Posted on 01 December 2014.
Murray is still relatively new to the game of basketball. (Courtesy Photo)
Aaron Murray (jr) had only played basketball for three years when he joined Indiana Wesleyan University’s men’s basketball team in 2012.
Murray, a 6’10” center, was a missionary kid in Zambia, Africa from the age of 14 to 18, and first started playing basketball when he was 16 years old. That summer, his family was visiting their home church in Indianapolis, which had a Christian school affiliated with it.
The school had a basketball camp, and Murray decided to sign up for it. He realized he really enjoyed the game, and went back to play for a team in Zambia.
“We practiced twice a week for an hour and a half and all we had was two tournaments the entire season,” Murray said. “It wasn’t anything like basketball in the states.”
Murray continued to develop an interest in basketball, and he when he and his family moved to Louisville, Ky. for his senior year of high school, he played on his high school team there. As Murray’s senior year came to a close, he decided he wanted to play basketball in college.
But he wasn’t planning to attend IWU.
“I decided I wanted to go to one college, that I’ll leave nameless, and I figured out what I was going to study, talked to the coach, everything like that, and I was turning down all the other [schools],” Murray said.
Over the summer following his high school graduation, Murray went on a short-term missions trip to the Dominican Republic. There, he met Will Partin, a missionary who used to be an assistant basketball coach at IWU. Murray said Partin tried to convince him to attend IWU and join the basketball program.
“He said, ‘Indiana Wesleyan would be a perfect fit for you. They have great basketball, awesome learning.’ I had heard the spiel from all the Christian schools before,” Murray said. “But he said, ‘No, you really need to go here. At least let Coach [Tonagel] call you when you get back to the States.’”
Tonagel said Partin contacted him right away.
“He called us and said, ‘Hey, we have this kid from Louisville, he’s still looking for a school, he’s 6’10”, a hard worker, unselfish kid, I think he kind of fits what you are looking for,’” Tonagel said.
Tonagel then called Murray and invited him to come to an open gym at IWU on a Sunday over the summer to play with the basketball team, which was there helping with basketball camps. Murray accepted.
Will Partin (left), a missionary in the Dominican Republic and former IWU men’s basketball assistant coach, helped lead Murray to IWU. (Courtesy Photo)
The men’s basketball coaching staff liked what it saw from Murray at the open gym, and offered him a spot on the team.
“Coach Tonagel said, ‘I won’t promise you a starting spot, I won’t promise you playing time, but if you come up here and work hard, I’ll promise you an opportunity,’” Murray said.
At that point, Murray was sold. He changed his mind and decided to attend IWU.
But when Murray joined the team during his freshman year, he wasn’t ready for the college game. He elected to redshirt his freshman year to hone his skills some more.
“I wasn’t very good, and you can say that [in your article], too,” Murray said. “I wasn’t very good and I had only been playing basketball for three years and just wanted an opportunity to grow and learn and get better at the fundamentals before wasting a year.”
And grow he did, according to Tonagel.
“[During that year], he got stronger, which was probably the most important thing, but he began to learn the game,” Tonagel said.
Murray’s game has continued to develop, and now, in his second year on the active roster, he is starting to earn more playing time for the defending NAIA Division II National Champion Wildcats.
But what Murray provides behind the scenes is what makes him so valuable to the team.
Murray said he relishes his role as someone who makes his teammates better through hard work in practice.
“I push the other big guys in practice everyday, like Lane [Mahurin], Josh [Mawhorr] and Nate [Bubash], because I know it makes the team better,” Murray said.
Tonagel also appreciates Murray’s unselfish attitude and the energy he provides from the bench during games.
“[He has] the ability to see the bigger picture, to care more about your teammates than yourself,” Tonagel said. “Aaron will be the first one off the bench when someone makes a good play. He loves to celebrate the success of others, and that’s a hallmark of an unselfish athlete.”
As a sports ministry major, Murray also aims to lead spiritually for the Wildcats. Murray said he aims to fill a part of the void Garvin Haughey (alumnus ’14) left when he graduated.
“When Garvin left, he left a huge, huge hole on our team that will never be filled the same way,” Murray said. “He was for sure the spiritual leader of the team, and I’ve tried to step into that role a little bit.”
Like most athletes, Murray would love to play lots of minutes, but the most important thing for him is contributing positively to a winning team.
“There’s the competitor in me that wants more playing time, and I’m striving for that every day by competing in practice,” Murray said. “But I don’t let my desire for playing time get in the way of my desire to see the team succeed.”
This story is a part of Co-Editor-in-Chief Jared Johnson’s “Stars in the Background” series on overlooked stars in IWU athletics. For more information, click here.