The most talked-about nose in Los Angeles, other than Michael Jackson's, is a bit congested today. Otherwise, it seems perfectly ordinary, as does its owner, USC guard Harold Miner. As he discusses his analytical approach to basketball and describes his vast hoops video library, which includes footage of everyone from Bob Cousy to Michael Jordan, Miner is friendly but serious, seemingly the furthest thing from a flake. You begin to think all those stories about him must be overblown, exaggerated through repeated tellings.
But then the subject of his nose comes up. Suddenly Miner laughs, leans forward and brings his face closer to the table in front of him. "It's true," he says. "I do like to"—here he brushes the tip of his nose back and forth against the table's cool, smooth surface—"touch things with it."
This is quite odd, of course, but odder still is that Miner makes it seem almost natural to place one's nose against inanimate objects for no apparent reason. In fact, watching the languid way he does it makes you want to touch something with your own nose just to make sure you haven't been missing out on some wonderful sensation. Miner's teammates have grown used to his wandering nose. No one bats an eye any longer when he rubs it against a chair or against a coach's shoulder during a timeout, or when he enters a room and brushes the door with his nose without saying a word.
"Harold is not normal," says the Trojans' other starting guard, Duane Cooper. "I tell him that all the time. You think the nose thing is weird? The nose thing is not weird. Not by Harold's standards. He has a whole bunch of strange habits. Sometimes, when we're just walking along in the mall or down the street, Harold will suddenly stop and put on a spin move, just pivot all the way around like he was trying to spin away from a guy on the court."
What's the proper reaction to that? "Just say, 'Was that a good one, Harold?' " says USC assistant sports information director Gary Pine. "And Harold says, 'Yeah, that was a good one.' "
Miner's friends and teammates tell these stories with pure affection, partly because Miner accepts teasing about his idiosyncrasies so good-naturedly and partly because Miner, a 6'5" junior from Inglewood, Calif., and a preseason All-America, is the Trojans' meal ticket. He proved it once again last Saturday, leading unranked USC to a dramatic 79-77 overtime upset of No. 4 Ohio State at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Miner scored 31 points against the talented Buckeyes, many of them with his trademark fall-away, lefthanded jumper. But his two most important points were the final ones of the game, coming on an improbable alley-oop pass from Cooper with 11 seconds left in OT and just one second remaining on the 45-second clock.
The shot gave Miner the last word in what had been a remarkable duel down the stretch with Jimmy Jackson, Ohio State's marvelous swingman. Jackson, a 6'6" junior, missed seven of his first eight shots but made seven of his final eight, many of them with Trojan defenders hanging from his shirt. He held the Buckeyes, who fell to 6-1, together late in the game and finished with a dandy line—28 points, nine rebounds and five assists. He even guarded Miner, who converted only eight of 19 field goal attempts, during much of their encounter. It was enough to solidify Jackson's stature as perhaps the finest clutch performer in the country but not enough to silence Miner and USC, which was 7-1 after earning its first victory against a Top 4 opponent since it beat No. 1 UCLA in 1970.
"Jimmy Jackson is a great, great player," said Southern Cal coach George Raveling. "The way he put them on his back and carried them down the stretch at crunch time was amazing. We saw two outstanding players, and they both had saddles on their backs."
USC's zone defense forced Ohio State to execute its offense from the perimeter, and until Jackson heated up, the Buckeyes weren't up to the task. For the game, they shot 40% from the floor. Raveling played the zone almost as vigorously as did his players. He ran along the sideline waving his arms in the air, which served the dual purpose of getting the Trojans on the floor to keep their arms up and working the normally catatonic Sports Arena crowd into a frenzy.
