Calvin Murphy: The Little Man Plays It Big, 1972

[The great L. A. Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote, “God made Calvin Murphy an athlete—but left him a foot short of the basketball player.” Murray line’s is great for a laugh; it’s also anything but true. Calvin Murphy was a basketball player. An amazing one at that. 

“I’ve only been scared on the basketball court but one time in my life,” former ABA player Fatty Taylor once told me. “That was in college when I saw Calvin Murphy coming at me with a full head of steam.”

Back then, as Taylor experienced firsthand, Murphy was a 5-foot-10 blur in a purple Niagara University uniform. Nobody could stop him from zipping past them and getting wherever he wanted on a basketball court. But Murphy, having been written off all his life as “too short,” worried that the NBA scouts might do the same thing. And so, as a rising junior, Murphy “overhauled” his game. 

“Last summer, (1969), I took a long, hard look at myself,” Murphy said back then. “I decided I would have to do a lot more in college besides score points if the pros were going to become interested in me.” 

A lot more meant downshifting into more of a classic playmaker who set up the offense and knew when and where teammates liked to get the ball. The playmaker role wasn’t natural to him, but Murphy put in the work and, when the opportunity was right, still made mincemeat of anyone silly enough to try and check him in the open court. Just ask Fatty Taylor.

When Murphy finished his All-American collegiate career, he’d racked up huge scoring numbers and accolades. Just not from the pro scouts. They still had their doubts that the ball-dominant Mighty Mite, as Murphy was known, would be a good fit for the pros. When he and his short stature slipped to the second round of the 1970 NBA draft, Murphy vowed—once again—to prove his critics wrong. 

This article, published in Action Sports’ Pro Basketball Yearbook, 1971-72, takes a look at Murphy’s rookie season with the San Diego Rockets. The words are from the late-great journalist Andy Carra.]

The criticism thrown at Calvin Murphy has been the same all his life. It goes something like this: “You’re a great little ballplayer, but you’re just too small to make good with the big guys.”

Murphy has made a career of proving his critics wrong. At 5-foot-10, he had enough size—and skill—to get by in high school at Norwalk, Connecticut. “Get by,” in this case, another way of saying, skillful enough to become a high school All-American. In fact, Niagara University figured he got by so well that school officials lured him to campus with a handsome basketball scholarship. 

Naturally, he had to prove himself all over again at Niagara—and again, his 5-foot-10 handicap wasn’t too difficult an obstacle to overcome. In seasons that produced a large number of fine hardcourt stars around the country, Calvin racked up further All-American honors. 

But that was college, the critics quickly pointed out. Now it’s a matter of making it against the pros, the world’s best, all those 7-foot centers, 6-foot-9 forwards, and 6-foot-5 guards. Where can Murphy possibly fit in, playing in company like that, where the bothersome little flea will get crushed in the rush and have basketballs stuffed down his throat by the bushel?

“Where indeed?” was the thought echoed by most NBA general managers and coaches, whose rule of thumb—that height makes might—ruled out the possibility that basketball’s Tom Thumb was worth a second thought. So, even though he’d been a collegiate superstar, Calvin Murphy wasn’t taken until the second round of the 1970 draft by the San Diego Rockets.

This was the team that had bypassed Pete Maravich on the first round, going for big Rudy Tomjanovich instead. The Rockets’ top brass explained that they needed more muscle up front to go with Elvin Hayes, and the 6-foot-9 Michigan star fit the need perfectly. The word “need” is the important one, because the Rockets need for a forward was overshadowed by their need to save money. Maravich carried a considerably higher price tag than Tomjanovich, and one of the primary factors in not taking Maravich was that the San Diego franchise couldn’t afford to meet his price. So, instead of naming him and losing him to the big-spending ABA, they pronounced the name Tomjanovich.

But the Rockets still needed a way to entice more fans—and money—into their arena. Which is why, when their turn came up in the second round, they selected the Mighty Midget from Niagara. There was more than one smile of sympathy and more than one chuckle from witnesses at the draft meeting. 

There were a lot more chuckles . . . until the season began. Then Murphy surprised the wisecrackers by being much more than a box-office draw. 

