As Long Beach State guard Joel Murray stood on the six-foot-ladder in The Walter Pyramid cutting a piece of the basketball net off the rim with scissors, he couldn’t help but smile.
He had just dropped 26 points in an overtime win against UC Riverside to secure the outright league championship and the No. 1 seed in the Big West Conference tournament.
Murray said the feeling he had was “indescribable.” He helped The Beach turn its season around from a lackluster 3-7 start to the season.
LBSU head coach Dan Monson compared the team’s turnaround to a Hollywood script.
However, for Murray, the team’s accomplishment meant something more. It was a chance to show everyone who doubted him that he could make the transition to Division I basketball and prove them wrong.
Murray has essentially lived basketball his whole life. His father, Joseph played basketball at Alabama and played in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers. His older brother JJ is a guard at North Texas and his younger brother Devin is a sophomore at Rowlett High School in Texas.
Murray played varsity basketball at Rowlett High School for three years and led his team to the playoffs every season. In just 88 games played for the Eagles, Murray averaged 10.5 points per game and averaged 1.2 assists a game.
Murray was so impressive in his high school career, he earned All-District honors three times, including a pair of First Team selections as a junior and senior.
Coming out of high school in 2018, Murray only had one offer to play basketball at Independence Community College in Kansas. Independence made the offer to Murray in May, only a couple of weeks before he graduated.
“Mentally it hurt because I knew I was good, but I was always underrated like that,” Murray said. “It was tough because everybody was asking, ‘Where are you going? What school are you going to?’ and you just don’t know.”
Murray accepted the offer to Independence and was set to play for the junior college team. However, before Murray had the chance to play in his first game, West Texas A&M gave him an offer to come back home and play Division ll basketball.
He accepted the offer.
During Murray’s first year at West Texas, he played in all 38 games and started 34 of them averaging 28.3 minutes each contest and 11.7 points per game. His 67 steals as a freshman is still the record at West Texas.
Many people thought Murray would transfer out to a D-I school after his freshman year. However, he shared that transferring out was never in his mind when he first got to West Texas A&M.
“My plan was never to leave West Texas, I was planning on staying there for all four years,” Murray said. “I planned on just having a great D-II career because I was never really so eager to say, ‘Oh, I want to go D-I.’”
Murray returned his sophomore year to West Texas and had an even better sophomore campaign. He averaged 19.9 points per game and led the team in assists with 4.5 per game, earning All-American honors for the first time in his collegiate career.
The team had an overall record of 32-1 and were about to head to the Regional Championships before COVID-19 canceled the rest of the postseason.
Murray was thinking of entering the NCAA transfer portal after his impressive sophomore year, but with athletes being granted an extra year of eligibility and a sense of unfinished business, he returned to West Texas.
The six-foot guard once again outdid his previous year’s performance. He averaged 23.3 points per game which is best for third-most in a single season in the program’s history. Murray led the Buffs to its first appearance in the NCAA D-II title game.
Unfortunately, his team ended up on the wrong side of a blowout against Northwest Missouri State, 80-54.
“To ultimately get to that point for the first time in school history, even though we didn’t win, was a feeling like no other,” Murray said. “I was dreaming of that ever since I got to West Texas. That’s all we talked about during my freshman and sophomore year. And to be able to just to get to that point, it was just unbelievable.”
After the championship loss, Murray and his personal circle decided that entering the NCAA transfer portal was the best move.
“It was more of ‘Let’s go, let’s go do this and challenge ourselves again,’” Murray said. “Let’s go challenge ourselves and go show people this is what I could have done out of high school.”
Murray recalled that his phone was blowing up from coaches all over the country trying to recruit him. The amount of attention Murray was getting was almost overwhelming to him since he was not used to being recruited.
One of the coaches that called within a day of Murray being in the portal was Monson. Former LBSU assistant coach Marc Rodgers is friends with Murray’s personal trainer and mentor Clint Parks.
Rodgers informed Monson that Murray was going to enter the portal. Monson watched Murray on film and was immediately impressed.
“I started to see how many games he won for [West Texas] and I have respect for winners,” Monson said. “I saw he was super humble and super hungry. I felt like, he had a chip on his shoulder to come to make a jump up and play at the next level.”
Murray says that the conversation between him and coach Monson didn’t include much talk about basketball at all. Instead, Monson talked to Murray about his great mentality and how he was as a person.
“[Coach Monson] was talking to me more as a person rather than ‘Hey, I need you to do this for me,’” Murray said. “It showed me how much he cared about me and me coming here.”
Murray was hesitant at first to come to Long Beach State. He worried about living on the west coast in a different time zone, away from everyone he grew up with and has known for years.
Ultimately, he believed everything would work out for the best and decided to play basketball for the first time outside of Texas.
Clint Parks, Murray’s trainer and mentor, lives in California and told Murray that coming to Long Beach was one of the best things to do for his playing career.
Parks has been running a basketball training program for the past 16 years. He has worked with some of the most elite players in the NBA like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Kuzma, and Jalen McDaniels.
Parks believes Murray is trending in the direction of elite talent.
“Joel is a winner, simple as that,” Parks said. “His commitment to the game and work ethic is like no other. He puts in extra work at the gym, spends extra time studying film. He walks the walk.”
Transferring out of West Texas to play Division I basketball at LBSU was a huge mental change for Murray. Throughout his high school and college career he was overlooked and underestimated.
One criticism Murray has heard over and over again is that he is too short. Murray says there were coaches and people who doubted he could make the transition to D-I.
“There is a stigma that when you transition from Division II to Division I that you will struggle, I want to say it’s not true, but it also is true,” Murray said. “The best thing you can do is pick the right school and take advantage of the opportunity you’re given.”
From an outside perspective, it seemed the transition was seamless for Murray. In his first year competing in D-I basketball, he averaged 16.2 points in conference play, led the Big West in points with 471, and led the conference in free throws with 124. His impressive season led to him earning First-Team All-Big West honors.
Murray is proud of his regular-season accomplishments. He feels he has grown as a basketball player both mentally and physically, but still pushes himself to be better. Murray also admits he did have some struggles adapting to LBSU.
“[West Texas] doesn’t teach the same concepts defensively and offensively as here in Long Beach,” Murray said. “I was playing defensively and offensively the same for three years straight and it was perfect for my coach. I got here and coaches were telling me I can’t do that even though I’ve been doing it for three years.”
Murray’s work ethic on and off the court was a big reason The Beach won the Big West Conference outright. Parks described Murray as a “coach’s dream.” Coach Monson seconded that statement.
“He leads by example,” Monson said. “He came in here and he’s just worked harder than any player in our program. He’s in the gym the most, he’s always is putting in the time and work, and that pays off.”
Murray will have a chance at redemption and at redefining his legacy at the Big West Conference tournament in Henderson, Nev. at the Dollar Loan Center. Murray looks to lead The Beach to March Madness for the first time since 2012, and prove wrong everyone who doubted that he can make it to this moment.
“All I can do is honestly just say thank you to anybody that doubted me,” Murray said. “There’s been a lot of things said about me that isn’t the best. I don’t really have much to say to them. I just want to keep proving my people that support me right.”