When Al La Rocque finished playing for Lute Olson at Long Beach City College in 1971, Olson did him a favor by asking a coaching friend at Cal Poly Pomona to offer La Rocque a scholarship.

Some 27 years later, La Rocque repaid the debt.

He told Olson about Jack Murphy.

Murphy, who will return to McKale Center tonight as the new head coach at NAU, had finished as a student manager for La Rocque's Durango High School program in Las Vegas.

Murphy was floating around the UNLV program in 1998, helping then-coach Billy Bayno, but looking to enroll at a college where he could start a coaching career as a manager.

La Rocque, Murphy's mentor who annually visited Olson's UA program while picking up tips for his perennially strong Durango program, knew the perfect fit. He called Olson.

"I said, 'Take this kid and you'll be glad you did,'" La Rocque said. "I said, 'He has a passion. All you have to do is meet Jack, and you can see his energy.'"

Olson offered Murphy a job as a manager, and Murphy never let go of the opportunity. His work ethic and infectious personality led to a number of roles over eight years with the Wildcats, including video coordinator and operations director, before he left in 2006 to become an advance scout and workout coach for the Denver Nuggets.

In 2009, former UA basketball staff colleague Josh Pastner invited Murphy to join his new Memphis coaching staff, and Murphy spent the next three seasons with the Tigers. Then, last spring Murphy was named the Lumberjacks' permanent head coach, after the controversial early-season exit of former coach Mike Adras last year.

Finally, in October, the story came somewhat full circle when Murphy unexpectedly lost an assistant … and asked La Rocque to fill the spot.

In retirement since 2008, largely because he wanted to watch his daughter, Lindy, play for Stanford from 2008-09 until last season, La Rocque hesitated at first. Lindy had finished playing, but La Rocque had a good life working part time as a college scout for the Washington Wizards while his wife, Beverly, continued to work at a junior high school.

Besides, La Rocque said, "after all those years in high school, being a Division I assistant wasn't on my bucket list."

But NAU was in trouble. Already without an operations director, which at many schools are coaches-in-waiting, Murphy had just two other basketball minds on his staff. And the job market for assistant coaches in October is all but closed.

"I knew it would be hard for us," Murphy said.

So Murphy called La Rocque. But La Rocque already knew Murphy needed him. Beverly knew it, too.

The hesitation ended, and La Rocque took the assistant coach's job, even though the move has never been easy.

"I didn't realize I would miss her so much but she was real supportive," La Rocque said of his wife. "I wouldn't have done it for anyone else but Jack because my life was pretty comfortable. I enjoyed watching the games."

Murphy said La Rocque has helped particularly with technical aspects of game management, such as substitution patterns and calling timeouts but, in truth, over the years, La Rocque has been more of an off-court mentor.

"When I had an opportunity to go to the Nuggets, I asked him if it was a good move," Murphy said. "Throughout the years, he's helped me more with life guidance than basketball. I never asked him to break down Memphis game tape. But when I was getting married, he loaned me some money for the wedding."

Now, Murphy keeps La Rocque busier than ever, working with all facets of Murphy's program. La Rocque said Monday he was even breaking down video of Arizona, and noted that while he has generally not been involved with recruiting, he was cajoled into a recent recruiting trip to Phoenix.

"That was kind of fun," La Rocque said.

But what's not fun is missing his home and wife in Las Vegas, even if it is only a scenic 3 1/2-hour drive away.

"It is a beautiful drive," La Rocque said. "But I don't have any time to do it."

That's partly why La Rocque says he doesn't plan to return next season, because of the time away from home and also because Murphy needs a younger assistant for the long run.

So the full circle lasts one year only. And it stops tonight at Lute and Bobbi Olson Court.

On StarNet: Watch video highlights of the UA basketball news conference at: azstarnet.com/online/video


• Who: Northern Arizona (2-3) at No. 9 Arizona (3-0)

• When: 8 p.m.

• TV: Pac-12 Arizona

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)