Reggie Miller will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night.
It will be one of the few times in the 47-year-old’s life that he is not underestimated or doubted.
Born in Riverside, California to Saul and Carrie Miller, Miller wasn’t an athlete from birth. A hip deformity caused him to have severely splayed feet that kept him from enjoying a normal childhood as a toddler.
“My mother cried when I was born. I came out with my legs and hips all contorted and twisted, like somebody had tried to tie me in a knot,” Miller wrote in 1995’s I Love Being The Enemy, which chronicled the 1994-95 season with the help of Gene Wojciechowski. “The doctors said I might not ever walk. And don’t even think about playing sports, they said.”
As part of an athletic family, it was hard for Miller to watch his siblings play in the backyard while he was confined indoors.
“I wore steel braces on my legs until I was four years old. I’d sit in the kitchen with my mom and watch everyone else play basketball in the driveway,” Miller continued in I Love Being The Enemy. “I was like the ultimate momma’s boy, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. I just had to lurch around in those braces looking like a little Forrest Gump.”
As soon as the braces were removed and his legs and feet began functioning properly, Miller made up for lost time. He had a lot of ground to make up with a brother (Darrell) in the major leagues with the Angels and Cheryl quickly making her mark as arguably the greatest women’s basketball player in history.
While in grade school, Reggie and Cheryl would use the latter’s gender as an advantage during pickup games. At that point Reggie had spent fifty percent of his life handicapped, but it was Cheryl that kids underestimated.
“Back in the fifth and sixth grades, we’d go to the courts at John Adams Elementary or Hunt Park and hustle two-on-two games,” he recalls in I Love Being The Enemy. “We had it down to a science. It was the best hustle scam in Riverside, California.
“I’d tell Cheryl to hide in the bushes, and then I’d go up to a couple of older kids and arrange a game. ‘You guys want to play?’ I’d said. ‘I’m by myself … unless you count my sister.’ Then I’d whistle, and Cheryl would come out from behind the bushes looking like she didn’t know a thing about basketball. You could see the two other guys looking at each other like, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be easy.’
“We’d play for ten dollars; the first team to 10 by ones would win the money. Then we’d get down, 5-0, double the bet, and then take care of business. I’d look at Cheryl, she’d look at me, we’d wink, and then … 10-5 us, and on our way to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal.”
Reggie and Cheryl are less than two years apart and the siblings have been extremely close since their childhood. Their shared basketball talent only furthered their bond. Cheryl will help present her brother along with Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson this week.
“Without Cheryl’s accomplishments and hard work, I don’t know if I would be on this stage," Reggie said Thursday in Springfield. "She’s meant everything to my career and everything else. Growing up in the same house, competing and working out. She’s the reason why I’m here.”
When Reggie is inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Millers will become the first siblings enshrined in Springfield as players. The brother-sister pairing is only rivaled by Dick and Al McGuire, who are both in the Hall of Fame as coaches.
While baseball was his first love, it didn’t take long for Miller to fall for the game that would make him a superstar. He joined the baseball team at Riverside Polytechnic High School after having success at lower levels, but soon realized he needed something more fast-paced.
He was stuck behind a handful of other wing players when he joined the basketball team, but hard work and a little luck gave him an opportunity to impress his coach.
“One day we were on the road, getting dressed in the visitors’ locker room. One of the starters pulled out a home uniform instead of the required road uniform,” Miller wrote in I Love Being The Enemy. “He couldn’t play – league rules. So the coach looked at me and said, ‘Well, Reg, I guess you have to start this game.’ He wasn’t very enthusiastic about my chances, if you know what I mean.
“I ended up with 35 points, and was thinking, ‘This is cool. This is nice.’ Best of all, I knew he couldn’t take me out of the lineup.”
Miller thrived at the high school level from then on, but only received a scholarship from UCLA after a few other recruits turned the Bruins down. After four years at UCLA, during which he earned a degree in history, Miller sat second all-time in scoring behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor). He made the All-Pac 10 First Team during his junior and senior seasons and led the Bruins to NIT title in 1985 as a sophomore.
Heading into the 1987 NBA Draft, there were concerns about Miller’s defense and his ability to score at the professional level. He scored a high percentage of his points on jump shots and off screens during college and in the early stages of his professional career. He wouldn’t develop the ability to score off the dribble until the mid-1990s.
Miller thought he would go in the middle of the first round, particularly since his final visit was with the Philadelphia 76ers. He has also recalled many times that longtime Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh said just a few words to him during his visit to Indiana.
“He took a chance," he said of Walsh. "It wasn’t a very popular choice in 1987. Steve Alford was a fantastic collegiate player and had a pretty decent NBA career. The Hoosiers were coming off a National Championship, I could understand where people were coming from, but Donnie took a gamble and I think that gamble paid off for him. It didn’t in terms of championships, but hopefully he and I left something. I’m glad that he’s back at the mantle now; he’s back with the Pacers. It’s interesting, there’s so much turmoil in sports, especially at that position of general manager. Maybe you last four or five years. I was fortunate in 18 years to have one general manager/president. He surrounded me with the best talent. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Donnie Walsh.”
