The games were supposed to be to 100, but many times the two players lost track of the score. Don’t ask who won more; that’s been long forgotten.
But there they were, going mano-a-mano in their own special way — one taking his opponent hard to the hoop, the other lighting it up from the outside — trying to make each other better.
It’s the way they continue to play today, and it’s that style that has put Nick Murphy and Jeremy Bynum among the top scoring combinations in Jacksonville State basketball history.
“We were competitors,” Bynum said. “We wanted to be the best we could be. We didn’t want to take a back seat to nobody.
“We were freshmen and people might have thought we were going to show up and sit on the bench, but our mindset was different from everybody else, from normal freshmen. We came in wanting to play and knew we were going to play. We weren’t taking a back seat to nobody.”
Now that it’s coming to and end, they won’t have to. Going into their final game at Pete Mathews in tonight’s final home game of the season against Austin Peay, Murphy and Bynum rank fourth among the Gamecocks’ all-time scoring tandems. They have combined for 2,592 points with three games remaining in their college careers.
If they fill it just a little better than their season scoring averages, they will pass Robert Guyton and Earl Warren for No. 3 on the all-time list. But no matter where they finish, they will remain the top-scoring duo in JSU’s Division I history.
“Those are good individual honors for them,” Gamecocks coach James Green said. “They’ve put time in this program; I think that says that. … When it’s all said and done, you look at both team and individual (accomplishments) and it gives them something to hang on to for their years here, and that’s a positive thing.”
Murphy, who made his way south from The Bronx, enters the game with 1,465 career points, currently fifth on the all-time list and No. 1 on the Division I worksheet. He’s also the program’s leading Division I rebounder and ranks first in six other categories. He has scored in double figures 82 times in his career and has 13 career double-doubles.
Bynum, a local catch from nearby Oxford, has 1,127 career points, 20th on the all-time list and third on the D-I list. He’s also second on the Gamecocks’ all-time 3-pointers list (222), 34 behind all-time leading scorer Robert Lee Sanders.
It’s their complementary styles that made the combo work. Murphy is the driver and banger, while Bynum is the shooter, and just like in those early one-on-one games, they feed off each other.
Murphy has flourished playing a position traditionally reserved for bigger guys. But that he has endured is a testament to the toughness he honed in the playgrounds of New York, where no quarter is given.
“Yeah, he’s had to try to do it against guys you wish he wouldn’t have to,” Green said, “but part of his game is to be down and play against that.”
He called Bynum, a 39-percent career shooter from beyond the arc, “one of the best catch-and-shoot guys I’ve coached.”
Players don’t move to the top of any career list without going through some trials and tribulations and both Murphy and Bynum have gone through a lot in their four years with the Gamecocks.
For starters, they haven’t experienced a lot of winning and had only one trip to the conference tournament; if they lose tonight, they’ll be mathematically eliminated from making this year’s field. The Gamecocks are only 34-80 during the Murphy-Bynum years, with two of the losingest seasons in program history.
“I can’t say it hasn’t been difficult, because I’m used to winning,” Bynum said.
Off the floor, they went through the upheaval of a coaching change, and that left Murphy with a decision about returning to the Gamecocks after his freshman year.
During the transition between Mike LaPlante and Green, two Pac-10 schools (Oregon State and Southern Cal) and a powerful mid-major (Xavier) expressed an interest in Murphy joining their program and the native New Yorker gave them a look.
He said he was “leaning” toward Xavier and USC, but the coaches he spoke with there were leaving and he ultimately figured it was better to stay with what was coming here than try to establish something with an unfamiliar coach trying to set up his shop there.
Green said he never asked Murphy to stay — “nor would I” — and said Murphy never told him he was leaving.
“Coach Green is coming here to me and he spoke to me, so I trust coach Green’s word over their word,” he said. “I went with what I knew. I knew Jacksonville. I knew Xavier and I knew USC, but I didn’t know (them) like I knew Jacksonville, so I thought I’d stay here to my roots.
“I’m happy Coach Green came here, because he kind of developed me more into a man than I was when I first came here. I was still a little young and he was basically sort of like a father. He kept me under control. He told me the rights and the wrongs. He kept me mature. He told me I’ve got leadership qualities, so I’m going to be a leader. I just followed him and sometimes I might not show it, but I tried my hardest to be an image of him.”
Bynum faced the additional tribulation of a medical scare that threatened his ability to play. While checking on a rapid heartbeat, doctors discovered some weakness in Bynum’s heart muscle. There wasn’t any blockage or damage, but he was sidelined for five games and three weeks of practice.
The precaution brought a promising career to a screeching halt — Bynum scored 19 in his debut at Georgia and 27 the next game against Tennessee Temple — but he was cleared to return and has not missed a game since.
“When I first came to college I went through some stuff I never expected to go through,” Bynum said. “I never expected anything like that to happen … I think it made me a better person and made me appreciate the game more than I already did. You never know what you got until it’s taken away from you for a second and there were some nights I would think maybe I’m done. I really didn’t know.”
Green said he didn’t necessarily have a plan for Murphy and Bynum individually when he arrived, partly because he didn’t really know them, but he knew they would fit into his overall plan for the program. And in this season of rebuilding, they, along with veteran Stephen Hall, have been relied upon to provide the bulk of the Gamecocks’ offense and leadership.
“We started as freshmen together, set goals for ourselves and worked together,” Bynum said. “We really became like brothers for each other. It was just something we worked for and worked at. We both had different styles of play. I took from what he had and he took from what I had.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.