NYC grieves loss of Tayshana Murphy
After Hurricane Irene pounded New York City two weeks ago, Ed Grezinsky, the longtime coach of Murry Bergtraum High School's powerhouse girls' basketball program, received a text from a somewhat unexpected source.
It was from Tayshana Murphy, someone who had yet to play a game for him, but to whom Grezinsky felt as close as others who'd played four years at Bergtraum. She wanted to know how he'd weathered the storm.
Hardened by 21 highly successful years of molding inner-city kids into champions, Grezinsky sometimes can be described as gruff and distant. But Murphy had broken through. She'd melted his heart.
"No doubt, she will be sorely missed," Grezinsky said Sunday morning, shortly after news of Murphy's shooting death earlier that morning made its way to the New York basketball community.
Murphy, 18, one of the top point-guard prospects in the country, was shot in the head by a gunman in a hallway of her home, a housing project in Harlem's Morningside Heights neighborhood. According to media reports, police said Murphy, a senior at Bergtraum who previously attended Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, may have been the victim of mistaken identity.
But there was no mistaking Murphy in a basketball context. "Everyone knew her," said Will Rampersant, who coached her in the Gauchos club program. She was rated as a four-star prospect by ESPN HoopGurlz in spite of missing the past two summers on the evaluation circuit.
"She has been a household name in this area for so long," said Apache Paschall, who coached Murphy at St. Michael's Academy and the Exodus club program.
In fact, despite not appearing much on a basketball court the past couple years, Murphy was so well-known as a player and so well-liked as a person, the grief her death prompted has supplanted, at least in the Metro New York's robust girls' basketball community, the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the front-of-mind topic of discussion.
Murphy's name was on the lips of most in attendance at the Rose Classic, a fall and spring league that has become a regional gathering place for the sport, according to Paschall. Earl Elliotte said he spent a good portion of the morning communicating with and reassuring players, past and present, from his Gauchos program.
"I don't even care about the basketball part of it," Elliotte said. "This is the reason why we do these programs -- so we don't have to hear about stories like this."
Basketball played a huge role in Murphy's life. It was "everything to her," according to her godfather, Ashim Alston, the head girls' basketball coach at Bishop Loughlin. And after a tough couple years, her sport seemed poised to open all kinds of doors for Murphy.
She would have been one of the first in her family to finish high school and attend college, Alston said. Having recovered from surgery to repair an anterior cruciate ligament tear in her right knee, Murphy had been attending preseason workouts at Bergtraum and "looked ready -- physically ready and mentally ready -- to have a big year for us," Grezinsky said. Murphy had continued receiving "tons of mail" from colleges and particular interest from Miami, Virginia Commonwealth and St. John's.
Murphy had missed her junior season at Bergtraum and last summer of club ball with Exodus because of the ACL injury. She'd missed the previous club season with the Gauchos because of summer school and essentially had her sophomore high school season wiped out when she transferred from Loughlin to St. Michael's, and St. Michael's closed its doors a few months later.
But Murphy had been such a basketball prodigy, few could forget her exploits on the court. Strong, compact and explosive, she was likened by Paschall to former NBA player Vinnie Johnson, nicknamed the "Microwave" and best known as the sixth man for the Detroit Pistons' championship teams in the late 1980s and early '90s. Elliotte recalled working Murphy out as a seventh grader and being perplexed by what he saw.
"Even then, her jump shot was perfect," he said. "The lift, the release. I told her there was nothing I could do with that jump shot except to tell her to keep shooting it."
In basketball circles, everyone referred to Murphy simply as "Chicken." Her family had always called her that, Alston said, because of the way she walked.
But "Chicken" to everyone else became a term of endearment.
"Even though she was a tough street kid, she was a really sweet girl," Paschall said. "Everybody liked her. She was a jokester, real witty. She made everybody laugh and feel comfortable. She was just one of those kids."
Ed Grezinsky saw that side of Murphy last year. Although the ACL injury wiped out her season, she'd dearly wanted to be part of the team. So she was on the Bergtraum bench all season, at the Public Schools Athletic League championship game at Madison Square Garden and upstate at the girls New York State Federation championships, keeping track of statistics, fouls and timeouts.
At one point, Grezinsky had counted on that sweet jumper and those endearing, leadership qualities to be a lynchpin in Bergtraum's quest for a record-exceeding, 14th PSAL title under his guidance. But his perspectives was shaken in the wake of Tayshana Murphy's death.
"I really can't imagine," Grezinsky said, when asked if he'd ever experienced anything similar during his more than two decades in the game. "I can think of all types of things I've had to deal with, from eligibility issues to family crises. But for somebody like her, who had everything to live for and had everything in front of her, to have it all taken away in an instant, it kind of puts things into perspective. It's not so much about the wins and losses anymore; it's about human life, about kids moving on and being successful. In the big picture, basketball is such a small thing."
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.