The nickname he got in college seemed appropriate for a sweet-shooting, high-jumping scoring machine. When he failed to live up to it in the NBA—who could?—he felt ashamed. Yet for Baby Jordan, a brief pro career proved to be an enduring blessing
July 07, 2014

THE NICKNAME is what we remember most. Baby Jordan. USC shooting guard Harold Miner was a near mirror image of His Airness, a lefthanded, 6'5" slashing acrobat who shaved his head, wore the number 23 and wagged his tongue. He could also get buckets. Though Miner played just three seasons for the Trojans before entering the 1992 draft, his 2,048 career points still stand as the school's alltime mark. The nickname raised Miner's profile, but it also heightened expectations. "It helped me," Miner says, "but it hurt me too."

Plus, we remember his—how to put this?—unusual behavior. His free throw routine involved passing the ball around his back, rubbing it, cradling it like a baby and then tapping it against his nose. Miner touched all kinds of things with his nose—walls, tabletops, a teammate's arm, his coach's shoulder. In the middle of a game he would lean down and brush the lines on the floor with his fingertips. Miner walked near the walls of airports so he could run his fingers along them. He constantly rubbed his thumb and forefinger next to his ear because he liked the sound it made.

When exiting a room, Miner often would have to reenter and leave again, over and over, running an index finger along the top of the door or fiddling with the knob. He couldn't leave for good until it felt just right. "People would make fun of me, but it would get frustrating," Miner says. "It was just something that was tough not to do."

Miner says that, not unlike his nickname, these behaviors hurt him, but they helped him too. Just as Miner could become fixated on shutting a door in exactly the right way, he would spend hours on the playground working on a basketball move. He couldn't leave until his last shot felt just right.

Miner was about nine years old when he first became aware of these idiosyncrasies. "I would always feel like I had to touch street lights on the corner or a stop sign," he says. "In some ways that helped my jumping ability." It wasn't until recently, when Miner was flipping through psychology textbooks his wife, Pam, was studying while finishing up her undergraduate degree, that he considered he might have some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. "I was reading about people who washed their hands 50 times a day," he says. "Even though that's something I never did, it felt very similar to me, that feeling that you have to do something over and over again."

Basketball wasn't just a passion for Miner. It was a compulsion. So when his NBA career ended after just four years, he couldn't handle it. What does a man do when he loses touch with his dream? What does he do when the door shuts tight, giving him no chance to walk back through and refuse to leave until it feels just right?

He disappears.

IT'S A hot spring day in Las Vegas, and Miner's garage is toasty. He has turned one corner into a workout space, where he is putting his two children through agility drills. Miner still has the same bald head and easy smile he had while he played for USC, and while he carries about 20 pounds more around his midsection, he's in pretty good shape for a 43-year-old. As Harold gives instructions to the Baby Miners, he sounds more like a doting dad than a crazy sports parent. At times it's hard to hear him above the whir of the fan.

"Use your arms to propel yourself—straight up," he says to his daughter, Kami, 11, who smiles brightly as she springs off both feet and lands on a wood box. Kami is a standout volleyball prospect, endowed with her dad's leaping skills as well as his understated demeanor. Miner calls her Quiet Storm. His seven-year-old son, Brayden, does similar exercises. Brayden mostly plays soccer, but he has a budding interest in basketball.

As Miner guides his kids through a 90-minute workout, a TV hanging on the wall shows an NBA playoff game between the Heat and the Pacers. Gesturing toward a visitor, Harold says to Brayden, "Tell him what happened when we went to the park."

Brayden's eyes grow wide. "He made 14 in a row threes," he says. Harold laughs. "Were you surprised? I hadn't shot in years, right?"

For a long time after his career ended, Miner could not bring himself to watch basketball, much less play it. The passage of time has helped, but Brayden accelerated the process. He loves to sit on the couch and watch games with his dad, peppering him with questions. Finally Miner has reconnected to his sport as well as to his past. "It took longer than most," he says, "but I was into it more than most."

Miner was probably happiest in junior high. That's when he was just another class clown sitting in the back of the room wearing his number 6 Sixers jersey (in honor of Julius Erving) with MINER stitched on the back. The fourth of five children, he moved to a gang-infested neighborhood in Inglewood, Calif., when he was 11. Harold used to follow his older brother, Steve, to the playground. It wasn't long before Harold was hopping buses around the city in search of a game, dominating wherever he went.

