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From formative days in Kitchener to the NBA Finals, Canada's Murray in spotlight

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) knocks the ball away from Toronto Raptors forward Will Barton (1) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.The roots of Murray’s basketball career took shape in his hometown of Kitchener, Ont., and the nearby town of Orangeville, Ont. It was a journey that led the Canadian guard to stardom with the Denver Nuggets and now a trip to the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

KITCHENER, Ont. — When Canadian NBA star Jamal Murray was a teenager at the Orangeville Prep Basketball Academy, he declined to have a mobile phone for most of his two years with the program.

He wanted his focus to be on basketball so that he could take his game to the next level.

"Jamal just knew that it would be a distraction so he didn't want one from the start," said academy founder Jesse Tipping, president of the Athlete Institute.

Murray's path has taken him from his formative days as a youngster in Kitchener, Ont., to the hoops academy in nearby Mono, Ont., to a one-year stint with the Kentucky Wildcats.

In the 2016 NBA Draft, he was selected seventh overall by Denver. Murray became a star guard with the Nuggets and has helped lead the club to the NBA Finals starting Thursday night against the Miami Heat.

"It's great to see that someone who came here from Kitchener, bet on himself, bet on the Canadian system and dedicated everything he had towards his dreams is now playing for an NBA championship and is a leader on his team," Tipping said. 

Murray, now 26, was a standout from a young age.

As a preteen, he'd often play pickup games against high school and college players. The Stanley Park Community Centre in Kitchener's east end, about an hour's drive from Toronto, became a home away from home.

"Outside or inside (courts), it didn't really matter what the weather was (like), especially for him," said longtime friend Miro Iliev. "He would be outside here all days throughout the year with his dad, training. Making no excuses.

"Whatever the conditions were he was always training here, playing against other people, running hills, pushups, you name it. He was doing it all."

At the Orangeville Prep court, a framed banner that includes Murray's name, No. 23, and 'Class of 2015' is on display near the corner scoreboard.

The message "Champions Live Here" is posted above the gym's entry doors.

"He was special from the first day he was here," Tipping said. "He had an attitude that a lot of people didn't, where he was here on a mission to accomplish his dreams of making it to the NBA.

"There was nothing in his path that he wouldn't jump over or get around in order to make that happen."

Chuder Teny became friends with Murray at the Grand River Collegiate Institute in Kitchener.

Now an assistant basketball coach at Wilfrid Laurier University, he said Murray's half-court buzzer beaters were the stuff of high-school legend.

"I remember when he was in the 10th grade," Teny said. "His right wrist was messed up and he had to play (primarily) with his left hand. He still had like 25 points with his left hand, still making the craziest passes with his left hand.

"That's when I was like, 'This kid is special.'"

Murray's commitment to the sport was noticed as soon as he transferred to Orangeville Prep.

"Whenever you think that there's going to be an empty gym, you'd come in and Jamal was in there," Tipping said. "If it was early morning hours, late at night, you'd try to drag him out at midnight just to stop shooting, and he just wanted to keep shooting.

"Just seeing that dedication to his craft constantly was inspiring for everybody."

Plaques and framed pictures of the six-foot-four guard are on display throughout the halls of the facility, which boasts alumni like Thon Maker, Lu Dort, Oshae Brissett and Ignas Brazdeikis.

Murray averaged 20 points and 6.2 assists a game with the Nuggets this past season in his return after missing a year due to a torn knee ligament.

NBA MVP runner-up Nikola Jokic and Murray have proven to be a fearsome 1-2 punch for the NBA's Western Conference champions, who have rolled through the playoffs with a 12-3 record.

"Jamal is a very fluid player," Tipping said. "Other people train on moves and they train on angles and they train on situations. Jamal is kind of like water when it comes to basketball.

"He'll find the cracks and he'll make sure he's able to get through what needs to get through."

Kitchener will be celebrating Murray's first appearance in the NBA Finals. Watch parties are planned and a downtown square near city hall will be lit in Nuggets' blue and gold colours on game nights.

"People are embracing Murray fever and I think we're all becoming part of Nuggets Nation as we get into the Finals," said Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic.

The Nuggets will be well-rested for the series opener against the visiting Heat. Denver last played on May 22.

Murray had two 37-point efforts in the Nuggets' recent four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.

"We've seen him rise to the occasion no matter what stage it was on," Iliev said. "The NBA Finals I'm sure is going to be no different."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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