Indiana Native Miles Plumlee Back Home Again

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by Mark Montieth |

October 23, 2012

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It's ironic that Miles Plumlee wound up back home again in Indiana to begin his NBA career. It could also turn out to be appropriate and inspiring, in a full circle sort of way.

The Pacers first-round draft pick was born in Fort Wayne, grew up in Warsaw, was sent to Arden, N.C. to finish his high school education, planned to attend Stanford, and ultimately wound up at Duke. Now he's in Indianapolis, looking for a fresh start on a crowded roster.

Plumlee's role with the Pacers is likely to be limited in the upcoming season, but that shouldn't bother him. He's accustomed to playing off the bench, accustomed to being doubted, and accustomed to persevering.

"He's not high-maintenance," his father, Perky, said. "And I think he's prepared."

Plumlee enters the season a third-string center, behind Roy Hibbert and Ian Manhimi, which means he's likely destined for droughts filled with box score DNP-CDs interrupted by scattered drizzles of playing time, unless an injury moves him up the flow chart. For most NBA rookies, that's a major adjustment from their days of collegiate glory. For Plumlee, it will be more like a game of musical chairs, a mere shift from one seat to another. He was a backup on his high school team in Warsaw and a backup most of his career at Duke. This will be nothing new.

So far it's been a strange, whirlwind of a roundball existence, physically and emotionally, and it would suit a lot of people in the Plumlee clan just fine if he could settle into one place for awhile. His parents, Perky and Leslie, live 2 ½ hours away in Warsaw, and his paternal grandparents live in the Lafayette area. Remaining a member of the Pacers for, oh, say 13 years, would be a welcome respite. That's the number of seasons turned in by Jeff Foster, the player to whom Plumlee is most often compared, fairly or not. Both are about 6-11, both are clean-cut guys from stable homes, both are athletic (although in different ways), and both were late bloomers. Both also were somewhat surprising draft picks by the Pacers, who traded up from the 26th spot to take Foster 21st and took Plumlee 26th.

"I'd love to be as good as he was, as far as defense and rebounding," Plumlee said. "I'm going to try and watch some of his film and learn a lot from him. But I'm going to work on all the facets of my game."

Pacers coach Frank Vogel doesn't buy into the comparison, claiming Foster was a more physical post defender and Plumlee is a better offensive player.

"He can hit the mid-range jump shot and he's not a stiff in the post, either," Vogel said of Plumlee. "He's got some stuff down there."

Why Not Purdue?

There's an elephant in the room whenever the Miles Plumlee story is explored: Why didn't he play at Purdue?

His mother Leslie, nee Schultz, is a Wisconsin native who played basketball at Purdue, and still holds the single-game rebounding record with 25 against Miami of Ohio in 1981. His father Perky grew up in Battle Ground, near Lafayette. Perky's father, Millard, attended graduate school at Purdue following World War II, began working there as a professor in the agricultural department in 1950 and stayed 37 years until he retired. All four of Perky's siblings attended Purdue.

Perky (he was born Millard Percy III, but was nicknamed by his older sisters) was a diehard Purdue fan as a kid, with fond memories of watching the likes of Rick Mount, Billy Keller and Herm Gilliam play from seats behind one of the floor-level scoreboards. Somewhere in a box at home he has a photo of himself taken with Keller, which has added meaning for him now that Miles has been working on his shot with Keller following Pacer practices. He remembers sitting on his dad's shoulders among the throng of fans greeting the team at the Purdue airport after clinching the Big Ten title during those years.

"I was pretty rabid," Perky said. "I probably know as much Purdue trivia as anyone up to 1983."

Perky, a late bloomer physically, as his sons turned out to be, wasn't good enough coming out of Harrison High School in 1978 to attract a major college offer, so he took a partial scholarship to play at Indiana Central. He grew two inches to 6-8 and put on about 20 pounds after enrolling there, and was able to land a full scholarship to a Division I program at Tennessee Tech after one year. He graduated from Tech in 1983, then enrolled in law school at IUPUI. He had met Leslie at a Purdue basketball camp in 1979, but they didn't begin dating until 1985, when he was in law school and she was working at Methodist Hospital. She's now a pharmacist at a CVS in Warsaw.

So how did Purdue and Miles not have an arranged marriage? Perky acknowledges he would have been an easy target for coach Matt Painter, but says a myriad of circumstances intervened, not the least of which was the fact Miles had experienced a controversial split from Warsaw and finished his high school career in North Carolina. Perky doesn't want to publicly point fingers or rehash old issues now that everyone has moved on, and he had a good relationship with Painter when Painter recruited the two younger Plumlees.

It's an agonizing thought for Purdue fans, though. Had Purdue landed Miles, Mason and Marshall might very well have followed. Miles would have joined the program the year after the historic recruiting class of JaJuan Johnson, E'twaun Moore, Rob Hummel and Scott Martin enrolled. That alone is enough to allow the imagination of Purdue fans to run wild.

"It just wasn't meant to be," Perky says.

Stuff he hasn't shown in awhile, given the limited and puzzling role he played at Duke. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Plumlee was just another player while growing up in Warsaw, a point guard with decent coordination and athleticism, but hardly one of those kids popping up on national recruiting lists when he was 12 years old. He was a skinny 5-10 freshman who grew to be an even-skinnier 6-7 junior who only started a couple of games for the varsity team. A team that finished 11-14.

After that season, Perky and Leslie Plumlee made the difficult decision to send Miles and his brother Mason, two years younger, to a private school in Arden, N.C. to complete their high school careers. Not so they could land a scholarship to a major university or become a first-round draft picks, but so that they could play out their careers on the court rather than the bench.

