Jamal Murray's arduous path to an NBA title made the long-envisioned moment sweeter (2024)

DENVER — The request made by Nikola Jokić seemed innocent enough. When the NBA Finals MVP beckoned Jamal Murray, his longest-tenured teammate, to follow him into the hallway that leads out the back of the Nuggets locker room, through the haze of cigar smoke and the spraying mist of Moët, he did so with a nonchalance that stood in stark contrast to the celebration roaring around them.

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So Murray followed. For all he knew, Jokić was looking for a quiet place to reflect on the moment, ruminate on the journey they began together seven years ago.

But as soon as the point guard stepped away from the party, the one commemorating the Nuggets’ first NBA championship after 47 years in the league, it was clear he had been fooled. Jokić turned to grab Murray and began dragging him toward the pool below. Murray tried in vain to drill his New Balance sneakers into the floor, but he just kept scooting toward the edge. The 280-pound center probably could have finished the job himself, but he had help. Longtime Nuggets equipment manager Sparky Gonzales pushed the point guard toward the brink as Jokic strengthened his grip around Murray’s waist.

Finally, with one last tug by the 7-footer, the best duo in the NBA succumbed to gravity and barreled toward the water.

Splash!

It was a champions baptism.

“That was special,” Murray said.

Jokic throws Jamal Murray into the pool 😭 pic.twitter.com/h75zpzEgHm

— NBA (@NBA) June 13, 2023

Nobody partied harder than Murray in the champagne-drenched winning locker room Monday night in the minutes and hours after Denver’s title-clinching 94-89 victory in Game 5 against the Miami Heat. He carried the Larry O’Brien Trophy around for maybe 10 minutes, hugging it tight to his chest. He sprayed bottles like Old Faithful at every teammate and staff member who walked into his vicinity, taking swigs when he wasn’t on the prowl to soak someone else. His cheeks were sure to hurt Tuesday morning because his grin kept growing with each celebratory minute that passed.

But earlier, in the moments after the final buzzer sounded and the delirious crowd at Ball Arena roared above the confetti, Murray’s eyes welled with tears. He tried to take it all in, but the emotions came in one thunderous wave and he couldn’t stem the tide.

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“I couldn’t even hold it in,” he said. “I don’t know. It was just a surreal moment. Everything was hitting. Everything was hitting at once, from the journey, to the celebration with the guys, to enjoying the moment, to looking back on the rehab, to looking back at myself as a kid, looking from the crowd in or from the camera lens in, and now I’m looking back at them.”

Murray always saw himself here. He visualized this moment — manifested it, really — from the time he was a young boy growing up in Kitchener, Ontario, 90 minutes outside of Toronto. He would create fictitious playoff brackets while shooting on the blacktop, putting himself into imaginary games against point guards like Chauncey Billups, who grew up not far from where they partied in the streets Monday night. It was a dream his father, Roger, helped his son chase through uncommon preparation and development that prioritized mental toughness. If anyone was groomed to be an NBA champion, it was Murray.

“It was just something I’ve been working for my whole life,” he said.

No matter how often he had visualized it, though, nothing could prepare Murray for how it would feel when the championship was won. So much of that is because the dreams we conjure as kids don’t include an operating table. They don’t include the agonizing rehab from a devastating knee injury, like the one that left Murray questioning, in the days, weeks and months after his April 2021 ACL tear, whether he would return to the player he had been before, the one who was only starting his ascension in the league.

“To see it full circle, going from my rehab, not being able to walk, go up the stairs, not just for a month or two, it was for a long time,” Murray said. “A lot of different things going through my head.”

The immense challenge for Murray, a player who is at his best when he’s finding gasoline to hurl on his competitive fire, was igniting that same flame without a clear end in sight. He had to identify small goals, but pushing toward those while his team waded through two postseasons without him was akin to competitive torture.

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The thing that kept Murray going were those trophy-lifting visions, imagining the roar of the playoff crowd at his back. He knew he would be back to the court in due time, but he couldn’t return to who he was. He had to be better. It’s the only way the championship dream the Nuggets first began forming during the 2018-19 season could come to fruition.

“That’s who Jamal is. There was never a doubt in my mind that Jamal was going to come back (stronger),” Nuggets president and governor Josh Kroenke said. “You know the person behind the player. It was just another bit of adversity for him. It took a while. We thought we were this good for a while, but without Jamal we’re not quite the same.

“That’s no discredit to any of the other guys, but his and Nikola’s two-man game, everyone knows how good it is now. If we were ever going to reach this level, we needed him. To see him back after all the adversity he has faced is incredible.”

