Practice? Reggie was talking about practice!
by Mark Montieth
September 6, 2012
You can have the 8 points in 8.9 seconds or the 25-point fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden, the pair of overtime-forcing heroics in New Jersey, the 41-point series-saving performance against Milwaukee at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, or any of those other classic playoff memories Reggie Miller left in the wake of his 18 seasons with the Pacers.
The echo that lives in my brain is of his voice. In the hallways of the fieldhouse. On practice days.
Gripping stuff, I know, but what made Miller great, what made him a Hall of Famer, was his raw enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm was most evident to me in the private moments when he had no reason to be enthused other than because he felt like it.
Miller displayed more enthusiasm while shooting around with teammates after practice than many players would during a scrimmage. He also showed more enthusiasm walking out of the locker room after a morning practice than some players do taking the floor for a playoff game. “Goodbye, everybody!” he'd shout on his way out the door to nobody in particular. “See you tomorrow! Goodbye!”
He didn't have the same enthusiasm for talking with the media. He never talked before games during the 45-minute period in which the media is supposed to have access to players. He only talked briefly after games. He was always the last player to emerge from the showers, and wouldn't address the media until he was fully dressed. He rarely took more than a handful of questions, and you had to have your timing down to keep him going that long. If someone didn't jump in with a question as soon as he finished answering the previous question, he would stand up, say “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and be gone.
He routinely refused to talk after practice, as players are supposed to do, and got through his final season with the Pacers with just one post-practice interview – the one the morning after his official retirement announcement on TNT. At times, he seemed to make a game of slipping out a side door unnoticed by the reporters who were waiting outside the locker room. At times, media relations director David Benner literally wrapped his arms around Miller's waist and tried to get him to stay and talk for a minute – usually in vain, but it was good exercise for David.
It seemed a strange way of doing business for someone who now draws his paycheck in the media and obviously loved the big stage as a player. That was one of Miller's fundamental contradictions, though. He was shy by nature, as some entertainers are, and never seemed comfortable with cameras in his face. I was OK with it as long as he was consistent, and for the most part he was. As his final game neared and a long line of reporters were wanting exclusive interviews, he gave me far more time than anyone else. That probably disqualifies me from criticizing his media strategy.
What mattered was Miller's energy, especially in the more private moments. My first exposure to it came my first year on the beat, during training camp for the 1996-97 season, Larry Brown's last as coach. The Pacers were working out at the University of North Carolina that season. Miller was coming off his most controversial summer as a Pacer, as his agent negotiated a new contract. He had gone on ESPN with Roy Firestone and tried to ramp up the drama, claiming interest in other teams and making it clear he expected a major contract. Some of his comments were taken slightly out of context, however, and he was criticized in the Star's sports section and editorial page.
On that first day of camp at the Dean Smith Center, Miller's voice could be heard above all others, providing a chatty, upbeat backdrop to the proceedings. Not having seen the Pacers practice before, I assumed he was just putting on a show for the assembled media and trying to impress his teammates, since he had just signed his biggest contract yet _ four years and about $35 million, if I remember correctly. I would learn in the years ahead it was the norm.
His timely post-season shot-making was spectacular, but Miller's career was built on daily enthusiasm and bravado. But those qualities didn't just make him a better player, they made his teammates better. Remember the Superman T-shirt he unveiled during the opening-round series with Milwaukee in 2000? The Pacers had split their first two games in Indianapolis, a dangerous start to a best-of-five series. Miller and Mark Jackson were killing time in a mall near the team hotel in Milwaukee before Game 3, and came across the iconic shirt. Miller bought it, despite Jackson's doubts, and wore it during pre-game warmups in Game 3. The Milwaukee fans jeered and laughed. He proceeded to score 34 points in a Pacer victory.
After Milwaukee won Game 4 to tie the series, he wore the shirt again in pre-game warmups for the deciding game back at the Fieldhouse, and scored 41 in a 96-95 victory. That performance was somewhat overshadowed by the dramatic three-pointer Travis Best hit from the left corner in front of the Milwaukee bench in the final minute, but without Miller's 41 Best's shot wouldn't have mattered and the Pacers wouldn't have gone on to play in the Finals – still the zenith of their NBA existence.
Putting on a Superman T-shirt and then backing it up with a super performance? That was a powerful statement for a skinny guy who wasn't athletic by NBA standards, but it put pressure on him and took pressure off his teammates. That formula usually seemed to work well.
The bottom line of Reggie Miller's career was that he brought “juice” to virtually every moment. He had it long before he came to the Pacers. Had it in his DNA, most likely. And he had enough of it to fuel him through 18 seasons of enthusiastic practice sessions. From there, playoff moments sprang eternal.
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