Late Monday night, the family arrived in New York from Kinshasa, by way of Istanbul, having been approved for their passports and five-month tourist visas.
The process began two months ago, when Kuminga’s older brother, Joel, made the request known to adviser Dan Rohme. Immigration lawyers told Rohme that Kuminga’s request was “impossible,” given the timing, covid-19 travel restrictions and the fact that foreign consulates are being more selective about whom they allow in and out of nations.
So Rohme reached out to Travis Murphy.
“I said, ‘People are telling me we should forget about it. This is the biggest day of this family’s lives. Is there any way we can make it happen?’ ” said Rohme, president of brand management at Verus Management Team. “Travis rolled up his sleeves and got after it. If it wasn’t for Travis, none of this would’ve happened.”
For the past five years, Murphy has served as the NBA’s director of international government affairs. Teams, agents and players tap their wrists, and Murphy comes running out of the bullpen like a shutdown closer with the solution. Bringing seven years of experience as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, Murphy has helped streamline the league’s efforts to accommodate international players and their support systems by setting them up with work visas, green cards and whatever else they need to move around the globe.
To get Kuminga’s family in for Thursday’s NBA draft, Murphy spoke directly to the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa. He explained that Kuminga, who skipped college to play for the G League Ignite, is expected to be a top 10 pick and this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation for the family.
“Coming from the department of state, I see the work that I do through the lens of service,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “Helping out these young kids and to give them an opportunity to demystify the immigration process.”
The NBA has been a global brand for nearly three decades. And as the game has grown, so has the need for someone to navigate the complicated systems to get athletes and those close to them where they belong.
Murphy has provided what NBA senior vice president of international basketball operations Kim Bohuny described as “one-stop shopping,” using his connections in the state department, relationships with international embassies and extended knowledge about how the travel and immigration machine operates to put players and teams at ease.
“I don’t want to just be the visa guy, even though sometimes that’s the easiest explanation. It’s something that’s immediately understood for anyone who has tried to come in from out of the United States,” said Murphy, who is fluent in Spanish and French.
Murphy helped Senegalese big man Tacko Fall of the Boston Celtics get his green card and secured a 10-year tourist visa for Fall’s mother, Marianne Sene, to come and go as she pleases. He helped Boban Marjanovic, the beloved Serbian center from the Dallas Mavericks, acquire a special work visa that would allow him to fight Keanu Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 3.” He’s working with Orlando Magic forward Moritz Wagner to get his green card, helping Wagner’s girlfriend come over from Germany for a program that will give her college credit, and assisted Wagner’s mother, Beate, to come over to be with another son, Franz, for this year’s draft.
“Dealing with immigration is tough, especially when you’re not from here. Adding to it, we are professional athletes. Naturally, we’re very busy and there are a lot of things we just can’t take care of by ourselves,” Fall said in a telephone interview. “It’s good to have someone of knowledge. Travis knows his stuff.”
But Murphy’s assignments aren’t limited to the NBA. He also works closely with FIBA, the WNBA, G League and 2K teams and is heavily involved in the league’s grass-roots efforts to grow the game, such as Basketball Without Borders, the Jr. NBA and the NBA Academy.
When he started in 2016, Murphy estimated he was responsible for about 500 cases. That workload has increased exponentially, to well over 2,000 in the past five years. Such a high volume of cases, which requires individualized care, surely requires a relatively large staff to accommodate the requests, right?
“It’s just me,” Murphy said with a laugh. “I’m not saying it’s an easy job. That’s due in part to having someone with a greater bandwidth to handle more cases, with them bringing me on. But it’s also a function of your success perpetuates and leads to other cases. So I’ve become more known, more questions come.”
Murphy isn’t complaining. The work has allowed many of the relationships to evolve into friendships among team executives, players and their representatives and loved ones, who often go directly to Murphy rather than burden their agents or teams.
“Sometimes in the past, players or their agents would write letters, and it wasn’t a coordinated effort, and teams would go to these embassies and be denied their visas,” Bohuny said. “Once you’re denied, it’s much more difficult to get into the United States. So that’s one of the many reasons Travis has been essential to our success.”
Murphy arrived when a record 26 international players were taken in the 2016 NBA draft, including 14 in the first round. There were 107 players from 41 different countries on opening-night rosters for the 2020-21 season. Murphy estimates nearly 40 percent of those players have or are pursuing green cards.
“I don’t think anybody could’ve seen these numbers,” Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said. International players are “a quarter of the league. I could foresee it being a third of the league in the future. The NFL is America’s game, great. The NBA is the world’s game.”
The Wizards selected an international player in the lottery of the past two drafts — Japan’s Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija of Israel — and led the NBA with seven players born outside of the United States on opening night. Once he signed his rookie contract, Hachimura needed to switch from the student visa he used at Gonzaga to a P1 work visa. Avdija has two passports because his father is Serbian but was able to have both parents in Washington for his rookie season.
Last year was more complicated for the league because of covid and a condensed offseason. A “snag” with Latvian forward Davis Bertans’s visa led to him arriving late for Washington’s training camp after he signed a five-year, $80 million contract in free agency.
“Visas were being really, really judiciously issued. And an embassy doesn’t care if you're an athlete or not. He cut through a lot of the red tape. He’s not going to get you to the front of the line, but he can get you the right line quicker. Could’ve been much worse without his intervention,” said Sheppard, who also praised Murphy for most recently helping a summer league invitee get his visa cleared in time for camp.
On the morning he spoke with The Washington Post, Murphy helped resolve a customs issue for a player traveling into a smaller airport for a weekend visit, spoke to another player’s family in Nigeria about the visa application process, helped the Chicago Bulls get passport renewal information for one of their players and assisted two members of the Nigerian women’s national team in getting their student visas renewed so they could return to college after the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s really broad, it’s really diverse,” Murphy said, “and that’s every single day.”
Murphy worked with 35 draft prospects and their families in preparation for Thursday’s event at Barclays Center. Some situations were more challenging than others. Though each case comes with its own special reward, Murphy takes pride when situations such as Kuminga’s come together.
“I’m a small role in the background,” Murphy said, “but to play a part in bringing that family together as he launches his NBA career, it’s just a really cool thing.”