DENVER — The rote responses are part of the reality here at the NBA Finals, as players and coaches, mere days from their life’s goal, field question after question they’d rather be ignoring.
But this question — the second to Jamal Murray on Saturday, after so many to others about the pick and roll, would-be adjustments, and so on — felt different. This one was about a journey, not a series. About the man at the podium as much as the player he will or won’t be for the rest of this series.
“You were in Medellin for Basketball Without Borders in 2019,” a reporter said. “That young man was carefree, happy-go-lucky. You’ve lived through some things since then.”
Unsaid, but understood, was the devastating injury in 2021 that sidelined Murray for more than a season.
“What would you have told that young Jamal Murray in 2019,” the reporter asked, “and could he have expected anything that you told him about your experience?”
Murray seemed to think for a moment, more deeply than he would on the questions that would follow.
Much had happened to him in those years: The slow, steady rise to NBA success, and then toward NBA greatness. The 2020 loss in the bubble’s Western Conference finals to the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers. And then the ACL tear in the 2021 playoffs that cost Murray the entire 2022 season, and his team’s chances until his return last October.
“Just to stay with it,” he said thoughtfully. “You know, life is going to happen. Stuff is going to happen. Just got to keep the mental fortitude to bounce back in whatever it is, and stay strong. ‘This, too, shall pass.'”
Those things have passed, but in doing so have helped mold Murray into perhaps one of the game’s most important players. If he is great in the games ahead, the Denver Nuggets will likely be champions. If he is not — and there are, of course, many other variables — perhaps the Miami Heat finds life.
Regardless, the mental fortitude and toughness that the Nuggets have had to display to get here are mirrored by the traits Murray has had to master. Basketball has been the team’s journey. Murray’s has been much more than that.
The injury didn’t just take away a year of his career. It overshadowed the greatness he showed in the bubble, the danger he presents to opposing teams, and the touch of rare greatness he may earn in the days ahead.
The Nuggets guard is a star, but one without all of the trappings of star’s profile. He’s an uber talent whose path, the one that’s shaped him, has also obscured in a broader way to a broader audience just how much talent he brings to this team and league.
Consider: Murray has never been an All-Star. He’s never made an All-NBA team. You can talk all day long about how real basketball aficionados know what Murray’s about, but in the end, his talents and successes have not been recognized by the national collective of fans or media in the ways that mark true recognition.
There is another way to such things, a truer hallmark of a star: Not by being recognized by others, but by seizing that recognition by helping lead your team to a championship.
Let’s be clear: Even on a team with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic — who is also earning a level of national adulation in this series that he should already have possessed — Murray stands out.
It’s not Jokic then Murray. It’s Jokic and Murray.
“They’re both dynamic,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said at the start of the Finals, with words he has echoed since. “They both can do it on their own, but they also both really complement each other. That’s hard to find in this league, when your two best players just absolutely complement each other. They both have scored 50 in a playoff game. And they both can be facilitators.”
We tend to think of stars as products of their God-given gifts, of their work ethic, and the displays of greatness they unravel in the biggest of moments, or over the course of stat-stunning seasons. And that is partly true. But often it’s the failures, the heartache, the struggles — for those who can overcome them — that truly propel the good to be great, and the great to be more than that.
Michael Jordan held firmly to the idea he’d been cut from his varsity team, even if the truth was more complicated. LeBron James‘ needed to experience his own humiliation and failure in the 2011 NBA Finals to unlock his championship excellence. Stephen Curry’s path to changing the game itself started in high school, when, in the worst basketball moments of his life, he rebuilt the way he shot the ball from scratch.
These are excruciating processes, and they are the types of journeys that those who achieve true greatness tend share.
As great as Murray was in the bubble, injuries like the one he sustained — and the fear it conjures, the literal pain it gives, and the lessons of both what can be lost and what has been reclaimed — can lift stars higher.
This season, Murray has played with a passion, joy and confidence that can’t be faked. Jokic is the team’s best player, yes, but he needs another star, one just like Murray, to be here. Especially a star who has battled and struggled, one who has demonstrated the mental toughness and self-belief you need to beat a team like the Miami Heat.
Still at the podium, Murray spoke to this.
“It goes for everything, negative and positive,” he said. “So just keeping a level head and knowing that you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel one day.”
That day is now. And that light — if he and Jokic can help lead this team to three more wins — is the most glorious hue the league offers: That of an NBA champion.