It would be easy to start this article with… It’s Miller Time Baby!;
But I will not. Very rarely do you hear about any athlete being selected for entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who had leg, hip disabilities as a young child and had to wear braces for years before his legs could hold him up without them. Do you know about selectees going into the Hall without much mention of what they did in high school as a player but more about the one-on-one battles he had with his superstar sister, Cheryl Miller? The competition between Reggie and Cheryl continued up until he could finally block her shots which ended their on the court basketball rivalry. You can imagine Hall of Fame selectees talking about how some coach and mentor helped them develop their well documented arch in their jump shot. Not Miller, during their epic backyard wars on the basketball court, his great arch was developed while seeking a way to get his shot over his sister Cheryl, without his shot being blocked. What would you want on your basketball resume? Cheryl entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, twelve years before her little brother, Reggie. In the Miller household there was action applied to the proverb, iron sharpens iron.
It was the spring of 1984 the late Walt Hazzard, (the 1964 College Player of the Year, on UCLA’s 1964 NCAA Championship team and finals MVP and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1964 NBA Draft), was considering me for an assistant coaching job at UCLA. Hazzard offered and I accepted. UCLA was a busy place at the time as the campus was one of the primary facility site locations for the 1984 Olympic Games.
Once the 1984-85 college basketball season began, our coaching staff was able to get a gage on the players we had inherited. The core of the team was built on three seniors, 7’0” Brad Wright at center, 6’8” power forward Gary Maloncon, and 6’6” guard Nigel Miguel. The three seniors needed this season to show what they could do on the court. We also had 6’1 guard Montel Hatcher and 6’7” forward-guard Reggie Miller. When you first looked at Reggie you were not overwhelmed by his physical attributes or lack thereof in college. The hope was that there is something he does that is the reason he ended up at UCLA. Our coaching staff inherited Miller he was ours. We soon recognized that we had more in Reggie than we thought on first sight.
Walt Hazzard had an encouraging method of coaching players. He tried to build confidence in his players. Coach Hazzard wanted his new coaching staff to use our pre-season to evaluate our players and determine who was who and what we could develop in our players before the season progressed. The media and basketball experts had no viable expectations for this group of players and their focus was on who we would recruit for the following year. One thing the coaching staff determined was that the skinny kid, Miller can shoot the basketball; if you hit him in rhythm and he can set his feet he was money. We knew we had a catch and shoot guy. The three seniors knew this was their last chance to show everyone what they really could do and Coach Hazzard’s confidence building style of coaching, was a match for them. Assistant coach Jack Hirsch, volunteer assistant coach Sidney Wicks and I, all were NCAA champions under John Wooden, we were determined to get the players to believe.
We began to see major jumps in the development of the team, physically, mentally and in the key areas of attitude and focus of purpose. We also began to see that Miller was stronger than we thought. Despite his frame he competed but not like we wanted in practice and it was becoming an issue. The team went through a four game loss and the atmosphere was getting intense in practice. Reggie would perform hard in the games but not as hard in practice. When you have a coaching staff of all John Wooden former players it makes it hard to watch any player not his best in practice.
Finally, we convinced Coach Hazzard to confront Reggie with the concern because it was affecting the staff and the team. It was no question we needed Reggie but something had to give. During our next coaches meeting, Coach Hazzard said he had spoken with Reggie about the concern. In precise, Reggie’s response was, I will try to do better in practice, don’t worry Coach I am like that, I really respond to the crowd, especially on the road. I’ll be ready to play. To Coach Hazzard’s credit he said he believed Reggie and Reggie kept his word. The team had a few more small stumbling blocks but they had bought into Coach Hazzard’s program. The team was close to making a run for a NCAA bid but they jellied a little too late for the NCAA but were selected and accepted an National Invitation Tournament, (NIT), bid, a first for UCLA.
