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Luke Murray, son of actor Bill, is helping turn around Towson's basketball team

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Earlier this month, assistant coach Luke Murray was traveling with Towson University's basketball team, psyching himself up for a win, when he got a text message from his dad.

"I think you guys should all go bowling," the text read. "I think all you guys as a team should just go bowling."

While not practical advice, it was true to the spirit of Luke's father, Bill. Yes, that Bill Murray, the almost surrealistically wry, one-of-a-kind comedian and actor. And it was not necessarily a bad or whimsical idea. Falling to Drexel that night, the Tigers tied the NCAA Division I record for consecutive losses with 34. (They now hold the record after losing seven more straight games, and are scheduled to play University of North Carolina-Wilmington on Saturday.)

The elder Murray was advising the team to adopt his kind of extreme measures.

"That's the last thing I would recommend to my head coach right now — go bowling," Luke Murray said. "But that's just his take on things: Sometimes it helps to keep it a little lighthearted and try not to put such pressure on yourself."

Early on, his father didn't see a future for his son in basketball. But Murray would not be denied. He knew that on his own, he could work his way up. In the past five years he's been a graduate assistant for the University of Arizona team, a director of basketball operations at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and an assistant coach at Post and then Wagner.

When first-year Towson head coach Pat Skerry hired him last spring, he called Murray "one of the rising young star assistant coaches in the East." In the middle of this season, Skerry said Murray is more than "a really intelligent young guy with a great work ethic. … He gets it and lives it — and when you're trying to build something from ground zero, which is what we're trying to do, that's really important."

Recently, CBS Sports.com polled 100 Division I coaches about up-and-comers in the business, and asked, "which mid-major assistant will make it big-time due to his recruiting ability?" Murray came in at No. 3 in the country.

Few in Maryland knew about Murray's family until his father and the Obamas showed up (separately) in Towson to see the Tigers take on Oregon State on Nov. 26. The Obamas attended to cheer on the Beavers, coached by Michelle Obama'sbrother, Craig Robinson. But the images that circulated on the Internet were of Bill Murray shaking hands with the first family. (Some noted that the actor, who playsFranklin D. Roosevelt in the film "Hyde Park on Hudson," due to be released this year, was chatting with a president who hopes to emulate FDR.)

On Jan. 21, Bill Murray showed up again, this time at Fairfax, Va., for a Towson game with George Mason. As usual, he arrived without fanfare but set off a friendly frenzy on social media, with people declaring (for example) "BM! BM is in the building!" A YouTube video of him grooving to the music of George Mason's Green Machine proved he can be himself after being spotted.

Casualness also suits the younger Murray. He's comfortable talking as a coach, whether lauding the recruiting coups of a colleague (his office mate at Towson Center, assistant coach Kenny Johnson) or the off-court heroics of a player (Towson guard Will Adams, who has overcome childhood abandonment and Stage 4BHodgkin's lymphoma).

Most 8- or 9-year-old athletes have fantasies like sinking a 3-pointer at the buzzer. But even as a child, Murray thought it would be cool to be one of the alert, bantering fellows he saw checking their clipboards in the bleachers during basketball camps.

"I would look at these guys with their polo shirts and their logos on them, and I just wanted to be that one day," he said.

When still in his teens, Murray started coaching players just a whisker younger than himself in the Amateur Athletic Union. At age 26, he is considered an integral part of the rebuilding plan for the Tigers.

Growing up in New York City, Luke lived close to Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., host of the ABCD high school basketball camp, a prime draw for basketball mavens and recruiters from 1993 to 2006.

"My dad would drop me off in the morning — it was a weeklong camp — and I would stay the whole session," he said. "And this was as an 8- or 9-year-old, 10 years old. I'd watch all these high school players from around the country and kind of familiarize myself with their game and their story, and who was recruiting them. And for whatever reason, I was really taken with it."

He'd take trains or subways or hit up relatives for rides to watch New York City's perennial powerhouses, while his parents wondered why he was excited about high school teams. When other kids were devouring Rolling Stone, he was tearing through recruiting handbooks.

Murray went to high school at St. Luke's in New Canaan, Conn., where he played basketball and football. He also played basketball on AAU teams, traveling the Northeast from Washington to Boston, and "worked out religiously" on his game. But when he realized he would never be able to play Division I ball, he began pursuing coaching single-mindedly.

At Fairfield University (also in Connecticut), he studied sociology. But equally important to him was spending his springs and summers coaching for the AAU, eventually landing at two prominent teams, the Bronx-based New York Gauchos and the Springfield, Mass.-based New England Playaz.

The Murray clan didn't support Luke's basketball goals.

"I would occasionally drag my dad over to Fairleigh Dickinson, and he would watch, like, one set of games with me, because I did that all the way through high school," Murray said. "He basically thought it was frivolous; I don't know if he saw any value in it whatsoever."

But the people who have hired Murray believe he has charted a shrewd course and demonstrated huge potential.

"I like guys who work and scratch and claw to get to places on their own," Skerry said. "Luke loves his dad and they have the same last name, but he doesn't try to use that to his advantage — everything he's done in basketball, he's done on his own."

By the time Murray went to work for Dan Hurley at Wagner College on New York's Staten Island, Hurley said, "he had such an overall knowledge of the game from a coaching standpoint, I thought, 'Oh wow, this guy is good.'" Hurley saw Murray as "a walking encyclopedia of recruiting, who knew the names and numbers of every promising kid at the grass-roots level."

Murray and Hurley bonded, Hurley said, because they've both experienced grass-roots basketball — Murray with the AAU and Hurley building St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, N.J., into a top high school competitor.

Coaching amateur and high school ball, Hurley said, often means "Driving in really disgusting vans, not charter flights or first-class ticketing or 15,000-seat arenas."

Before his first staff meeting, Hurley told the other coaches to eschew jokey references to Bill Murray movies. One of them used the trademark line "It's in the hole" from "Caddyshack," anyway.

"Luke handled it like a champ, just blinked and shook it off," said Hurley.

Before long, Hurley was convinced he was more self-conscious about Bill Murray than Luke was.

"I'd stop myself from saying I don't want to have something 'lost in translation,'" he said. "But the movie probably would not even have come into his mind. His dad went to a couple of our games. Luke was so low-key, and so was his dad, that the first time he went, I had no clue he was even there."

Murray's father may still harbor doubts about his son's career.

"I don't know if he's totally supportive of the idea," Murray said. "He's a little confused as to why I bounced around so much. It wasn't intentional, but I have been at places for a year. So I think he would appreciate if I would find a situation where I could be at it for a couple of years and really sink my teeth into it."

Shouldn't a show-biz dad have some sympathy for a peripatetic career?

"You'd think," Murray said with a chuckle. "He'd bounced around quite a bit himself. Maybe he wants something better for me than for himself."

Hurley said he knows what it's like to have a famous dad. He's the son of Hall of Fame high school basketball coach Bob Hurley, "the Sage of St. Anthony," profiled just last year on "60 Minutes" for generating winning teams in a Jersey City Catholic school that doesn't even have its own gym. Hurley and Luke spoke about how challenging that can be at times.

"He's used to it," Hurley said. "I think you develop a thick skin. And I think Luke's developed a reputation as a hard worker, someone who's really doing this job, and it's allowed him to outdistance that."

Not even Towson's epochal losing streak has dimmed Murray's enthusiasm.

"I am really pleased with my decision to come to Towson," Murray wrote in an email. "We are obviously struggling … but we have built a strong foundation for our future."

So has Luke Murray.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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