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For Murphy, It's Jungle Out There : Basketball: UC Irvine assistant coaches Western Samoa national team to a gold medal at Oceania championships.


IRVINE — It began unlike any other basketball tournament Tim Murphy had coached in.

Coaches dressed in lavalavas, stylish Samoan wrap-around skirts. During a pre-tournament goodwill ceremony, they shared a bowl of Cava, a drink that looks like murky river water and doesn't taste much better.

Teams paraded down Main Street on opening day. They put on dunk shows during warmups. Fans climbed into the rafters to watch games.

It's not quite how Murphy, a part-time assistant coach at UC Irvine, watches the Big West tournament get underway each year. Then again, this wasn't the Long Beach Arena, either.

This was basketball, South Pacific style. Welcome to the jungle, coach.

Murphy coached the Western Samoa national team to its first gold medal at the Oceania championships in Apia, the country's capital, in late May.

With a lineup of current and former college players, the Samoans finished 6-0 in the 10-team tournament, winning games as close as three points and as lopsided as 81.

The team took home medals and a Cava bowl trophy. Murphy gained some valuable experience as well as two new titles:

Head coach, Western Samoa basketball team.

Chief Nafanua Murphy.

Local dignitaries were so overwhelmed with the team's championship that they gave Murphy a new name. It was their way of thanking him for a job well done.

"Nafanua is a mythological person," Murphy said, "meaning half-warrior and half-ghost."

They honored him during a dinner ceremony in New Zealand, where the team played the Australian and New Zealand national teams in a world-championship qualifying tournament after the Oceania championships.

Although humbled, Murphy wasn't exactly sure what responsibilities his new title carried.

"I know what they did was important," he said. "I just wasn't sure what it means in their culture. It really surprised me."

It was a fitting end to a trip full of surprises.

It all started in mid-May, when Irvine men's tennis coach, Steve Clark, introduced Murphy to Kuka Molioo.

Molioo, a Huntington Beach resident, sponsored the Western Samoa team. He needed a replacement for player-coach Lam Yuen, who resigned to become an assistant coach.

Clark, a friend of Molioo's, recommended Murphy.

"They decided they wanted to elevate to a more professional level and have a non-player coaching the team," Murphy said.

The Western Samoa job is Murphy's first head coaching position. A former standout player at Lakewood High, Long Beach College and Colorado State, he has been an assistant coach at Irvine for seven seasons and one year at Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma, Wash.

Murphy ran Samoa's practices for three days in Fountain Valley. Molioo liked what he saw and asked Murphy if his bags were packed.

The team left town four hours later, but without Murphy. He needed permission from Irvine Coach Rod Baker, and he wanted more time to get ready.

Baker gave him a green light, and he joined the players on May 24, the day the tournament started.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I was blind as to what I was getting into. We only had a few practices before the tournament, and I didn't know the players all that well."

Murphy landed on the island at 2 a.m. and was up by 7 a.m. He and the team marched in the parade that morning.

Then came the Cava ceremony. Coaches formed a semicircle at mid-court, with most wearing the traditional lavalava that stretches just below the knee. Murphy and the other coaches wore them throughout the trip.

Local village chiefs greeted them by bringing a bowl of Cava to each coach as the name of his respective country was called.

Murphy was told the drink was made from some type of root and had hallucinogenic powers. He said it made his tongue go numb.

"I was pretty hesitant to drink it," he said.

The formalities over, Murphy returned to his hotel room and began preparing the plan for that night's game again Palau.

Under NCAA rules, Murphy, a part-time, limited-earnings coach, couldn't accept pay for coaching the team.

But rules permit compensation for expenses, and Molioo made sure Murphy and the players went first class. They stayed at an island resort and enjoyed big dinners of seafood, chicken, chop suey and rice.

Murphy returned with an album full of photos and a handful of souvenirs, including his lavalava and T-shirts celebrating the tournament victory with "Welcome to the Jungle" printed on them.

"I was gone 23 days," Murphy said, "and I spent 123 bucks."

He wasn't exactly vacationing in basketball country, either. Western Samoa, an independent nation since 1962, is part of a chain of islands located in the South Pacific, northeast of New Zealand. Rugby dominates headlines in the Samoa Times, the local paper.

Basketball is just beginning to catch on. Still, Murphy was somewhat surprised by his players' skills.

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