These days, Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray is back to doing reverse dunks on giant humans, hitting game-winners, and leading the Nuggets to one of the best records in the NBA. But, before that, he defeated the toughest challenge of his career you’ve probably faced yourself: uncertainty. “When you’re hurt, you’re in the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen, if you’ll recover or what the results are going to be,” Murray says. “I was very fearful of the unknown before, but now I embrace it.”
Murray’s unknown came on April 12, 2021, at the Chase Center in San Francisco. His Nuggets were facing the Golden State Warriors in front of more than 18,000 people. But in the game’s final minutes, that crowd could only watch as he writhed in pain, clutching onto his left thigh after tearing his ACL.
In the days that followed, Murray’s greatest have come in isolation. When walking down the stairs by himself was impossible, there weren’t screaming fans cheering him on. The countless one-legged shots he took shortly after surgery while his left leg was wrapped in a cast to maintain his sanity and experiment with the limits of his body won’t show up in any box score but count for so much more than points.
Your journey to victory only starts once you accept defeat. Two months after undergoing surgery to repair his ACL tear, Murray was back in the weight room attempting a trap bar deadlift. Typically, he’d crush this lift. But this time, while drenched in sweat, he struggled to get his left leg to move with power. His left thigh was half the size of his right. Struggling with quadriceps atrophy, he could barely straighten his leg when doing leg extensions. And as he struggled off the court, his team fell without him: His Nuggets once again endured a first-round playoff exit.
Murray seemed to face defeat after defeat. “When you can’t do a simple exercise in the weight room, and you’re thinking about basketball, around the team all of the time, and they’re playing games and playing hard; it’s tough to watch,” he says.
Here’s how Murray battled back and how you can beat injuries and failures too.
You may want to jump right to a 315-pound squat on your first day back in the gym. Don’t. Murray didn’t. Instead, he spent a year working with his trainer Matt Tuttle, building his body (and mind) on a foundation of small wins. After not leaving the ground for the first five months of his recovery, finally being able to do small jumps on his water treadmill felt like dropping a triple-double. A month or so later, he was able to jump from a standstill position and grab onto the rim, the first time he says he was able to get visual proof his body was making improvements and the first time he was able to accomplish such an athletic feat in his entire life. Murray wasn’t just returning to his old self; he was beginning to lap it.
“Once I started to be able to grab the rim, I started to get excited, and that’s when I started to see the most improvement. It was visual for me. You can be getting stronger, but if you don’t see it, you don’t believe it as much.”
To do so required tedious, mostly single-leg exercises targeting different muscles during the weeks of training. He could finally do the trap bar deadlifts that eluded him before to primarily work out his quads and help build the strength and explosiveness necessary for him to dunk again. The Bulgarian split squats activated his glutes while also working his core.
Murray also employed cutting-edge techniques, using a blood-flow restriction kit on his quad to spur faster healing. He became borderline obsessive with finetuning every little detail about the player he used to be. “I watched the 50-point games every day. I watched my good and bad games too. I watched my practice and scrimmage every day. I watched my footwork and rewound it while taking notes on some of the smallest things you wouldn’t even notice.”
There’s a good chance you’re not the first person struggling through an injury. Murray knew that, so he sought out advice from other NBA players who experienced ACL injuries, such as Miami Heat guard Victor Oladipo, Boston Celtics forward Danilo Gallinari, Chicago Bulls guard Zach Lavine, and even Peyton Manning, who suffered career-altering neck injuries, and came back better than ever. “They told me not to be afraid of experimenting with my body to see what I could do without pushing the limits.”
The weightlifting, 5-on-5 basketball scrimmages, and superstar advice would mean nothing without the right mindset. He reminded himself that everything he was doing had a purpose (“I played mental games with myself to keep myself motivated”) and stayed aware of the bigger picture (“I knew the work I did then would pay off later and give a foundation for years to come”). He didn’t have tens of thousands of screaming Nuggets fans cheering him on the days he struggled to lift like he used to, nor did he have someone constantly updating the public on his progress. And he didn’t need any of it because when rebuilding who you are, you often mainly need yourself to count the wins the world may never see.
“Patience is key, and having self-motivation is key,” Murray says. “Get through those days you don’t want to do it. Those are the days when you have to do it the most. That mindset will stick with you even when you’re not hurt.”
With the most grueling rehabilitation of his career behind him, Murray is back to lighting it up on the court. He hasn’t had a 50-point game like he did pre-injury (and he knew he wouldn’t this soon into his comeback), but exploding off his left leg for acrobatic finishes like a man who wasn’t unable to walk down the stairs without assistance 18 months ago. He already won within himself before he stepped back on an NBA court; now it’s time to show the world what Jamal Murray 2.0 is made of.
Keith Nelson is a writer by fate and journalist by passion, who has connected dots to form the bigger picture for Men’s Health, Vibe Magazine, LEVEL MAG, REVOLT TV, Complex, Grammys.com, Red Bull, Okayplayer, and Mic, to name a few.
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