TEAM MILLER : Plenty of Discipline, a Basketball Hoop in the Driveway and Oatmeal Every Morning--That’s the Millers’ Recipe for Success
CARRIE TURNER HAD A DATE. SHE WAS GOING TO THE FLAmingo, the best nightclub that admitted black people in Memphis, Tenn., in 1955. Giddy with anticipation, Carrie primped in the glow of the neon flamingo over the club’s door. She climbed rickety stairs to a ballroom that shook to the jazz of Phineas Newborn Jr. and his orchestra.
Newborn’s saxophonist was a tall, bespectacled young man. Utterly cool in black pants and an emerald jacket, Saul Miller blew a hot tenor sax. More important to Carrie, “He was a handsome thing. All the girls had their eyes on Saul.” But it was Carrie he had invited to the show, and when the band took a break, he asked her to dance to “Stardust,” playing on the club’s phonograph. Carrie, slow dancing with the best-looking man in the room, thought: “This could be the start of something good.”
Today Carrie Turner Miller, 61, stands in the den of the Miller home in Riverside, Calif. She nearly swoons remembering that dance. “My friends were so jealous!” Saul, 60, still thin as a reed, sits on the sofa with his long legs crossed. “Yes,” he says. He and his wife are surrounded by trophies, plaques and framed certificates, 315 gleaming reminders of their children’s many dates with destiny.
Thirty-six years ago in Memphis, a jazzman and a nurse fell in love. And while Saul and Carrie Miller are not the most famous couple in America, they have raised one of America’s best-known families.
Saul Miller Jr., 34, blows his horn for the President of the United States as a saxophonist for the elite Air Force band, the Airmen of Note.
Darrell Miller, 33, played five major-league seasons for the California Angels before moving to the front office as the team’s director of community relations.
Cheryl Miller, 27, the only eight-time All-American in basketball history--male or female--was the best female player ever. After draping herself in stars and stripes as the heroine of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, “Miss Magic” became a sports commentator for ABC and ESPN.
Reggie Miller, 25, is the Indiana Pacers’ $3- million-a-year all-star.
Tammy Miller, 23, attended Cal State Fullerton on a volleyball scholarship and earned her degree in criminal justice last May; she is currently applying to law school.
Showing off a photo of Cheryl schmoozing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Saul winks at his wife. “Guess we did OK,” he says.
Says Carrie: “It wasn’t easy, baby.”
A BASKETBALL PLAYER AT MEMPHIS’ ALL-BLACK HAMILTON high in the 1940s, Saul Miller moonlighted as a radio musician, jamming with B.B. King on WDIA during his lunch hours. After starring on Lemoyne College’s basketball team, he backed Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane and Ike Turner. “He was hot,” says Saul Jr., who played a club gig with his father decades later. “I was cool,” Saul admits. But splitting weekend cash with the jazz-blues greats was no way to build a future. Saul had joined the Air Force in 1951; he re-enlisted in ’56, after he got married, trading his dreams of musical immortality for a regular paycheck.
In barracks all over the Great Plains states, he took his horn to the latrine and practiced in midnight silence, fingering the keys, imagining the music he’d make if he could cut loose and wake his buddies with a blues reveille. Saul was smart--a computer-systems superintendent who operated the Strategic Air Command’s mainframe in Omaha--but he was still a sax fiend. On weekend passes, he played “town tamer,” introducing his visiting musical friends to new territory. Saul would stroll into a club and uncork his sax, “styling” by holding the horn behind his back and playing it over his shoulder, showing off to the locals.
Carrie, a registered nurse, was often the only black woman in the hospitals where she worked. She felt the hate in some of her patients, heard “nigger” spat behind her back. Carrie bit her lip. She went home, slept a few hours, woke early and made sure her kids had hot meals every single morning for 20 years: 7,305 mornings in a row.
