When it was all over — after the scoreboard reading “Florida 78, Ole Miss 64” was shut off for the evening — Erik Murphy leaned against the plastered block wall in the O’Connell Center tunnel and looked down at the throng of reporters he was towering over.
At 6-foot-10, Murphy is the Florida basketball team’s tallest player, but that’s not the reason why he stood out on this night or any night before during this season.
As each reporter took their turn asking the night’s hero a question, Murphy would fix his blue-eyed gaze on the speaker and casually answered question after question. He seemed completely unfazed by the fact that he had just given fans and his team a near flawless performance.
On a night when Florida needed it’s offense more than it had in it’s previous seven outings, it was Murphy who spearheaded the effort, pouring in 19 points in 31 minutes, while missing only a single shot from the field.
Such performances have become almost the norm for Murphy, who in 19 games played this season has only failed to reach double figures six times. As he unflinchingly tangled with Ole Miss’ oversized bigs Murphy Holloway and Reginald Bucnker — only to calmly step behind the arc and knock down five 3-pointers on the night — it was easy for everyone in attendance to forget that the Gators’ power forward is fighting through pain on every possession.
However, as the media continued to huddle around Murphy, an immediate reminder of the Rhode Island-native’s pain was offered in the form of a large pad bulging out of his sweat-soaked compression shirt.
That same pad is what has been protecting Murphy and his broken rib since early January, when it was announced that Murphy had sustained the injury.
Florida coach Billy Donovan, who himself dealt with a rib issue during his playing days, stated soon after the announcement that Murphy would be cleared to play.
It would be up to Murphy to decide how much pain he could tolerate as the injury healed on its own.
Eight games later, Murphy has averaged 14 points and 4.5 rebounds while playing 24 minutes per contest. If the injury has offered any lingering effects, Murphy isn’t telling.
Murphy’s injury is one of a few bouts with adversity that he’s had during his Florida career, including an arrest for attempted burglary with ex-Gators player Cody Larson in 2011. However, Donovan has seen a player who has made immense strides during his time in Gainesville.
“I think early in his career he battled some injuries, especially in his sophomore year where we kind of needed him a little bit more than what we got out of him,” Donovan said. “Part of it was, Erik is such a team-oriented guy and he’s a good chemistry guy, when he got hurt his sophomore year it was almost like our team was playing pretty well and he didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes.
“He kind of just accepted his role, he was unsure of himself. Then I think going into his junior year with (Vernon) Macklin and (Alex) Tyus and (Chandler) Parsons and those guys, I think it was pretty clear we were going to need him to step up for our team and I think he has done that.”
Considering Murphy’s play and his comfort level in a Gators uniform nowadays, it may be hard for some fans to remember when the transfer rumors were constantly brought up alongside Murphy’s name. The talk eventually died down like most rumors do, but Donovan said that Murphy’s flirtation with leaving Florida is not unusual for any player.
“Most of these guys at this level have never ever dealt with or have faced any level of personal adversity on the court because they have always been the best player,” Donovan said.
“Erik’s lack of playing time, lack of involvement, or his role for the first few years was a byproduct of what he did on the court, determining what his role would be on the team. He really had a choice to make … You either have to run and, ‘I’m getting out of here, I’m leaving, I’m going to go where it is going to be easier,’ or, ‘I am going to battle, fight, and get through it.’”
While some coaches may not have an understanding of players’ personal issues, Donovan, as a former player himself has a different perspective on what players like Murphy go through early on in their careers.
“I think the one thing that is a little bit unique is I sat in the same chair as those guys did,” Donovan said. “I wanted to leave Providence after my sophomore year. It wasn’t my fault; it was the coach’s fault. As you get older and you start to mature, you realize, you know what, the coach wants you to win and I’m not playing because I’m not bringing enough to the table to get on the floor. Then you have a decision to make. Do I transfer to a lower-level where I am clearly the better player on the team, I am just going to play, it is going to be a little easier for me, and I will get what I want? I think then you will never reach your full potential.
“I think for Erik, battling through that adversity and challenge is really good.”
Although Donovan cited Parsons as a player in which Murphy had to fill the shoes of upon Parsons’ departure to the NBA, as of now, it appears that Murphy may simply be following in Parsons’ footsteps.
After having a relatively under-the-radar first three seasons in Gainesville, Parsons exploded in his final year in orange and blue and is currently emerging as one of the league’s best young stars.
Murphy may be following a similar trajectory, which could also land him in the NBA as a player who, like Parsons, seems to be able to make plays when needed and is versatile enough to do so both inside and outside the paint.
For now though, Murphy will look to do something that Parsons was unable to do during his Gators career, and that’s cut down the nets at the Final Four.