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SBNation.com – All Posts: Jamal Murray doesn’t play basketball, he perfects it


2023 NBA Finals - Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NBAE via Getty Images

How Jamal Murray meditated, celebrated and visualized his way to the top of the NBA.

There are some things you grow into, others out of, and rare things that never leave you. When Jamal Murray first shot an arrow it was at his Kentucky Wildcat teammate, E. J. Floreal, watching from the bench. Murray had fired off a corner 3-pointer, springing up in the air with enormous lift, and turned to Floreal when he made it back to earth to just as fluidly pull his right arm back and spear his left arm forward into an archer’s stance. Murray released, then dropped his left hand — still curved as if cradling a bow — and turned to get back down the floor as Floreal feinted a collapse into the arms of the celebrating bench.

At the time, Kentucky men’s basketball head coach John Calipari dismissed it as a “freshman thing,” young grandeur. There were other critiques, that as a celebration, the move took too long. There were other athletes who started doing the gesture around the same time as Murray — Yogi Ferrell did it as a Hoosier, and Ferrell attributed the move to something he saw Wesley Matthews do in Dallas — but we know Murray best for it. And it isn’t because he does it with fervent frequency; a growing complaint from Nuggets fans since Murray’s return after injury this season was that the move had become sparsely used, if seen at all.

NBA celebrations are made memorable through repetition. Bravado and repetition. James Harden’s stirring the pot, J.R. Smith’s one-arm windmill, Damian Lillard’s wrist-tapping Dame Time, all intricate, silent pantomimes that speak loudly and produce responsive volume from fans. With Murray, it’s not accurate to say his bow and arrow move and subsequent “Blue Arrow” moniker came from a phase of youthful frivolity, because Murray’s never been all that frivolous of a player. On the court he’s lithe, quiet, calm, the result of decades-long rigorous physical and mental training under his father, Roger Murray, and the elder Murray’s fascination with the capabilities of a quiet mind best exemplified by Bruce Lee and Kung Fu.

Even when Murray breaks out the bow, he turns himself entirely over to the motions of the mimic. His movements are fluid, he often lifts like a dancer from the shoulders as he gets his arms into position. His muscles tense and flex preemptively, as if he were pulling taut a string and balancing an arrow lightly against it. In the release, his body relaxes. It’s a charade, but it’s as well-honed as anything else he does on the floor, made memorable because unlike his peers, leaning into the league’s penchant for theatrics, Murray’s silent arrow is laced with the all the calculating, unnerving composure of his game. What he’s doing, what he does, you would never call “playing.”

In high school, Murray used to meditate before every workout and game, using the practice as an early visualization technique to plot all his moves before they happened. It’s something he still does, admitting in a presser between Games 3 and 4 of the Finals that he asks Gene Marquez, one of Denver’s equipment managers, what color jerseys the Nuggets are wearing on any given night so he can ground his visualizations in reality.

“I can imagine the kind of energy I want to bring in the uniform I’m in,” Murray said, “I also envision reactions, like if I miss a shot, what is the first thing I’m thinking about? Like, damn, that was a good shot, that a disconnect shot, or just get back or don’t worry about it.”

This way, Murray noted, there are fewer surprises. He can mentally walk through as many scenarios as he’s able to imagine in the span of a few minutes, priming his mind and his body, even his own internal script. There are holes in the approach, mostly evident in the Finals and the way the Heat figured out how to destabilize and upset even the stoic Murray through basketball the opposite of the type Denver plays. Miami, in the series and all throughout their scrabbling up from the play-in, was unrelenting, abrupt, forcing pace and upending a game’s rhythm via jolting stops and lurching turnovers, fundamentally opposite to the Nuggets’ smooth, practiced sequences. In that vitriolic mess there were visible stretches where Murray grew frustrated, clearly not having factored what was, at times, frankly ugly basketball into his meticulous mental map of any given game. But he recovered, steadying himself on the bulwark of Nikola Jokic and the ability between the two of them to deftly grab the rhythm back.

