31-on-One: Q&A with Reggie Miller

No game face here: A legend lets down his guard.

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Editor’s Note: Indiana Pacers hero Reggie Miller was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on April 2. Here, his companion interview to the cover story from IM‘s April 2005 issue.

As the Pacers’ post-Reggie reality sank in, Miller sat down with Bill Benner, who covered him for 10 years as a columnist for The Indianapolis Star.

You’re a future Hall of Famer. You’re an NBA All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist and the greatest three-point shooter in history. But will your career be incomplete without a championship?

Charles [Barkley] says it doesn’t hurt or affect him, but to me, it’s disappointing. Maybe if I hadn’t been so close so many times it wouldn’t hurt as much. But to be in the conference finals six times and in the Finals once—that’s disappointing because I’ve had so many chances. So many little things happen throughout the course of a conference finals that can put you into the Finals. And once you get into the Finals, anything is possible, and I had a chance to be in five, six, seven Finals.

Other players, late in their careers, have gone from one team to another, “chasing the ring.” But you chose to stay here and close out your career. Why?

Early in my career, I had that opportunity. I had a chance to go to New York [in 1996]. That was probably the only time I could have waffled a little bit and thought about leaving Indiana. But me and this city have been through too much. The ups and the downs, the laughing and the crying—together. I felt that the city and I grew up together. I was a snot-nosed kid coming from California, not knowing a lot, not knowing a lot of people here, being booed when I was drafted. I knew the fans here wanted Steve Alford. But I knew in my heart I had to win them over. I had to come here and prove myself, and they accepted me with open arms. So there was no way I was going anywhere.

You, more than any athlete, have lived through the transition as Indianapolis has evolved into a major-league city.

Big time. I remember having the curtains down in Market Square Arena when there were only 5,000 or 6,000 people there for the home games. And after the games, there was nowhere to eat. From ’87 to at least ’92, there was only Friday’s, or that place in Union Station [Rick’s], or the Steak ’n Shake. There were no clubs. There was nothing. But the Simons added the mall, and now a lot of major conventions come here. Obviously the Pacers’ and Colts’ doing well has helped financially and helped put the city on the map. The city has really grown up in my eyes. We grew up together.

When you were 29, you said you wouldn’t be playing at age 35 if you won a championship. Do you really think that would have been the case?

Absolutely. The ultimate goal is to win the championship. When I was 27 I got to the conference finals—the big New York series—and from that point on, I was either in the conference finals or semifinals all the time. The main focus was just to win one, win one, win one. If I had won one, I would have been happy by age 35 and would have retired.

Was bad luck the only thing standing between you and a title?

If you’re talking about making shots—that’s not luck. You make your own breaks. But what people don’t understand is that for Mike [Michael Jordan] to win six championships—I understand he’s a fabulous player, but as many times as he went to the hole, he could easily have twisted an ankle and that would have been it for the Bulls. Injuries play into our game so much. That’s the luck part—just being healthy for six championships.

Who has been your best coach?

(Pause) I would have to say Coach [Larry] Brown because he taught me how to win. He was so tough on all of us. A disciplinarian. He told the truth with blunt honesty. But he really believed in me. My best coach to play for was Bird because everything Coach Brown had taught me, he came in and was like, okay, we’ll go with it. He kind of let me express myself.

Speaking of Larry Bird, did you ever have a three-point contest with him?

Never. People always ask about that, but we never did. He was too busy taking money from the rookies, because they didn’t believe he could still shoot, which was really crazy.

When Bird came to the Pacers as coach, didn’t he have to convince you to stay in Indiana?

The summer he came [1997] was the year of the fire in our home. I had had it. The fire beat me down a little bit, not knowing who did it, not ever finding out, and I didn’t know if I wanted to stick around and rebuild. I didn’t know if I was willing to go through the process, always looking over your shoulder, wondering who did it. And we hadn’t even made the playoffs in Larry Brown’s last year, and the team wasn’t doing that well. But Coach [Bird] called and explained his game plan, what his goals and his vision were. I mean, Larry Legend was coming back to the game, and that got me excited again.

