Kiszla: Nuggets’ Jamal Murray scores 50, grieves for Black lives lost and lifts spirit of city in need of every reason to smile we can get

After scoring 50 points to save the Nuggets’ season, Jamal Murray felt the weight, so heavy it knocked him to his knees as he walked toward the locker room after Denver’s 119-107 playoff victory against Utah.

Wearing sneakers dedicated to Black lives lost, Murray is doing the stuff of NBA legends. His 142 points during this current, spectacular three-game span against the Jazz is a postseason scoring binge only surpassed in league history by Jerry West and Michael Jordan. Hop in the car alongside players known as The Logo and Air Jordan? You’re riding with basketball loyalty.

But what transcends sport are the tears never far from Murray’s eyes, especially when the young Nuggets point guard gets misty talking about the two faces painted on his shoes, faces that serve as a stark reminder of violent deaths suffered by Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in encounters with police.

“These shoes give me life. Even though these people are gone, they give me life. They help me find the strength to keep fighting,” Murray said Sunday, during an emotional postgame interview with TNT

In front of our eyes, after a long week when the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin caused NBA players in the Florida bubble to pause and debate whether this was the time to be playing games, Murray has risen to the occasion, both on and off the court, growing as an athlete and a man in front of our eyes.

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He has not only embodied the fighting spirit of a Nuggets team that could’ve easily quit when down 3-1 in this best-of-seven series. Murray also has offered inspiration to a state that needs every reason to smile we can get, as wildfires rage in the mountains and small Denver businesses fight to survive in 2020, four digits we sometimes feel have been transformed into a four-letter word never far from our lips.

Our sports heroes feel the same weight we do. Yes, they are blessed by money and fame. For it all, Murray is gratefu. But he is also bestowed with grace rare in a 23-year-old man. His empathy is what makes Murray special beyond the ability to shoot a jumper with accuracy that makes him The Blue Arrow, a nickname befitting an emerging basketball hero.

In many ways, however, Murray reveals himself to be not so very different than you or me. His heart beats with the same love as a mother who grieves for a daughter shot dead in her apartment. His will to win echoes the yearning of a waiter who wants for nothing more than to work again at a restaurant shuttered during the pandemic.

“It’s your life,” said Murray, thoughts drifiting to Blake, who now must fight the unknown of paralysis in a hospital bed after being shot seven times in the back. “Imagine a father, son, brother being shot seven times in front of his kids. Imagine that.”

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Murray does not pretend to be as courageous as an ICU nurse tending to COVID-19 patients or think he’s more committed to his beliefs than protestors crying for justice in the streets of cities throughout America. He understands you’re weary, because he has felt the same emotional fatigue, a byproduct of growing up Black in a world where all men are not treated equally, depending on the color of their skin or ethnic background.

“We’ve been fighting this fight for a long time,” Murray said. “We’re tired of being tired.”

For those keeping score at home, Murray has tallied 50, 42 and 50 points again during his most recent three games in the NBA bubble.

Dallas guard Luka Doncic might be the league’s next big thing. But I not so humbly submit a crazy idea first espoused last week: Murray has been every bit as good, if not more clutch, than Luka in the early stages of these playoffs, while also carrying the weight of Black lives lost every step of the way.

“I use those shoes as extra motivation to will myself to fight, win or lose,” Murray said.

Basketball is not bigger than life. It is life, in many of the basic ways that matter most. It’s pushing back the covers and rolling out of bed in the morning after another tough week. It’s summoning the stubborn refusal to let your teammates quit, then taking dead-solid aim with your blue arrow to make sure your team gets to play another day.

“Life is a weird thing,” Murray said.

Yes, life can be a struggle for any of us, especially in 2020.

But view this struggle as a gift, and a basketball player can carry a city on his shoulders, if only for one night.

On this hot August night during the toughest year we ever hope to know, Murray’s gift was to make the net sing with 50 points that lit up smiles as bright as stars twinkling over the Rocky Mountains.