In the deliberately chosen words of Doris Burke, spiked with language most suitable for an HBO documentary, anyone who saw Cheryl Miller play basketball at USC in the 1980s knew ...
“She was a bad … mother … ” Burke, the ABC/ESPN basketball broadcaster, says in a whisper, trailing off with a smile.
It’s not for shock value. It simply punctuates the effectiveness of a documentary such as “Women of Troy,” which had enough material to go well beyond its hour-long time frame when it debuts on the premium channel Tuesday night.
This is another soulful reminder about how all of us are apt to witness moments of historic significance in sports, but it might not resonate until decades later when it is purposefully presented in a framework that’s more than just about pasting together talking heads and YouTube clips.
Today’s viewers might be numb, oblivious or even apathetic about all the TV access given to the women’s game daily on sports channels, but the distance and perspective we have about that period in the USC women’s basketball program is cause for DVR and rewinding in the reflection that director Alison Ellwood gracefully provides.
The McGee twins, Pam and Paula, and Cynthia Cooper already had created the foundation for coach Linda Sharp. But then came Miller, as the all-everything prep star from Riverside who amped USC’s back-to-back NCAA championships in her freshman and sophomore years of 1983 and ’84, just after the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was dissolved. Miller turned on the lights and mirrored what the “Showtime” Lakers were doing across the city.
Today’s 56-year-old version of Miller — whose 1995 enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is credit for all she did on the court, including winning gold at the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A. — appreciates being able to step into this historic machine with her teammates. They lend the proper ambience and vocabulary about what they achieved at a time when there was no WNBA to consider. That wouldn’t come until after the 1996 Olympics.
“HBO did a heck of a job with this — I didn’t know it was going to be that thorough, but it was really, really awesome,” Miller said in a phone interview. “It jogged a lot of great memories and emotions. What I took away from it was how they capture the essence and personalities of our team.”
Cooper’s story about her background at Locke High in Watts — struggling with racial and cultural differences, nearly quitting the team, losing her brother and disappearing to Europe to earn money — has a captivating ending, when she could come back to help launch the WNBA.
Meanwhile, Miller endured an ACL injury suffered in a pickup game following her senior season, which came at the time when doctors couldn’t effectively repair such things.
In the documentary, Miller explains how at age 22, “I was robbed of a precious gift that at times I took for granted. I remember the great feeling of loss … like a toothless lion, no longer at the top of the food chain.”
But she later acknowledges: “What I learned most … I didn’t think I’d be emotional … was there was more to Cheryl Miller than just basketball.”
Burke, former Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated writer Jackie MacMullan and former UCLA star-turned-broadcaster Ann Meyers Drysdale tell the story without dancing around the fact that in the 1980s the TV landscape was such that those women’s title games weren’t more than window-dressing on CBS. The network was compelled to air themto keep the lucrative men’s package.
“Imagine if Cheryl Miller was on TV every night,” wonders Kim Mulkey, the successful women’s coach at Baylor who was the point guard at Louisiana Tech playing against Miller in that ’83 championship.
That exposure didn’t happened until later for Miller, who had a 17-year run as a TNT NBA sideline reporter. Someday, the Hall might recognize Miller’s media contributions as it already has with Burke and MacMullan.
At the end of the documentary, Miller appears as the head women’s basketball coach at Cal State L.A. in 2018, saying she’s finally learning “how to live in my own skin.” But having left that role, she now says she’s ready for the next challenge.
“I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” said Miller, whose younger brother Reggie continues as a TNT NBA game analyst. “I might get back into broadcasting in the studio, covering the NBA again. Fingers crossed.”
And as for what Burke said about her in the documentary?
“Doris rocked it,” Miller said, her own voice elevating far beyond a whisper. “I mean … for Doris Burke to swear … on camera ... are you kidding me!?”
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