Original Old School: The Real Deal
There ain’t been no one better since.
You’ve never seen her play. You don’t know the depths of her hoopin’ ability. You simply know her as Cheryl Miller, a long-tenured sideline reporter. You don’t know that she once dropped 100 points. In a single game. You only know her as the Lady of the Sideline—sister of Reggie Miller. You see her, roaming the courtside like she owns it. She stalks the sidelines—kinda like the way she once stalked the court. Hear the story of Cheryl Miller as told to Scoop Jackson in Issue 72.—Tzvi Twersky
by Scoop Jackson
Diana Taurasi’s name came up. It had to. The shit don’t make sense, but she’s down. Not for whatever, but for the analogy given. That’s just her nature. She’s digable as a sistah from another planet, cool like that…even though it is ridiculously evident that what Cheryl Miller wants to say to me is, “Brah, are you serious about comparing her to me?”
It’s about greatness. Hers. Diana’s. That’s why the name came up. Outside of Cynthia Cooper coming back, who’s the illest female ball player ever? Lately, Taurasi’s name keeps popping up, from inside the rides of brothas on Crenshaw to inside the studio and through the microphone of Tony Kornheiser on ESPN. All spitting that DT is the “best we’ve ever seen.” Maybe the best we’re ever going to see.
“As far as college is concerned,” Cheryl says, in the best politically correct choice of words I’ve heard since Bill Clinton left office, “Diana’s the real deal. But I have a wait and see attitude… A few years ago everyone was saying the same thing about Chamique and I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen her take that challenge at the next level. Challenge Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Cynthia Cooper, you know, carry your team to the Finals. And for Diana, that hasn’t happened yet.”
And there is a pause. I’m wondering what it’s for. Is she about to recite the credentials and résumé to let me know that Taurasi can’t come close to holding her, uh, sports bra? The pause ends with this: “Do I think Taurasi has a chance? Oh, heck yeah,” she admits. “She’s got that nastiness, she has that confidence where she’s either going to be the hero or the scapegoat. Either way she’s going to take the last shot. I love players like that.”
“So,” I say. “Diana’s the best you’ve ever seen at that level?”
“Hands down,” Cheryl says. “The best.”
“Including yourself?” I respond.
Then it comes.
“No.” Unpause. She’s starting to sound like her brother. It’s a lovely thing.
“No. No. I can’t say that. The one thing I will give her is that she’s a much better perimeter shooter than I was. But c’mon…”
I love the pause.
“I could play point to center,” she reminds. “Name another…”
She says no more. Doesn’t need to. And somehow, muthafuckas act like they forgot about Che’.
One of the greatest lines ever written in the modern era of journalism came from TIME’s Nancy Gibbs. It read: “How do you recognize freedom on the street if you’ve never met her before?” Now, what is the definition of freedom?
Freedom came to Cheryl Miller at birth. Not the privilege of freedom, but the liberty of it. She was born into a family of athletes, the L.A. sports alternative to the Jackson 5, without the money or the plastic surgeons. She was the middle child, three of five. They were pre-destined to have an impact on sports similar to the one the family from Gary, IN, had on the music industry. And Cheryl was damned if anyone was going to call her LaToya.
Her freedom came when she picked up a basketball, but it didn’t come immediately like it does to most prodigies. Hers came from an unusual source: a younger brother. “Reggie had the work ethic from the word go,” Cheryl recalls. “He would be out there in the back practicing and practicing. Knockin’ down threes, and I’m upstairs watching cartoons. My Dad used to stay on my case: ‘Look at your brother! Look at him!’”
She found her freedom in that backyard. This would become her liberation. “Straight backyard,” she says of learning the game, of finding herself, her destiny, in white-bread Riverside, CA. “We lived in Mayberry—if there were three black families in our neighborhood, I only knew one. So it wasn’t like I had the playground, street experience in learning the game. But I knew at an early age that if I could take the knocks and beat-downs from my oldest brother Saul Jr. and my other brother Darrell, who played football and baseball [professionally for the then-California Angels]…both of them were big guys, and I knew if I could get smashed into the garage and get up without whimpering, playing against women would be a picnic.”