You came into the league in the so-called “golden era” of Michael, Magic and Larry. You’re leaving a league with a different atmosphere, different kinds of stars: Kobe, Shaq, Iverson, LeBron. Is the league in better or worse shape than when you arrived?

You can’t compare today’s players with Magic, Michael and Larry. It’s totally different. Today’s players bring a different and unique brand of basketball—and I think Jermaine [O’Neal] can be added to that mix, along with K.G. [Kevin Garnett] and Tim Duncan, who I think is a throwback player. A.I. [Allen Iverson] has evolved. His first six or seven years, he was an eyesore for the league, and now he’s turning out to be one of the poster boys. So it’s not worse, but it’s not better. I think we’re seeing a plateau right now until the next Magic or Larry comes along. We’ll never see another Michael.

Sports Illustrated recently had LeBron on the cover with the question, “Best Ever?”

That’s sad, because there’s only one greatest ever, and they need to stop comparing him to Michael Jordan. That’s too much onus to put on anyone. Grant [Hill] was the next Michael, Kobe was the next Michael. There’s only one Michael Jordan. No one will ever possess the physical skills this alien has. No one will ever be able to do what he did.

Will there ever be another Reggie Miller?

Shooters will come and go.

But you’re the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history.

Records are made to be broken. Someone will come along. They’re not born yet, but someone will come along.

Let’s talk about fans. A lot of what you’ve done with fans, especially charitable stuff, has been done in private. Why?

If you’re going to a hospital to visit a burn victim or a Make-A-Wish kid, they don’t need all those cameras around. They don’t want to be seen laying in a hospital bed, bandaged up with IVs in. It’s not fair to do that to them just to make yourself look good, to put yourself in the good graces of the fans. It’s fun for me to go there, by myself or with one of the Pacers staff, and sit down with the family. They open up more. You put a camera in front of kids, and they’re going to close up. They’re not used to it. We’re used to it. It’s not fair to a kid.

Which have you enjoyed more—playing the role of hero to Pacers fans, or villain to fans around the league?

Understanding that most of my better games have come on the road, I’d have to say the villain. It’s great to be cheered in one place, and the fans here are unbelievable. But it’s been more to my liking going into other buildings unloved and making a big showing.

Your retirement announcement spurred a lot of people to recall their favorite “Miller moment.” What’s your favorite?

Umm, there are so many. But my favorite would be getting the rebound from Dale Davis in ’94 at Orlando, driving, then passing to Byron Scott—who then hit the three-pointer that gave us the win in the first game of the first round. We then went on to sweep them. That was my biggest moment because we’d never gotten out of the first round before. That got us over the hump. 

You mean after all those shots you hit …

 … what I remember most will be an assist.

Miller: ” … what I remember most will be an assist.”

People say basketball is a religion in Indiana. Is Indiana really different than anywhere else?

It’s just a way of life here. Kids grow up playing the game. White, black, rich, poor, boy, girl—everyone grows up wanting to play basketball. Most parents here try to steer their kids into playing basketball. Indiana is all about hoops.

In your autobiography, referring to a game the Pacers lost to the Rockets, you said: “I know this is going to sound bad, but I kind of liked the way our fans trashed the place after we lost. They went a little overboard by throwing coins and pretty much anything they had in their pockets, but at least they cared.” After what happened in Detroit, would you feel the same way today?

Obviously fans have a right to scream, yell and show their displeasure, but I wouldn’t condone throwing anything onto the floor because that could hurt the players. But what happened at Detroit—we’ll never see that again in this country in professional sports. I think all the stars were aligned for something to happen. You had two teams building a bit of a rivalry. They’d just beaten us and won the championship, and we’d put a good butt-whipping on them with our new team. And I think they sensed this was going to be a different year. In the heat of the moment, their fans showed their displeasure and we reacted.

Did that have anything to do with your decision to retire?

Absolutely not. People believe it did, but that was the farthest thing from my mind.

You began hinting at retirement during training camp. When did you know for certain that this season would be your last?

