It sounds almost too much of the sports business fairy tale, like the stories of Bill James going from working in the pork and beans factory to being baseball stats guru, but it is a still-evolving true life story of a hoops coach from New York, now helping a team of professionals, maybe, just maybe, win a million dollars in about a week and a half at Fordham University.
That is the goal of Dylan Murphy, a late twentysomething former classics major at Columbia who found his way into a full-time coaching job in the NBA D-League, and now in the offseason is coaching that team’s alumni in “The Basketball Tournament,” a take on all comers five-on-five event which will have its “Super 17” round starting this Thursday night at DePaul University in Chicago before the four semi-finalists come east to Rose Hill Gym and a live national audience on ESPN August 1 and 2. However for Murphy, it is a tale of continued cautious optimism that has brought him on a pretty unusual journey to this point, one which is not unlike many in either the 97 team field for TBT or in his full-time home in the NBA’s minor league, one which is recent years is taking on a much bigger status as a business endeavor across the country, including here in the New York area with the Westchester Knicks getting started last fall.
Back to Dylan Murphy and his ascendance in the coaching ranks. A high school player at Trinity, he was always intrigued by sport but consumed by study. He started his college academic career at Emory University in Atlanta before transferring to Columbia, where “classics” were not matchups between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson—they were the tales of ancient Greek and Latin, a major which kept him far away from Levien Gym and Friday and Saturday nights full of Ivy League basketball.
“Never went to a game, was never around the program at all when I was at Columbia,” he said this week. “It was all about my studies. I loved sports but I didn’t think I was going to make coaching my life at that point.”
Still, the New York native would follow the antics of the Knicks and the NBA and even big time college hoops from a distance, and as a sideline he decided to do his own writing on basketball. With that, the tide, and Murphy’s fortunes begin to change, because he found out that the fast-growing digital sports world had a place for him, his writing style and his passion for hoops, one that was quickly replacing his drive for ancient languages not associated with putting a ball in a basket.
He landed an internship with ESPN Radio in New York and that led to more connections in sports and some other fulltime roles with sites like SportsGrid and for Dime Magazine. From there Murphy wrote for every platform under the sun, eventually doing basketball writing for Bleacher Report and other places, all the while building contacts and looking for another opportunity.
“I loved writing and loved basketball, so I just kept trying to find a spot and see what else I could do,” he added. That “what else” led him to Las Vegas and the NBA Summer League in 2013, where he met up with another writer turned hoops professional, Sebastian Pruiti, who had gone from Grantland to being the video coordinator and assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League. Timing in this business can be everything, because as Murphy was arriving in Vegas, Pruiti was getting ready to take a bigger step himself, as video coordinator for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That left a hole on coach Connor Henry’s staff in Fort Wayne, and Murphy, the Ivy League Classics major got the call.
“Sebastian called to ask if I was interested and if I was I should get to Fort Wayne right away. So I packed some things jumped in my car and headed from New York to Indiana,” he said. He proved to be a quick learner and continued to write for various sites including Bleacher Report, putting in the long hours for little pay but living a dream that few in Morningside Heights could have imagined.
The Mad Ants, one of the more unique franchises in the fast-growing D-League because of their local ownership, long history on professional basketball (an old time NBA franchise and very popular CBA stop when that minor league was in its heyday), were undergoing a renaissance of their own under Henry, racking up wins and business success each year, and eventually taking the D-League title in 2013, with Murphy along for the ride. When assistant coach Steve Gansey left to coach the Canton Charge (the Cavaliers D-League affiliate), Murphy moved to the bench, becoming Fort Wayne’s number two assistant, and helping out with a myriad of additional scouting and coaching duties throughout the year. That also included a spot on Henry’s staff for the D-League Select team in last year’s NBA Summer League, another big step up from being a freelance writer with no coaching experience.
This past year he continued to home his coaching skills, even crossing paths with now Columbia coach Kyle Smith at a practice this past winter.
“We chatted for a while and I told him I was a Columbia grad, and I follow the program even more now because of how they have done,” he said. His focus remained on moving up the professional ladder, learning and growing as a coach just like those aspiring NBA players were on the hardwood. Following the conclusion of the D-league season, Murphy had a conversation with Mad Ants VP Garrett Martz about another hoops endeavor, the TBT, which had gone as an idea conjured up by Boston entrepreneur Jon Mugar to a $500,000 winner take all tournament last summer, with a team of Notre Dame alumni winning the grand prize in Boston.
Martz felt that the Mad Ants could out together an alumni team of players in and around the championship that could make a run for the 2015 prize which had now doubled to a cool $1 Million.
“We had great chemistry and the guys had stayed in touch as they went off to play elsewhere, so I approached our ownership group about it, and they gave us their blessing to give it a shot,” Martz said last weekend. The Ants Alumni team would have no official relationship with the team, they would be on their own, but they would have the social and community support, and Martz enlisted Murphy to help pull the team together.
They raised the social following needed to not just get into the field but to have a first round bye in the Midwest Regional of the tournament last weekend, and although they only had five players come to Chicago to play (many others including former SEC Player of the year Chris Porter and Gonzaga star Matt Boldin were off with other professional hoops commitments), the chemistry and timing of the five alumni held through for not one but two wins, and a berth in the next round Friday night in Chicago against either the defending champion Fighting Alumni or Midwest Dream Squad, who meet Thursday night.
Two more wins there, and with Murphy at the helm, the unlikely road would continue back to New York, where his dream and unusual path began not too long ago. “It is still a long way away, and the competition gets so much tougher now, but we will have more guys coming back this weekend,” Murphy said after their win Sunday night. “We can’t even think about what that would be like.”
While some players joked about what they would do with their share of the money; “Maybe I’ll buy a Tesla,” forward William Frisby, a Miami Hurricanes product joked, Murphy remained decidedly quiet and low key. “It’s just great to have this chance and continue to see what’s next,” he added.
Regardless of the outcome this weekend, Murphy is intent on following his coaching dream. Henry, the most recent Mad Ants coach, has made two moves recently, first going to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers’ D-League team and then reversing course across the country to take another step up and join Scott Skiles’ staff with the Orlando Magic, which leaves a vacancy at the helm for the Mad Ants.
Those moves, and those of other Mad Ants coaching alumni, have shown a path for Murphy he would like to continue to take, as his dream career continues. “I want to get to the NBA and be a head coach someday,” he said in the phone Tuesday night as he started to prep for this weekend’s head coaching stint for the Ants Alumni. “Sure it’s a ways away but I have gotten here, and I just have to keep working hard and see where it goes.”
Right now it has gotten him to Chicago, where he and his growing team of D-League alums will try and grab Mugar’s million. If not, it’s back down the highway and back to work in the D-league. Like the players on the court for TBT and in leagues across the world, Dylan Murphy is hoping for a “classic” ending to his career way down the road, one that thus far in no way resembles so many Greek tragedies he probably studied during his Ivy League education.
Those “Hoop Dreams” are what this weekend’s tournament is all about, as fairy tales come that much closer to reality, for players and coaches alike including one Columbia grad far removed from the ancient Latin he once saw as his calling, now replaced by the calls of plays in the hardwood.