Last friday afternoon Reggie Miller arrived at Conseco Fieldhouse three hours before game time, just as he always does. Except for the odd usher, some techies laying TV cables and an onlooker or two, the cavernous arena was empty when Miller took the floor and began shooting, first foul shots, then an elaborate routine of layups, jumpers and three-pointers, assisted by a ball boy well-versed in where and when to pass. The only sounds were the squeak of sneakers, the schwick of the dancing net and the click of Miller's right wrist hitting his left during a follow-through so crooked it seemed¬†a miracle that the ball went straight. His shot was so sure--he made 35 of 36 free throws and 35 of 42 threes--that when he didn't connect it was disconcerting, like seeing someone, midway through a meal, lift a forkful of salad and miss his mouth entirely.
As Miller continued his unique pregame ritual (more on that later), the seats slowly turned yellow with fans. They came in part to see their surging Pacers, but judging by the jet roar at Miller's pregame introduction and the raft of number 31 jerseys, they largely came to see a 39-year-old shooting guard in the final days of his final NBA season. Miller did not disappoint them, showcasing a repertoire against the Washington Wizards that has changed little in two decades: the Baseline Fadeaway, the High-Knee Runner, the Catch-and-Snap Three, the Bait 'n' Flail for a Free Throw and, of course, the Reggie Run, that slithery, shoulder-dipping dash around screen after screen--56 by one unofficial count on Friday--during which he resembles a skier navigating slalom flags. The final damage in Indiana's 93--83 victory: 18 points on six of 13 shooting, four assists and four serenades of Reg-gie! Reg-gie!
The performance might have been dismissed as a rare blast from the past were it not for the fact that Miller has been just as impressive all season. After scoring 10.0 points per game last year, he was averaging 14.6 at week's end while leading the league in free throw shooting at 93.6%. More important, he had poured in 21.2 points per game since All-Star power forward Jermaine O'Neal suffered a sprained right shoulder on March 3. As Indiana G.M. Larry Bird says, "He's playing like he did when I was coaching here in '98."
Miller's revival couldn't have come at a better time for the Pacers. Between suspensions and injuries the team had lost 396 player-games through Sunday. Indiana had started 28 different lineups, including an is-that-an-I.M.-team? quintet of Fred Jones, David Harrison, James Jones, Austin Croshere and Eddie Gill. Despite the depleted roster, the Pacers had won seven of eight to improve to 41--35, tied for the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Those around the team credit three factors: the leadership of Miller; the March 4 signing of New Orleans Hornets forward Dale Davis, who has provided much-needed rebounding (9.2 per game) and toughness; and the coaching of Rick Carlisle, who has had to install no fewer than five offenses. While Carlisle's make-do job has led to coach of the year talk, he deflects the credit. "Any success that I'm having comes back to one guy, and that's Reggie Miller," he says. "If Reggie wasn't the rock that he is, if he wasn't having monster games when we need them, this [team] would have gone to hell in a handbucket a long time ago."
Like the Caped Crusader to the Bat Signal, Miller has responded in dramatic fashion. Shortly after the Nov. 19 brawl in Detroit, which resulted in the suspensions of O'Neal (15 games), swingman Stephen Jackson (30 games) and All-Star forward Ron Artest (the balance of the season), Miller dropped 23 points on the Warriors and 32 on the Milwaukee Bucks. He erupted for a season-high 39 last month in a defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers. That prompted L.A. coach Frank Hamblen to offer to be his agent. "When you can score your age in this league," Hamblen said, "it's not time to quit."
Despite entreaties to stay--Bird says he'd welcome him back "with open arms," while O'Neal says he has concocted a retention strategy--Miller hasn't wavered since announcing on Feb. 10 that he'd retire, saying there won't be any "Michael Jordan thing going on." In many ways, though, this year has provided an opportunity for Miller to go out with a flourish. Because the team has come together in the face of difficulties, he says, "this is probably the funnest [season] I've had. We've had makeshift lineups all year, and we found ways to hang around, hang around. Now we've found ways to win ball games against playoff-caliber teams."
