A Family Dance

by Adam Doucette

The day was finally here. A chance at redemption. After a year of working and waiting, the Northeastern men’s basketball team fought its way back to the CAA basketball championship game.

Tomas Murphy, Northeastern’s sophomore forward from Rhode Island, was ready.

After a heartbreaking loss in the CAA championship game last year, he knew what it was going to take.

“We were so close last year. Can’t really be much closer,” said Murphy before the tournament began. “Obviously, it’s win or go home so those games are tough, but we’re getting better and guys are doing what they need to be doing.”

With under 10 minutes left in the game, the Huskies watched their 16 point first half lead over Hofstra University dwindle to just three. Murphy was in the low post, with the smaller Eli Pemberton guarding him. The 6-foot-8 forward got himself open, demanded the basketball and put up a hook shot. He initiated contact but got the whistle to blow, and the ball softly dropped through the net. He turned around to walk to the free throw line with his fists clenched and let out a yell of excitement.

His older brother, Alex, stood in the crowd, passionately cheering for the team he played on just two years ago. His oldest brother, Erik, currently playing professional basketball in Spain, couldn’t be at the game but watched from Europe. Support from family and playing with intense emotion seemed to be a winning formula for Tomas and his brothers.

When people talk about the best basketball families, there are a few that come to mind.

Maybe you think of the Curry family. Stephen continues to dominate the NBA, and his brother Seth is carving out his niche for the Portland Trail Blazers. Their father Dell was an NBA All-Star.

Maybe you think of the Plumlee brothers: Miles, Mason and Marshall, all three of whom played at Duke and have seen NBA action.

Or maybe the Zellers come to mind. Brothers Luke, Tyler and Cody were all Division I players who spent varying lengths of time in the NBA. Their uncle, Al Eberhard, was also an NBA player.

But right up with the best of them is one with roots right here at Northeastern University – the Murphys.

This year was Tomas Murphy’s second playing for the Huskies. Erik, 28, was drafted by the Chicago Bulls following his graduation from the University of Florida, and now plays in Spain for BAXI Manresa of the Spanish ACB league. Alex, 25, most recently played in Hungary and is currently home in the US rehabbing a foot injury. He played at Duke and Florida before finishing his collegiate career at Northeastern. Their father, Jay Murphy, was an NBA player for the Los Angeles Clippers and Washington Bullets, and their mother, Paivi Murphy, played professionally in her home country of Finland.

The Murphy brothers grew up in Wakefield, R.I., not far from the University of Rhode Island. It was there their father met current Northeastern head coach Bill Coen in the late 1980s. Coen was on the coaching staff at URI with a college teammate of Murphy’s. Murphy was working out in the gym as he finished up his pro career, and the two met through the mutual connection. Fast forward 30 years, and Jay’s youngest son Tomas is in uniform for Coen at Northeastern, with Alex having played the 2016-2017 season here.

“He’s the ultimate teammate,” Coen said of Tomas.  “He’s got a ton of emotion. He plays with emotion, whether he’s in the game or on the bench supporting his teammates. He’s an outstanding player, but more importantly, he’s a great human being and a great teammate.”

Alex echoes Coen’s sentiments about Tomas, saying that he is “extremely hard working, definitely a team-first guy. He’s got a lot of skill and still has a lot of potential. I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can be as a player.”

Tomas is averaging over eight points and 3.5 rebounds per game this season, up from 6.6 points and 2.4 rebounds per game last season. This steady improvement is crucial for him to reach that potential, especially since he has goals to play professionally.

“Obviously, everyone’s dream is the NBA,” said Tomas. “You can never, no matter what the situation ends up being, you can never rule that out. There are so many guys that end up playing way later in their career – as long as you keep that dream.”

In the world of professional basketball however, little is guaranteed. One thing that is guaranteed is that Tomas will have his brothers to lean on if he heads overseas to play.

Erik was the first to move to Europe, and there was a learning curve in his transition.

“It’s been wild. It’s been a crazy, crazy ride,” said Erik of playing overseas. “You get over here, and I’ve played on some good teams and some high level organizations, but you’re not getting taken care of the way you are in the NBA or at a high major college.”

Fortunately for Alex, when he made the jump overseas after his year at Northeastern, he had his older brother to learn from.

“I feel like I had a little bit of a head start and an advantage. He let me know what to expect when I got over there on the court and off the court,” Alex said.

If Tomas does end up playing overseas, he’ll have both of them for support. However, it’s not the only way the brothers have helped each other.

“I think growing up in a basketball family definitely gave me a unique experience but also was really helpful,” Tomas said.

Having two older brothers forced him to be tough, especially because the 20-year old is so much younger.

“With Tomas, there’s a little bit bigger age gap, but you look up to your older brothers so he would see us doing stuff and it lit a fire in him,” explained Erik. “He was kind of feisty. He would never back down. He would always be the one initiating little scuffles. He would always be throwing elbows, because he had to hang. He was pretty tough.”

Even as they have gotten older, the three of them remain competitive.

“I’ll just add that I am still the best player out of the three of us, and I am the best shooter out of the three of us,” said Erik with a laugh. “I’m still the reigning one-on-one-on-one champion, and I don’t think I’ll ever be dethroned until I feel like being dethroned.”

“I can’t really argue the shooter thing,” quipped Alex. “But, the one v. one v. one thing – that I will contest. I’ve won a couple of those before. I’m ready to get back in there with those two this summer.”

As far as Tomas is concerned, it’s only a matter of time.

“Erik is still the best brother for now, but I’m the youngest so all I need to do is wait until they get old,” he joked.

As competitive as they are, Erik, Alex and Tomas are best friends.

“Us three have a great relationship. We’re all very close,” Erik said.

Sometimes, the trio enjoys trading in the hardwood and basketball for open water and a fishing pole.

“That’s one thing I miss about being home,” Tomas said, smiling. “Me and my brother Erik spend a lot of time fishing together. Alex too, but mostly me and Erik will go.”

Alex admitted that he’s not as into it as the other two are, but he still enjoys going with them. He laughed, “You put us three in a small canoe and it’s a funny picture.”

The Finland national basketball team is also something that connects the three of them. Their mother, Paivi, is a Finnish citizen and the three brothers saw it as an opportunity to play for a national team that represented their heritage. Tomas played on the U20 team in 2016, and having just turned 18, he was competing against older players. Both Erik and Alex have played for the men’s team and all three of them have the goal of playing together there one day.

“If all three of us were to play together, especially at that level on a national team, that would be a dream come true for all three of us,” Alex said. “That would be something special.”

The clock wound down from 10 as the Huskies pushed the ball up the court one last time. They were free to run out the clock in this CAA championship game as Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman gave one last half-hearted attempt at a foul.

The whistles stayed quiet as the Northeastern bench exploded.

Tomas, along with the rest of the team, frantically jumped up and down in celebration. The Huskies were going back to the NCAA tournament.

As fans stormed onto the court, Alex ran down from the stands to meet his brother. When he finally got to him, they yell, cry, laugh and hug. Only someone who’s been in this position as a player could really know what it was like to earn a trip to the big dance; only his brothers could know what this meant for Tomas.

Erik, over 4,000 miles away in Spain, beamed at the sight of his youngest brother continuing the family tradition.

“I’m just proud of him,” he said. “Murphy men four-for-four on going to the tournament.”

Their father Jay went when he played at Boston College. Erik went when he played for Florida. Alex made it playing for Duke and Florida. Now Tomas gets to do the same.

There are all sorts of factors that add up to equal success: lots of hard work, perseverance, and a little bit of luck. But there’s no question that the love and support the brothers show each other is one of the biggest reasons why they have come this far.