A few weeks shy of his 38th birthday, Gareth Murray still feels the spring in his step.
And the thrill from the chase as he prepares to lead Scotland’s men onto the basketball court at the Commonwealth Games.
The Glasgow Rocks player-coach of the past two seasons is pulling double duty once more this weekend. But, he reveals, for the very last time. Birmingham is set to be the final act of a playing career that began in Arbroath and has taken him all over the world. When he returns to the Emirates Arena next week, it will be to coach – and nothing else.
Capped over 60 times for Great Britain with huge moments on big stages including EuroBasket finals, his third shot at the Commonwealths feels like the perfect time to take his leave and retire.
“Honestly, I would love to keep playing basketball,” Murray admits. “A lot of people have been telling me – and (current GB coach) Nate Reinking is one of them – to play until the wheels fall off, that you can’t get that time back.
“But I want to take coaching seriously, and I want to progress in that. I’m bringing these players in for the Rocks. They’ve never had a player-coach before … it’s too much and not normal of what people are used to from the college system or around the world.”
One job, one focus. He is no rush to buy a tailored suit for his tall frame from him. Polo shirts, but nothing more. The hipster beard will remain. “Maybe a little trim,” he laughs.
It will officially end his part-time status as one of the lads. The tight bonds forged from battling and sweating together, win or lose. From those long road trips up and down Britain with late-night card games on the bus. “When you’re the coach, you have to step away from all that,” he underlines.
“That pre-season bonding when you’re going bowling or paintball and going out on team dinners or nights out, probably that’d be the thing I miss the most, that side of it. I love to play basketball. I still feel like I can compete at a high level. But if I want to do this properly, I want to do it the right way.”
He will take an all-Rocks crew into the outdoor arena on the site of Birmingham’s old Smithfield Market that is hosting the 3×3 version of basketball. All four are holdovers from Scotland’s run to fourth place in traditional 5 on 5 hoops in 2018 in Gold Coast: Kyle Jimenez, newly-returned to Glasgow, long-serving club captain Jonny Bunyan, and Fraser Malcolm, signed to a new two-year deals on Thursday.
“A lot of what we do is off instinct and knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are,” said Murray, whose quartet have got a favorable group stage draw against Canada, Kenya and Sri Lanka. “We play a lot off each other. Team chemistry is huge for us.”
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3×3 takes place on a half-court. Good shooting is vital. It is the normal game, at double the speed. Traditionalists snore but it has won enough converts – Murray included – that it became an Olympic sport in its own right in Tokyo.
“I can see the attraction to it for sure,” he said. Enough that he may push a different door open. “I’ve been looking into whether, if I retired from 5 on 5, can I do this in the summertime and continue traveling and playing the game?”
Firstly though, to carry through his first retirement plan. A medal would not top up his pension from him but it is nice equity to stash away.
“We were in the Netherlands last weekend for a tournament which we won. But how good are we? I don’t know. I don’t know what these other teams have. We know England, we know Australia. You know New Zealand. These guys are playing regular tournaments. These other teams we don’t know.”
Even Canada are mysteries. Their giants of the NBA do not lower themselves to play the humble Commonwealths. But that creates circumstances in which Murray might get a happiest of endings.
“We’ve got four guys that play professional basketball,” he declared. “We’re competitive. We never give up. We’ll never go down without a fight. That’s a start anyway. I don’t know how far we’ll get in the tournament. I don’t have any expectations right now.”