Carlisle believes that we will never see another shooting guard maintain such a high level of play for so many years, and while he's certainly biased, it is hard to disagree. Consider: With 2,552 three-pointers through Sunday, Miller is the league's most prolific long-range shooter, 3.8 miles (if you add each one up at 23'9" feet) ahead of second-place Dale Ellis, who made 1,719. At week's end Miller was 10 points behind Jerry West for 12th place on the career scoring list and ranked seventh alltime in free throw shooting (88.8%). He has also played all 18 seasons with the same team; the second-longest such tenure among active players belongs to 10-year Minnesota Timberwolves veteran Kevin Garnett. No player is more identified with both a franchise and a city.
Nor is any player more beloved in his team's hometown. "The signs are what I appreciate the most," Miller says. "For a nine- or 10-year-old to go to a craft store and put in all that effort, that means a lot. I do see all the signs, I want people to know that." Told that a fan was wearing a T-shirt with his face on it at the Wizards game, Miller nods. "In the second row, right, with the Afro wig?" Imagine that: a superstar noticing the fans, not the other way around.
Miller wasn't always so revered in Indianapolis. When the Pacers took him 11th out of UCLA in 1987, fans booed at an arena draft party, preferring Indiana star guard Steve Alford. Miller wasn't even the most accomplished hoopster in his family at that time; his sister, Cheryl, was widely regarded as the greatest female player ever. Reggie? He was a bony, if confident, scrapper with an awkward release and a Bobby Brown fade. "I played him in 1988," says Carlisle. "I remember looking at his demeanor and his face, and there was an air about him. He was treating garbage time like it was the NBA Finals."
Miller elevated a franchise with his flair for last-second heroics, none more memorable than his eight points in 8.9 seconds against the New York Knicks in the 1995 playoffs, a display that will haunt Spike Lee for eternity. Beyond the on-court swagger, Miller was a constant professional, punctual, dedicated and superbly conditioned. "I have never seen him miss a practice, and I go to every one," says team president Donnie Walsh, who drafted Miller. "He's never once talked back to a coach. I have seen him cry after big losses." Walsh shakes his head. "Everything I wanted the franchise to stand for, he represents."
In many ways Miller is little changed from the 22-year-old Walsh picked: same 6'7", 190-pound frame that fat forgot, same deep-set eyes and baby face framed by satellite-dish ears. Miller's game remains remarkably similar too. For some, this would be career suicide--even Jordan modified his style of play, becoming a small forward during his last comeback--but Miller is able to thrive because of his conditioning and his consistency. O'Neal believes that Miller's attitude, in practice and at games, has been key. "He never got down, even though this is it for him," says O'Neal. "He could have easily said, 'Donnie, Larry, I want to go someplace so I have a chance to win.' That's not who he is, though. He wants to win here, on his own terms."
Those terms include his pregame routine, which is stunning in what Carlisle calls its "military mind-set." Miller always wears the same type of shirt (long sleeve with the cuffs cut off), watches tape with the remote in the same hand at the same time and walks through only certain doors and hallways. He always runs a portable massaging device over hard surfaces in the locker room, creating a jackhammerlike din that he says serves as "a dinner bell" to inspire his teammates. Between 30 and 40 seconds before introductions he always goes to midcourt, faces the opponent's basket, dribbles between his legs until the buzzer sounds, then hoists a fadeaway three-pointer. If he misses that, he fires one more three; if he misses that, he shoots a layup.
Miller's most unusual custom, however, occurs about eight minutes before tip-off, when he walks over to media relations director David Benner, who gives him a Pepsi--unless the Pacers lost the previous game, in which case it's a Sprite. After taking a sip, Miller listens as Benner berates him briefly with good-natured jibes, then responds by getting in Benner's face and wagging his finger at him while cracking jokes about everything from Benner's hair to his clothes to his choice of music. (The only topics off-limits are Benner's wife and his dog.) Fans sometimes think they're actually fighting. Says Miller, "It started in Market Square Arena after he said something to me and I had a good game. We've been doing it ever since."
Though the undermanned Pacers are unlikely to advance deep into the playoffs, Miller will continue to prepare as he always has, in case he has a shot at one last miracle. For it is on those undisturbed pregame afternoons, when the sweat beads up and he says he can feel his "body rhythms calibrating," that he has steeled himself to quiet the most cacophonous of arenas at the most crucial of moments.
Just because he had attempted (6,452) and made (2,552) more treys through Sunday than any other NBA player in history doesn't mean Reggie Miller hasn't been a threat from inside the arc. He ranks among the top guards alltime in a variety of scoring categories unrelated to three-point shooting.
have gone to hell in a handbucket a long time ago."