When he was younger, before games and workouts, Murray also used meditation as a bridge to better control his body. He said he could settle his heart rate to 34 beats per minute (the resting average range is between 60-100), staying calm in order to slow the action around him down. Murray’s movements then, as now, appeared slow and fluid, like he’d stepped outside of the game’s real time. Rowan Barrett, who watched Murray play for the first time as a 15-year-old in a north Toronto community center gym, likened him to a heat-seeking missile, stealthy but motivated by something deeply internal that couldn’t be deterred.

There were flashes of this in the Finals, where it looked like Murray would wrestle a sequence, run or quarter out of the chaos the Heat necessarily plunged it into and set it to rights. To something that was once again orderly. Most point guards go with the pace of a game, matching their movements and by extension their team’s actions to it. Actually changing the pace, like willing a runaway train into a subway that’s timed to each stop, is a completely different kind of control.

Murray’s own control was shattered when he went down in April 2021 with a torn ACL. There are some moments not worth re-visualizing, and Murray’s strong, downhill drive through traffic to the Warrior’s basket only to crumple and slide along the hardwood is one. His writhing in pain another. His recovery and eventual rehab took the 2021-2022 season away from him, along with some of his visualization capabilities.

“If you go back to the first game in Utah, I picked up the ball in the paint like five times I could count. I was so lost. I had never felt being that lost in the court before,” Murray recalled after Game 5, noting his reluctance to get into the paint and draw contact, or his hesitation to jump and land. “I still have different moments where I’m tentative — best way for me to put it — to do certain actions, like rebounding among everybody.”

In the vein of hoping to understand what his recovery would be like, down to the emotional setbacks and physical feelings of it, Murray said he was in frequent communication with other players who’d suffered the injury — naming Zach LaVine, as well as Klay Thompson and Victor Oladipo — in order to visualize himself through it. He credited Oladipo’s positive outlook paired with Thompson’s brutal honesty of how the process would go with being able to put himself through it. He wanted all of it.

“I had my doubts as well, that’s natural. Somebody asked me about butterflies,” Murray said in his postgame presser after Denver won Game 5 and the title, shirt so soaked in champagne the collar was stretched down to show his jersey underneath, “that’s what makes you alive, that’s what makes you care. When you doubt yourself that’s what makes you turn it around.”

Murray teased the “Blue Arrow” celebration twice in Game 5. Midway through the third quarter, when he started to get a handle on the adrenalin that had been coursing through him in the first half and adjusted his shot, he made a corner three on a running pass from Michael Porter Jr. Jogging back in transition, Murray reached over his shoulder with an open hand, as if rifling around in a quiver of arrows. In the fourth, out of a sharp sequence of Denver ball movement, Murray took and made a long shot from the left arc. He hopped on the spot and then spun back down the floor, elbows out like he was holding a bow in front of him, eyeing the cheering crowd for a target. Somehow the echoes of the move, the teasing of the early motions of his familiar celebration, lent a new kind of assurance. Here was Murray with a keen awareness of everything that was behind him suddenly snapping into place, just moments to go before delivering Denver its first-ever NBA championship, and he was, pretty much, playing. His movements were the same mix of method and confidence, but now there was an added relaxation. Murray wasn’t forcing time, he was having fun with it.

There’s another archer that came to represent harmony, reason and order. Who was said to preside over the passage of the young into adulthood, especially young men who maybe had a tendency for “freshman things” and the potential of what it was they could become. Who was closely associated with medicine, health, and healing — The Greek god Apollo. Applied to anyone else, the comparison and its parallels skew strained, too close to parody. But with Murray, demure, honest, made better by doubt, the likeness sits lightly. We might never see the bow and arrow with the same frequency again, but we don’t need it to know that Murray’s is golden, and was all along.

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