"He didn't take a back seat to anybody on that (Warsaw) team," Perky Plumlee said. "We just made the decision. They were good students, they had good attitudes, they worked hard, and we kept it that way until the season was over."

It wasn't exactly The Decision. But the Plumlees' decision to send their boys to Christ School set off small town fireworks that reverberated for years. They were the objects of endless town-square-style gossip, and the local newspaper ran letters to the editor that accused them of all manner of things. Being bad parents for one. Having an inflated opinion of their boys' abilities, for another. Of micromanaging their boys' lives, for still another.

Irony abounded in the local reaction. If the boys weren't that good, why should anyone care that they were leaving in the first place? And if Perky and Leslie were interfering too much in their boys' lives, why would they have sent them 600 miles away? The family's goal, Perky said, was to find a happier place for them to play, and perhaps earn a mid-major scholarship.

The issue would have died quickly if Miles hadn't continued to grow and improve. He was "reclassified" upon arriving at Christ School, allowing him to enroll as a junior and have two more years of high school competition. He and Mason eventually combined to lead the school to four consecutive state championships. Miles performed so well that he began attracting offers from all over the country. He settled quickly on Stanford following his junior year at Christ, but when Stanford's coach left for LSU, he reopened his recruiting.

Virtually all of the major powers came calling this time. He chose Duke. So did Mason. And so did youngest brother Marshall, giving the Blue Devils a trio of 6-11 NBA prospects last season.

But as the Plumlee reputation grew, so did the frustration in Warsaw over what they had missed. Other players had transferred out as well, and two years after Miles left, the school board asked for Coach Doug Ogle's resignation. He invoked his contractual right to a public hearing, and the scene at the elementary school was right out of a movie – Hoosiers, in fact. Patrons for and against the coach took turns at the microphone. Ogle spoke last, and said some unflattering things about the Plumlees, who did not attend the hearing.

"For two kids who hardly got to play any, we were kind of surprised people came out with so much hostility," Perky said. "It wasn't like we took the leading scorer off the team."

Time has settled the furor in Warsaw, and the Plumlees harbor no bitterness. They feel vindicated by the outcome of their sons' careers, and the boys have been welcomed back to visit elementary schools and participate in downtown events.

In hindsight, the move to Christ School turned out great for the Plumlees. Not only did Miles get an extra year to develop and grow by reclassifying his grade level, the fact he and Mason were 600 miles from home forced them to pull together and push one another. Perky later told them their hard work, and the rewards that followed, had made the parents look like great decision-makers.

Duke, however, turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing. Plumlee was a sophomore on the team that won the national championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010, but his college stats are bewildering for a first-round draft pick. He started just 57 of the 135 games in which he played, including just 16-of-34 as a senior. His career averages were 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 16 minutes per game.

Miles Plumlee at Duke

How could it be? How could a 6-11 player with a level of athleticism that stunned NBA personnel in the pre-draft workouts not play more in college, even at a national power like Duke? Plumlee runs and jumps exceptionally well; he high-jumped 6-9 in high school, and showed off a 40-inch vertical jump in pre-draft workouts. He handles the ball reasonably well (he played point guard before hitting his growth spurt in high school) and has unique hand-eye coordination. He can, for example, ride a unicycle and juggle at the same time. He also has superlative intelligence and character.

Plumlee, true to his nature, doesn't complain or criticize. But he does choose his words carefully when asked about his college career.

"I mean, we had a system," he said. "We won, I had a role on my team and I did my best to perform that role. It was difficult at times, but I thought I had a great career at Duke. But I think I have a little more to offer than I've shown."

Perky Plumlee agrees. The Duke experience has been a good one for his sons, and he has no regrets about them playing there. But from his parental perspective, he can't help but wonder why Miles was relegated to such a limited role, why he wasn't allowed to play through mistakes as other players were.

"There was a lot of frustration," he said. "Did we always understand what he was doing or agree with it? No. And Coach Krzyzewksi knows that."

Krzyzewski wasn't available for comment. Assistant Steve Wojciechowski pointed out that Plumlee played on teams that averaged more than 30 wins per season, and performed his role well.

"We asked him to be a finisher and defender and ball screener and opportunistic scorer," Wojciechowski said. "He did those things.

"The role that he had at Duke was similar to what I imagine the Pacers coaches will ask him to do. There's very few guys in the league who are asked to (score 20 points per game). The guys his size are asked to play a role, protect the basket and help other guys score. That's a role that he's been trained for, is very good at, and a lot of teams, not just the Pacers, saw incredible value in that."

So did a few other teams. Plumlee opened NBA eyes with his performance at a mini pre-draft combine in Minneapolis and then again in the league-wide camp in Chicago. A handful of team representatives that called Duke for background information or communicated with his agent, Mark Bartelstein, indicated they were considering him as a first-round pick. Miami and Chicago seemed to show special interest, and Minnesota had him back for a second workout.

The Plumlees watched the draft from Miles' girlfriend's house in Chicago. They were hopeful his name would be called in the first round, the land of guaranteed contracts, and knew it would shock a lot of people. But when it happened, it hardly seemed real.

"It was like, Can you rewind that and make sure that's what he said?" Perky recalled.

The next day, the Plumlees were rushing down I-65 to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for a press conference, in which Miles was asked to explain himself to the doubters all over again. He answered in part with his summer league performance in Orlando, when, in five games, he averaged 13 points and 6.6 rebounds in 31 minutes. The more complete answer will have to come in years ahead.

One thing is for sure: Plumlee knows how to play a role off the bench.

"You can't be 'the guy' all the time, it's not about that," he said. "I embraced my role at Duke and I loved it there. I'm not coming here to be a star, either, I'm here to be another role player. I'm going to do that the best I can."

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