Saul was transferred to March Air Force Base in 1963, and the family settled in Riverside. Blessed by good genes and Carrie’s oatmeal, the kids grew tall and strong. Each found a way to emulate dad, the 6-foot-5 giant who expected perfection from his brood. Saul Jr., who quickly tired of team sports--"running laps, being a number"--took up the sax. Darrell, the studious jock, with the best Miller grades in high school (as an Angels catcher, he would computerize opposing players’ stats and tendencies), helped Junior play deputy dad when their father worked late. But it was Cheryl, daddy’s tomboy princess, who made the Millers famous.
“You love them all, all the same,” Carrie says, “but Cheryl just shined.” She was Carrie’s most difficult birth, a blue baby born with her umbilical cord pulled tight around her neck. But once she got her breath, Cheryl turned golden. Even now she is the startling one, a 6-foot-3 tower of grace and quick wit, her eyes light brown with green rims around the irises.
Cheryl was 5 when she joined her big brothers around the hoop in the driveway. They were 11 and 12. They knocked her down. They swatted her shots out onto Colorado Avenue, but she wouldn’t cry. Tears were for sissies. Cheryl dusted herself off and demanded the ball. One day when she was 9, burying shot after shot in the driveway, her father came out of the house. “He looked 10 feet tall,” she says. “He said, ‘There’s something special about you, Cheryl.’ Then he went back in. That was it.”
Not quite it. Dad also spoke to Saul Jr. and Darrell that summer. “I want you two to keep an eye on Cheryl. Protect her. It’s important,” he said.
The boys nodded and said “Yessir!” So one day when a bunch of schoolyard bullies bloodied Cheryl, her brothers drove to Adams Elementary after their high school classes and laid down the Miller law. “We found those guys. We lined them up,” Saul Jr. recalls. “ ‘Don’t move,’ we said. And Cheryl went down the line, punching them. I said, ‘That hurts, doesn’t it? And that’s a girl hitting you. Imagine how it’ll feel if Darrell and I hit you.’ ” After that, Cheryl was safe. She was daddy’s jewel, protected by a retinue of Miller muscle.
At home, though, her guardians weren’t so supportive. Saul Jr., in particular, enjoyed pulling rank on his siblings. When the kids were home alone, they watched his favorite show, “The Rifleman.” If Cheryl cried “Pow, pow!” during a gunfight, she had to do 100 pushups. If she persisted in talking out of turn, Saul Jr. played a game he called Houdini, tying Cheryl and kid brother Reggie together and stuffing them in a closet.
Dad, too, was a taskmaster. When Cheryl scored a shocking 105 points in a game for Riverside Poly High School, he quibbled about her shooting form or, worse, her grades. In her junior year, she brought home a report card with too many C’s, good enough to maintain her eligibility but not good enough for Saul. “That’s it,” he said. “You’re through for the season.”
“But Daddy, I’m an All-American.”
“You could be All-World. I wouldn’t care. Your mother and I want you to be All-Books.”
Cheryl pleaded. She swore she would improve her grades, and Saul Miller surrendered. He let her play ball.
Bad parenting? “No,” he says with the force of a man who has often been proved right. “She gave me her word. I believed her.”
Saul Miller expected his daughter to be a star. He told Carrie that their daughter would be the first four-time high school All-American to repeat the feat in college, that Cheryl would make the Olympic team, win a gold medal and become a celebrity. He also knew that basketball was a dead end for a girl. There was no women’s National Basketball Assn. “But your basketball will get you into college,” he told Cheryl. The “system” of college sports, Saul said, “will use you to sell tickets. You have to use it to get educated.”
In 1984, with Cheryl Miller flying higher than any woman before, the University of Southern California broke attendance records for women’s basketball games at home and on the road. Some of the Women of Troy’s home games were moved from a cramped campus gym to the L.A. Sports Arena to accommodate her fans. The team won two straight national titles, with Cheryl breaking National Collegiate Athletic Assn. scoring and rebounding records and passing out assists like Magic Johnson.
At the ’84 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where her performance led Newsweek to call her “a heroine who plays the game like a man,” Cheryl became more than a local star. She was leader of the greatest team in women’s basketball history, a gold-medal nova whose photo graced magazine covers from Newport Beach to New York and New Delhi. It was a bit anticlimactic when, as a USC senior, she topped Paula McGee’s collegiate scoring mark by a resounding 613 points. She also broke the NCAA’s women’s career records for free throws and steals--both already held by Cheryl Miller.
