Prime number athletes … Reggie Miller #31

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars” – Khalil Gibran

The biggest three point shooting star in the 90’s was Reggie Miller the skinny frail looking shooting guard for the Indiana Pacers.  He was like of the Steph Curry of the 90’s, a baby faced sharp shooter.  Much like Curry, Miller did not look tough, no Lebron James Marvel Super hero physique or Mike Tyson like menacing scowl. But he was tough.  He was a handful to deal with even for perhaps the greatest player the world has ever seen (Michael Jordan) and always performed his best on basketballs greatest stage (New York’s Madison Square Garden). When you look the hardships he faced in his childhood, the doubt and hate he dealt with as a college and NBA basketball player you realize Reggie Miller demonstrated his inner strength  by over coming obstacles with hard work and self belief.

Reginald Wayne “Reggie” Miller was born in Riverside California in 1965.  Unlike most athletes he did not display extraordinary athletic talent as a child.  In fact he wore braces on both legs because he was born with hip deformities that made it difficult for him to walk properly.  Eventually his legs became strong enough to compensate for the hip deformities and he no longer had to wear leg braces and could begin playing basketball.  Miller had a tough introduction to basketball, his older sister Cheryl is one of the greatest female basketball players of all time (the Millers were an athletic family brother Darrell was a Major League baseball player while sister Tammy was a college volleyball player) , and constantly beat him in one on one games until he grew big enough to block her shot after which she refused to play in anymore one on one games with him.  For the longest time he played under Cheryl’s shadow, one day after he scored 39 points in a high school game he could not wait to get home to tell his family about it  only to find out that on the same day Cheryl had just scored 105 points in her game.

After a high school basketball career at Riverside Polytechnic High School Miller was not heavily recruited by many big time colleges, but was offered a scholarship to the school he most wanted to attend … the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).   While playing at UCLA Reggie was still playing in Cheryl’s shadow (who was dominating the NCAA at the University of Southern California).  When playing an away game opposing fans would taunt him with chants of “CHE-RYL” whenever he touched the ball.  In one game after Reggie executed an nice driving layup the commentator joked “Cheryl taught him that!”.  The taunts and teasing motivated Reggie.  He played with a toughness and mean streak that belied his thin frame.  When his 4 year collegiate career was completed he had become a great player in his own right finishing as UCLA’s second all time scorer (behind only the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar).  He also set single season records for most points scored, highest scoring average, most free throws made, and several single game records , including setting the record for most points in a half, 33 in 1987 vs Louisville).

After 4 years at UCLA Miller was selected by the Indiana Pacers with the 11th pick in the 1987 draft.  He was not a popular pick amongst Pacer fans, who booed his selection.  They wanted the Pacers to select Indiana native Steve Alford (who at the time was a local hero in the state of Indiana) from Indiana University.  Miller was at his family home in Riverside California when he was selected, TBS interviewed him live from his home with his parents and sisters (Tammy and Cheryl).  During the interview Rick Barry(who was a guest commentator for the Draft) said to Miller ” what you have to do … is have the kind of intensity your sister has and you’ll be fine” to which Miller  replied “ok” and let out a forced laugh.  He looked annoyed by the comment as if he was thinking I get drafted 11th over all in the NBA draft and I’m still overshadowed by my big sister!

Though he did not start out as a fan favorite Miller slowly won the respect of Indiana Pacer fans with his stellar play. After averaging 10 points per game in his rookie season where he served as the teams back up shooting guard, his scoring improved each of the next two seasons.  He soon became the teams main scoring threat replacing Chuck “Rifleman” Pearson.  It became clear that Pacer GM Donnie Walsh made the right choice in selecting Miller over Alford who went on to become a very successful  College basketball coach but was simply not talented enough to excel as a professional basketball player.

Indiana fans learned to love Miller for his toughness.  Opposing teams roughed him up as much as they could, thinking his slight frame could not handle all the abuse.  He would get hit so hard by some 250 pound power forward setting a screen he would fall to the floor, but he always got up and hit his next 3 point shot.  While he was becoming one of the premier shooting guards in the NBA few outside of Indiana recognized him.  His play merited “super star” status but he was not considered a “super star”.  Many of his fiends suggested that after his contract expired with Indiana he go on to play for a bigger market team (like the Los Angeles Lakers) where he will certainly get the attention he deserves. But Miller liked Indiana and its small town feel, it reminded him of Riverside.  He got involved in the community, visited local schools,  and hosted a local talk show for teens.  He liked the quiet life.  He wanted to stay.  He wanted to bring a championship to Indiana.

Miller helped put the Indiana Pacers on the map in the 1994 NBA playoffs where they won their first two playoff series’ to earn a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks.   The Knicks were heavily favored. The team featured all star center Patrick Ewing and a solid supporting cast that included pesky defender John Starks tough guys Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, and savvy veteran point guard Derek Harper.  It was in game 5 at New York’s Madison Square Garden of  that series that Reggie Miller became a household name.  The series was tied at two games a piece and through 3 quarters of play in the 5th game the Knicks had a commanding lead (70 – 58)and looked like they were on there way to taking a lead in the series.  Miller was having a mediocre shooting night, and hearing it from Knicks celebrity super fan Spike Lee.  The Knicks had their swagger and Lee was clearly having fun watching them outplay Miller and the Pacers.  Lee is known to chirp opposing teams from his courtside seats.  By now Miller had become an expert at using taunts as motivation.  In the 4th quarter Miller took center stage on basketballs grandest stage and showed the world it’s not a good idea to trash talk him from the side lines the way Spike Lee did.  Watch what happened…

Though the Pacers would lose the series in seven games, Millers clutch performance in game 5 put him in the spotlight and made him a superstar.  His showdown with Spike Lee is now a legendary story that generation X and Y basketball fans  pass down to millennial fans.  To add to the legend Miller would produce another clutch performance in the 1995 playoffs scoring eight points in 8.9 seconds to steal a win from the New York Knicks.

While Miller never did win a championship for Indiana, though he came close in 2000 leading them to the championship game where they lost to Kobe Bryant’s and Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers,  he played for them his entire career and provided many clutch performances.  Here are a sample of them…

Going toe to toe against the great Michael Jordon to hit the game winning 3 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the mighty Chicago Bulls.

Scoring 41 points against the Philadelphia 76er’s in the 2001 playoffs, his teammate Jalen Rose also scored 40 in this game making them the highest scoring pair of teammates in NBA playoff history.

He also hit a game winning 3 earlier in this series.

And another big performance against the Knicks in the 2000 Easter Conference finals.

In the 2002 playoffs Miller’s stellar play almost helped Indiana pull off an upset of top seed and eventual Eastern Conference finalist New Jersey Nets.

After 18 seasons in the NBA Miller retired in 2005.  He is considered one of the greatest shooters of his generation.  He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.   He is currently a basketball analyst and commentator for TNT where he occasionally gets a visit from an old friend.

Reggie Miller’s story would make for a great inspirational sports movie about an underdog (like Rocky, McFarland etc …).  A boy is crippled as a child then is overshadowed by his incredibly talented sister as a teen, then is hated by his hometown fans when he is drafted to the NBA.  But he stays loyal to the team and city who drafted him, puts the franchise on the map, and becomes a Hall of Fame player.  How’s that for inspirational?

 

 

 

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