by Conrad Brunner
Feburary 3, 2001
Will Reggie's Career Merit a Call from the Hall of Fame?
INDIANAPOLIS, Feburary 3, 2001 - When Jack Ramsay first encountered Reggie Miller, the legendary coach wasn't sure how long this rookie would last in the NBA.
Here was a 6-foot-7, 185-pound kid from UCLA who could really shoot, but didn't seem strong enough, or athletic enough, to be much more than a specialist. He was built more like a praying mantis than a basketball player, all knees and elbows. This was a guy who needed to bulk up to become gangly.
An active triathlete at the time, Ramsay decided to test Miller's mettle by joining the rookie for a workout.
"People questioned his strength," said Ramsay, the Pacers' head coach when Miller was drafted in 1987. "Even today, he looks kind of frail. But he's wiry strong. I found that out. I went and worked out with him after we drafted him because I thought there were problems with his running gait and he told me he was working out and I wanted to see what he was doing.
"Well, he really was working out, working on his strength, and was a very dedicated guy. None of this would have happened had he not been as dedicated as he's been."
That first encounter in 1987 with Miller proved prophetic, for he spent most of the next 14 years doing just what he did to Ramsay: surprising people who doubted either his ability or his dedication.
A career with the Pacers that began with boos ringing in his ears - many fans wanted the team to use its first-round pick on Indiana University legend Steve Alford - has turned into one of the most prolific in NBA history.
It's been so much so, in fact, that Miller could well become the first player identified with the Pacers franchise, ABA or NBA, to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Alex English was the first former Pacers player inducted, but he spent less than two seasons with the franchise (1978-80) before moving on to Denver, where he spent most of his career.
"He is most definitely a Hall of Famer," said Isiah Thomas, the Pacers' head coach who was inducted with the most recent class last year. "There are very few players in this league that have shot the ball as well as he shoots the ball. He also has a great understanding of the game, and very few players have taken a franchise and brought it to respectability the way he has.
"When he was first drafted, the Pacers were the bottom of the barrel and you can look at the years he's been a Pacer what has happened to this franchise - this building (Conseco Fieldhouse) and everything else."
Miller surpassed 20,000 points earlier this season, a magic number for Hall of Fame inclusion. It's not a guarantee, but is a strong indicator, much like 400 home runs would be for a baseball player. He finished the calendar year 2001 ranked 24th on the all-time scoring list with 20,633 points.
Of the 23 players ahead of Miller, 13 already are in the Hall of Fame: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elvin Hayes, Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek, Alex English, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Hal Greer, Walt Bellamy, Bob Pettit and George Gervin.
A total of nine are either still active (Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing) or not yet eligible (Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Robert Parish and Clyde Drexler have not been fully retired the required five seasons). The only player on the list not yet inducted is Adrian Dantley.
"More important than (the point total) is the fact that he's established himself as one of the great clutch shooters of all-time," said Ramsay, a Hall of Fame member and frequent member of the selection committees. "And he just keeps doing it year after year after year. He shoots a high percentage for the kinds of shots that he takes, and he's become a more complete player. He's no longer just a shooter, he's become good with the ball and at finding open teammates. He's improved as a defender.
"I think he's a most viable candidate."
Miller has not been a dominant player in his career, but few have played his position better for a longer period of time. He has averaged between 18.1 points and 24.6 for the past 11 seasons and is on track to do so once again. If he continues at his present pace, he will pass Gervin, Pettit and Bellamy on the scoring list by the end of this season. And Miller is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he considers the Hall of Fame such a distant, remote topic, he would not discuss it.
If he then goes on to average 18 points per game over the final two seasons of his current - and likely final - contract, Miller will finish with more than 24,000 points. That would push him into 15th place, ahead of Bird, Baylor and Barkley, among others.
Perhaps more importantly, he would rank fourth among all guards, behind only Jordan, Robertson and West.
"I'd put a wax look-alike of him in my museum, if I had one," said Sam Perkins, who has teamed with his share of legends in a 17-season career. "Of all the guys I played with, I think he's equal to Magic (Johnson). And look at the players I've played with.
"There are some things that people don't see, especially off the court. I mean, this man practices, he does everything to make him what he is now. Some guys take shortcuts. That's the reason I say he's up there with Magic, because he doesn't take shortcuts off or on the court. He comes to play all the time."
Miller made his name as a long-distance shooter. He is the league's all-time leader in 3-point field goals attempted (4,863) and made (1,950). But it is a label that ultimately could work against him when the time comes for his name to be considered by the voters, because it creates the perception that he has been a one-dimensional player.
Those who have coached him know better.
"I don't think anybody's made the Hall of Fame for being a good shooter," said Larry Brown, who coached the Pacers from 1993-97. "I think it's unfair that people think of him in those terms, but he's a great all-around player. He's the most underrated defender I ever coached. I never saw him take a night off trying to guard, and he always had to guard great players.
"Look at his career, the guys he had to play against - Michael, (Mitch) Richmond, Steve Smith. At that position, there was always a phenomenal player to play against and he was always capable of holding his own."
Ramsay, who was the head coach for Miller's first two seasons, also shoots down the notion that his offensive game hasn't been sufficiently diverse.
"He has the complete arsenal of shots," Ramsay said. "He can finish at the basket, he has the best control of the runner in the game today and, of course, the long distance shot. And, at the free throw line, death."