But he had saved the first surprise for none other than his new owners. Throughout his college career, Calvin had been listed at 5-foot-10, but when it came time for measuring the San Diego squad, it developed that little Calvin was littler than they thought. Even though it was only an inch, a 5-foot-9 listing on the roster was even less impressive than 5-foot-10. On the other hand, at 5-foot-9, he was one inch more (or less) of an attraction. Shades of Bill Veeck and his midget baseball player!

However, after all the measuring was done and the team got around to playing basketball for money, Murphy’s height became a matter of secondary importance. Short he might be, but he could play the game!

One of the earliest indications that he was every inch a pro took place in an early-season contest that matched the Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers. Murphy had been sent into the game to add some spark to the slumping San Diego attack, and on the first loose ball, he and the Lakers’ John Tresvant went for it. Both came up with it, and the referee signaled for a jump ball. The crowd giggled at the ridiculous mismatch: Tresvant, at 6-foot-7, towered 10 inches over the Mighty Mite named Murphy. But once the toss went up, inches disappeared. It was Calvin who leaped higher, and it was Calvin who tipped the ball to a teammate. 

Mr. Murphy had arrived. 

It was also thought that other teams could take easy advantage of Calvin’s shortness by playing their guards in the low-post position, thereby forcing the 5-foot-9 ‘er to stay on top of a man six to eight inches taller than himself. Then, once the big guard had position, it would be a simple job of taking a lob pass over Calvin’s head, putting up a turnaround jumper, and ringing up two uncontested points. 

There was one flaw in that plan: Murphy wasn’t about to let anyone score a cheap basket like that. To thwart the strategy, he’d crowd his man, push him out of position, and generally bother the taller player in every possible way to minimize the height advantage. 

Equalizing things is nothing new for Murphy, as he’s had it tough all of his basketball life. “They said I was too short to play in high school,” he says. “I was 5-foot-7 when I tried out as a sophomore. But I could dunk the ball.” As soon as his high school people saw that, Calvin made the varsity. He didn’t disappoint either. He’d swish in 40, 50, and 60 points in games, and soon his legend—but not his body—grew. 

By his senior year, the Mighty Mite had offers from more than 200 colleges, and he decided on the one in upstate New York. One of the determining factors in Murphy’s move to Niagara was that he would be able to twirl a baton between halves of the Buffalo Bills’ football games. It was no mere whim: Calvin was once, and still is, an outstanding showman with a baton. For the development of that skill, he owes thanks to his Aunt Frieda. 

When he was five or six years old, she decided he’d make an excellent mascot for the school band, and Calvin’s been spinning the baton ever since. In true Murphy style, he became so good at it that, in 1964, he won the baton-twirling championship in the military marching division competition at the New York World’s Fair.

Thus, thanks to a combination of skills with the baton and a basketball, it was Calvin in Niagara for four years of fun and games, education, and competition. The school placed a wide variety of pressures on him—racial, academic, physical—but he passed his subjects, performed wonders with his baton, and did marvelous things with the basketball. 

The most-marvelous thing he did with a basketball was to put it through hoops with stunning consistency. In his sophomore year, Calvin averaged 37 points a game for the varsity. He continued close to that pace for the next two years and finished his collegiate stint with a 33-ppg mark. 

But for all his pro-style scoring, ball-hawking, and dribbling, Calvin could not single handedly make Niagara an instant winner. As Pete Maravich was proving at Louisiana State University, it takes more than one miracle man to make a team a champion. Murphy learned that in his first varsity contest. Against Long Island University, he poured in 41 points—and Niagara lost, 84-79. 

Gradually, however, the team learned to take advantage of Calvin’s talents, instead of just standing around and watching him perform. And by his senior year, the Purple Eagles had reached more than a respectable level. 

It was another story entirely when Calvin graduated to the pro ranks. Up here, virtually all of the players are former varsity stars, and suddenly it was Murphy’s turn to fit into a team’s style of play. First of all, he had to learn that there was someone else on the squad who could score in big numbers. That someone was Elvin Hayes, the 6-foot-9 center who, for the two years prior to Murphy’s arrival, had been a 30-ppg scorer in the NBA.

