Aaric Murray working to bring maturity level in line with talent level

Aaric Murray reacts after fouling out during a La Salle loss to St. Bonaventure in February 2010. Murray said he regrets the way he acted disrespectfully toward Explorers coach John Giannini.
Aaric Murray reacts after fouling out during a La Salle loss to St. Bonaventure in February 2010. Murray said he regrets the way he acted disrespectfully toward Explorers coach John Giannini. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 24, 2014

HOUSTON - The morning after the greatest basketball game of his life, after he had scored 48 points Dec. 18 in a one-point upset at Temple, Aaric Murray sat by a gate at Philadelphia International Airport and plugged his name into a Twitter search engine on his phone.

He began retweeting some of what he read: Aaric Murray scores D-I season-high 48 points in Texas Southern win over Temple. Murray shot 20-28 from the field. He is a Philly native!! . . . Shouts to Aaric Murray for setting the Liacouras Center scoring record! . . . Wake up to see my man @aaricmurray24 on Sports Center dropping 48 on Temple.

For the former La Salle player, the game had seemed like a dream.

"Once it got to like 32, I was like, 'I'm not tired, and like everything going is going in. I can't miss. . . . Thirty-seven, wow, it's still going. . . . Forty-one, still going. . . . Forty-five, still going.' "

In addition to setting a record for most points ever scored against Temple, Murray saw greater ramifications.

"That day erased all the negative," Murray said. "I don't want to say erased all the negative. But like when I used to search my name, it was, 'Aaric Murray the bad stuff.' Now when I search it, it's just like '48, 48, 48.' "

The bad stuff had caused coaches at La Salle and West Virginia to ask Murray to find a new school for his obvious talents. So he's at Texas Southern, in the heart of Houston.

It isn't just the college that brought him here. Most days, Murray is up around 7 a.m., headed for a recreation center to join workouts led by former 76ers coach John Lucas. This is a popular spot for all sorts of basketball players of all ages needing a restart. Lucas calls his operation the last door on the block.

An old hand at trying to rehabilitate ballplayers, Lucas looked at what Murray accomplished in that game at Temple from a slightly different angle. He knew what role he'd play.

"I became the [jerk] again," Lucas said.

Imagine if La Salle's Sweet 16 team of 2012-13 also had included a 6-foot-10 power forward with legitimate NBA potential, a player capable of scoring 23.8 points a game with 8.2 rebounds, as Murray is averaging for 10-14 Texas Southern this season.

It didn't escape Murray's notice that La Salle rose to the NCAA tournament after he left - after he had been asked to leave. In his two years at the school, his play and his mind-set often changed from minute to minute. There was the Murray who occasionally cursed at refs, teammates, even his own coaches. And the Murray who became disengaged on the bench.

Murray, 24, expresses his regret this way: "No matter how much talent you have - I did some disrespectful things."

He feels bad about it all, especially, he said, acting disrespectfully toward his coach, John Giannini, adding there is never reason for that.

"Especially not him," Murray said of Giannini. "He took care of me. I don't know. I just had a little attitude problem, I guess. I was young or something, I don't know. At La Salle, it was like I was too high up on my own pedestal, letting people tell me, 'I should have gone here, I should have gone there. You're too good for La Salle.' I think I got lazy and satisfied, I guess, with just the hype."

Murray acknowledged he was asked to leave La Salle. His actions were hurting the team more than any good play was helping the Explorers.

Organized ball hadn't been his thing growing up in North Philadelphia and then Frankford.

"I was too embarrassed," Murray told The Inquirer when he was at La Salle. "I didn't want to be the tall kid out there not knowing how to play ball, so I wouldn't do it. That was when I was 13."

He'd gone to Glen Mills, a school for court-adjudicated juveniles in Delaware County, not because he'd been arrested but had been chronically truant. He had fooled his mother into thinking he was going to school, he said.

After La Salle, big-time programs still wanted Murray. He chose West Virginia and, during the season he sat out, got arrested in Philadelphia for marijuana possession. Last season, he averaged 20 minutes a game for the Mountaineers. But the problems were still there.

"At West Virginia, I probably partied too much, went out too much, got into too much trouble," Murray said. "I feel like everything I did at La Salle or West Virginia was all based on me making bad decisions."

When West Virginia coach Bob Huggins cut him loose, Murray didn't know what kind of future he had.

"He loved West Virginia," said Texas Southern coach Mike Davis. "When he came on his first trip he only had like a backpack. That was all the clothes he had. He wasn't planning on staying here."

One ballplayer was behind the rest as a dozen guys ran sprints one Monday morning at 8:40 earlier this month inside the Fonde Recreation Center, about a 10-minute drive from the Texas Southern campus.

"C'mon, man, this ain't no community-service workout," rasped a bald man standing to the side.

The bald man was John Lucas. The slow guy was not Murray. Aaric ran in front of the pack in those sprints. He's in game shape.

For Lucas, the time Murray is in his gym isn't just about a workout. The former Sixers coach isn't an addictions counselor himself, but his addiction years ago has made him an expert on the subject, and the drug and alcohol treatment program he founded and still consults with includes trained counselors. He has helped many ballplayers. Working out with Murray, his training partner, was former Louisville forward Chane Behanan, dismissed by the Cardinals earlier this season, transferring to Colorado State for next season.