It came in two stages. Separate but equal. First there was the story in the local paper: “She’s 13 And She Can Play.” The year, 19—ah, never divulge a woman’s age. “It was a huge article,” she says. “I just remember seeing my name and picture, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Then all of a sudden, I started receiving letters from colleges. I just blew up. I couldn’t sneak into a gym. That story made me get real serious about the game.”
The second came in the form of history. The story that made the basketball world pay attention seemed fake, made up, a lie that wouldn’t end. This was Wilt Chamberlain’s March 2, 1962 night, flipped. With a twist. “Reggie came home one night and he was like, ‘Cheryl, guess what?’” She dips into this story as if she doesn’t want to tell it, but has to. It’s a story about a sibling rivalry that never existed but did; of one-upmanship but not by the man. Her brother is her life. She is more proud of Reggie’s accomplishments (“first ballot Hall of Famer,” she predicts) than Reggie himself. But, at the expense of the one who took her with him all over California to out-ball the fellas in AAU tournaments, the girl had to do what the girl had to do.
“I was like, ‘No Reg, guess what?’ He was like, ‘Cheryl…’ So I let him go first. He was like, ‘I dropped 40!’ I was like, ‘Reggie, Reggie I told you everything was going to pay off.’ I was so happy for him. And then he was like, ‘So Sis, what did you do?’”
Reggie asked his sister if she scored more than him that night. She reluctantly said yes. He guessed 50 points, she said more. Seventy? More. She saw his face begin to drop. Finally, he asked for the digits. “105,” she admitted. “And all I remember is him screaming, ‘Mom, that’s not fair!’”
She did her thing at USC. She (again) made history. She was recruited by the McGee twins, Pam and Paula, All-Americans themselves. “They came to my house, asked my father to leave the room, and told me I was going to Southern Cal with them,” Cheryl remembers. Cynthia Cooper would join them. Together, they were crazy. Cheryl Miller was not just the best woman’s basketball player alive at the time, but some were arguing that gender needed to be removed from the equation. From 1982-86, she controlled the game like LeBron does our anticipation: two NCAA titles, three national Player of the Year awards, having SI anoint her in ’86 as the best basketball player—period—in the country. Cheryl won more than games; she won the respect of a generation of male chauvinists who felt women with basketballs in their possession were inferior to any man with the same.
Her game was Julius Erving patterned. Not only did she bring the style, the flair, the ability to move the game below the rim but above the ground—even with bad knees, her hang time was no joke—she brought the funk. Her high school career was beyond sick, as she was and is the only player, male or female, to be named a four-time Parade All-American. It only got worse at USC, where she became the second all-time scorer in NCAA history behind Carol Blazejowski, almost eclipsing all the damage caused at Poly High and in the backyard of the “Game” (the Miller clan nickname) family’s Riverside crib.
And then without warning, because of a knee injury and because playing pro ball in the U.S wasn’t an option for a woman back then, Cheryl Miller walked away from the game she built as if her name was Barry Sanders.
Around the NBA, she’s known as “Reggie’s sister.” Which is a shame. Not because it’s not the truth (No. 31 might be the best clutch player ever and is unquestionably the greatest player in Pacers history), but because most of the new generation of ball players have no idea. They have no idea that Cheryl Miller did for women’s basketball in the ’80s what it took two people (names: Bird and Magic) to do for the men’s game. They don’t know the revolution she started (no disrespect to Ann Meyers). They don’t know that scenario should be flipped. Reggie’s her brother.
