Kentucky’s John Calipari on Jamal Murray’s epic Game 6: “I got emotional watching him get emotional”

Head bowed, mind racing, Jamal Murray crouched on a ramp for nearly a minute late Sunday night before gathering himself and heading for the locker room.

The Nuggets star had just poured every ounce of energy he had into a season-saving 50-point performance against Utah, then tore open a 400-year-old wound by answering questions about Black lives lost.

When Murray got back to the victorious locker room, one that had picked itself up after a 3-1 deficit to force Tuesday’s win-or-go-home Game 7, he had a text message waiting for him. It was a screenshot of himself, crouched, processing everything he’d just authored.

“I sent him the picture, and just ‘Wow, can’t tell you how proud I am of you,’” Kentucky coach John Calipari told The Denver Post on Monday.

Murray, who played for Calipari during his lone college season in 2015-16, hit him right back.

“I imagine why he did what he did was trying to get his mind together,” Calipari said. “Like, what has just happened? Let me tell you. When they gave him a max contract (last summer), he calls me and said, ‘I got a max deal. Can you believe it?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I can believe it. You should’ve gotten a max deal.’ So, he’s one of those kinds. They’re young men, they’re trying to figure out, ‘Who the hell am I?’”

Calipari watched in astonishment as his former guard launched his “blue arrows” from well beyond the 3-point line Sunday, sinking nine. Murray has shattered Denver’s previous record of 19 3-pointers in a playoff series, connecting on 31 through six games. His 204 points in this series? Also a franchise record.

If he wasn’t aware of it while his mind dashed between the emotions of the Game 6 win, to talking about the violent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, you can bet he’s aware of the record now.

“I’m just proud,” Calipari said, stealing the same adjective Nuggets coach Michael Malone used in the aftermath. “It’s funny, he knows what I do. He had 92 (points) in two games, so I said, ‘Damn, you had 82 in two games.’ And he’ll hit me right back and say ‘Coach, I had 92.’”

Calipari knows the 23-year-old from Kitchener, Ontario, is wired differently than most. He credits Murray’s parents, Roger and Sylvia, for not coddling their son. As Calipari recalled, Murray didn’t have amenities like a phone, TV or the internet as a kid.

“That’s not how he grew up,” he said. “Jamal had to prove himself everywhere he’s been, which means you better be tough. … His mental toughness is coming from like, ‘Respect what I am, who I am, how I am.’”

And yet even Calipari saw something in the visceral emotion Murray displayed in his postgame interview, where he revealed what and who he was playing for. First, Calipari said it was apparent to him how much the “racial strife” had affected Murray, and secondly, he thought the NBA’s “bubble” experiment was getting to him.

Obviously not enough to impede his historic run of play, but enough to burst open a seam welling inside.

“I got emotional watching him get emotional,” Calipari said.

It’s here that Calipari thinks back to the ear-to-ear smile Murray had on a daily basis while at Kentucky and reflects on how much he misses coaching him.

“If I walked in and I was thinking about something or whatever, he’d say, ‘Coach!’ and I’d look at him, and he’d point to his smile,” Calipari recalled. “In other words smile. We’re having fun here.”

But hidden behind that smile was a dogged stubbornness in Murray’s game that Calipari remembers well. Calipari recalled a practice where Murray let loose a fading, falling left-handed hook shot that banked hard off the glass and missed.

“I’m like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You can’t take a shot like that.’” Calipari said, his voice getting animated. “He’s like, ‘That’s a good shot. I can make that shot.’”

Same thing when Murray entered the NBA. Though Calipari knew he was an elite prospect who had averaged 20 points per game as a freshman and showed a penchant for playmaking and crashing the glass, he still had concerns about his 3-point shooting. Calipari worried about his low release point, that Murray couldn’t let his arrows fly.

“I thought, ‘He’s going to struggle to get that off,’” he said. “No, that was wrong … Oh, he gets them off now. But he’s (shooting) left and right and hooks and runners and bank shots and bang a three and not be afraid. It’s not that you’ll shoot them. You can’t be afraid to miss them. That’s why they go.”

Murray is shooting 57% from 3-point range in the postseason, the basket seemingly as big as the Magic Kingdom itself. It was the ruthless efficiency – Murray was 17-for-24 with 50 points in Game 6 – that had Calipari telling one of his elite prospects Monday the difference between Murray at Kentucky and the refined NBA star he’s becoming.

“How good can he be?” Calipari said. “We don’t know yet, because what he’s done is he’s beginning to master his craft. … There’s not one shot that he shoots that he thinks is a bad shot. If he gets it off, it was a good shot. That’s what Jamal is.”

Murray’s legendary performance has placed him alongside names like Jordan, Iverson and West in terms of postseason play. His ridiculous run of scoring will be forever etched in Nuggets lore regardless of what happens Tuesday night. But what’s scary, and why Calipari considers the Nuggets so lucky, is Murray will be responsible for wherever his career goes from here. Future All-Star? All-NBA player?

By now, it’s hard to bet against the 23-year-old who, through his words and play, has risen above the heartache of the past week.

“He’s very confident in who he is and what he is,” Calipari said. “You’re not taking his confidence away. Here’s what I say: When you build that, and you have to fight for it, and you work for that, no one takes it away except yourself. You can take it away from you, but no one else can. And in his mind, he’s like, ‘You’re not taking this away.’ Someone says you can’t do this, or this or that, he laughs. ‘You’re out of your mind.’ That’s what he’d say.”