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Murphy Took the Letter as Law

Note from Wooden helped her lead undefeated Montclair Prep to Division V-AA championship game against Brethren Christian.

March 03, 2001|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Bob Webb had barely finished asking for the favor when the man raised his pen and started to write.

It was only a paragraph or two, but the words flowed effortlessly as the former coach jotted a few suggestions beneath a collection of UCLA basketball photos, trophies, books and autographed basketballs.

Time passed as the man concluded the letter and handed it to Webb, who acted as the middle man of a transaction to take place later that day.

Several miles away, Eshaya Murphy, a sophomore at Montclair Prep, was a few hours from a life-changing experience she knew nothing about.

A 5-foot-11 dynamo, Murphy was rhyme and rhythm on the court, haiku with a basketball. She drove, she scored. She was a blur, accelerating with frightening speed.

But she was young. Like an infinite number of players before her, youth made her impressionable. And careless.

Behind-the-back dribbling. No-look passes. Turnovers were the only mark against her talent.

Webb, her coach at Montclair Prep, admonished her. A former player at UCLA, Webb knew that excessiveness almost always loses to efficiency.

But Murphy snickered when asked to be more conservative, when implored by Webb to dial it down a bit.

The message didn't get through until Webb asked the former coach for a few words of advice.

Only when Murphy saw the heading on the letter did the message sink in.

It read: "From the desk of John Wooden. . . "

*

Murphy will lead Montclair Prep (26-0) today in a Southern Section Division V-AA championship game against Brethren Christian (21-9).

She might score 25 points. Or 29, a shade below her average. Or 44, as she did the other night against Santa Clara. Or 45, as she did in a career-high performance against Whitney last year.

Whatever happens, she will be in charge . . . and in control.

She credits Wooden's letter, delivered by Webb in October.

"I read it and realized, 'This came from the greatest coach ever,' " Murphy said. "He told me that a regular pass is easier than a behind-the-back pass. And that a regular dribble is more important than a behind-the-back dribble. It made a lot of sense."

The turnovers have ebbed, the flashy play has receded.

Montclair Prep is undefeated. Webb is a happy man.

"I think she was watching Kobe Bryant and all those types of players and thought, 'That's what I should be doing,' " Webb said. "She got impressions by watching the players in the NBA and WNBA. They're entertaining, but they get paid. They're not in high school trying to win games."

Murphy and the Mounties have done nothing but win this season. Their average margin of victory is 21.7 points and they have had only one close game, a 48-45 victory over Torrance in the fourth game of the season.

Murphy, who averages 17.2 rebounds and 4.6 steals, has dominated to the point that Montclair Prep, with an enrollment of 375, might become a victim of its own success. Playing against minimal competition, Murphy might be ready for a leap to a bigger school, a fact that Webb doesn't deny.

"If we can be successful [today], and then win the state tournament and she is named Division V player of the year, who knows?" Webb said. "She might say she's done all she can at this level. She could go to Buena and be successful and have people know who she is. She wouldn't score 29 a game there, but she'd get 18 or so.

"If we have to play bigger schools in the future, I would do that. My gut feeling is she'll stay. At least, that's my hope."

Murphy, who considered transferring to Taft or Notre Dame last summer, said she has "kind of committed" to Montclair Prep. She said she gets her dose of upper-level competition during club season.

"It's very intense playing against all these No. 1 players," Murphy said. "I learn different stuff and put it all together and work on it during high school season."

Murphy had to grow up quickly away from the game.

Her father, George, died in an automobile accident in October 1997, forcing her to take a bigger role at home with her mother, Pauletta, and younger brother, George Jr., who was in fourth grade.

"She looks out for other people," Pauletta said. "She's very protective of her younger brother [an eighth-grader at Montclair Prep].

"She's learned to persevere. She knows that nothing's going to come to you, that you have to go out and get it. She's learned to never say, 'I can't, I can't, I can't.' "

It's a mentality admired by most people, including Wooden, who credited her, not his letter, for her success.

"I wrote what I thought what would be encouraging and helpful," he said. "She's a very special girl. She's amazing. Just a sophomore, too. It's an incredible thing she's had this year."

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