Player Capsules (Plus): Defining a Hero with Andre Miller

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? Andre Miller, John Marston, and what makes a man a hero.

The other day, I finished Red Dead Redemption. Amazing, amazing game. Such a complex world for the player to tinker with, and so many little mechanics that made the playing experience brilliant. Above all, though, it had a story I could really respect and heroes I could relate to. Which is in and of itself a pretty amazing accomplishment, actually. Consider that the game is set in the early 1900s — I’ve known exactly two people in my life who were alive during that time, and they were children then! Between then and now, there have been many broad-scale shifts in the way the world works and operates, and the general way that human beings view the world. General morality is a bit different. Quasi-solipsist views of life have taken a legitimate foothold in our society. So many things in the game are different and foreign, even if the setting is similar in-scenery-only to the place I grew up in.

Despite all these differences, the time barrier, and the fact that the game actually comes across as a brilliant representation of its period? I still felt I could distinctly relate to most of the characters in the game. One of the things I love so much about classical Russian literature is the tendency of Russian authors to distill their characters down to the things that make them human. They feature their humanity (or lack thereof) in a timeless character-centric manner that makes their characters outlast the situations of the stories and the epoch of the work. Prince Andrei would hardly be my favorite character ever if I couldn’t relate to him. Raskolnikov would hardly be interesting if we could simply blow him off as a product of his time. Would we care about the sufferings of Ivan Denisovich if we didn’t relate? And so on and so forth. The game really succeeds on this front, and it allowed me to relate with people who (all things considered) should be virtually impossible to relate to. It distilled them down to their human core. You can’t do that all the time, really. Or even very often.

When it comes to the NBA, though? You can with Andre Miller.

• • •

When I consider the world Andre Miller came from compared to the one I grew up in, I wonder how I feel such camaraderie with the man. After all. He was born in Compton — I was born in Los Angeles too, but more around the Mission Hills area, and in significantly less daily danger. The biggest tragedy I experienced in my youth was my grandfather’s death early in my high school years — his brother died when he was 12, completely changing the family dynamic in the Miller household. Via one of the best pieces Blazersedge ever published, Andre Miller recalls that as having been one of the huge things in his life that shaped everything. Trying to get past the loss of his brother meant that he couldn’t really stay a kid for long. His mother became super-protective of Miller, and the protectiveness maintained through Miller’s college years. While she supported his basketball exploits, basketball always came second to academics, chores, and family in the Miller household. This led to several amusing anecdotes about Miller being constantly late to practice after chores ran long or skipping practice entirely. Not to drink or run rampant on the streets, but to study for a test the next day. Insane academic focus for a would-be NBA player, seriously. But Miller’s singular focus on his studies is actually reflective of a sad truth in the basketball community.

As a kid,  I used to wonder how in the world anyone failed tests like the ACT or the SAT. I always thought I was really bad at them (and relative to the kids in Honors classes with me, even in public schools, I absolutely was), but I got decent scores and the question was less “will you pass” and more “how close to a perfect score can you get”.  But as I get older I start to gain a greater appreciation for how much of a ridiculous privilege it is to not have to concern oneself about that — I grew up in a solid public school system that had great graduation rates and that developed an excellent SAT-friendly curriculum from an absurdly young age. They taught you how to think like a test-taker, in some ways, from grade two onwards. But not everyone has that! Despite getting on the honor roll and working incredibly hard, Miller failed the ACT. Given how intelligently he plays, and how well he had done on the backs of hard work at his schools growing up, I’d consider the failure less a problem on his end and more a problem of development. It’s not his fault, really! He had excellent grades, and worked incredibly hard to get those grades by all accounts. If you get good grades you should be able to pass a standardized test, theoretically. If you can’t that’s less a failure on your end and more a failure in how the school is teaching you and how their curriculum prepares you. Which is really, really sad. So many basketball players come from these depressingly scant backgrounds, with poor preparation for both the real world and any further academic work. If a player works hard enough to excel in their school and still can’t pass a standardized test, I’ve never quite understood how we can vilify the player. That’s on the system, and the broader disparity in the quality of schooling between even comparably well-endowed school systems. In a lot of ways, it’s luck of the draw.

Still. The Andre Miller story doesn’t really end there — due to Proposition 48, due to his failure on the standardized test, he wouldn’t be able to suit up for a college team until he’d accumulated one year in good academic standing. Predictably, this dried up almost every scholarship offer Miller had received. He went from having his pick of schools to having doubts he’d get a solid scholarship from anyone at all. Which, by the way, puts something of a damper on the idiotic criticisms people throw at Derrick Rose for cheating on the SAT. What was his realistic alternative? He couldn’t possibly pay for college, his family needed the NBA money, and if he failed the SAT again he would’ve been in Miller’s position. No scholarships, no ability to go to college, no hope. Of course he cheated on it. Check your privilege — in that situation (one that’s hard to imagine for most people reading this, but consider it deeply), you would too. Anyway. Luckily for Miller, a single college chose to not rescind their scholarship — the University of Utah, wholly used to losing players for a year or two at a time on missions. So Miller packed his bags, going straight out of Compton and into the Mormon-built catacombs of the flagship Utah university. Which there aren’t nearly enough stories about — Miller said once that he went to school with “the first white people I ever went to school with” in Utah, and as neither him nor his mom were Mormon, there HAS to be a bunch of funny stories about his time at Utah. Few are published, unfortunately. But they have to exist, right?

