Jamal Murray, the Kitchener-born NBA player who spent his childhood training on Mt. Trashmore, went from local-guy-made-good to bonafide international star in the 2020 NBA playoffs. Murray dazzled fans and ignited hometown pride with his signature scoring move, “the Kitchener Shuffle.” For hoops fans in Waterloo Region, the charismatic Murray’s ascendance to sports royalty was pure basketball joy.
Blake Murphy, a Cambridge-raised basketball journalist working as a lead reporter at The Athletic Sports News, was right there with us cheering for the hometown hero. No offence to anyone else covering the game, but Murphy is probably the most revered basketball journalist in the country — a status earned through an enviable mix of analytical prowess, output and a social consciousness rare in sports media.
However, every quality that make Murphy a legend has been tested this NBA season. As the Toronto Raptors fumble their way through the end of a season, some fans aren’t taking it well. Sexism and bigotry spiked online, with perhaps the most vile example being an early-season petition, using unrepeatable language, to send Cameroonian star Pascal Siakam, “home.”
“The discourse around the team has gotten pretty toxic pretty quickly. That’s not universal, but there’s at least a vocal minority that is going through it without much perspective,” Murphy said. “Maybe [it’s the] newer fans who haven’t been through it, or heightened expectations after a championship,” he added graciously.
Murphy has been chronicling the Toronto Raptors from the hopelessness of the post-Vince Carter era to their 2019 NBA Championship. He’s seen just about everything over the years. In good times and bad, he’s consciously avoided cruel insults and vitriol. Instead, he’s been fair to the players by acknowledging their humanity.
Growing up, Murphy played hockey and wrestled as a student at Monsignor Doyle Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, when an injury compelled him to manage the men’s basketball team.
“Being around bigger basketball fans more often, instead of being around hockey fans, kind of spiked my interest.”
After leaving Waterloo Region for a business degree at Queen’s University, then a law degree at Western University, Murphy kept coming back to sports journalism. At the time, he was blogging on occasion but when in need of cash to pay for his law classes, he gave his pocketbook a breather and took a paid internship at the sports media outlet The Score.
Ambitious sports reporters are everywhere, yet Murphy quickly stood out. Readers gravitated to his empirical sports analysis and a self-described “mathi-ness,” in his stories.
“I just naturally gravitated towards doing work with analytic stuff,” Murphy said. He also found an opportunity to flex his lawyer chops by pouring over stacks of contract documents related to the NBA’s new labour agreement. “Taking that complex document and translating it is something that I think is a strength of mine,” Murphy said.
His detailed untangling of the business of sports landed on the pages of Raptors Republic, a Raptors news, analysis and fan site.
Angel Hammoud, a host on The Devil’s Cut podcast and Midtown Radio only loves two sports teams: Manchester United and the Toronto Raptors. Thanks to younger online content-hungry fans like Hammoud, independent sites like Raptors Republic exploded in the 2000s by offering readers a more personal and in-depth brand of sports reporting beyond who won or lost.
“I remember stumbling upon Blake when he was still at Raptors Republic. It was one of the first times he did his salary cap thing, honest to god, he must be one of the few people out there who has taken the time to meticulously do this. I was fucking blown away,” Hammoud said.
Though fan sites are seen by some legacy media types as an illegitimate brand of journalism, Murphy saw blogging as an opportunity to take control of his career. Free from the boundaries of advertiser-driven media, he wrote the stories he wanted to. In 2013, he went from contributor to a relatively unpaid full-time gig as managing editor.
“It was kind of like ‘Hey, this can help me continue to build my readership’,” Murphy said. “I can just talk about what I’m seeing or what I think. It’s more important for me to be right and have a reliable track record.”
His work has specifically gone a long way to earning independent sites and bloggers credibility. Even the Toronto Raptors’ official broadcast crew are fans.
What Murphy refuses to engage in is mean-spiritedness. “I’ve never really cared for that sort of ‘hot-takey’ stuff,” he said.
It’s that “hot-takey” stuff — calling players “trash, “useless,” and in the case of the Toronto Raptors’ player Pascal Siakam, far worse — tainting what should just be a fun game, according to Murphy.
He’s too modest to take any credit, but as a leading voice in NBA journalism, he’s played a significant part in promoting a healthier fandom by also mentoring and supporting diverse voices who feel the same way.
“There are certainly elements of privilege baked into my path, where I did a lot of work for free for a lot of time,” Murphy said. “I grinded for a long time not making very much money, and I made those sacrifices, but that’s a real thing that the industry has to face — how does the structure rule out potentially talented people?”
Kelsea O’Brien, a reporter and podcaster at Basketball News, isn’t a huge fan of macho fandom and mean-spirited clickbait either. And she’s not timid about saying it.
“Players have feelings, families and struggles just like the rest of us. The difference is that theirs are on display for the world to see,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien, who promotes human decency and dares to have an opinion as a reporter, takes risks as a woman in sports media. Having established allies like Murphy as support helps.
“Blake took me under his wing and vouched for me with Raptors Republic,” O’Brien said, who writes for the site on occasion. “Blake approaches the game of basketball with a careful, personal and measured approach. He really gets to the human side of these athletes while still providing excellent game analysis. He definitely made it more inclusive.”
Today Murphy is a leading reporter at The Athletic Sports News, providing a steady stream of NBA coverage for its 600,000 paid subscribers. Murphy travels with the team (pre-pandemic), gets to talk to the players and ask the front office questions.
Still, Murphy has also struggled with having a lot of his self-worth tied up in the job.
“The result of that can be that my mood swings with the mood of those I’m interacting with or producing content for, so the especially toxic nights in my mentions or comments really takes a lot out of me. When that energy is disrupted, so is mine,” Murphy said.
Murphy isn’t shy about discussing his mental health challenges with his 36,000 Twitter followers. He’s made a point to not live or die by the team’s team’s success. “It’s way too long a season for that,” he said. “Plus, why be mean, or upset or angry about a game you have no control over when you can be funny?”
That heartfelt tweet may not have made sense to anyone outside the 519, but who cares? With all of the nastiness out there, Murphy and O’Brien, and those like them, are committed to enjoying themselves through it all.
Born and raised in KW, Sam is writing and fighting for the planet and most of its people. Sam has freelance written for magazines and newspapers and other outlets, including The Globe and Mail, National Post, Maclean's to name a few. Catch more of his opinions on Twitter @MidtownKW.