old seems to have finally found the right voice and the right fit, just not in the place anyone would have expected.

"The first two guys he played for are really good coaches," Davis says. "Now he's going to counseling with John Lucas. There's nobody better than John Lucas. When John Lucas gets his hands on you ... he knows. He knows.

"And he (Murray) listens to me. He hasn't caused me one bit of trouble."

He just causes other teams trouble. Davis runs his offense through Murray. The Tigers look for him nearly every time down the floor. If Murray gets the ball and the other team collapses, somebody else -- maybe everybody else -- is open. Sometimes his teammates manage to score off the open looks he creates, and sometimes they don't. Texas Southern is 3-7, after all. But in seven of his first 10 games this season, Murray has scored 22 or more points; he's gone for 30 or more twice.

"He's made the game easier for other players on our team," Davis says. "While he's in the game he commands a triple-team. He's not a double, he's a triple-team. ... I've seen teams collapse all five guys on him."

Murray is asked if he has any specific memories of playing in the Liacouras Center, which he'll do once again the following evening.

"I have a lot of memories play here, man. I thought about dunking on my boy Rahlir [Hollis-Jefferson]," he says, clearly enjoying it. "Thought about going up against (current Philadelphia 76er) Lavoy Allen and him being so strong and (former Temple Owl) Mike Eric being so strong."

To date, Texas Southern has only beaten Howard, Wiley and Norfolk State. Wednesday in Philadelphia, they're taking on the sixth-winningest program in Division-I history.

No one knows it yet, but Murray, in his hometown, is about to do something no one has ever done.

***


Across town, on the campus of Saint Joseph's University, Hawks coach Phil Martelli walks into his own media room. After games, Martelli always gets the rundown from his sports information director and from the reporters gathered about what else happened that night.

A reporter tells him Aaric Murray just scored 48 points vs. Temple.

Martelli walks back out of the room.

***


Murray is sitting in the media room of the Liacouras Center on Wednesday night. He's been told what he's just done, but it doesn't really seem to register. He listens and he stares.

Admittedly, it's a little hard to process. Because unlike all those other teams Davis talked about, Temple didn't triple Murray. It didn't even double him.

In 34 minutes, on 20 for 28 shooting, Murray scored 48 points. It's the most anyone has ever scored against the Temple Owls -- ever. It's also the most anyone has ever scored in the history of Temple's Liacouras Center, dating back to 1997. Some talented guy named Lynn Greer once scored 43 there, but his name isn't atop the list anymore.

It's only Dec. 19, but a little less than two months in, Murray's 48 points are the most anyone has scored in Division-I basketball this season.

Murray, with his backpack on, is sitting next to Davis. He's just been informed of the relevant history. He proceeds to answer questions as if he hasn't done ... well, exactly what he's just done.

"I was just feeling good," Murray says. "I just wanted to play well, play hard and get the win with my team."

That happened. Texas Southern 90, Temple 89. 

He accounted for more than half the Tigers' points, and his teammates shot 48 percent around him.

Murray's third coach in five years explained the game and the performance like this: "I think he's one of the best, if not the best big man in the country."

And more important than anything related to the game: "He's working hard, he's always on time for things. I have adopted him as my son," Davis says with emphasis. "We communicate all the time. Every day he makes great strides. Off the court, I have no problem with him. On the court, you know his talents. Forty-eight points is unbelievable for some people ... but not for Aaric."

Murray is asked how all this feels given everything he's gone through since first committing to La Salle five years prior.

"I don't really want to talk about the past," he says. "But right now, I'm enjoying my life. And the game of basketball."

It would be hard not to.

***


The day before the greatest game of his life, Murray is still sitting courtside after practice. He's been reminiscing about everything that's gotten him to where he is now: Back in Philadelphia, but as a member of Texas Southern.

His demeanor is markedly different from when he was politely described as "enigmatic" at La Salle. It's hard to know if the change is for real. It's also hard to know whether Murray will manage to stay on the straight and narrow once he's away away from Davis and Lucas, when his time at Texas Southern comes to an end.

But the kid who was once sent to Glen Mills is now a graduate student, and he just freely volunteered information about his drug tests, counseling and past failures and did it all with a smile and a sense of humor; that has to at least count for something.

"I can say I'm a lot more focused now," he says, comparing himself to how he used to be at La Salle and even West Virginia. "Because this is like ... my last chance. I don't want to mess it up."

And he knows the NBA is still watching. Or at least it will be, once it sees what he's about to do to Temple in a little more than 24 hours.

"I feel like I'm on the radar. I feel like they know about me. I feel like what they need to know now is about the good side, that I'm changing. They know the talent is there.

"It's just my personality."

Murray says he still thinks about going toe-to-toe with Allen, back when the current Sixer was at Temple and Murray was at La Salle. Allen's now in his third NBA season.

"Yeah, he's doing good," Murray says before pausing twice. "That could have been me. ... That's how I look at it."

Aaric Murray and Texas Southern. A player who's spent his college career breaking rules, and a program that's spent years doing the same.

Without Murray and without sanction, there's a good chance TSU would have been in the NCAA tournament last season. With him, this season, maybe it will be.

However his basketball future turns out -- however his life turns out -- there's one thing he's sure of.

The night before our interview, on Monday Dec. 16, Murray tweeted:

"If I don't make it to the NBA, I'll always remember one thing ...

"It was my fault."