I don’t know exactly what day it was, but I woke up and felt I had peace with myself. Going back three, four, five years ago when people started asking when I was going to retire, I always said I felt it would be time to move on when this team and this organization was in a good place to stay at the level they’re at and go further and not drop. This kid Jermaine, and when Ron [Artest] gets back, Freddie Jones, Stephen Jackson—you’ve got a good young nucleus with a great young coach in Rick Carlisle, and I don’t see them dipping. I only see them getting better. You never want to hinder the younger players. The development of Fred and Stephen Jackson, especially at my position, needs court time, and it would be selfish of me to stay around for selfish reasons to try to win a championship. A lot of players leave at 34, 35. I was just lucky to play until I’m 39. For a guard, this is beyond the realm.

I just watched you practice and you hit, like, 12 three-pointers in a row. It seems a shame to put that jump shot on the shelf.

Yeah, but I want to be able to play with my kids, too. I want to be able to shoot with my kids.

You seem like you’d be a great dad.

I’ve got to find the right woman first.

But you definitely want to have kids?

Everyone wants to have kids. That’s my ultimate goal, to have a couple of “shorties” running around here. Boy or girl, I’d be happy, but more with girls because little girls always love their daddy. You can be Daddy’s little girl forever.

You’ve been competing since you were a child. How do you plan to fill the void?

You move on to different projects. You compete in different ways. I’ve started a production company, Boom Baby Productions. Now, everything I’ve learned in basketball I’ll apply to my films. That’s the biggest call, to try to make it in Hollywood.

What kind of films?

Small, independent films. We’re not looking to do Spider-Man. We’re looking to do something like Good Will Hunting, or Maria Full of Grace. We just like stories that tell true, individual things. We have one project in the works right now: a film called Beautiful Ohio in conjunction with Chad Lowe and Hilary Swank’s production company. Chad Lowe will direct it, and it’s from a great writer, Ethan Canin. It’s a family story with a lot of twists I can relate to. We start shooting this month and hopefully it will be in the can by July and coming to a theater near you. I’m the executive producer. To have the chance to work with Hilary and Chad on my first project, especially coming off the success they’ve had—I couldn’t be happier.

What else are you considering? Television?

Yeah, I’d like to broadcast. I know the game of basketball. Everyone asks if I would like to coach and, absolutely 100 percent, I will never, ever coach. I wouldn’t say I would never be a general manager or a team president, though even that I don’t foresee doing. But I’ve had the chance to work on WNBA for four years on Lifetime, and that was exciting. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to keep doing things like that.

Where are you going to live?

I’ll be back and forth. The home here, I built from ground up, and I don’t ever see myself selling. I have too many connections here, too many friends and family just to uproot after 18 years and say thanks. I feel I’m a Hoosier. An adopted Hoosier. I love it here. There’s no traffic, and people are nice. I’m not a big-city guy anymore.

Here’s a series of questions. Are you the best table-tennis player in the NBA?

I’d like to think so. I wish we’d have a tournament. There’s only one player who could consistently take me and he’s not in the league anymore—Hakeem Olajuwon. I could never beat him. But everyone else, I have on lock.

If you had a theme song, what would it be?

Hmm. “Smooth Criminal,” Michael Jackson. You’ve been hit by, you’ve been hit by, a smooth criminal.

What’s your favorite restaurant here?

God, a lot of people are going to be upset, but I’m going to go with Mediterrano Cafe.

Where do you buy your suits?

Only one place. Ermenegildo Zegna, Beverly Hills.

What do you read?

A little bit of everything. I like mysteries, crime-solving, magazines. I find myself reading a lot more now. More scripts than anything. I’ve got a lot of scripts.

Tenderloin sandwich or St. Elmo steak?

St. Elmo steak.

Who’s the best all-around player you ever played against?

Offense, defense, everything? It would have to be M.J.

The guy you least wanted defending you?

Joe Dumars. He was so low to the ground—great foot quickness. And when you got past him, you knew you were getting your head knocked off by Rick Mahorn or Bill Laimbeer. With those guys behind him, he had a license to gamble.

Biggest trash-talker?

Drazen Petrovic.

Really?

No question. Really got under your skin. And the reason I could identify with him is because he shot the ball better, I think, than anyone I’d seen before.

Who’s your best friend in basketball?

Mark Jackson. By far. He and I seem to be one person.

Who do you hang out with on this team?