As a senior at Inglewood High, Miner was courted by Kansas, North Carolina and Notre Dame, among others. He chose the Trojans over perennial power UCLA, confident he could turn the program around. At USC, Miner rarely socialized or went to parties, preferring to work out alone in the gym or spend hours in his dorm room watching videos of Jordan, Dr. J, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, George Gervin and his favorite, Pete Maravich. Like Pistol Pete, Miner considered himself a showman. "I think practice bored Harold," says George Raveling, his former USC coach. "He needed people in the stands."

Miner broke the Pac-10 freshman scoring record, with 578 points. As a sophomore, he set a school mark with 681 and led the Trojans to their first NCAA tournament appearance in six years. At the end of his junior season, during which he was the nation's third-leading scorer, at 26.3 points per game, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED chose him as its player of the year over Ohio State's Jimmy Jackson, Duke's Christian Laettner, Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning and LSU's Shaquille O'Neal.

It wasn't until after Miner chose to turn pro in the spring of 1992 that he realized what a burden his nickname would be. Certain he was a top five draft pick, he was crushed when he fell to the Heat at No. 12. He signed a $3 million endorsement deal with Nike and won the Slam Dunk contest on All-Star weekend, but his transition to pro ball was awkward. At USC the offense flowed through him. Now, for the first time, Miner had to blend in with players who were as good or better than he was. His coach, Kevin Loughery, wasn't interested in coddling him.

Miner dived in with his usual single-mindedness, averaging 10.3 points in 18.9 minutes, but he was slowed by pain in his right knee. When the season ended, he had surgery to remove some cysts and clean out cartilage, but during his second year, whenever he felt on the verge of breaking through, the pain would return. "It was so frustrating," he says. "Sometimes I would go to my hotel room or my condo and just cry."

Though he won another slam dunk contest in his third season, Miner's production dipped to 7.3 points per game, and the Heat traded him to the Cavaliers. His knee pain lingered. During 1995--96 he played in just 19 games and scored 61 points. A doctor told him he had a degenerative knee joint and, after his second operation, Cleveland declined to pick up his option. Miner then signed a free-agent contract with the Raptors and reported to training camp in the best shape of his life, but soon after he arrived, he slipped on a wet spot during an informal workout. His knee buckled, and he struggled during camp. "I didn't sleep for two weeks," he says. "I mean literally—I did not sleep. There were just a million things going through my mind. I was only 25, but in my spirit I knew it was over. When you come to that realization, man, it's incredible from an emotional standpoint."

Toronto cut him before the opener. Devastated and embarrassed, Miner returned to Los Angeles, where he had started dating Pam Malveaux, then a student at UC Irvine. He had bought a modest home, and for the next couple of years his mother, Marilyn, lived there with him. (Miner's parents were still married, but his father, Melvin, was a computer programmer who had moved to Colorado to take a job with Lockheed Martin.) Miner and his mom talked for hours. She tried to assure him that he had much more to offer than what he could do with a leather ball, but he had a hard time believing her. He had purchased a condo in Las Vegas as a weekend getaway; it wasn't long before all he wanted to do was get away. After he married Pam in July 1999, they bought a house in Las Vegas while Marilyn moved into the condo there.

Miner invited a few of his former teammates to the wedding but soon dropped all contact with them. "I tried to call him sometimes, but the number got disconnected," says former guard Ronnie Coleman. "I just left him alone. I figured he wanted to be isolated." Another Trojan, guard Duane Cooper, also reached out, to no avail. When Cheryl Miller, the former USC great, repeatedly called Cooper in hopes of interviewing Miner for a TNT special, Cooper finally gave her the number but predicted that Miner would not return her calls. He didn't.

Cooper was one of Miner's friends at school, but their only contact came about seven years ago, when they bumped into each other in a men's room at Sea World in San Diego. They chatted for an hour while Pam and the kids explored the park, then went their separate ways. USC wanted to invite Miner back to have his jersey retired, but school officials didn't know how to reach him. One of the few non--family members Miner stayed connected with was Damian Smith, his best friend since the seventh grade. Smith lost count of the number of people who asked to be put in touch. "My perfunctory response was, Give me your number, and I'll get it over to him," Smith says. "I always respected Harold's privacy. I figured if someone doesn't have Harold's information, there's a reason for that."

