In Many Ways, Final Season Reggie’s Proudest
By Conrad Brunner | April 20, 2005
The game was, of course, over.
Always conscious of beating the crowd to the press room at Madison Square Garden, I had grabbed my laptop, scoresheets, notepad and ever-present cup of coffee and was working my way through the upward maze. I was almost to the end of the court, ready to make the right turn up that one last flight of stairs, when I heard the crowd react.
It had to be Reggie. I stopped, turned and saw the first 3-pointer sail through the net. Then came the inbounds pass that found its way to his outstretched hands after Greg Anthony, um, accidentally slipped to the floor. Before he even retreated to the arc, turned, and fired, I knew what was happening.
He was at it again.
That performance, the eight points in 8.9 seconds to beat the Knicks in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals, crystallized everything about Reggie's career. No matter what the odds, no matter how little time remained, no matter who the opponent, as long as Reggie Miller was on the floor, the game was never, ever over.
Maybe that's why so many fans – and even his teammates - have such a hard time with Reggie's decision to retire after this season. If a game was never over while he was on the floor, how could his career be? But end it will. Rather than feeling disappointed because he could've played another year or two, be glad he gave Pacers fans this one last season, because it was a bonus.
Reggie wanted to retire after last season, when the Pacers reached the Eastern Conference Finals and appeared poised for a championship run, but was talked out of it by Rick Carlisle, Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh.
This season was set up to be a perfect finale for Reggie, with a team fully capable of sending him into the sunset with his first championship ring. The Pacers had size, strength, experience, depth, stout defense and explosive scoring.
The events of Nov. 19 slapped everyone awake from that dream and stripped most of those qualities from the roster, but Reggie wouldn't allow it to beat down the Pacers. Rather than yielding to the weight of overwhelming adversity, he called upon whatever reserve was left in the tank of a 39-year-old, put this team on his wiry shoulders and carried them to a playoff berth so unlikely as to seem absurd.
The projected starting lineup of Jamaal Tinsley, Reggie, Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Jeff Foster never took the floor for a game. The top six players, including Stephen Jackson, missed an average of 37 games apiece due to suspensions and/or injuries. There were 29 lineups employing 17 starters.
And just when it appeared the team would regain some semblance of its original identity, O'Neal and Tinsley both went down with long-term injuries.
Again and again, Reggie stepped into the breach.
He scored at least 30 points six times, including the memorable 39-point farewell to his hometown Lakers. He hit game-winning, game-clinching and game-saving shots. In the final 25 games, he averaged more than 19 points. In the 30 games O'Neal missed, he averaged 19.4.
When his team, his franchise and his fans needed him the most, Reggie turned back the clock and gave them his best. And he didn't just do it in games. He continued to be the consummate leader-by-example and professional with his work habits. He didn't take practices off; indeed, he frequently stayed late for extra three-on-three workouts with players who needed the court time. His routine of being the first guy on and the last guy off the floor never wavered.
And when the unlikely playoff berth was secured, he had his reward.
"In my eyes, we're champions, I don't care what happens from here on out," he said. "Just making the playoffs, with all the odds that were stacked against us, this team could've easily gone south. We could've made excuses … but guys took it upon themselves, they've worked hard every single day and they stayed ready. That's the mark of good management not giving up, that's the mark of good coaching not giving up and that's the mark of good players never, ever giving up. I'm so excited.
"Truthfully, I feel like I've won the lottery."
We all won.
Our prize was something money cannot buy: one final season with Reggie Miller.
In so many ways, it was the proudest of his career.