Murray became just the fourth player in an NBA Finals series to average 20 points and 10 assists, joining Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. He was the first player in NBA history to dish out at least 10 assists in each of his first four games of the finals. Those feats are not remarkable just because of where Murray was a little more than two years ago, crumpled on the floor of the Warriors’ Chase Center in San Francisco. They are remarkable because of where he was as recently as last October — when he made his return in the season opener against the Jazz — and the sport he loved since around the time he could walk suddenly felt foreign.

“If you go back to the first game in Utah, I picked up the ball in the paint like five times,” Murray said late Monday night. “I could count. I was so lost. I had never felt being that lost on the court before. I just didn’t want to go in the paint or jump or land or feel contact. I still have different moments where I’m tentative, best word for me to put it, to do certain actions, rebounding among everybody or — but I’ve just gotten so much better at that and just putting that behind me.”

There was certainly no tentativeness from Murray in these playoffs, and that was true in Game 5. But he and the Nuggets were on a magic carpet ride of adrenaline to start the game, turning the ball over four times on their first six possessions. Murray said he was overshooting the motion on his jumper to the point every shot was coming up short.

“You want to end it on your home court with all the fans there, your family there,” Murray said. “You want to end it on the home court so bad.”

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By the fourth quarter, Murray had calmed into his comfort zone, even as Denver entered the final period trailing by one. He whipped a pass inside to Jokić for a layup that gave Denver the lead. Then, he hit a 3-pointer off a swift feed from Aaron Gordon to put the Nuggets up 75-71. The Heat called a timeout. Murray began to pull out an imaginary arrow to fire into the crowd, his trademark celebration, but he holstered it. There were still 11 minutes to go.

“I was ready to … calm down and reset myself and do whatever the team needs me to do to get the win,” he said.

Murray found Jokić again two possessions after the timeout. A few minutes later he weaved inside the arc for a pull-up jumper to give Denver a five-point lead. Then, he found Kentavious Caldwell-Pope behind the arc for a 3-pointer that put Denver up seven. It was Murray in control, even on a night when his jumper evaded him, owning the big moments as he had throughout this run along the playoff stage he had been so eager to grace again.

“He’s a bad man,” said first-year Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth, whose offseason acquisitions of Bruce Brown, Caldwell-Pope and rookie Christian Braun gave Murray and Jokić key support. “He’s a heck of a player, man. He’s one of the most exciting players in the NBA, the toughest shotmakers, and he always steps up under pressure. He wasn’t going anywhere, man.”

Shortly after the Nuggets lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals, Murray was in Toronto. He was working as a guest analyst for a Canadian broadcasting station during the hometown Raptors’ run into the NBA Finals. When the Raptors beat the Warriors in Game 6, Murray saw fans flock to the street in celebration. He had visions of what a similar scene would look like when he helped deliver it for Denver. He began firing off texts, searching for a way to get into the Raptors’ empty practice facility. At 2 a.m., he had found his way in, firing jump shots as the party raged on outside, envisioning his next chance to chase a championship.

The chance the Nuggets turned into gold Monday night didn’t come as quickly as Murray had hoped. But maybe that’s what made the party even sweeter.

“Sometimes a dream is deferred, and our dream was deferred for a few years,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, “but we stuck with it.”

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In the pool that had hosted some of his rehabs, Murray celebrated with his MVP teammate. Then, he popped out and began partying more. He showered Braun with Moët. He posed with his younger brother, Lamar, and the championship trophy. He kept growing the grin.

There will be new visions to create for Murray now. A new dream to chase.

As Monday night turned into Tuesday morning, Murray was content to let it all soak in — the emotions, the champagne and everything in between — but he also glanced ahead.

“There’s more to come from me,” he said. “I know if I can do this fresh off an ACL, still having sore days and everything like that, we can do this again.”

Related Reading

Amick and Jones: Inside the Nuggets roster and how it was built to win it all
Baugh: Inside the Nuggets championship celebration: ‘An immaculate moment’

(Photo of Jamal Murray: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

Jamal Murray's arduous path to an NBA title made the long-envisioned moment sweeter (1)Jamal Murray's arduous path to an NBA title made the long-envisioned moment sweeter (2)

Nick Kosmider is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Denver Broncos. He previously covered the Denver Nuggets for The Athletic after spending five years at the Denver Post, where he covered the city’s professional sports scene. His other stops include The Arizona Republic and MLB.com. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKosmider

Jamal Murray's arduous path to an NBA title made the long-envisioned moment sweeter (2024)

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