Anyway. Miller excelled at Utah, both academically (interviews with teammates indicate that Miller leveraged every single tutoring option available at the university, and sometimes did assignments twice if he felt he didn’t fully understand them) and in a basketball sense (working his way into shape and eventually becoming an obvious NBA lottery pick). He was drafted right after graduating — he worked hard enough that he was able to graduate on-time (with a legitimate degree in criminology and sociology) without jeopardizing his basketball career or his academic standing. Seriously great accomplishment for someone who’d failed the ACT not five years earlier. His NBA career has been one of constant rotation of teams, friends, and coaches — he hasn’t once in his career stayed with the same team for more than 3 seasons straight and he’s been a key contributor despite the turmoil. He virtually never gets injured (or, when he does, he plays through the injuries). He comes in, puts his head down, and does his job quietly and with a silent strength that in a less-storied form reminds me a lot of Tim Duncan (my favorite player). And although he’s somehow evaded a national, global recognition of his talents and abilities (and in my view is the OBVIOUS choice as the greatest player to never make an all-star game), he has a handful of loyal fans from every team he blessed with his work.

For obvious reasons, I find Miller’s story compelling. But that’s only half the picture. When it comes to the people I think of as my basketball heroes, there has to be something in their game that really draws me in. Some aspect that makes me think “wow, that’s impressive.” For Miller, that particular thing is simply the way he runs the offense, and the older-era feelings he endows in it. It’s weird — Miller’s designed offenses aren’t exactly the best offenses on the face of the earth, nor are they viscerally stunning like a Nash offense or a Paul offense. But there’s this classical flavor to it, one that I can’t help but love. Part of it is Miller’s personal offense, as the man can’t can a jump shot to save his life. He shoots a flat-footed 70s-era jumpshot that feels like it was born of a world without form trainers or the three point shot. But part of it is the way he passes — it’s not that he’s necessarily 5-6 steps ahead of everyone else, but he simply fakes out guys with enough gusto and manages everyone’s expectations down to the point that his passes and circulation surprise even the seasoned vets. It reminds me, in a way, of Manu Ginobili’s beautiful game. So much of Andre’s value is rooted in his ability to fake out and misdirect his man, and in a broader sense, the entire opposing offense.

So much of his efficacy comes from the plays where Miller’s machinations serve to con the defense into a story about the upcoming play that simply wasn’t going to happen. About overrotating and leaving a man with all the time in the world under the rim, or faking everyone out and taking his own flat footed shot when everyone could’ve sworn he was going to pass out for three. Some players make their bread on simply living up to the talent they were born with. Andre is talented, yes — don’t get me wrong. But for a player who looks like he’s barely an NBA guy, and a player who tends to show up to camp a tad bit out of shape, and a player who’s had an old man’s game from the day he entered the league? He’s not simply coasting on talent, or if he is, he’s the hardest-working talent coaster in the world. Andre is constantly dealing with incredibly low expectations, whether in the form of opposing players who see him on the calendar and salivate at how old and out of shape he looks or defenses who couldn’t imagine he’d have the balls to take the final shot himself. And he doesn’t complain about it — he simply manages to it and games them to his advantage. I find that significantly more interesting than yet another talented player making good on his talent, and it’s part of why I love watching Andre Miller’s game so much.

• • •

The main character of Red Dead Redemption — John Marston — is a man that most people in the modern era couldn’t directly relate to. Sure, the broader theme of redemption for one’s sins is relatively universal. But the sins themselves (murder and robbery of all sorts) are so far beyond anything in my frame of reference, and the general way Marston handles himself is so different from anything I’ve experienced before that I don’t think it’s naturally easy to relate to him. At least, in theory. Because in practice, the way the game was built makes it the easiest thing in the world. They unveil his story gradually, never giving you more than you absolutely need to know. They leave him something of an impressionable mystery, allowing you to see for yourself what makes him a good man and what makes him a bad man. They never quite prescribe “hey, feel this way” or push you into a certain opinion. They open the doors and let you decide how you personally relate to him.

Ironically, Andre Miller doesn’t really do that. At least personally. Every article I’ve read about him seems to be written with the unstated maxim that Miller doesn’t (and won’t) open up about himself. He seems to feel that every word that needs to be written has been spilled about his game. That he’s said his piece, people didn’t really listen, and he’s good with what he’s got. Every once in a while you’ll get an amazing piece that drives home why everyone should listen to Andre’s wisdom more — case in point, this excellent piece by the Oregonian’s Jason Quick. Miller is hilariously down to earth. He doesn’t even own a summer home, in fact — this is an NBA player who’s made millions and millions of dollars. What does he do during the offseason? He goes home and stays with his mom in Compton. You can’t make up a story that awesome. He’s made his peace with his background, his past, his roughscrabble roots.

Outstanding heroes transcend how you SHOULD feel and recontextualize how you DO feel. I have virtually no common ground with either John Marston, Andre Miller, or most of my favorite literary figures. But it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes a story is so compelling, a figure so refreshingly real, it becomes impossible not to appreciate and feel for them if you learn enough about them. Life’s tricky that way. For me, Andre Miller does that. And unfortunately, he’s almost gone. My recommendation to you? Take the time to watch some Andre Miller games this season. If Andre Miller has a big highlight performance, make it a point to catch a replay. Watch as he — even falling off, even in old age — redesigns the Denver offense and keeps fooling every team stupid enough to underestimate him. Watch the greatest player to never make an all-star game spin his craft and trick the competition with the finesse of a master magician. Appreciate what he brought the game, appreciate what he brings the world, and enjoy one of the greatest hidden treasures the league can offer.