Hawks vs. Heat
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Philips Arena
TV, radio: TNT (Charter channel 29); 790-AM
Web site: www.nba.com/hawks
ATLANTA — Ronald Murray is used to taking the long way.
Instead of attending a big-time school, he went through the junior college and Division II ranks. Rather than stick with one team, he bounced all over the NBA. Even when it comes to his nickname — just about everyone refers to him as "Flip" — there is no simple answer.
Back in 2003, he told a Seattle reporter that he took part in gymnastics when he was young and "used to flip all the time." Hence, people started calling him Flip.
On Friday, the Atlanta Hawks guard shrugged off that explanation, blaming teammates for spreading a spurious rumor.
"I don’t know where that came from," Murray said. "My nickname came from the movie ‘Above the Rim."’
OK, that works, too. The 1994 flick about a high school basketball star in New York does have a character named Flip Johnson, portrayed by the late Bernie Mac.
The Hawks couldn’t care less about the origin of Murray’s alternate name. All they know is they’ve got one of the best sixth men in the league, a guy who could play a decisive role in their upcoming playoff series against Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. Game 1 is Sunday night.
"We’ve given him the freedom and latitude to kind of do his thing," coach Mike Woodson said. "He’s been fantastic."
Murray has averaged 12.2 points a game as a combo guard, filling in from both Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby. Just as important, the 29-year-old teamed with another newcomer, Maurice "Mo" Evans, to bring some much-needed leadership to a youthful team coming off its first playoff appearance in nine years.
The Hawks were even better this season, adding 10 more wins to their record (47-35) to claim the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage to start the playoffs.
"We made a pretty good assumption that this club needed to get more veterans on it," general manager Rick Sund said. "Flip and Mo together have done a nice job. They’ve fit in very well, not only from the basketball side of things, but with their experience off the court. They’ve had some scar tissue along the way, which is good."
Murray has certainly endured his share of hardship, some of it brought on by himself. Poor grades prevented him from attending his school of choice, so he wound up at a junior college in Mississippi. He continued to struggle academically, spending another year at Philadelphia Community College in his hometown, just to get into a four-year school. Even then, he settled for Shaw University, a historically black Division II school in Raleigh, N.C.
He was right in the middle of Tobacco Road, but might as well have been a million miles away. He averaged 23.5 points a game as a senior and was named Division II player of the year, but slid right through the first round of the 2002 NBA draft, going to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round.
Murray was traded to Seattle during his rookie season — the afterthought in a deal that centered on Ray Allen and Gary Payton. The following year, Allen went down with an injury and the unknown Murray stepped into the Sonics lineup, averaging 12 points in 25 minutes.
"Growing up a Seattle fan, I remember when Ray Allen got hurt," said Hawks forward Marvin Williams, a Washington native. "All of a sudden, here comes Flip Murray out of nowhere."
Then, back to obscurity. Murray played only one more full year in Seattle before he was dealt to Cleveland, where he averaged 13.5 points a game in the final 28 games of 2005-06. He moved on to Detroit, only to get cut midway through last season, his second with the Pistons. He hooked on with Indiana and started down the stretch in the Pacers’ unsuccessful bid to overtake Atlanta for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"It’s frustrating, it’s tough, but you’ve got to learn how to handle it," Murray said. "Some guys are lucky enough to find their fit as soon as they get into the league. Then there are other guys like myself who have got to bounce around a little bit before they find the right fit."
Having failed to beat the Hawks, Murray joined them. He signed as a free agent last summer to help fill the void left when sixth man Josh Childress stunningly left for a team in Greece.
Woodson knew what he had in Childress. When it came to Murray, the coach wasn’t so sure. Why couldn’t he stick in one place? What did other teams know that Atlanta didn’t?
"When you look at guys who’ve bounced around the league, a red flag kind of goes up," Woodson said. "But Flip has come in and done everything we’ve asked him to do. Sometimes it might take two or three bounces before you get it right."
A streaky shooter who loves to play on the edge, Murray found just the right spot in Atlanta. The Hawks were looking for someone who could provide quick points off the bench and wasn’t afraid to shoot. The only thing Woodson asked was more effort at the defensive end, which had always been the knock on Murray. He’ll never win a defensive player of the year award, but he’s done enough to satisfy the demanding Woodson.
"We’ve given Flip the freedom to play, to somewhat be himself," Woodson said. "That might be the first time he’s experienced that in his career."
Now, if we can only figure out where he got that nickname.
Notes: Williams, who missed 16 games with a back injury before returning for the final week of the regular season, will start Game 1, Woodson said. "He’s doing fine," the coach said. "He’s moving well."