Still, Ohio State took a 77-75 lead on a Jackson jumper with 1:53 left in overtime. Miner tied it with two free throws and then intercepted a pass by Buckeye forward Chris Jent, which gave the Trojans their final possession with :55 on the clock. Ohio State smothered USC and knocked the ball out of bounds with that one second remaining on the shot clock. The Trojans didn't have a timeout, but they didn't need one. "Coop didn't say anything to me," Miner said later. "We just looked at each other, and we knew what to do. I gave a fake, looked for the lob, and it was there."
Amid the postgame bedlam Jackson and Miner embraced near midcourt. They have been friends since meeting at a Nike summer camp as high school players in 1988. "At the time, [Harold] wasn't getting a lot of publicity because there were so many good players in the L.A. area, like Tracy Murray and Mitchell Butler [both of whom are now at UCLA]," Jackson says. "But after I saw him play, I told people that they'd better be prepared. I've been telling people about Harold for a long time."
And yet there's no way to prepare for Miner's eccentricities. In addition to the nose thing, he likes to hold his fingers near his ear and rub them together because he enjoys the sound they make. His routine on free throws is to pass the ball around his body, then to lift his left leg slightly and bounce the ball between his legs, from back to front. And whenever he gets the urge, he reaches down and touches the lines on the court—foul line, sideline, baseline—a practice that, because of Miner's soaring prestige, is becoming popular among the kids who congregate on the Inglewood playgrounds.
The Trojan who draws Miner as a roommate on the road knows he is in for a bizarre experience. "He makes these noises," says Cooper. "It's hard to imitate, but it's kind of a humming thing with some other noises mixed in. You'll hear Harold in the other bed, going 'Hmmmm, period, period, hmmmmmm, sssss.' Nothing he does surprises you after you've been around him for a while. That's just Harold."
These odd habits come so naturally to Miner, 20, that he couldn't stop them even if he tried, which he occasionally has. "I know it's all crazy stuff, but it's second nature to me now," he says. "A couple of years ago I tried to cut them out, but it's hard, because I do them without even knowing I'm doing them sometimes. I tried to stop myself every time I started to do one of them, but it was so unnatural I started to give myself headaches."
Miner gives the impression that he wouldn't mind being a normal person but that he isn't quite sure how to go about it. Everything he does seems to set him slightly apart. For instance, he turned down an invitation to the Pan Am Games trials last summer because he preferred to spend the time at the Inglewood playgrounds. And while he has spent his entire life in Los Angeles, land of the automobile, he didn't get around to learning to drive until this year.
Many players Miner's age have a sense of the game's history that goes about as far back as Julius Erving, but after spending hours and hours with his VCR, Miner can talk at length about the way Cousy ran the fast break or how Oscar Robertson used his strength and balance against defenders. "It tends to set me off by myself," he says. "A lot of my friends might want to check out those tapes once, but not over and over the way I do. I just have this desire to know how the great players did what they did, so maybe I can incorporate some of it into my game."
The star with whom Miner has been most often compared is Jordan. Miner wears jersey number 23, just as Jordan does; has a shaved head; and his tongue even tends to wander and wag when he plays. He has the proper amount of awe for Jordan—"I played him once, and I swear he had a glow about him, like he wasn't human," Miner says—but he saves his true reverence for Erving. Miner wears number 23 only because Dr. J's 32 wasn't available when he arrived at USC.
The question on the minds of most Trojan fans these days is, will Miner leave Southern Cal after this season? He hasn't made up his mind yet, although the opinion of at least two of the 11 NBA scouts who attended Saturday's game was that Miner could use another year to refine his defense before entering the draft. Miner's decision could be influenced by the fate of Raveling, who has been noncommittal in response to growing rumors that he may resign after the season to take an executive position with the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
Whenever Miner does leave for the pros, he is already a living legacy of the NBA players from whom he has borrowed. His habit of licking his fingers and rubbing them against the soles of his shoes comes from watching Larry Bird do the same thing. Part of his foul-line bit was inspired by former NBA forward Alex English. "I'm not afraid to imitate people if I see something that can help me," he says.
But no matter how many players he imitates, Miner will never be anything but an original.