The trouble with guard Calvin Murphy of Houston is that most sportswriters can look him right in the forehead! That's not supposed to happen in the National Basketball Association, where Murphy stands 5 ft. 9 in., runs like the wind, and had a 16.7 scoring average coming off the bench during the regular season.
Although the Rockets would not be leading Kansas City 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals if not primarily for center Moses Malone , who is a horse, Murphy makes a pretty good ponytail. At any range up to 25 feet, Calvin shoots and hits as often as any guard in the league.
I still remember Red Auerbach, general manager of the Boston Celtics, answering questions about Murphy on the eve of the 1970 NBA draft. Wrters wanted to know if Red thought any team would risk a first-round pick on a kid that small, even if he did have a scoring average of better than 33 points a game at Niagara.
"I probably wouldn't ever make a kid like Murphy No. 1 because there are always going to be too many big men around to waste a pick on someone that small ," Red replied. "But if Calvin were still available in the second round, I'd probably gamble on him, even though you have to assume that he's probably going to have some problems on defense.
"Offensively, I've seen enough of Murphy to know he can score in the NBA. What you don't know is whether he could ever be a regular. My idea would be to break him in slowly, pick spots for his kind of quick offense, then let him have the ball. I know you'd never have to worry about his attitude, and he'd also be a gate attraction."
The way things turned out, all 17 teams ignored Murphy on the first round. But at the start of Round 2, the then-San Diego Rockets took him. And he made Auerbach look good by averaging 15 points a game.
"The reason I decided not to start Murphy this year is because he helps us more coming off the bench," explained Houston coach Del Harris, who has substituted so well all through the playoffs. "Calvin is awfully good at getting into the flow of the game, picking up the offense, and making everyone around him work harder.
"The fact that Murphy has to guard people a lot taller than he is sometimes makes it tough for him," Harris continued. "But with Malone back under the boards to help everyone out, we can afford a man his size. And I don't mean to imply that Calvin doesn't play smart defense, because by picking his man up quickly he often forces opponents to get rid of the ball."
Although Murphy is sometimes maneuvered into the pivot when an opposing team needs a basket and sets up a specific play, most NBA coaches don't try to take advantage of his height. The reason is that this would leave their other players out of position and work against everything they have been taught in practice.
At times shortness even has advantages in basketball. The small man is often better able to protect the ball on the dribble, for instance, because both are so much closer to the floor. He also needs less room to squeeze past a defender in heavy traffic. And he often gets the benefit of the doubt against larger opponents in foul situations which could be called either way.
Of course sending Murphy to the free-throw line is like putting a rifle into the hands of Annie Oakley and standing her right in front of the target. Calvin seldom misses, and this past season he set NBA records both for consecutive free throws made (78) and season percentage (.957).
After Houston upset defending champion Los Angeles in the first round of this year's playoffs, Murphy said: "All we need now is to keep playing with the same intensity against our next opponents, and Malone will get us the rest of the way."
So far that has not been just another emotional statement by a guy carried away with the thrill of the moment. Calvin has done his part, too, as in the Western semifinal clincher against San Antonio when he led all scorers with 42 points.