Jermaine or Anthony Johnson, and—what’s the white kid’s name?—oh yeah, Jeff Foster. And Austin [Croshere]. I’m pretty cool with everyone but if I had to go out and hang, it would be with one of those guys.

Back to the serious questions. Ten or 20 years from now, a father or grandfather is going to bring his child or grandchild to Conseco Fieldhouse, and they’re going to see your No. 31 jersey hanging from the girders. What do you hope that father or grandfather tells that child about Reggie Miller?

That … he showed up every day. You’re trying to get me emotional here. That he showed up every day.

You okay?

Yeah. (Reaches for a tissue) … I want them to say that he played hard. That he played hurt. That he just wanted to win.

You know you’re going to have an entire city crying at your retirement ceremony.

I’m not going to cry in front of them.

Do you have any idea how much you’re loved and admired in this community—this cocky kid from California, all grown up into an Indiana basketball legend?

We grew up together, I’m telling you. I love them back. People say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Well, if you can make it in Indiana, you can make it anywhere. I just want to thank people for their support. I tried hard to bring it here. That’s all you can ask from a professional athlete. People get caught up in the end result, but all you can do is keep trying.

And you’ve represented Indiana basketball, which means so much to so many at so many levels, on both the national and international stage.

My first three or four years, no one even knew what a Pacer was, which is sad. I mean, they knew of the Hoosiers and Bobby Knight and all that, but I remember playing in Magic Johnson’s Midsummer’s Night Madness Game in L.A., and he had his big dinner and all these celebrities on the dais—Dominique Wil-kens, Michael, Magic, Ron Harper—and we’re all talking mess and stuff and Michael’s saying, Indiana, where the hell is Indiana? Well, he found out later where Indiana was. But I thought, Oh my God, we really don’t get no respect anywhere. And that’s when I said to myself, I’m going to make it my mission for everyone to know who the Pacers are.

For 18 years, you’ve been looking ahead—to the next possession, the next game, the next season. Have you taken stock of the young boy growing up in leg braces, overshadowed by his sister—the kid who became Reggie Miller?

There have always been players who were better, bigger, stronger, faster. But I always felt, in my head, that if I worked hard, stayed later, came earlier, that I’d always have a leg up—that I would always go that extra inch, and that would separate me a little bit. Having that challenging fire underneath me, when you’re living in the same household with the greatest women’s basketball player ever and everywhere you go, people are always saying “Hey, that’s Cheryl Miller’s little brother,” and you’re trying to get them to say “No, that’s Reggie Miller”—climbing up that ladder, that mountain, instilled in me at a very young age that you have to work for everything. Nothing is going to be given to you. I want to tell kids that—kids who think they can easily make it into this game. It takes a lot of hard work, and it takes some luck, too. In the game of life, I’ve been very lucky.

And you seized the moment when you came to Indiana.

When I came here for my visit before the draft, Donnie [Walsh] barely spoke to me, Mel [Daniels] barely spoke to me, George Irvine was kind of aloof. So I was sure I was going to Philly. Philly wined and dined me. They had the 16th pick and Indiana had the 11th pick. So, draft day, TBS had a live hook-up to our family in Riverside. Cheryl and I had earpieces so we could hear what was going on, and some idiot in the production truck let it go that Indiana was going to draft Miller at 11. Cheryl looked at me and I said, “Let’s act surprised.” I had no idea they were going to draft me. But I kind of wanted to get away from California and start anew. What better place could I have come to than a small market like this? And I had great mentors. Chuck [Person] and Vern [Fleming] really took me under their wings. I had [shooting guard] John Long telling me, every game, about each and every 2-guard: These are his strengths and his weaknesses and this is how we’re going to play him. Then going against John every day in practice—he was a tough, physical player—that was the best thing that could have happened to me. And learning from a Chuck and a Vern, and Coach [Jack] Ramsay, who you could add to that list of my favorite coaches because he was a fundamentalist. That’s why I talk about being lucky, being in the right place. These kids coming into the league today expect to be a star right away. I was lucky I wasn’t just thrown out there.

Well, it only turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Pacers.

And I’m happy about that. Believe me.

Photo by John Bragg.

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 issue.

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