Cheryl was the best female basketball player since James Naismith invented the game 100 years ago. She was, for one brief moment, the most famous player on Earth. Thousands of young women asked their beauticians for the “Cheryl cut,” a stack of shiny curls that reflected glory. So stellar was she that Sports Illustrated, to the widespread disgust of chauvinist prigs, named her National Player of the Year in 1985.
That was also the year her dad hung a new plaque on the wall in Riverside: “Cheryl Miller, Academic All-American"--the NCAA’s annual choice of six male and six female athletes who also excel in the classroom. Smiling, Saul points at the plaque and says, “All-Books.”
Two women’s professional basketball leagues had folded while Cheryl was earning her communications degree at USC. She got offers from the Harlem Globetrotters and a European women’s league. The former asked her to be a part-time clown; the latter would have forced America’s best to play overseas in what amounted to a minor league.
“In her sport, Cheryl was as good as Michael Jordan,” says brother Darrell. But she was a Jordan with no NBA--a painter with no canvas. A young man with Cheryl’s skills would have made millions playing Madison Square Garden and the Forum. Instead, she played pickup games in the USC gym, where in 1987 a less skillful player accidentally tripped her. Cheryl’s right knee popped like a punctured balloon.
Waking in the hospital after surgery, staring at the cast on her leg, she burst into tears. She would walk again, but her top-speed basketball days were over. Cheryl hobbled home to Riverside. Looking up at the jersey she had worn in the Olympics, she recuperated in the bed she had slept in as a child, where Carrie had talked her to sleep after schoolgirl games. “I was crying one night when Dad came in,” Cheryl says. “He was crying, too. I’d never seen that. It scared me. I loved my dad, but I was always afraid of him, of failing him, and now I wasn’t special anymore.” Saul gripped his daughter’s hand, consoling her for hours. “Our relationship changed that night,” she says. Fighting a case of the sniffles, Cheryl Miller smiles. “He became my friend.”
The women’s basketball record-holder--who moved into a Culver City apartment when her knee healed--now holds a microphone during ABC telecasts of NCAA basketball and football games. Last year, after earning a promotion--to men’s games--she heard pre-game grumblings: “What makes that girl such an expert?” Cheryl tamed such talk by stripping off her blazer, grabbing a ball and swishing a few three-pointers. She loved it when former North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano, now a fellow commentator, shouted, “Miller, you’ve still got the touch!”
It burns a bit, she says--taking a sport to new heights and not making a cent for it. “When you look at what I accomplished, it isn’t fair. But, hey, that’s life. Now I root for Reggie.”
CARRIE WEPT WHEN REGGIE MILLER WAS BORN: HER FOURTH BABY was warped, his hips pronated, his leg bones forcing his ankles inward. From his third month until he was 4 years old, he slept with steel braces on his legs. Doctors said he might never walk normally. He would certainly not play basketball. “Yes he will,” Carrie said. “I say he will.”
No one predicted glory for Reggie. He was Carrie’s little bulldog, the one who joined the driveway action--when his braces came off--only to have his shots blocked in quick succession by Saul Jr., Darrell and Cheryl. “How do you think he got that high arc on his shot?” Darrell says of the player who would one day break Larry Bird’s NBA rookie record for three-pointers. “He had to shoot that way, or we’d block it.”
Trained to play hard when family bragging rights were at stake, which meant always, Reggie was treated by his siblings the way dad treated everyone: without mercy.
Hundreds of blocked shots taught young Reggie that distance was the better part of valor. By the time he was 10, he was shooting from Carrie’s flower beds. “Reggie practiced like crazy,” Cheryl says. Reggie became a driveway sweat machine and long-range Houdini.
He also grew taller than his elders: 6-foot-7. Saul and Carrie had a special bed made to suit the tall, skinny kid whose suddenly perfect legs allowed him to fake a high-arc rainbow, stutter-step to the hoop and dunk the ball.
