AMID Gareth Murray’s collection of mementoes from a basketball career that has taken him almost entirely around the globe is a video, made on a balmy summer’s night in Zaragoza in 2013, which still makes him take a sharp intake of breath.
It was a friendly, Great Britain against Spain. Glasgow Rocks forward Murray momentarily corralled in an individual duel with Marc Gasol, a NBA All Star and one of the leviathans of the sport. That the Memphis Grizzlies centre – whose annual salary tops £8 million – brushed his Scottish foe aside was secondary. Murray, as he watches it now, can allow himself to marvel at his presence amid such illustrious company.
That, and his subsequent foray at the EuroBasket championships, are a world removed from his daily existence in the shadowlands of the British Basketball League, where pay slips are in five figures not ten, and where the competition is several levels below Gasol’s habitual sphere. Yet this afternoon, on the Emirates Arena court which the Rocks have made their home, their Arbroath-born talisman will relish the glamour of the club’s first major final in four years as they take on Worcester Wolves for the BBL Trophy.
It is, concedes 29-year-old Murray, a welcome diversion in a campaign where the team’s struggles, and his own jolt back to reality, have proved bothersome. “I found it difficult coming back after playing at that high level,” he reveals. “I know we were only together a short time, but in the GB team everyone knew their role and knew what they could do. Mine was to play defence and hit open shots. Then I came here and although I knew what my role was, it was hard to adjust to this league again.”
Having come through the development system of the Musketeers club in his home town, Murray took the road west to Michigan, hoping that adopting the American way would polish his skills. But, as so many of his contemporaries found, the promise proved empty, so much so that when he returned, and signed on in Glasgow, he remained the roughest of diamonds.
It took time, he says, to elevate his abilities, year by year. “I’m always the last one out of the gym.” Few leap from the British Basketball League to the international stage but his accomplishments offer a pointed counter-argument to those who claim the sport lacks the structure to convert its healthy participation base into a production line of talent.
The accusation was at the heart of UK Sport’s confirmation last week that basketball is to lose its entire Lottery funding, with those guarding the kitty bluntly suggesting that it is forever destined to remain on the margins. Murray, whose weekly schedule includes school visits and community initiatives, has a different view.
“You can see it’s growing everywhere,” he says. “In the schools. There’s more clubs all over the country. It’s ideal for kids because you can mix boys and girls and be competitive. That’s why it’s disheartening and disappointing that they don’t see that. There are a lot of talented players out there, more guys who are going to America and holding their own. Especially younger guys. We have real talent in Britain and in Scotland.”
A successful professional team on the doorstep remains one means to inspire. Glasgow have toiled this term with a squad whose only consistent achievement has been to confound their player-coach Sterling Davis. Ninth in the league, and with their qualification for the BBL’s end-of-season play-offs uncertain, the Trophy final has assumed an absolute importance.
The hosts are the underdogs, Murray acknowledges. “Sure, we have an edge being here. But it’s not much.” Worcester, challenging for the league title and the pursuit of a possible treble, have momentum on their side. “They win games,” he adds. “They have a great squad but if we can stop their three Americans, we have a chance.”
It will surely need Murray to raise himself once again. Victory, he hints, might serve as a parting gift. Testing himself against the best last year re-ignited his wanderlust. Some feel his attributes would be better employed in mainland Europe where the remuneration, and attention, is better.
“When I watch the Euroleague, I see guys who I went up against,” says Murray. “I’ll think: ‘I was guarding him. I went up against him’. I have to pinch myself sometimes when I think about it. There’s no question I can play at that level. I just need the opportunity to prove it. When I see that on TV, I know I could be there. I can handle the ball. I can defend. I don’t really see why someone shouldn’t pick me up.”