By Ian Thomsen
July 17, 2008

LAS VEGAS -- Darius Miles apologized. Could he pause our interview for a moment? His cousin was waiting in the reception area. And then Miles ran across the casino floor of Caesars Palace without limp or hitch.

Miles had just arrived in Las Vegas on Monday to audition for the Mavericks at a private workout the following morning. By all accounts, it went well.

"He was much better than I thought he would be,'' a member of the Mavericks' camp said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I was expecting him to be 6. But he was a good, solid 8.''

The 6-foot-9 Miles was exhausted by the 90-minute workout. At the end, however, he jumped flat-footed and touched the top of the backboard square.

"I'm physically 100 percent,'' Miles said in his first interview since attempting a comeback unprecedented in this salary-cap era. "I'm not in [basketball] shape, but healthwise and bodywise I'm 100 percent. I've got the explosion, I can move.''

Such details matter because Miles is trying to become the first player to return from an injury that was deemed to be "career-ending'' by the NBA. If he were to sign a new contract and play in 10 or more games this season, his $9 million salary would go back on Portland's books -- though his return would not affect the Trail Blazers as badly as has been advertised.

Miles underwent microfracture surgery to repair his right knee in November 2006. He hasn't played since, and he was released by the Blazers in April after the "career-ending'' judgment was made by an independent medical examiner appointed by the NBA and the players' union.

In recent weeks, Miles has had workouts -- ranging from two hours to less than 30 minutes -- with the Nets, Celtics, Suns and Mavericks, all of whom controlled the terms while asking Miles to compete against other players. For his part, the 26-year-old Miles is looking to join a postseason contender after having never made the playoffs during his six seasons on the court.

"I feel like I'm a starter in this league -- on a lot of teams I really should be a starter,'' he said. "But I would love to go to a playoff team to come off the bench.''

Already assured of making $18 million over the next two seasons from his guaranteed Blazers contract, Miles is seeking a minimal contract with an option to become a free agent after the season -- gambling that he will rejuvenate his value on the court this year. A crucial aspect of any new contract would provide his next team with an exclusion should he reinjure the knee, in which case the team could release Miles without paying the remainder of his salary.

Several factors are working against Miles' comeback. He must miss the first 10 games of next season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. The news of his negative drug test was revealed to every team in a letter from the league, and the information was leaked to TheOregonian. Based on the length of his first-time suspension, teams are assuming that Miles tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

In addition, Miles has a reputation for being a poor example to young teammates. "I've heard horror stories about him,'' said an NBA head coach who has never worked with Miles. His notoriety is based on a locker-room confrontation with coach Maurice Cheeks with the Blazers, to whom he had been traded by the Cavaliers in 2004 in belief that he couldn't coexist with LeBron James. (The Clippers traded him to Cleveland two years after drafting him with the No. 3 pick in 2000.) Over his final year with Portland, he was permitted to rehab at the Blazers' facilities but not when his fellow teammates were there.

"I wouldn't label him as a bad guy,'' said an assistant coach who has spent time with Miles in the NBA. "I've wondered if he loves to play. Because he was such a prodigy in AAU, he was always handled with kid gloves, so in the NBA he couldn't take somebody always being on him. But I don't think of him as a 'cancer'-type person in the locker room. I don't think he has the personality to have that kind of impact on his teammates.''

Miles doesn't understand his negative reputation.

"When I was with the Clippers, we were always family-oriented,'' said Miles, who was a 19-year-old phenom when he joined the Clippers. "My mom would cook and almost the whole team would come over. I used to throw fight parties or Super Bowl parties and invite the players. Some would come, some didn't.''

While Miles disagrees that he has set a bad example, he admits that he needs to play on a veteran team for the first time.

"Coming back into this league, I've got to be on a team where I look up to the players,'' he said. "I've been on the good side, where everything is good for you -- fans, shoe commercials, movie deals, my jersey in the top five. Then I'm on that side where I'm just labeled this criminal, this thug, this bad guy -- 'He can't be coached.' I've been on both sides and it's funny, I don't know how I went from that side to this side. I don't have a [criminal] record. I don't do anything out of the ordinary. I never had problems with my teammates. It's crazy how you get labeled.''

Before he had played a game for the Clippers, Miles made the cover of Sports Illustrated's NBA preview alongside his idol, Kevin Garnett. Miles had been viewed as the next versatile star. But he wasn't forced to confront his potential until he was released by the Blazers. Was he going to live off his $60 million in NBA earnings? Or was he going to try to play again?

"The truth is, [Maurice] Cheeks was the best coach I had because he was the first person who told me I had way more [potential] than I was giving,'' Miles said.

In April, he moved to Phoenix for three months of twice-daily workouts with former Suns trainer Robin Pound, who scheduled the first workout at 7 a.m. to test Miles' commitment. While Miles needs to lose weight, he looks stronger than the skinny teenager who was seen as the future of basketball.

"[Robin] told me, 'You don't want to have no regrets,' '' Miles said.

One executive at the Las Vegas summer league who has been following the details of Miles' comeback predicts that he'll be playing in the league next year; another calls it a "no-brainer'' that a team will sign him.

If he is unable to come back, the Blazers will enter next summer with $24 million or more to spend on free agents. Miles' return for at least 10 games would cause his $9 million salary to go back on their books, but it wouldn't kill their hopes of recruiting a star because they would still have close to $15 million to offer to a max free agent. They could pry open more cap space by making a trade or two, and with so much young talent already -- including Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and rookie Rudy Fernandez -- the Blazers will be strong regardless of Miles' outcome.

Should Miles play 10 games and reinjure the knee, the Blazers could apply for a reinstatement of the career-ending exception and retrieve the $9 million in cap space.

"There's no pain, no swelling,'' Miles said. "Say if a team signs me tomorrow: I'm going directly to that state, buy me a house and start working out with them all the way up to training camp. I'm just hoping it's a playoff team.''

Did basketball come too easily for him? If Miles used to take his talent for granted, he doesn't anymore. He is working hard to recover his gifts.

"I just had a son, he's six months old, and I want my son to see me play basketball,'' Miles said. "I want to get that adrenaline rush. I don't see myself getting it nowhere else but in a big old arena with a bunch of people, and your heart beating. But it's not a scary beating; it's a hyped kind of beating. You know what I'm saying?''

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