Instead, the Pacers made him a very unpopular selection. The fans badly wanted homegrown Hoosier Steve Alford, who had directed Indiana to an NCAA title just weeks earlier. Unwanted once again, Miller thrived on all the negative attention.
“I loved the controversy,” he wrote. “I went to the press conference, and I was all excited. I said all the right things. They asked me about [Steve] Alford, and I said that it was Alford’s problem, not mine.”
It didn’t take long for the city of Indianapolis to embrace Miller, who remained loyal to the franchise that drafted him despite more than one opportunity to change teams. He spent 18 seasons with the Pacers, scoring 25,279 points and hitting 2,560 three-pointers. He retired atop the list, but was passed by Ray Allen at a game that Miller serendipitously was working as an analyst in 2010.
Despite impressive regular season numbers, the widely recognized statistical totals for NBA players, Miller earned his keep in the playoffs. He averaged 20.6 points and shot nearly 40% from three-point land in 144 postseason games.
He saw his scoring average increase by 13.2% from the regular season to the playoffs, a bigger jump than we saw from Michael Jordan (10.9%) during his unrivaled career.
Miller has often said that he was comfortable taking the biggest shot of the game because his hard work put the odds of him making it better than anyone else. The effort he put in to remain competitive on the court rubbed off on an endless list of teammates.
“He taught me how to be a professional, how to approach games,” Stephen Jackson told me this past season when asked about Miller. “Come early, work before games and do my homework about other teams. He was one of those guys that was always prepared and always ready to play. He showed me how to be a true pro.”
Jackson played with Miller towards the end of his career, when he was the veteran voice on a roster full of explosive young egos. They might have won a title together in 2005 had Ron Artest and Jackson not gone into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
“It was a privilege to play with Reggie in his last years,” Jackson continued. “He was one of the best, if not the best, three-point shooter in the game and a true veteran. It was a blessing to play with and learn from him.”
While speaking to players about Miller during the 2011-12 season in anticipation of this piece, there wasn’t a single bad thing uttered about him (on or off the record). Executives, coaches and players (both active and retired) expressed nothing but respect for Miller.
With that said, some of the respect was developed in hindsight.
“I came to Indiana as a free agent. As an opponent, I didn’t like [Reggie] much, but when I got there I realized how professional a person he was,” Duane Ferrell said. “Not just on the court either, but outside of the game as well. He was a pugnacious competitor, but the city of Indianapolis embraced him because of all the things that he did off the court that weren’t publicized.”
Ferrell, who now works in player relations with the Atlanta Hawks, spent three seasons alongside Miller in the mid-1990s.
“He never complained about injuries, he just played through them,” Ferrell continued. “In my years as his teammate, Reggie was always the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. As a teammate, you can’t do anything but try to match that sort of effort.”
Miller’s tenure with the Pacers overlapped with that of James Jones for two years. Coming in as a second round pick on a team with title aspirations, Jones was in many ways expendable. He didn’t play a major role in meaningful games. He didn’t help Reggie get that elusive championship ring. Jones scored fewer than 400 points during his time with the Pacers. Still, Miller offered mentorship to Jones, a player with a similar skill-set.
“I will be eternality indebted to Reggie. I came in as a second round pick, a guy with some skill, but I was actually moving to the perimeter because I played in the post in college,” Jones said. “That transition isn’t an easy one, but Reggie made it easy. He just laid out a blueprint and it was easy to follow. It was just to take your job seriously and compete to be the best in the world. When he played his game, he was the best at it.”
The 50th overall pick in 2003, Jones won a title with the Miami Heat in June. He has played nine seasons in the league and has become one of the game’s best shooters. He won the 2011 Three Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.
“He was sixteen, seventeen years into the league and still was the first guy in the gym everyday,” Jones continued. “He competed at everything – practice, shooting drills. He competed with opponents and teammates, but more importantly against himself to become best he could be.”
Doubted by doctors, opponents, coaches, entire cities and Hall of Fame committees, nothing has stopped Reggie or kept him quiet. His demeanor on the court earned him a bad reputation, one that he still has to fight at times. He was vilified for his actions on the court (expletives, battles with Spike Lee, choke signs and crotch grabbing), but he couldn’t be a more different person off it.
“People don’t realize that Reggie was like a light switch,” Ferrell said. “He would talk trash, pull on your shorts and stare you down out on the court, but once he stepped off he was a completely different person.”
Reggie admitted on Thursday that not everyone can be cheered.
“Everyone would have loved to be Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan and come riding in on a white horse and a white hat, someone that everyone loved, but that’s just not the case," he said. "There is a little niche for players like Dennis Rodman and myself, where you always have to wear the black hat and you’re not the most popular. As long as my teammates respected me and the fans of Indiana were on our side, to me that’s all the really mattered.”
Twenty five years after he was drafted and more than six years since his last game, there are no more doubters. Reggie Miller is one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game -- and he didn’t even have to open his mouth to prove it.