Miner's withdrawal was especially painful for Raveling. "I always wondered why Harold went into this hibernation because I never felt he had anything to be ashamed of," the coach says. "The one thing I wish is that I had fought desperately to eradicate Baby Jordan. I think it created an expectation that was unreal."

Miner never thought of himself as a recluse. He and Pam were living a normal life—eating at restaurants, going to movies, strolling down the street in broad daylight. He knew that his teammates and friends were probably hurt that he had cut them out of his life. "I kind of feel bad, but it was hard, man," he says. "Basketball was everything to me. It was painful to lose it. So anything that reminded me of it, I wanted to get away from. I just wanted to heal on my own."

MINER'S MOTHER died of liver cancer in 2004. As he mourned, he thought about all those wonderful conversations they shared in the years after his career abruptly ended. He realized he wouldn't have traded those hours for one more moment of NBA glory. "I think it was meant for me to be there," he says. "If I'd been playing, I would have been gone. It probably would have been a huge regret had I not gotten to spend that time with her."

Kami was born in 2003. Brayden came along three years later. They helped bring Miner out of the fog. After he ballooned to 280 pounds, Miner adopted a healthier lifestyle and became certified as a fitness trainer. As he built a new life, he became more amenable to reconnecting with his old one. Having read one too many stories that made him sound like basketball's J.D. Salinger, Miner took a call from LostLettermen.com and spoke about all he had been through. In 2011 he gave another interview to the Los Angeles Times after agreeing to be inducted into the Pac-10's Hall of Honor during that season's conference tournament. It was the first time he had been to a basketball game since he played in the NBA—and he loved it. A year later Miner agreed to let USC honor him. Just before Miner was presented with a framed jersey during halftime of a game against UCLA, his former teammates surprised him by walking onto the court. He embraced each one and then mingled with them for several hours at a reception following the game. "It was wonderful," Miner says. "I hadn't seen some of them in 20 years. "

The compulsive behaviors are less frequent than when Miner was younger, but they are still a part of his life, flaring up when he is feeling nervous or tense. Sometimes, when he is strolling through a plaza with Pam, he will circle a particular pillar over and over. He still tends to step over lines on the sidewalk. During a two-hour interview in his expansive living room, he fiddled constantly with his black cap.

Miner earned about $12 million in salary and endorsements during his four seasons in the NBA, and he's invested conservatively and spent frugally, leaving him financially secure for life. Still, he is itching to find a new line of work, and his wife is all but kicking him out of the house. "He's done enough sitting," Pam says.

Miner's certification as a trainer has lapsed, but he wants to resume that career and start working with young athletes. He is also thinking about getting into broadcasting. First, however, he wants to complete his undergraduate degree at USC, which would require moving his family back to Los Angeles. Such a change would have been unthinkable not long ago, considering that city, and especially that campus, is the place where memories of Baby Jordan are strongest. Miner, however, is well past chasing expectations. "It's been so long. I'd be just another person in L.A. now," he says with a smile. "Actually, I think I'll enjoy being at USC as a student now more than I did the first time."

"Personally, I think him being taken out of the game was the biggest blessing that could have ever happened to him," Pam says. "He's become a better person for it, a better man." It may have taken him a while to learn it, but Miner now knows that there's no such thing as the perfect last shot. There's only the next one.

PHOTOPhotograph by BERNSTEIN ASSOCIATES Getty ImagesTOUCH AND GO In his third and last season as a Trojan, Miner, who was known for his idiosyncratic behavior—putting his nose to the ball and fingering the lines on the court—averaged 26.3 points and was SI's player of the year. PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTOMANNY MILLAN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DUNKING)MINER VICTORY The first round draft pick (above, with David Stern) showed flashes as a rookie by winning the Slam Dunk contest, but knee injuries held Miner back. PHOTONATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WITH STERN)[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDHOME FREE Pam's support, and the births of Brayden (middle) and Kami, helped Harold gradually reconnect to the game he once loved.



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