Mornings consisted of breakfast while chatting with dozens of NBA players and executives, days were spent coaching alongside all-time greats like Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and nights were spent doing a variety of community service events and experiencing adventures in another continent.
That’s how Chapelgate Christian Academy incoming freshman Jason Murphy spent July 27 to Aug. 3 in Johannesburg, South Africa after being one of three students across the United States chosen to be part of the Basketball Without Borders community service program. The trip was part of the lead-up to the NBA Africa Game, the first NBA game played on African soil.
“It was very emotional, very motivating and just fun. If anything, it created opportunities for me and my future,” said Murphy, who lives in Owings Mills. “I got to experience all the points of seeing what it’s like to be a player, a coach, a (general manager), so it was all very interesting. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“It wasn’t just basketball. There were service activities that I thought were incredible for Jason, there were cultural things that we would have never thought to do as a family,” said Jason’s mother, Robyn Murphy. “We had all those things, and then the basketball.”
It all started when Murphy found out about the contest on Twitter around the middle of June. Applicants were asked for letters of recommendation and to write an essay explaining how basketball can give back to the community. Murphy wrote about being part of the AAU team Team Melo, and how former Towson Catholic star Carmelo Anthony built a center in East Baltimore where children from disadvantaged backgrounds can come play basketball and get after-school care.
After weeks of asking his family to hold off on committing to vacation plans until he heard back, Murphy received an email on July 1 saying he had been chosen by the National Basketball Players Association to travel to South Africa for the week.
“It was a huge surprise. He got nervous,” Robyn Murphy said. “He was like, 'Oh my god.’ He spent the next three weeks being really nervous.”
Jason and Robyn left their vacation in the Bahamas early to fly to South Africa, and they arrived on July 27 at the same hotel the players and executives were going to be staying in.
Activities started the next day when Jason and other members of the players association went to the Cradle of Humankind, a cave in Johannesburg where one of the earliest human-like fossils was found.
“You can probably imagine me fitting into a cave,” said Murphy, who at 14 years old stands 6-feet, 8-inches tall.
On July 29, players started arriving at the hotel.
“Most people would kind of freak out, but for me, I kind of grew up around professional football players and basketball players,” said Murphy, whose father Jason is an assistant football coach at Stevenson University. “So for me — I appreciated it obviously — but it wasn’t something I was surprised by. I wasn’t really star struck.”
That night he was given his agenda for the week. It matched that of the players — he would be going everywhere they went, on and off the court.
“The players association said it would be centered around the three children, and it really was,” Robyn Murphy said. “From the time they woke up to the time they went to bed, they were fully involved and fully immersed into the day-to-day happenings. ... Jason went along with the players everywhere. They told the players, 'these guys are with you,' and they treated them like little brothers and sisters.”
He also found out early on that he was going to be coaching young African players at the Basketball Without Borders camp alongside the previous two coaches of the year — Popovich and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.
“I also happened to be next to (Washington Wizards guard) Bradley Beal during the first day of (camp),” said Murphy, who added jokingly, “Nothing new.”
The particular experiences on the court with the coaches and players was different for Murphy considering he was the only boy of the three students selected — joining Zaniya Lewis and Sophie Bernstein — and because he has aspirations of one day playing in the NBA.
He is currently one of the top incoming freshmen prospects in the country, and he was among 125 athletes invited to Chris Paul’s annual CP3 Rising Stars basketball camp Aug. 5-10. He was one of 20 to be selected to the camp's all-star game.
“As a player, I look at their habits and I learn from them. I see what they do and how they get prepared for a practice or a game, or if they’re doing instructional stuff, for me to meet them and hear them and see what they think about the game and Basketball Without Borders. It was all pretty cool,” Murphy said. “I was learning and listening, as well as coaching, and I wanted to take advantage of that. It’s not everyday I get to listen to coach (Popovich) talk.”
After evaluating and helping draft camp members to teams alongside Houston Rockets front office members, Murphy and the players went with Basketball Without Borders to SOS Children’s Village, which houses refugees and orphans.
“It was my favorite part of the camp,” he said. “As soon as we got off the bus, I could see all the NBA players smiling, and all the kids smiling back and they ran up to us. We were taking pictures, playing games with them and all that. Adam Silver was out there saying how happy he was to see the reaction from the players and the kids. ... (Miami Heat forward) Luol Deng spoke about how he was a refugee growing up, and coming back and seeing them with their new NBA court that they put up. It was an awesome experience. It was something I’ll always remember.”
“The time that Jason spent there and the players spent there, I think they all left changed,” Robyn Murphy said.
Before long, it was time for the NBA players to start getting ready for their exhibition game, and Murphy was there on the court catching rebounds and passing balls around.
“It was really interesting seeing them practice,” he said. “It was cool to see their routines, and they had 3-point shootouts and stuff.”
On Aug. 1, Murphy had an all-access badge for the NBA Africa Game between Team World and Team Africa, whose rosters were full of NBA All-Stars. Team World included Beal, Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol, among others, and was coached by Brooklyn Nets head coach Lionel Hollins, while Team Africa featured Deng, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum, among others, and was coached by Popovich. NBA legends Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon, who were shocked to learn Murphy is only 14, also participated.
Team World won the ESPN televised game, 101-97, over Team Africa, but after experiencing all the cultural and community service events, Murphy thought the game was secondary.
“It’s funny because going into it, it’s like, 'Oh, I get to go to an NBA game for free and hang around Chris Paul and all these all-stars,’ but the game felt secondary after the SOS trip,” he said.
On the last night, Murphy sat down with Michele Roberts, the executive director of the NBPA, for an hour-long one-on-one talk about his experience.
“She was telling him, ‘you’re never going to beat this experience.’ It was her whole intent to make sure that Jason is able to stay in touch with any player he wants, any general manager he met, or anybody he wanted to continue the relationship with,” Robyn Murphy said. “She gave him some really good thoughts and advice.”
After a long flight home, Murphy is excited to use the experience he gained in Africa to help push him to a great high school career at Chapelgate.
“It taught me to be humble, and to take advantage of every opportunity I get,” he said.
“I told them on the last day that — when Jason applied they asked him to write down what his dream version of what the trip would be like — whatever he wrote down, that actual trip exceeded it,” Robyn Murphy said.
Chapelgate basketball coach Frick Frierson says while Murphy has a lot to learn still, his size and his work ethic means the sky is the limit.
“The nice thing about him is he listens and he likes to work hard. We call it the ‘it.’ He’s got the ‘it.’ He wants to get better,” he said.
Frierson also wrote a letter of recommendation for Murphy’s application for the trip.
“It’s been fun to look at the pictures (from his trip),” he said. “You know the typical first day of school question, ‘what did you do this summer?’ I’m not sure anyone will top his.”