Following Cheryl into sports at Poly High, Reggie was astonished to find high school ball less challenging than the driveway games at home. Still, he played in his sister’s shadow. Leaping off the bus after a big game, he hugged her and said, “I got 39!”
“Reggie, that’s great,” Cheryl said.
“How’d you do tonight?”
“I got 105.”
The next day Cheryl’s 105 was covered in sports pages from coast to coast. Reggie’s game was forgotten except by classmates who razzed him about getting outscored by his sister to the tune of 66 points. Saul didn’t help matters by raving about Cheryl’s game: “A feat to behold!” But if Reggie’s heart ached, he kept the hurt to himself.
“Reg and I are close. Like this,” says Cheryl, making a fist. So close, in fact, that they have a pact: When he gets married, Reggie will have no best man. She will be his “Best Cheryl,” and he will be “Reggie of Honor” at her wedding. She may have bruised his ego by tripling his thunder that night, Cheryl says, “but there was never a look of envy in his eye. He was never jealous of me.”
“Right,” says Reggie. Now a professional sharpshooter who swears it’s easier to shoot over Robert Parish and Vlade Divac in NBA games than it was to win at Miller driveway hoop, he says, “I was proud when she got 105. What bothered me was losing to her at home. My whole goal was beat Cheryl . But it wasn’t jealousy.”
It was family. Miller pride, not envy, drove Reggie, and his proudest moment came the day he finally beat his big sister one-on-one. “I loved it,” he says, savoring the memory.
“I hated it,” says Cheryl. “At first I hated it. Then I thought of how hard he’d worked, and it wasn’t so bad.”
In 1986, Reggie was more than the Millers’ new top gun. He was UCLA’s long-range bomber. Regularly threading jumpers from 25 feet--the distance from Carrie’s azaleas to the basket back home--he averaged 26 points per game his junior year, leading the Bruins to their first conference title since ’83. To the fans, however, he was Cheryl’s little brother. She was the international star, the one who slapped Olympic high fives with the President, jetted to Washington to testify before the U.S. Senate in favor of the 1984 Civil Rights Act, turned down a chance to be the first female Globetrotter, rubbed elbows with Mayor Tom Bradley on Dec. 12, 1986--"Cheryl Miller Day” in Los Angeles. She was the one dribbling behind her back on the Grammy Awards on national TV to Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” while Michael Jackson cheered her on. Cheryl was America’s basketball darling. Reggie was merely the college game’s best shooter. When he lined up to shoot a free throw, opposition fans cried, “Cheryl! Cheryl!”
“It was intense,” he says, understating the case. He now calls the taunts “a motivating factor.”
“Reggie responds to adversity. He feeds on it. He always has,” says Cheryl, who winced when she heard her name used as a catcall.
Saul, as usual, has the last word: “Reggie hit those shots.” Call it coincidence if you like, Saul says, but look up the stats and you’ll see that Reggie Miller was--and is--the finest free-throw shooter in the game.
Last season the Indiana Pacers rewarded their all-star guard with a five-year contract worth more than $17 million. As one of the NBA’s top players, Reggie Miller makes about $20,000 per game, enough in a few months to top his sister’s annual six-figure TV salary. “This is the same skinny guy I used to beat up on Colorado Avenue, and now he’s making bank ,” Cheryl says, amazed. And while her brother still hears an occasional “Cheryl! Cheryl!” on the road, more often the Nike is on the other foot: Recently, Cheryl went to an L.A. nightspot, the Palladium, expecting the usual VIP treatment. No go. Then she name-dropped, and “Reggie Miller’s sister” was admitted with fanfare.
Cheryl says she loves Reggie’s new renown. “It’s his turn now, and he earned it. Nobody works harder than Reggie. He made up his mind to be a great player and he did it--with a little help from his sister.” Pause for effect. “But I don’t have a million-dollar house!” she yells, pounding her head with mock fury.
ACCORDING TO TAMMY, THE baby sister who chose volleyball because every hoops trophy on Earth seemed to be claimed by her siblings, Reggie and Cheryl are so close they’re nearly twins. Elder brothers Saul Jr. and Darrell still play deputy dad, Tammy says, though the role is now advisory and telephonic.