On this day, she is about to sit down with Iverson. The one-on-one interview. I wonder if he really knows who he’s talking to. If he knows that back in the day, he mighta got posted up. Serious. We see her on Turner doing what has become her life’s calling. Although criticized (often unjustly) by “media analysts” who claim her sideline reporting style isn’t confrontational enough, it’s her un-phony personality and love for the players—and the game itself—that comes through. She keeps it true. Besides, name another broadcast reporter who has the knowledge (and the 35 ppg experience) she brings to the table. I wonder if Iverson knows all this. In a fair and just world, Cheryl Miller would have Tom Tolbert’s job.
But she deals. Never a bad word ’bout nothing. Again, that’s her nature. “I’ve been blessed,” she says before going to holla at AI. “With the acceptance from the players and coaches, I can’t complain. Name another female or male sideline reporter that has the respect and credibility and access that I do? Sure, a lot of them don’t know who I am, and assistant coaches are challenging me in games all the time, but I don’t get caught up in what I did on the court. It’s more important that they appreciate my honesty and integrity. What they say about me off-the-record, I haven’t heard about it.”
And it is this humility that makes Cheryl Miller (arguably) greater than the others. Greater than Cooper, Swoopes and Leslie, or all of the others who find their names flagrantly mentioned in March and June when women’s basketball is (sort of) headline news. The way she downplays her contribution, it might make you wanna Bob Ryan her. But she’s 6-2, so you think twice. It is her humility—not being stuck on how nice with the rock she used to be and how influential to the woman’s game she remains—that makes her, as a person, as exceptional as her game.
I ask Cheryl about the WNBA. The “what if.” A couple years ago she held down the head coach and GM spots for the Phoenix Mercury, but she wasn’t playing. I ask her if she felt bad that she was out of the game before the game came to America. I ask her, as an American athlete—one with an Olympic gold medal—does she feel she missed out, maybe even somewhat betrayed. I ask if she’s pissed off that she didn’t really get her chance to shine.
“No. Naw,” she says so easily. And I think, That’s not a Great One’s answer. That’s not the answer Satchel Page gave, that’s not the answer Connie Hawkins gave, not even the answer Laila Ali will give 10 years from now. But, no. Cheryl’s perspective on her life is so different. It almost makes you wonder…
“I was tired,” she says, raising the voice a pitch. “I had played in the Olympics, won a couple of championships, went to the (NCAA) finals in my senior year, played at every tournament imaginable with the national team. Then I blew out my knee, had to go through rehab, and was never the same. It was time for me to move on. I wanted to do something else. Something besides playing basketball.”
“But what if?” I ask. I have to. I know she has dreams. Hell, I do. Dreams of what she would have done to the comp back then. How the first signature shoe for females to ball in would have been hers. How those four rings and MVPs CC got would have been gotten by her first. How the League logo would have been she. My dreams. Her dreams. The same?
“No,” she responds, so Cali-like, so un-Reggie. “I was just very fortunate to come right out of college and start broadcasting.” The dream, my dream, dies.
But then…“I do appreciate what you’re trying to say, but I like the mystery behind my career. I like the fact that everyone speculates about that.”
I wonder again if AI knows.
The most important day in Cheryl Miller’s life is most likely five years away. It will be all about Reggie. But somewhere, Cheryl has to know that her basketball validation will vicariously evolve on this day.
“Do you ever wish you were a man and you could have played in the NBA?” I ask her.
“Oh heck yeah!” she responds almost surprisingly. “Are you kidding? I’d love that! If I had one fantasy, if I could rub a genie bottle and have one wish, I would love to be like 6-8, kinda like Tracy McGrady, 6-9, slender, long, and I would love to see KG try to dunk on me.”
In a fair and just world…
There is that one day Cheryl waits for that will make it seem as if the plan was reversed. Reggie Miller will make it to the Hall. His sister, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of ’95, one of the greatest non-male ball players to ever breathe, will be the one who inducts him. This is her dream. This is the day she waits for. Both will probably cry and hug each other on the podium after her speech, emotions understood and justified. But in that moment, the truth that may go unnoticed will be that Reggie is the second best basketball player in the family.