Miller also has been one of the most efficient scorers in league history, a fact Brown believes has been ignored, and a statistic he is convinced is not appreciated.
Miller has averaged 1.47 points per field goal attempt in his career, the highest of any guard in NBA history with at least 10,000 points and eighth overall. Jordan averaged 1.35, Robertson 1.36 and West 1.32 points per field goal attempt.
"I don't know a guy who's made many bigger shots than he's made in his career, and the consistency has been incredible," Brown said. "Look at the number of points he's scored with the number of shots he's taken. When you look at all these young kids now in our league and you look at the number of shots they take to get 30 and 40 points, then you look at his career and see the times he's gotten 30 and 40, and the limited number of shots he's taken.
"He's always done it within the framework of the team, and that's remarkable."
Those who argue against Miller will point to a lack of dominance, arguing that he has been a very good, but not great player. He has been all-NBA just three times, and each time on the third team. He started just one All-Star Game. And his career scoring average of 19.5 is relatively modest; just two players ahead of him on the points list (Parish and Greer) have lower averages.
All that, and his team has not won a championship ring.
"We can say that for a lot of people," Brown said. "But he gave 'em a chance. When was the last time, besides my last year as the coach (a 39-43 finish in 1996-97), this team hasn't been great? And the year we struggled, we had a bunch of serious injuries. It wasn't his fault, it was my fault.
"Over the last eight or nine years, he's given his team a chance to win championship. Unfortunately, it corresponded with Michael Jordan."
Indeed, Miller labored most of his career in the extensive shadow cast by Jordan. Though he led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals five times in seven years, not until last season did the team break through to the NBA Finals.
There for the first time in franchise history, they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games, though Miller averaged 24.3 points.
"If you really think about it, Reggie has never really gotten the credit that he deserves," said team president Donnie Walsh. "In the last 10 years, if you take Michael Jordan out of the equation, he's been the best two-guard in the league. And had there been no Michael Jordan, this guy would be lionized as one of the best two-guards to play the game."
It should be remembered that the franchise that drafted Miller had never won an NBA playoff series and, in fact, had won just a single postseason game.
In his time, they grew into one of the elite powers of the league, winning two Central Division titles, finishing second to Jordan's Bulls two other times. In the process, the team reached the playoffs 10 times, posting a 57-48 won-lost record.
"Look at the level he's taken his team to," Brown said. "There have been a lot of good players that have played with him, but he's always been the one constant. And as his career developed, this franchise got better and he's been a big part of that."
Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for Miller's candidacy is his performance in the playoffs, where his big shots, game-winning moments and miraculous plays became the stuff of legend.
Miller has averaged 23.2 points per game in the playoffs, nearly four points higher than his career average. None of the players ahead of him on the career regular-season scoring list experienced a comparable increase. From 1992-96, when the Pacers were first emerging as a power in the East, his playoff average was 25.4.
"When you look at all the great players that have played in this league, he more than any of us has probably had more big shots and more big moments," said Thomas. "He's truly special. I just hope all of us in Indiana realize how truly special he is because when he's gone, believe me, you're going to miss this guy."
He will be around at least two more seasons after this one, plenty of time to add more laurels to his impressive resume. By then, perhaps, there will be less to debate, when his name comes up for the Hall of Fame voters to consider.
Players must be fully retired for five years before they can be nominated, so this is Miller's last contract his name will come up for consideration in 2009. He must first receive five of seven votes from a screening committee, then 18 of 24 from the Honors Committee.
Ramsay has served on both committees.
"You never know how other people feel who are voting, so you have to wait and see, and there's no way of knowing how the vote comes out," he said. "I would vote for him on the first ballot. I think he's strengthened his candidacy with each passing year.
"The completeness of his game, the level that he's reached, his attitude about playing with the other members of his team, being a team player: he's all of those things."
The player Ramsay first encountered and the one he now studies as an NBA analyst for ESPN are far different.
When Miller broke into the league, he was a shaky ball-handler, hesitant
passer and weak defender. He needed help from his teammates, in the form of at least one and sometimes two screens, to get his shot. And he did not possess the ability to make those around him better.
Through the years, that has all changed because Miller has refused to be satisfied with himself. Every summer, he goes back to the gym to work on a weakness in order to add something new to his repertoire for the coming season.
That's the Miller opponents haven't necessarily seen, the player hidden beneath the emotional, sometimes brash surface.
"Coming from New York, I always saw Reggie as an outstanding clutch shooter and a very difficult guy to defend," said Brendan Malone, who joined Thomas' staff this season after four seasons with the rival Knicks. "But I didn't realize that he is the ultimate professional. He's the first player here on game days, he does the extra work, he practices hard every day and he pays attention to detail.
"I didn't realize what a good all-around player he is and how devoted he is. He's one of the best professional players I've ever been around in how he goes about trying to improve his game. He's a very good teammate and a very good mentor for our younger players."
Whether or not he reaches the Hall of Fame, there will be no shame in Miller's legacy. He is a self-made superstar who helped lift the Pacers from decades of ignominy to years of excellence, eschewing the lures of larger markets while maintaining loyalty to his one and only team.
In Pacers history, he stands alone.
In basketball history, only a few can measure their careers favorably against his.
That should be enough.
Contact Conrad Brunner at Cbrunner@Pacers.com.