"We had to address a lot of issues early when he first came here," Lucas said about Murray as the workout finished up. "He decided he wanted to come by here and spend some time with me. I think everybody thinks that involves just drug and alcohol. It does not. This was about getting some want-to again. Polishing up his want-to."

Lucas said he had never heard of Aaric Murray when he got a phone call about him. He looked him up online, got up to speed.

"I told him what I tell a lot of people, that I know me when I see me. And you're me," Lucas said. "He goes, 'How do you know?' I explained his history, and explained things I had done or gone through. I said, 'I look in your eyes, and you don't know how you are. We've got to begin a journey and find out who you are.' "

His first month in Houston, they both said, they fought.

"He didn't like the discipline of getting up," Lucas said. "He didn't like the discipline of going to counseling. He didn't like the discipline that was involved in his basketball, getting in shape.

"When you come here and you think you're just going to get better for basketball, this is the wrong program."

And when Murray scored 48, "his head started going sideways," Lucas said.

"The good and the bad of those 48 was that it happened at Temple," Lucas said. "The good in that he was able to go back home and show what he'd done. It's almost in a sense, I told him, making amends. People can say, 'He's doing all right.' "

Lucas said he's getting calls from NBA scouts now.

"He can be a stretch four," Lucas said, referring to a power forward who can play on the perimeter. But Lucas also talks about how his own problems started after he had reached the NBA, that it isn't right to see the league as simply a destination.

"My dream came true," Lucas said. "Now what?"

"I've seen amazing growth steps from Aaric," Lucas added. "I always tell him now, before you do anything, play the tape all the way through. Because you have a history of playing just the part that sounds good. Play it all the way. Can you handle the consequences of your actions?"

On the first possession Feb. 8 in a packed gym at Prairie View A&M, Murray got a pretty good idea of what he was in for. Just past half-court, Murray backed away from his defender and his jersey stretched fully out. The defender still had a hold of it.

Murray didn't look for a whistle but soon enough began to have discussions with the officials. Murray wasn't afraid of contact. It just seemed to be finding him from all directions when he got the ball. Nothing dirty, just the constant swats and nudges a top player gets.

By halftime, Murray had 10 points and four rebounds and had gone to the line for six free-throw attempts, making four. He also sat after picking up his second foul with a couple of minutes left.

"It's kind of like when I used to watch the SEC when Shaquille O'Neal used to play," said Davis, the Texas Southern coach, who had coached Indiana to the NCAA title game and also at Alabama-Birmingham, and played at Alabama. "Each team, I guess their job and game plan is to make sure he gets less touches. They'll grab hold of him; after a play is over, they'll hit him sometimes."

After halftime, Murray walked out and sat on the bench while teammates took layups. Davis walked out and sat with Murray.

"He just told me that the referee had gotten to him," Davis said a couple of days later. "I told him don't worry about it, just stay focused on the game. Because we need him, for us to be good. I said, you had [10] 11 points in the first half. You'll get some calls in the second half."

Throughout, Murray screened for teammates, cut to the right spots, got to the weak side for rebounds.

"With Aaric, his basketball IQ is so high," Davis said. "He catches on to stuff pretty quick. Like some stuff that we do offensively, he understands it faster than the other guys. He may have that innate deal where he can sit and watch somebody do something and imitate them."

As the second half wore on, Murray's blood pressure began rising when he didn't get calls. He said later that he had failed to run downcourt right away because he had jawed at the officials. With about five minutes left, he kicked a chair during a timeout, sat away from the huddle for a moment, then got up and yelled something over to an official by half-court. He joined the huddle as the ref gave him an official warning. (La Salle fans would have recognized the whole thing.)

There were no more incidents, however, until the last second of the game. Texas Southern was down two as a TSU guard drove. There was contact. Davis and Murray will both tell you that the film clearly shows a Prairie View forward stepping in front of a Texas Southern guard at the last moment. The call was a charge with six-tenths of a second left. TSU was going down.

Murray muttered something to a ref, instantly got a technical, and was ejected from the game. Davis soon followed.

"I may have said the 'F' word," Murray said a couple of days later.

In the gym a couple of days later, Lucas didn't know the particulars, but he'd looked at the stat sheet.

"You guys missed 12 free throws," Lucas said to Murray. "That's the damned game."

"Yeah, I missed some," said Murray, who finished with 22 points, 8 of 11 from the line.

Murray had shaken the game off, he said. It didn't hurt that ESPN analyst Jalen Rose had picked an all-college five he'd like to coach that weekend, and Murray was on the five. "He called me about that," Lucas said.

Murray also told Lucas one NBA mock draft had him going 18th.

"You know it's not real," Lucas told him of that mock draft. "It's two college kids."

"It's motivation," Murray said with a smile.

"I can make one phone call and get you off it!" Lucas said, aware that other mock drafts don't list Murray at all. "It can be real if you get 12, 13 rebounds."

Murray didn't lose his smile. The Prairie View game had featured some of his career's peaks and valleys, but Murray sees his own progress. It's like he's had to live through it all, Murray said, to know what not to do.

"I had 11," Murray told Lucas, correctly.



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