When the NBA bubble was first conceived, Rodger Murray’s family, like many others, had some doubts about the safety of such an experiment. Those concerns weren’t enough to deter Murray from traveling to Orlando, but he was urged to pack with care.
So Murray took a face shield, a UV wand and hand sanitizers. His nephew even provided a hazmat suit.
They were all unnecessary.
“I didn’t need them,” the 65-year-old Murray said. “I told my family, ‘I’m in the safest place in America.’”
As the bubble wraps up its three-month tournament in Orlando, the NBA can boast of zero new infections from those immersed inside. The unique environment, while expensive and mentally draining for its tenants, proved effective at shielding against a highly infectious virus. It protected not only the players and coaches, but also the support and gameday staff. People like Murray.
Because as it turned out, the Knicks actually had a representative inside the bubble. Murray served for two months as the scoreboard and clock operator at the Disney World campus. It’s the same job he’s held at MSG for nearly four decades.
Murray went from working the final event at MSG on March 12 — a Big East tournament game canceled at halftime — to working the next NBA game nearly four months later.
“I had faith in the league in being able to put something like this together,” Murray said. “So for me, the biggest thing was thinking about being away from my family. But my wife encouraged me to go. She said this is definitely something that would be history, and I should go ahead and do that. She was a definitely a big part of that because I had to make sure I had her blessings as well.”
Murray flew to Orlando with the hope of participating in something historical, and he left feeling fulfilled.
Among his experiences was working the boycotted Milwaukee-Orlando game on Aug. 26. Murray started the countdown clock as usual before the scheduled tipoff, but the Bucks never arrived on the court. So he added five minutes.
Eventually, following much confusion, the game was postponed and the reason was made clear by the players: they felt a profound statement was necessary in the wake of the police shooting an unarmed black man in Wisconsin.
“That was definitely something different, something I never experienced before,” Murray said.
Another adjustment — albeit less dramatic — was operating at a scorer’s table amid pandemic protocols. Murray was stationed behind Plexiglass and socially distanced from co-workers, which meant their communication concerning fouls and statistics required headphones.
Like with everything else in the NBA bubble, the scoreboard operators adapted and executed without major hiccups. Murray’s biggest mistake had nothing to do with a game. He once accidentally hit ‘cough’ on the COVID-19 symptom digital questionnaire, prompting the health monitors to red flag him for an appointment.
When he arrived at the arena to work that night, Murray’s bubble bracelet flashed blue instead of green. His entrance then required another consultation with the monitor, and another explanation that he accidentally clicked ‘cough.’
“The doctor said, ‘You can go, but I’ve got my eye on you,’” Murray said.
This was all new to Murray, and newness must be rare for somebody who started as MSG’s shot-clock operator in 1982. There isn’t much Murray hasn’t seen.
His first training was at the Rucker Pro League under commissioner Bob McCullough, a legendary figure at the legendary Rucker Park. Murray sometimes officiated the games at the courts, other times compiled stats or worked the clock.
When Cecil Watkins, who was the supervisor for NBA’s officials, asked McCullough for a recommendation to fill a clock operator position at MSG, Murray’s name came up.
“I’ve been there ever since,” Murray said.
Through the Knicks years of winning (the ’90s) and losing (last two decades), Murray has never been the story. That’s a good thing for a timekeeper. He was a spectator for the biggest clock controversy at the Garden — when Trent Tucker nailed a game-winning 3-pointer of an inbounds with 0.1 seconds remaining — but wasn’t working that night in 1990. As a result of the shot that defied the laws of time and movement (nobody could receive a pass and shoot in 0.1 seconds), the NBA adopted the “Trent Tucker rule,” which disallows any regular shot if the ball is put in play with under 0.3 seconds left. Now the only possibility to score in that scenario is a tip-in off an inbounded alley-oop.
And even if the operator is slow on the draw, there’s a failsafe.
“There were no replays back then,” Murray said.
Murray also recalled a game when the clock horn malfunctioned and wouldn’t turn off. Otherwise, he’s maintained a low profile.
“Accidents happen,” he said. “But I haven’t had any major issues in which you’ve had to say, ‘What’s going on with this guy?’”
Murray has, over the years, adjusted to the technological advances, including the integration of the Tissot system across all NBA arenas. He also served many times as neutral timer in the playoffs, when the NBA requires operators from out-of-market to work the clock to eliminate the possibility of bias. Coincidentally, COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic to provide Murray an opportunity.
In 2003, a SARS outbreak prompted the closure of the Canadian border. As a result, the Toronto Raptors timekeeper was unable to travel to Boston for a playoff game, and Murray was called in as a last-minute replacement.
“I did two more extra games in Boston because of something similar that we’re going through now,” he said.
Until Murray’s recent retirement from NYC’s Board of Education — where he worked for 32 years as a crisis and specialist intervention counselor — scoreboard operation was the second job.
And it continues to be rewarding. It has taken Murray from the playground court to MSG to inside a bubble at Disney World. No hazmat suit necessary.
“Just to get that accomplished, and with what’s going on today with the pandemic and other issues, and to be a part of going into something like the bubble — it definitely is something that I’m grateful for doing,” Murray said.
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