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A Big Man in the N.B.A., but Not on Campus at Columbia

Susan Notes:

OK, I never read sports stories. But I'm a digital subscriber to the New York Times and have signed up for all kinds of features, including one where reporters mention what they are reading. That lead me to the quite wonderful story below.

What struck me as most remarkable is that not only is Troy Murphy pursuing a college degree after a 12-year career in the National Basketball Association, he's very serious about actual learning something. Enjoy the story, and savor the last line.

by Andrew Key

It was just before 9 o'clock Tuesday morning, and the entire Columbia University campus seemed to want just a few more hours of sleep. In Milbank Hall, a 119-year-old building on the northern edge of the Barnard College quad, students filtered wordlessly into a third-floor classroom where a course called Introduction to Logic was about to begin.

Among the heavy-lidded pack was Troy Murphy, who curled into a desk in the first row so that he could stretch out his legs. Murphy, 34, played 12 seasons as a 6-foot-11 power forward in the N.B.A., grappling with the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. On this morning, he was trying to keep up with Karen Lewis, a philosophy of language professor with a laser pointer, who tore through her lesson plan, gesticulating with both hands when an idea required special emphasis.

Scribbling at one point on the chalkboard, Lewis spun and queried the students on how they would approach a particular problem. No one moved.

"Since everyone is torturing me, and I want to move on, I'll just do it myself,' Lewis said, lifting her chalk as the classroom tittered.

In the front row, Murphy pushed the baseball cap off his head, scratched his temple and smiled. Last year, he enrolled at Columbia's School of General Studies, an undergraduate college at the university designed for returning students and students on "nontraditional" life paths. If things go as planned, if he can complete the necessary credits and core requirements, he will obtain a bachelor̢۪s degree in sociology in December after finishing his fourth semester at the university.

Murphy's class early Tuesday was an introductory-level course popular among students trying to fulfill their undergraduate quantitative reasoning requirements. But a first-time visitor might have found the language bouncing around the classroom inscrutable.

"Modus ponens is O.K. when you're doing the informal proofs, but modus tollens can be tough," Murphy said as he packed his books and pens. "You throw the negation in there, it can get a little squirrelly."

After years of working to keep up his scoring average, Murphy has become obsessed with his grade-point average. He took four classes last semester -- Organizing Innovation, Societal Adaptations to Terrorism, Introduction to Islamic Civilization, and Spanish -- and compiled a 3.80 G.P.A. He made the dean's list.

Professional athletes often struggle to find focus and purpose after their playing days, after the constant external validation has dissipated. Becoming a full-time undergraduate student at an Ivy League university, then, has given Murphy a means to concentrate his considerable competitive energy.

"For me it was: I'm going to prove I can beat this guy. I̢۪m going to shut him down or outscore him or outrebound him," he said. "Now, you have these professors who are some of the best, and you want to test yourself. You want to prove you can get an A in the class."

This month, while N.B.A. players were preparing for the postseason, Murphy was enduring a grueling week of midterms. Spring break was a godsend.

He seems content leaving his old career behind. Airplane turbulence gives him deep anxiety, for one thing, and N.B.A. players fly all the time. Asked what he missed most about the league, he said: "I miss the socks. The socks were unbelievable. There's something about N.B.A. socks."

In his N.B.A. days, Murphy and his teammates considered 10 a.m. workouts unnecessarily cruel. On Tuesday, he woke up around dawn to finish some class work, then got on the N train near his East Village apartment, switched lines at Times Square and hopped out at the 116th Street stop on the 1 train.

On campus, the usual trappings of college life were all around -- neo-Classical architecture, students dressed inappropriately for the weather -- and Murphy blended in well enough. He attended class in a gray hoodie, dark jeans and beat-up hightops. His backpack, which bore a small Golden State Warriors logo, was the one visible vestige of his former career.

When Lewis, the philosophy professor, heard that Murphy, the tall student in her class, was a relatively famous former professional athlete, her eyes lit up. "I did not know that," she said. "That is really cool."

Murphy first earned national recognition at Notre Dame, twice earning first-team all-American honors and twice being named Big East player of the year. A sociology major there, too, he left college after his junior year and was the 14th player selected in the 2001 N.B.A. draft. He played 729 N.B.A. games -- his last came in November 2012 -- averaged a double-double in five seasons and earned tens of millions of dollars.

But Murphy always wanted to complete his formal education. His parents are retired schoolteachers. He attended Delbarton, a prestigious high school in Morristown, N.J., where his grades rivaled his athletic prowess.

"I think it was ingrained in him, and he took a lot of pride in his academic ability," said Dan Whalen, his high school basketball coach. "His grades were very good, his SATs were very good, and he was a very good student, in addition to being a top, top basketball player."

Murphy's first visit to Columbia, about six or seven years ago, was serendipitous. Toward the end of his playing career, he spent his summers in New York and played pickup games at the New York Athletic Club, on Central Park South. Players like Emeka Okafor, Al Harrington, Mike Dunleavy and Wally Szczerbiak were regulars there. One day, when the gym was closed for renovations, the players took cabs uptown to use the Columbia court.

In August 2013, Murphy's memory of that brief visit factored into his decision to apply to the university. But nothing was guaranteed; he needed to take an entrance exam. So he hired a tutor and worked with her three times a week. He went to Barnes & Noble and bought every SAT book at the store. He got flashcards to practice vocabulary. He estimated he studied 25 hours a week for two months and took more than 20 practice exams. He wrote his application essay about how he could apply the lessons learned in the N.B.A. to the challenges of college life.

Now, he has class five days a week. He has little spare time, but he has taken up boxing to get his fix of physical contact. The Spanish class has been particularly tough: "A lot of my classmates are coming straight from high school Spanish, where they took four years of it," he said. "I'm playing catch-up."

Murphy, who is not married and does not have children, rarely plays basketball anymore and has not had much time to watch the N.B.A. But he did attend two Columbia home games this season, and he has gotten to know some of the players through shared classes. They are some of the only students who have recognized him.

Steve Frankoski, 24, a guard from Florham Park, N.J., recalled his first encounter with Murphy. "I was coming out of class one time," he said. "I saw him. I saw this massive dude. I was like, 'That looks like someone I know.' And it was him, so I said, 'Yo, Murph!' He turned around and was like, 'Yo, yo.' He's from Jersey, and I'm from Jersey, so I said, 'Jersey!'"

Frankoski, who averaged 7.7 points for Columbia this season, said he planned to pursue playing opportunities overseas when he graduated this year. Murphy, on the other hand, has no idea what he wants to do after school. But that makes him quite happy.

"My life has always been planned out," Murphy said, smiling. "You got a schedule in August, and you knew on St. Patrick's Day you'd be playing in Cleveland, or you'd have an off day. It's exciting not knowing. Not knowing is intriguing."

— Andrew Key
New York Times, 3/26/15

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/sports/basketball/whats-that-former-nba-player-doing-at-columbia-studying.html?emc=edit_ur_20150326&nl=nyregion&nlid


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