Cold, wet, gray weather greeted Dejounte Murray as he stepped off the Atlanta Hawks team plane Saturday afternoon in San Antonio.
It remained to be seen at that point whether he would receive an equally bad reception from Spurs fans.
It didn’t happen.
After being introduced Sunday after a video tribute to the Spurs, Murray received hearty cheers and cheers from fans who welcomed him back to AT&T for the first time since the team traded him last summer.
It seemed to be a sweet moment for the 26-year-old point guard, who responded by throwing his hands in the air to greet the crowd before returning the applause.
“I don’t know how other people feel,” Murray said Saturday when asked what he expected from fans. “There are a lot of angry people, a lot of people who are happy. Real people who are real humans understand that it’s appropriate for us to say how we feel and we shouldn’t be judged because we have more money than you or more fame than you.
“I feel like those are the ones who are going to show me the love I deserve. Because, ultimately, I love this city, I love the San Antonio Spurs organization…and I’m thrilled to see the people I love and care about.
After joining the Hawks, Murray angered some fans by making what they perceived as negative comments verbally or through social media about the Spurs, who selected him 29th overall in the 2016 NBA Draft.
The comments that garnered the most attention came when he was a guest on a podcast hosted by another former Spur, Stephen Jackson, in which Murray accused the Spurs of “trying to catch him” and “playing mind games” with he. He also criticized future Hall of Famer Tony Parker for not mentoring him properly.
Back in Bexar County this weekend, Murray made no apologies. Essentially, he claimed that his comments on social media were emotional responses to snaps fans took of him.
“My truth is my experience, and it’s unlike any other single person and player in this game,” he said. “At the end of the day, I took more positives than negatives out of the situation (playing for Spurs).”
Speaking in a downtown hotel ballroom during an informal media gathering on Saturday, Murray repeatedly professed his love for the Spurs.
“I love them because they gave me an opportunity in that moment where no one else did,” he said, referring to the Spurs taking him even though he came from a background in Seattle that included a difficult childhood where he is been exposed to crime and drugs and got into trouble with the law.
With the Spurs, he found what he called a “father figure” in head coach Gregg Popovich and became an All-Star in his final season with the team.
“Just knowing what I went through, he tried to keep me away from Seattle as much (as possible),” Murray said. “Not just about any negative things, but to keep me focused. We had hearts to hearts, and there were times I lost people over and over again and he was someone I could cry to because I didn’t have family living here in San Anthony.
“Many people won’t understand the relationship we have for each other. It has nothing to do with basketball. It’s just us as men. We connected really well… and it’s something that will last forever.”
Speaking to reporters ahead of Sunday’s game, Popovich called Murray a “special young man in my life.”
“He was so young when he came here, kind of like three or four of the kids we have now,” Popovich said. “It was a moment in his life where he could use another voice to bounce things around, and I just happened to be there. I really enjoyed all the situations we could talk about. Not just basketball, that was really the bare minimum. And he was so busy being a good father and doing what he had to do as his first priority. Just being able to be a part of developing him in that sense was special.
Murray’s current coach, Seattle-area native and former Spurs staffer Quin Snyder, is well equipped to pick up where Popovich left off. The Hawks hired former Utah head coach Snyder last month after he fired Nate McMillan.
“I’ve known him from afar for a while, even when he was back at Rainer Beach High,” Snyder said of Murray. “I’m from Seattle, so I’m familiar with him. Really (Spurs assistant coach and Seattle native) Mitch Johnson introduced that to me many years ago. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to coach Dejounte. He’s a unique guy and a fun player.”
When asked what makes Murray “unique”, Snyder said: “The physique is something I could talk about, but for me it’s more about who he is as a person and his leadership skills. He’s a guy who loves being in the gym and working out As a coach, you appreciate these things very much: the ability of someone to take care of the group.”
In addition to receiving warm greetings from fans, Murray has had some emotional moments with his former teammates, including three players he befriended as rookies: Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Tre Jones.
Johnson and Vassell broke away from the pre-game warmup to share hugs with Murray in center field.
“He was a great mentor to them,” Popovich said. “We’re talking about going to dinner and all that social stuff beyond the basketball court where you try to make them feel comfortable and that sort of thing. He’s a social person, so he’s been a wonderful influence on them.”
Given these friendships, Murray has been closely following the Spurs as they struggle through one of the worst seasons in franchise history. After tweeting in response to a derogatory comment from a fan that the Spurs would “lose by 15 years” to bigger issues than basketball, he sang a different tune during his comeback.
“He’ll teach them the game right,” Murray said of Popovich. “Whether the boys are staying here or away on business, they will know how to play the game right. And he also knows how to be a great person.
“…At the end of the day, I believe it will be back to where it needs to be.”