All over the neighborhood, the word was out. Flip was back. Ronald "Flip" Murray had been academically ineligible for his senior season at Strawberry Mansion High. His exile ended just before the Public League playoffs.
"I saw some people I knew - they were like, 'Yeah, I got off work today, Flip is coming back.' They were comparing it to when Jordan came back to the United Center, after he had retired," said Littel Vaughn, who puts out Checkball magazine, about Philly hoops.
If memories haven't faded, Murray's first game back was a home game, against Olney High. At that time, Flip used to pack Strawberry Mansion's gym for intramural games. To get in for this one, for Flip's return, you had to know somebody at the door.
"He got three straight dunks," said Kevin "Buzz" Forney, the other star on that Strawberry Mansion team, who went on to play at Duquesne. "One of our fans stopped the whole game and came out and gave him a hug."
Flip sat down at the end of the bench, next to the security guard. Not because he'd be last to get in. He'd be first.
"I can see everything," Murray said of his favored perch. "How they're guarding our players, the stuff they're running."
The opponent that night wasn't
Olney. It was the Boston Celtics, defending NBA champions. As soon as Murray got out there, first off the bench for the Atlanta Hawks, he belonged. During a time-out late in the game, the overhead scoreboard showed a highlight - a Flip highlight from a few minutes earlier, a simple shoulder fake and a shot. A Celtics defender sliding one way, Flip suddenly open, knocking down a jumper.
Typical Flip stuff. Olney, Gratz, the Celtics.
"Flip just balls - he doesn't care," said Steve Rosenberry, director of pro personnel and college scouting for the Hawks who compares Murray to former NBA star Vinny Johnson for the offensive firepower he brings off a bench.
Rosenberry told a story he'd heard from another team's pregame scouting session this season, how when Flip's name came up, "guys pay attention." Flip probably won't be the leading scorer in a game. He's capable of something worse, Rosenberry said, a trait that actually gets to the heart of players' fears: "He can embarrass you."
A basketball story
Flip's tale isn't a morality play, just a basketball story, a crossover move on the conventional wisdom. Flip took a different ladder to the NBA. He never played Division I college ball - "I wanted to play Division I so bad," he admits - but he was never eligible, even after two junior colleges. He'll be the first to say he spent his junior-college summers shuttling between 33d and Diamond and 16th and Susquehanna instead of at summer school. Needing players, a Division II coach took a flier, trusting a friend from Philly who'd been dunked on himself by Flip.
If that hadn't happened, Flip may have crossed over to another basketball archetype, the playground legend who never made it out.
"I thought it was about to be a done deal for me," Murray said.
Flip earned his reputation the old-fashioned way - on the playgrounds.
"He's probably the only guy I never wanted to guard," said Erik Hood, who played against Flip for Simon Gratz High, played with Flip on the AAU circuit, and now plays professionally in Germany.
"His moves just reminded me of playing PlayStation - he could cross you over and rise above you, man - like NBA Live moves, PlayStation moves," said Forney, who may have played with Flip more than anybody in Philly.
A crossover isn't exactly new to the playground.
"His crossover is different - his crossover is to punish you," said Dominique Stephens, now the head coach at Cheyney University, who faced Murray on the playground and has war stories. "You're just about touching, face to face. It's just too quick - once he gets you on that first one, his next two steps are going to the basket. You're looking to see if somebody is there to help out - it's too late."
Hood remembers the day Murray dunked on Stephens at 33d and Diamond, the ball landing on the head of the older man. But it was the first part of Flip's move that made the lasting impression. Flip did a crossover move that had another guy out of bounds chasing air.
"I played with Kobe at the same age - that was around the same era," Hood said, calling from Berlin because he had Flip stories to share. "I've never seen a play like that in my life, live. The guy ran out of bounds."
"Flip had a bigger playground game than he did a school game," said Vaughn, a veteran chronicler of North Philly hoops. "He had a pro game even though he didn't really play much high school ball yet. . . . People in the neighborhood, they already knew. And then there was another young guy, Buzzy. That was the talk. Wherever Flip and Buzzy played, everyone went. They made up rap songs about the two of them."
Buzz Forney remembers all that, too.
"There was this one kid," Forney said, remembering his name, Nathan Price. "The top songs on the charts at the time, he would reverse them and change them and put us up, put our names on them, and have the whole school, nearly the whole city, singing those songs."
Not a role model
Flip, who turns 30 in July, doesn't hold himself up as the poster child for how to get to the NBA. He should come with a warning label: Don't try this at home.
"I was still young - not going to class, that was a mistake," Murray said. "Playing around, cutting school, that was a mistake. Not thinking about my grades, just thinking about basketball all the time."
Murray also said something else: "I don't regret nothing I did. I don't believe in all that. What happened happened. I was able to bounce back. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, that's always been my belief."
If he'd gone to some basketball prep school and gotten his grades or score up to qualify for Division I?
"I'm quite sure if I had gone to the Catholic League and gotten my grades right, gotten to Division I, it would have made my trip here easier," Murray said. "The trip here was hard, but it makes you humble - sometimes, as quick as it comes, it can go."
