MONTGOMERY, Ind. – Dwayne Murphy hesitated before sending the text message. It was the morning of Nov. 22. That night, the Barr-Reeve basketball team would load the bus and make the seven-mile trip west on U.S. Highway 50 for its annual season-opener at Washington in the Hatchet House.
The start of high school basketball season is an anticipated holiday in Montgomery, a community of 343 people where not much changes from decade to decade, including passion for the Barr-Reeve Vikings. This year was different. On the morning of Nov. 22, people in Montgomery were hurting. At the top of that list was Isaac Wagler, a junior guard about to make his first varsity start.
Murphy, 49, lived his whole life here. He was a senior on the 1986 Barr-Reeve team that lost at the buzzer by one point in the sectional semifinals to rival Loogootee. Murphy coached basketball for 19 years at the youth level because that is what you do here — give back. He followed his father Steve’s footsteps and worked on the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Department. Steve Murphy has put in 50 years, Dwayne 30.
“Kendall took it harder than anybody,” longtime Barr-Reeve coach Bryan Hughes said. “It hurt him bad.”
Kendall gave back — that is what you do here. He worked as a third-generation Montgomery firefighter after he graduated from the University of Southern Indiana, in addition to his position as an insurance agent for German American Bank. And he coached basketball.
On the basketball court is where Kendall and Isaac Wagler made a connection. More specifically, on the bench. Kendall was Hughes’ freshman coach for four years. All of Wagler’s sophomore season, he sat next to Kendall on the bench during varsity games. Kendall mentored him constantly, relaying what he could expect the following season when he would play on the varsity team.
“You could always talk to him,” Wagler said with a smile. “He was definitely a big brother type. He was always in a good mood and laid back. We got to know each other pretty well.”
Kendall, due to a promotion at the bank, gave up his position as freshman coach. He was going to coach the fifth graders. Hughes has — get this — 10 former Barr-Reeve players among his volunteer coaches.
“I hated that Bryan lost him at the high school level but we were looking forward to Kendall working the next 20 to 25 years with the younger kids,” said Alex Knepp, a 1997 Barr-Reeve graduate and volunteer coach for 13 years. “The younger kids loved playing for him.”
Tragedy struck late on the night of Nov. 10. Kendall, 27, was a first responder to an emergency on Old Highway 50, about a mile from where he grew up outside Montgomery. He was struck and killed by a vehicle driven by Colby Blake, who was also a volunteer firefighter. Blake, of nearby Cannelburg, was charged with drunk driving.
Montgomery descended into a fog after Kendall Murphy’s death. Hughes called off practice for a couple of days. Wagler, who had been working out and shooting with Kendall all summer, lost more than a basketball coach.
“He was a great role model for our young kids,” said Hughes, who has led Barr-Reeve to five state finals appearances in his 26 seasons. “He could relate to the them.”
Twelve days after Kendall’s death, Barr-Reeve’s starting five huddled on the Hatchet House court before tipoff and said, “Play for Murph!” When they broke the huddle, Wagler shook hands with all of the Washington players, took a spot at the top of the key and looked over at bench where he and Kendall would have been sitting a year before on the bench. Before the official sent the ball skyward for the tip, Wagler glanced toward the heavens. Teammate Austin Ainscough tipped the ball to Wagler and the season was underway.
For Wagler, on the court, and Dwayne, in the bleachers, the heartbreak was still fresh. But a text message exchange between the two earlier that day had helped the healing process begin.
“Hey Isaac. I know Kendall had to keep close reins on you. He told me several times that he would have to give you one of his pep talks. So, I’m going to try to tell you what he would have said to you today. Keep your head up, don’t worry about making mistakes because nobody plays a perfect game. Know your role and do it right, don’t try to do too much and play under control. You can be and need to be a leader of this team. That means you have to play smart without attitude and stay out of foul trouble. DO NOT HANG YOUR HEAD AND GET DOWN ON YOURSELF. You got this. Make Kendall and all of us proud. Beat those Hatchets.”
Dwayne’s phone buzzed back. His heart filled when he read Isaac’s response:
“Thanks a lot Coach. I’ve been needing someone to tell me this today for this game. I’ve been struggling to think about how Kendall’s not gonna be by my side every game to tell me how to be a better basketball player and not just that but also a better person! I appreciate everything your son has done for me and this basketball program. I appreciate you taking the time to text me this message! I’m giving everything I’ve got tonight to get a WIN for Kendall.”
The texts have continued throughout the season. Dwayne also began texting with junior Gabe Gladish after he had a couple of tough shooting games. It has not only been a pick-me-up for the players, but for Dwayne too.
“It helps,” Dwayne said. “It’s been four months (since Kendall died). A lot of people would have forgotten by now. But the way everybody has rallied around him, it makes you feel good. Every weekend, we are hearing about him. It’s helped quite a bit actually.”
Dwayne said he can feel Kendall’s presence. He jokes that Kendall sometimes does not show up until the fourth quarter of Barr-Reeve’s games. The Vikings trailed by 13 points going into the fourth quarter in the sectional championship against host Loogootee before rallying for a 40-39 win.
The rally started when an errant Loogootee pass sailed out of bounds. Kendall’s fiancé, Jessica Padgett, caught the ball and threw it back to an official.
“I didn’t even realize it until somebody said, ‘You realize that’s when Kendall showed up,’” Dwayne said.
After the win over Loogootee, Isaac Wagler made a beeline for Dwayne and his wife, Katrina. They shared a long and emotional embrace together on the court at Loogootee.
“He was exhausted,” Dwayne said. “You could see how much it meant to him.”
Barr-Reeve (24-4) won two more games in the regional, edging Christian Academy 48-47 in the championship. Fans wore red and fire chief hats on honor Murphy.
On Saturday, the Vikings will face Morristown (26-2) in the Class A semistate at Seymour at 1 p.m. One step from the state finals.
Outsiders sometimes ask Hughes what makes Barr-Reeve such a successful basketball school. When he came to Montgomery, he did not expect to stay 26 years. Hughes was once an assistant for current Ben Davis coach Mark James when the two were at Covington.
“He told me if you can’t come up with more reasons why you should leave than stay, then you better stay,” Hughes said. “I’ve found no reason to leave. I’ve had people call and ask. But I’ve never had a strong desire to leave.”
The truth is, Hughes was not confident about this season. Through the summer, he was discouraged. Though the team was talented, led by 6-8 sophomore Keegan O’Neill (15.3 ppg, 7.5 rebounds) and Gladish (14.3 ppg), Hughes was not sure the team was jelling like it should.
“You hate to say something tragic brings a team together,” Hughes said. “But there seemed to be a gradual increase in togetherness since Kendall’s accident.”
In a community that has always wrapped its arms around its school, there is more unity than ever. Success can be found in consistency: Albert Kavanaugh has kept the scorebook since 1962 (it was Montgomery then; it was consolidated to Barr-Reeve in 1965) and has helped coached generations of Vikings the fundamentals of basketball.
But it’s not just the fundamentals of pass, pivot, shoot that makes Barr-Reeve basketball. It is cultivated through love. Through people like Kendall Murphy, a man who gave more than he got.
Before that season-opening game against Washington, Dwayne sent one more text message to Isaac, from Kendall:
“Thank you for this message. He loved all of you and wanted you to be good role models for all the young boys coming up through the grades. GO BR”