New leader of Detroit Pistons’ G League team Rob Murphy is ready for tip-off

Detroit Free Press
Carol Cain |  Free Press Business Columnist

Rob Murphy has never backed down from a challenge. Not in life and not in his chosen profession of basketball.

Raised a good portion of his early years by a single mother, he embraced and defeated the challenge of growing up on the hard scrabble streets of Detroit to become a student athlete at Central State University in Ohio where, as a member of the basketball program, he began his leadership skills as a two-time team captain.

Professionally, he took the challenge of starting at the ground floor of the basketball industry as a high school coach at Detroit Crockett (where he won a state championship). Then, from being a D-1 assistant at the Mid Major Conference level to successfully navigating that challenge to become a top assistant to legendary Coach Jim Boeheim at the perennial national power that is Syracuse Basketball, Murphy could have enjoyed a long and lucrative career as an assistant.

Yet, always looking for the next challenge, in April 2011 and against the advice of many of his mentors in the industry, he took the head coaching job at under-resourced Eastern Michigan University, taking the reins of a program in the dumpster fire subsequent to the university firing Head Coach Charles Ramsey at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Ten years later, he became the second winningest coach in the program’s history.

That is why it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that at the end of EMU’s season in April, he decided to tackle a new frontier as president and general manager of the Motor City Cruise, the Detroit Pistons Minor League affiliate (called in NBA circles, the G League) that will begin play this upcoming season in Detroit, just a few miles away from the Pistons’ home court at Little Caesars Arena and only minutes away from where he grew up as a young child.

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Murphy is well-versed and respected in the game of basketball and had turned down multiple NBA front office and assistant coaching positions over the years. But this opportunity was different. Like all head coaches at the collegiate level, he had cultivated sponsors, donors and season ticket holders and also dealt with his program’s overall budget.

But, now, he was getting immersed in the business of basketball. From human resources,  sales and marketing to the off-the-floor functions handled by EMU’s Athletic Administration, plus standing up a basketball organization from scratch, he jumped on this new dynamic with his typical “let’s get it done yesterday” approach.

After arriving in Detroit in 2015, Pistons Vice Chairman Arn Tellem met Murphy and knew he was extremely close to (and highly thought of) by his new General Manager Troy Weaver. But Tellem has been stunned at how seamlessly and successfully Murphy has embraced the business side of his responsibilities.

“Rob is the perfect person to lead the Motor City Cruise. His basketball knowledge was well-documented. But his experience at Eastern, especially centered around revenue development and fundraising off the court, coupled with the fact he was born and raised in Detroit, has proven to be an asset for us as we build this new franchise. His relationships throughout the city and region are driving business and growth opportunities,” Tellem said.

Indeed, Murphy and his team have come out of the gate red hot. He said the Cruise has raised nearly $1 million in sponsorships and ticket sales even before the first game has been played.

The team is expected to debut this fall. 

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The Cruise will play in a new, $30-million, 3,000-seat arena being built on the campus of Wayne State University (which will also be home to the university’s men’s and women’s programs, concerts and other events).

When Murphy came on board, and as the Pistons wrapped up their season, he dove in head first on the business side, accumulating a staff and actively getting involved in sponsorship presentations, ticket sales, and sales and marketing efforts.

“I talk with Troy daily and attended every home game at night and some road trips but, with the Pistons season now over, Coach (Dwayne) Casey, Troy and I are just getting started in putting together the basketball operation and I am helping them prepare for the NBA Draft. But I have been extremely involved in the business side since my first day.”

Starting a new professional sports offering emerging from a pandemic, even in a sports-crazy town like Detroit, has not been easy, but Murphy says the Cruise will be ready and is planning on building a product spectators will enjoy. Further, it is not lost on him the G League team will be priced in a manner that will allow a different demographic of basketball fan to enjoy an evening out.

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“We’re looking to create an exciting game atmosphere and experience that families in our community can enjoy while watching future Pistons stars of tomorrow,”  Murphy said.

Under the leadership of Weaver and Casey, the Pistons are already on their way to reshaping their roster for the future. Now, with Murphy as their top lieutenant of the minor league operation, they look forward to him installing a winning culture within his organization for their future stars, while concurrently developing a new base of fans that will be ready to one day celebrate the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy returning to the Motor City for the first time since 2004.

Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 7:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See Detroit Tigers great Kirk Gibson, Penske Corp. President Bud Denker and Rinus Veekay (Indy Car 2020 Rookie of the Year) talk about Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear.

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