Darrell, who lives with his wife, Kelly, in Brea, is the most serious Miller, the only one who bristles when asked about Reggie’s millions. “I’m doing fine,” he says. “I don’t have to ask Reggie for money.” Described by his father as “very heavy, brain-wise,” Darrell is the Millers’ stiff upper lip. Carrie still has the angelic disposition she was born with, but the years have changed Saul. Retired from the Air Force, sitting in the den with his kids’ myriad mementos, he’s almost mellow. As for Tammy, “I’m the best dancer,” she says. “Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
That may be a small claim to fame in this all-star household, but Tammy laughs off sibling rivalry. Growing up last “was an advantage,” she says. “I was absolutely spoiled!” She lugged water buckets for Cheryl’s school teams and showed Miller pride by wearing Cheryl’s and Reggie’s lettermen’s jackets to school; by playing a “minor” sport, she avoided the public struggles that dogged her famous elders. Almost as an afterthought, she grew up to be a 6-foot volleyball spiker.
Tammy spent last summer at Riverside’s Van Horne Youth Center, counseling kids whose lives have been less idyllic than hers. At home, where she plays records and studies law in a house full of her sibs’ trophies, she breakfasts on Carrie’s oatmeal and helps her parents plan the family’s next reunion.
The Millers, spread over three states and 3,000 miles since Reggie joined the Pacers and Saul Jr. took his saxophone to Washington, get together every Christmas. This year the annual singing, dancing, Monopoly- and Scrabble-playing shindig moves to Reggie’s place. The Miller millionaire is single, but he recently bought a four-bedroom home in Indianapolis. “I thought, ‘Even my family will fit in here.’ ” Sleepy Indiana may never be the same.
At Christmas the Millers go nuts. They stop being “The Millers, Riverside’s upstanding black family"--Cheryl’s words--and cut loose with a long weekend of music, yelling, hoops, home movies, mom’s beef stroganoff, Saul’s critique of Reggie’s shooting flaws (detected on the big-screen TV Reggie gave him) and some of the fiercest board games ever played. One Miller cheats at Monopoly and gets away with it. Reggie chucks a Scrabble square at Cheryl. Saul Jr. always plays “The Christmas Song,” and the Millers sing of chestnuts on a fire, Jack Frost nipping noses--odd lyrics for a California family.
Saul quit playing jazz long ago, when Saul Jr. hit the club circuit. “When you see yourself coming around the other way, it’s time to get out,” he says. In fact, some music fans had seen “Saul Miller” on a handbill, paid their money and were disappointed to see a boy on the bandstand. So Saul stepped aside. No Miller quite admits it, but he quit because he did not want to eclipse his son. Last year, after hearing Junior blow his horn, Saul took him aside and said, “You know, you can play a little.”
Says Saul Jr.: “That made me feel bad "--which means great.
Seven years ago, Saul Jr. joined the Air Force. He now plays for the Airmen of Note, the Air Force band that rejected a jazzman named Saul Miller 40 years ago. What goes around comes around, and in this family at least, it all seems to turn out for the best.
WITH THE MILLERS IN INDY FOR Christmas, the tall white house in Riverside where Tammy, Saul and Carrie still live will be empty this year--except for hundreds of mementos and even more echoes. Cheryl’s old room, full of flags and jerseys, is untouched since she rehabbed her knee there. Down the hall, Reggie’s boyhood bed still stretches six inches past Darrell’s, under photos of both boys. There are so many trophies in this house that one part of the den, which Saul calls “the synopsis,” holds only world-class hardware. Here, Carrie spends a full day every few months dusting trophies. “It wouldn’t take so long,” she says, “but I keep stopping to look at them all, thinking back.” Sometimes, just for Carrie, Saul might get his old sax from a closet and play, stretching the notes until they seem to reach back 36 years, into the smoky ballroom where they met. If Carrie shuts her eyes for a moment, she can still see a skinny young man with a horn and the promise of what was to come. And if you ask Carrie, the one Miller who never won a trophy, she will say she’s the most blessed of all.