Stephens, the current Cheyney coach, gave the initial heads-up to the Shaw University coaches about Flip. He was playing pickup games against Flip one winter at Central High. Stephens played college ball at North Carolina Central with both the head coach and assistant at Shaw, who had just taken the job and were looking for players.
They wanted another Philly guy, Jarrett Kearse. Stephens told them: Take Murray, too. Kearse had proven himself in Division I, playing at West Virginia. But Murray was better. Litell Vaughn was involved in those conversations, backing up Stephens.
"Flip was a different kind of North Philadelphia guy," Stephens said. "He was kind of quiet on the court, he was a guy who let his talent speak for itself. He respected the older generation. He kind of did his homework, as far as knowing who the streetball legends were and just being like, if I'm going to embarrass you, I'm going to embarrass you on the court, not running down the court talking. He just was a listener, then he let his talent show."
Murray ended up being Division II national player of the year as a senior. NBA scouts showed up regularly at Shaw, but Vaughn believes Murray didn't go in the first round because the risk was too great. A personnel director could get fired if a D-II player didn't pan out after being picked that high - safer to take him in the second round. Flip went 42d to Milwaukee.
"One workout, he was with Frank Williams from Illinois - they had Frank projected to go in the early teens, projected to be the third guard drafted," Vaughn said of Williams, who eventually went 25th in the draft. "I think Flip messed his money up. He embarrassed him so bad, Frank slipped."
This never changed: Flip always had the narrowest of paths to make it. His big break came late in his rookie year when he was traded from Milwaukee to Seattle as part of the Ray Allen-Gary Payton trade. Not that Seattle knew what it was getting.
"He made the money work," said Rosenberry, who was a scout for Seattle at the time, remembering that either Flip or another player Jamal Sampson, would have made the deal work financially. Milwaukee had its choice and decided to keep Sampson because he was taller. (Sampson's out of the NBA now. His last stop was in China.)
Early the next season, in 2003-04, Flip's second in the league, Allen got hurt. That was Flip's really big break. He had to play and scored 20 or more points in 10 of his first 12 starts. Even after Allen got back, Murray was in the rotation, and averaged 12.4 points, getting in all 82 games, after playing just 14 as a rookie.
The fact is, nobody can claim credit for Flip's success except Flip. He's never gotten the really big contract - there's always a reason to keep the chip on the shoulder - but for $1 million to 1.5 million a season, he's moved from Seattle to Cleveland to Detroit to Indiana to Atlanta. Teams know what they're getting. He's actually more valuable to a good team. He might look like just another gunner on a bad team. He'll take shots in a hurry, create energy, turn the ball over sometimes. But for the Hawks, he's proved to be an ideal complement to starting point guard Mike Bibby and shooting guard Joe Johnson. He spells both, averaging 23.4 minutes. On Saturday night, he played 22 minutes against Cleveland, scored 22 points.
Asked one night after a game at the Nets why Murray had played more than Bibby, Hawks coach Mike Woodson simply said, "Flip had it going."
Keeping it real?
The DVD is of an artist at work. A rookie LeBron James trying to guard Flip, tripping over his feet. Are they D-Wade and Kobe, victims of Flip crossovers? Kevin Garnett glaring at Flip after Flip beat him on a drive. Flip dunking, 50 Cent rapping in the background. Then a whole compilation of warp-speed crossovers.
"This is the last copy. Nobody has them anymore," said Kareem Williams, handing it over for a viewing.
The DVD cover looks professional. It has Flip in his Seattle uniform, holding a ball. UNDERGROUND LEGEND. FLIPSIDE, THE DVD.
The title fits his career perfectly. The tape was made by a North Philly guy named Coconut who did some work for And1, the apparel company. The Flip highlights on the tape weren't exactly licensed for distribution by the NBA, and 50 Cent presumably didn't get any royalties, but it seems like everybody in Strawberry Mansion has seen that tape, made in 2004. A couple of current Strawberry Mansion High stars said they'd seen it. Vaughn said he used to have copies but gave his last one to Ray Felton, the Charlotte Bobcats point guard. Vaughn made about a dozen phone calls trying to find a copy before reaching Kareem.
The tape shows Flip taking over the NBA rookie-sophomore game in 2004. In that kind of game, Flip knew he could bring out some 33d and Diamond moves. One time, he faked a crossover, with Kirk Hinrich facing him. Flip wrapped the ball around Hinrich and placed the ball on Hinrich's back for a second, like a Globetrotters move.
"Kirk got mad, actually," said Kareem Williams, who was at the game and has been friends with Flip since sixth grade.
Williams said he was down in Atlanta recently with Flip and he brought the DVD. They were laughing watching it.
"They moves he put on LeBron, he put on me in sixth grade," Williams said. "It's always been him. The last three or four years, it's been toned down."
Flip knows that the moves may be refined - he's a long way from the playground now - but they're still in his arsenal.
"I'm able to get to the basket at will," Murray said himself the morning after he'd taken on the Celtics. "That's what got me here."