Murray’s jumper jump-starts career
The fifth in a series profiling inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2021. The induction ceremony will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.
Before Carl Miller was handed the keys to the Earle boys basketball program in 2018, he spent 12 years learning from the man he succeeded, the man who groomed him to assume the position that he currently holds.
When Miller talks in depth about the impact Billy Joe Murray had on not only him, but others during a coaching career that spanned nearly four decades, he’s not speaking incompetently – he’s well-versed on the subject matter.
“There isn’t much that [Murray] hasn’t seen or done in basketball,” Miller said. “I mean, you’re talking about a legend in the game, a true legend. When you talk about the coaching greats, he’s one of the guys that paved the way for people like me.
“There was nothing that surprised him when he was out there coaching, nothing at all. He always had his teams ready to play, no matter if it was a 5A school or a 1A school. He was ready for anything.”
But for a man who spent almost 40 years instilling in his players to expect the unexpected and be prepared for whatever’s thrown at them, all it took was one phone call in November for someone to finally catch Murray off guard.
“I’ll never forget that call because it shocked me,” Murray said of learning he was being inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. “I found out on my birthday, and for me, that’s the best blessing you can ever get for your birthday. I was driving and had to pull over because I didn’t see it coming.
“But sometimes, blessings come to you when you least expect it.”
Murray, 66, can expect a warm reception from those in attendance at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock on April 16 when he and eight others are ushered into a prestigious group during the 2021 induction banquet.
Being accepted wasn’t always a guarantee for Murray.
While growing up Morrilton during the 1960s, Murray detailed how times were anything but easy for him, his mother Roxie and his other nine siblings, noting that financial hardships were a harsh reality for his family, and racism was prevalent. Those two notions, combined with other things that enticed him – some of which weren’t always productive – nearly took him down a perilous path that he isn’t sure he would’ve come back from.
“For a family of 10, it was hard for us,” he explained. “You gotta remember, there was a lot of racism back then, too. And being raised by a single parent … it was tough for Black people. You had some people were born with a silver spoon, I was born without a spoon. We had to get out and work at a young age, but my momma is a strong woman.
“She was the one who pushed me to go to school because I wasn’t going to school. I wanted to hang out, run with the other kids and do other things. But she was the one who kept me out of the streets and focused when I got into basketball.”
Little did Murray know that his mother was steering him in a direction that would ultimately lead to him becoming one of the most decorated players in his hometown’s rich athletic history.
Murray actually didn’t get involved in sports until a city librarian, Willie Hardin, inquired about it when he noticed him walking down one of the school’s hallways.
“He wanted to know why I wasn’t playing,” Murray said. “We were so poor back then that I couldn’t even afford a pair of tennis shoes. He went and bought me a pair of shoes so I could go out for the team. That’s how I started playing basketball.”
Morrilton integrated in 1967, which also was the same year Murray joined the junior high team after then-coach Vernon Sizemore saw how naturally athletic he was as a seventh-grader.
“But I couldn’t even make a 4-foot jump shot,” Murray said with a laugh. “I could jump out [of] the gym, dribble the ball and drive by anybody, but I couldn’t shoot. So he gave me a basketball, put me in a corner, and I’d just bounce the ball off the wall. I did that for so many months, and I was sick of it.”
Sizemore would later have Murray working on his jumper by gradually extending his range — but not until he consistently knocked down shots that were closer to the basket. Murray also developed an inside game after Sizemore had him practicing with his back to the basket, which he said allowed him to post up much bigger defenders when he needed.
All of that work paid off once Murray got to high school. After he guided Morrilton to the Arkansas State Junior High championship, Murray averaged 16.3 points and 11 rebounds in his three seasons with the varsity Devil Dogs. He was named all-state three times and was tabbed the Class 2A state tournament’s Most Valuable Player after he led Morrilton to a 5740 victory over Monticello in the final.
Murray’s high level of play only increased when he went arrived at Arkansas Tech. As a 6-foot-3 forward, he averaged nearly 22 points in 1973-74, his first year with the Wonder Boys. His 608 points is the most by a freshman at Arkansas Tech. He’d go on to average double figures in each of his final three years while bullying his way up the school’s scoring charts.
Murray ranks in the top 10 of just about every major statistical category at Arkansas Tech, including seventh in points (1,946) and scoring average (18.5), fifth in made field goals (764), third in fieldgoal attempts (1,806) and fifth in free throws made (418). If there were a three-point line available back then, it’s a good bet that Murray would be positioned among the program’s best in that category as well.
“I owe it all to Vernon Sizemore,” Murray said. “He taught me the game. There was so much that I took with me from junior high all the way through college just by learning from him. Matter of fact, he had a style, run and gun, that I used when I coached. So I basically ran the same offense from junior high all the way until I retired.
“If you’ve got talent, turn it loose. That’s what he did, and that’s what I did.”
Murray had a brief stint in the NBA with the New Orleans Jazz, but the pull to coach tugged at him. As it turns out, he never tugged back.
“When he started coaching, he never backed down from a challenge, never,” Miller said. “His mindset was, ‘Hey, we gonna lace them up and go at it.’ The kids would ask me what offense we were running, and I’d say, ‘Go’.
“He got up and down the floor when he played, and he made sure his teams played the same way.”
Murray’s head-coaching journey began at Plumerville and continued to Altheimer and Crawfordsville, the latter which he led to a championship in 1995. But Earle is where Murray made his mark.
He led the Bulldogs to six state titles (2008, 2010, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018) until kidney issues forced him to step down after the team completed its three-peat in 2018.
“If [kidney] wouldn’t have failed, I would have two more,” said Murray, who finished his career with more than 1,100 victories as a coach and underwent successful kidney transplant surgery in July. “I knew I couldn’t coach while going through dialysis and everything. So I kind of faded out the picture.”
That picture may be faded, but Murray’s imprint is clearly etched on high school basketball in Arkansas.
“I still talk to him and get advice from him,” Miller said. “It’s good to have a hall of fame coach that you can call and talk with. In coaching, you’ve got to put your pride aside. I tell people all the time, guys like him, [Frankie] Gathen, [Larry] Bray, [Raymond] Cooper, all these Black coaches set the standard and paved the way for us to be where we are.
“I tell Marcus Brown up at West Memphis, Vernon Wilson at Osceola and those guys that it’s an honor to come in and coach behind those legends. We’re in a position to learn from them because they busted their butts to give guys like us a chance.”