Coach Alex Hannum (who has since switched to the ABA’s Denver franchise, while the NBA Rockets moved from San Diego to Houston) was well aware of the difficulties that Murphy and the Rockets were encountering early in the season. “The problems Calvin’s been having,” said Hannum, “are the normal problems of a rookie. 

“In college, he was a wild card on defense, and he dominated the offense. When the floor is spread, that’s his meat—when he’s coming up the floor like a halfback through the broken field. Now he’s got to develop conceptions of team offense and team defense. So far, he’s been the worst on the team at executing set plays. But there are a lot of 5-foot-9 athletes around, so why is Calvin going to make it? He’s got intelligence and character. He has strength, both physically and socially—he’s a good citizen on the team.”

By the end of the season, Coach Hannum’s predictions proved perfect. Calvin came through as one of the league’s best rookies. And one of the things that motivated him was his constant problem—his lack of height. 

“I think of myself as the pioneer of the little guy,” he said, being too young to remember that 5-foot-10 Slater Martin had the same problem playing with Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s. “If I didn’t make it my first year, people would be second-guessing and third-guessing all the little men who would try later on. They’d say, “Well, if Calvin Murphy didn’t make it, no little man is going to.”

The little pioneer appeared in all 82 games for the Rockets of 1970-71. Though Calvin played only an average of half a game each time out (24.6 minutes per game, as compared to Elvin Hayes’ 44 minutes per game), he blistered the baskets at a 15.8-ppg clip and fed off for 329 assists. He also hit on 46 percent of his shots (compared to Hayes’ 43 percent) from the field and was tenth in the NBA in free-throw shooting with 82 percent. Had Murphy seen more time on court, his statistics almost certainly would have approached superstar level. As it was, his debut more than matched the freshman efforts of millionaire Pete Maravich. 

Even as a drawing card, Murphy’s primary role on the team was being the sixth man—the ace-in-the-hole (no pun on height intended) who comes off the bench to give everybody a lift when it’s needed most. Which is precisely what he did! But having been a star, that role doesn’t mean Calvin is satisfied with the reputation of super-sub. He still wants to be a starter and is certain he will be. If not this year, then next. 

“I believe I proved myself. If not as a star, at least as a man who can play in this league,” he says. “But I’ve been a starter all my career. I’m not used to being on the bench. I want to be a superstar, not the sixth man on the club. I’m not content with that role.”

Murphy contends that he in no way hinders the team because of his size. He’s overcome the rookie problems of learning defense, and he knows that he can score big in the NBA. He found that he could shoot when he wanted to. 

“You keep hearing how the NBA is based on good defense,” he says. “The defense is good, but they weren’t all over me. It wasn’t a case of nip and tuck just to get my shot off. And I was surprised at the respect I gained from my opponents. At first you could see they were treating me like an experiment, a freak. Then they began to treat me like a bona fide player. 

Following his classy freshman season, there is no question in anyone’s mind that Calvin’s here to stay. Yet there was a moment when it was very much in doubt, although it had nothing to do with his ability. It was a case involving Murphy’s pride. After the pro draft, when Calvin learned that he hadn’t been picked on the first round, he toyed with the idea of accepting a very tempting offer from Marques Haynes to play for the Harlem Magicians. On the strength of what he could do with the basketball and a baton, plus his size for comic-routine purposes, he’d be an added box-office lure for the touring troupe. 

But it was his pride in himself as a player that finally convinced him to sign with the Rockets. He had to give the pro league a try. There is no doubt that he made the right decision, both for himself and the NBA. For Calvin Murphy has made it as the little man who plays basketball on a par with the biggest in the sport. And he’ll be making it even bigger in the seasons ahead. This year, the Rockets will be operating out of Houston (obviously the combination of Hayes and Murphy didn’t pull in crowds at the San Diego International Sports Arena the way management had hoped). But it doesn’t matter where Calvin Murphy will be operating—even among all those tall Texans—he’s sure to be one of the giants in his specialty. So what if he’s only 5-foot-10 . . . errr, 5-foot-9. Every inch of him is a professional.  

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