Japanese basketball’s discovery of Isaiah Murphy was hardly conventional.
His mother, Susako, happened to send a tape of his highlights from their home in Arizona to the Japan Basketball Association on the advice of her friend before the 2017 FIBA Under-19 World Cup in Egypt.
“She just came up to me one day (and said) ‘Hey, do you want to go to Japan and play?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Murphy told The Japan Times during an online interview last week. “(She said) ‘They really liked your highlight tape and you are invited to go to the camp. You should go.’” Murphy eventually joined the Japan national team and competed alongside Rui Hachimura and other star players of the age group. The squad finished 10th with a 3-4 record in the biennial tournament, in which Murphy averaged 3.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.
“Yeah, it was a no-brainer,” said Murphy when asked whether he hesitated to come to Japan. “I was definitely all for it.” His ties to the country are one of the reasons why he was able to make the decision so quickly. Murphy was born in Okinawa to father James, who was stationed there while serving in the U.S. Air Force, and his Japanese mother. He would later spend several years in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture.
The 22-year-old, who moved to Arizona during his sophomore year in high school and has lived there since then, will now be back in Japan — to play in the B. League.
While he played as Shinsaku Enomoto, combining his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, during the U-19 World Cup, he intends to use his original name in the B. League.
Murphy said he has drawn interest from “eight, nine, 10” teams. The 196-cm shooting guard, who lived in Anchroage during the period between leaving Okinawa and settling in Misawa, added that he has “narrowed it down to two” and will sign “in the coming weeks.” Becoming a professional player was not necessarily his original career plan. He was actually going to follow his father into the Air Force after graduating high school. But his father persuaded him to continue to play basketball because “the military will always be there.” Murphy played at Pima Community College for two seasons and for NCAA Division II school Eastern New Mexico University the following two years. At Pima, he led the Aztecs to an NJCAA Division II runner-up finish in 2017-18.
While he is still studying up on the B. League, Murphy says he already knows “a lot” about the league, which will begin its fifth season in the fall. Much of what he’s learned has come from Osaka Evessa forward Ira Brown, who has played in Japan since 2011. Murphy has also studied up on fellow biracial players in the league such as Kai Toews of the Utsunomiya Brex, Koh Flippin of the Chiba Jets Funabashi and Avi Koki Schafer, a new acquisition for the SeaHorses Mikawa.
Asked what he thinks he can bring to the table for his new team in Japan, Murphy said that he would be able to contribute in several dimensions.
“I think my versatility. I’m very versatile,” said Murphy, who averaged 8.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists in his two seasons at Eastern New Mexico. “I can put it on the floor. I can shoot, I can play defense. I think that’s one of my biggest things playing through my career. I do it on both ends. I just score, get on a run, but I like to play defense as well.” While his offensive athleticism could stand out in Japan, Murphy also takes pride in his defense.
“This past year at Eastern New Mexico, every game, I was guarding the other team’s leader,” he said. “I like to defend.” Torsten Loibl, who coached Murphy as the bench boss for Japan at the U19 World Cup, was initially cautious about whether he would add the player to his camp roster because he did not want to “break the excellent team chemistry of our U18 national team that won the silver medal” at the 2016 U18 Asia Championship.
But the German coach went to Pima Community College to see Murphy and ended up having him join Hachimura and the rest of the team.
“We had Rui Hachimura as an addition and Isaiah was supposed to be the second player who completed the team for the U19 World Cup,” Loibl said. “Fortunately, I found out that Isaiah was a very positive guy, polite and humble.” Loibl described Murphy as an “unstoppable slasher with a strong finish, very good defender, great athlete and solid passer.” He noted that Murphy had weaknesses in his 3-point shooting back then, but thinks Murphy “will be a top player in the B. League” if he has improved in that area.
Murphy knocked down 34.3 percent of his attempts from behind the arc in the last two seasons.
After majoring in psychology, Murphy envisions becoming a basketball coach after his career on the court. But right now, his focus is on playing in the B. League.
“I’m going to play until my legs fall off,” Murphy said with a laugh. “Hopefully, 10 more years.”
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