The more important the game Reggie Miller led the way and was getting better showing more of his firepower, It was evident that Coach Hazzard had made the right decision to let Reggie be Reggie. Coach Wicks and I knew Reggie needed to develop one more move and the mentality to go with it. We discussed with Reggie that he needed to develop pump fakes and move to the basket to score. We also let him know he needed to make himself drive to the basket more so that there would be no way to defend him, because he could shot or drive to score. We later saw Miller drive do a two hand power dunk and we knew he had received the message. The worst the crowds jeered the Bruins or Miller with chants of “Hey Cheryl “Oh Cheryl” the better Reggie seemed to perform. It was like watching the Hulk. The bigger the trouble produced a more competitive Miller. Whatever Miller could not do against his sister or whatever he did or did not do in high school Reggie overcame and proved many fans and experts wrong.
The seniors were determined! Brad Wright our center gave us an inside presence we did not have earlier in the season. Nigel Miguel was defending the best scorers on other teams, while scoring more himself. Maloncon was on the boards and Montel Hatcher’s jumper turned on while he continuously made tremendous plays using his great jumping ability to block shots at 6’1”. No it was not the NCAA playoffs but this team played in the NIT with a passion to win and Reggie kept playing stronger and more locked in as the Bruins rolled through the NIT competition.
Our trip to New York for the NIT Final Four was very special. On the bus leaving the airport on the way to the hotel we passed some major New York landmarks. Reggie Miller, the kid from Riverside California became overwhelmed by the amount of people on the street as he looked out the bus window. He was also amazed at the New York architecture. It began to snow and Miller had never seen snow up close.
When Miller hit the Madison Square Garden floor he became a fan favorite. Some fans cheered for him and others booed him but they all knew who he was and loved his game and his confidence under pressure. Reggie loved the ones who cheered him on, but he really relished the fans who booed him. Little did he know that this interaction and relationship with the Madison Square Garden crowd would intensify throughout his professional basketball career every time he came to the Garden.
Miller would lead these mighty Bruins to the 1985 NIT Championship beating a very good Louisville team with Coach Denny Crum in the semi-final game and beating a Bobby Knight led Indiana Hoosiers team in the final game. Miller was awarded the tournament MVP.
In his final year in Westwood, Miller established himself in the UCLA record books becoming the second leading scorer behind UCLA’s leading scorer Lew Alcindor/ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Miller had a great college career but he still had many doubters among fans and the basketball establishment as to whether he could be successful in the NBA. He is too skinny. He will not be able to take the pounding in the NBA. He is just a shooter. He won’t be able to get those shoots off in the NBA. Miller ignored the Yackety Yack Yack Yack!
Sometimes during the NBA draft you just need one coach, or one general manager to recognize you, for Reggie that was Donnie Walsh, the Indiana Pacers President. Walsh was willing to take the risk on the skinny kid from UCLA, selecting him # 1 and # 11th player picked overall in the 1987 NBA Draft. Many Indianapolis fans booed Donnie Walsh on his selection of Reggie Miller. I believe, Walsh saw past Reggie’s lean body and saw the wiry strength and durability of his body, as well as, the fierce competitive spirit that burned inside him. All great players and champions possess this characteristic. Mr. Walsh realized what we discovered about Reggie Miller at UCLA; Reggie did not just want to be good he wanted to be great!
Miller overcame the boos and doubts of draft day on the basketball court helping the Pacers become a competitive team in the Eastern Conference. When Reggie took the starting position after backing up John Long, Reggie began to make his influence known. When Chuck “The Rifleman” Pearson was traded during the 1992 season, Reggie filled in the scoring gap left by the departure of Pearson. Reggie took advantage of the opportunity. He never looked back. For eighteen years as a Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller overcame all odds. He carved a relentless path of competitive greatness, team spirit and a love for the game of basketball. In his relentless pursuit to help his team win he was recognized and selected to enter the Hall. I am proud I had an opportunity to coach you. Coach Hazzard would have been really proud of you. Congratulations, Reggie by overcoming on every basketball level you received the key to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame!