The Washington School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Modern Mythology

Class Is Still in Session

And the professor, 38-year-old Andre Miller, hasn’t finished his lesson just yet

Somewhere amid the ankle-breaking crossovers, the crashing dunks, and Jason Williams’s elbow passes at the 2000 NBA Rookie Challenge in Oakland, Andre Miller was doing what Andre Miller always does. The 23-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers rookie received an outlet pass and a clear path to the basket just as the first half was coming to a close between the league’s most promising rookies and sophomores. Miller slowed as he approached the rim and laid the ball up as gently as a parent places a baby into a crib. John Wooden would have been proud. His coach that night, Al Attles, certainly was. Attles doesn’t remember Williams’s passes. But he’ll never forget Miller’s layup. “A player shouldn’t be disparaged if he doesn’t dunk the ball,” Attles said. “He made the All-Star game because he was the player that he was. It wasn’t because he could or could not dunk the basketball. You do the things you can do that got you there.” At the time, the Oakland crowd was not pleased. They booed Miller mercilessly. Miller was unfazed. The next opportunity he had to dunk, he did not. He laid the ball in again and again, over and over.

“I was a little bit nervous, and I didn’t want to mess up, so you kind of pace yourself, and see what these players are going to do,” Miller explained to reporters after the game. “And that’s what I did.” Few in these games, especially the junior varsity version of the NBA’s All-Star Game, put winning above highlights. Miller did. He scored a team-high 18 points, atypical for him, but it was an All-Star game after all, and he helped the rookies claim a 92-83 overtime victory. “You know, it really doesn’t matter about the flash and dunking and all that,” Miller continued that day. “I’m just concerned about winning. You’ve got some guys that are flashy, you’ve got some athletic guys. Then you have the guys that just like to go out and play basketball. And I’m one of those guys.”

More than 14 years later, that mind-set, and Miller’s career, persist. Dunks be damned — unless he’s throwing the perfect lob that sets one up. “At this level, it’s basically a popularity contest,” the 38-year-old Miller, now a Washington Wizard, recently said. “Those are the players that get noticed. For me, I’m not a household name. I take pride in being judged on showing up for work and showing up for games, so when guys do see my face, they’re like, ‘Miller’s going to play. He’s here to work and he’s going to play hard.’ I just take pride in being judged by my peers in the right way.”

Miller is a unique personality, a relative recluse who seeks refuge in a league where most players share their lives on social media. He’s a stubborn player with a quick mind and no time for nonsense. He leads but he doesn’t yell. Miller will school you on the court, but once school’s out, he will not be heard from until it is time to back down the next unsuspecting, undersized point guard. The NBA’s finishers are adored and applauded. But what about the ones who deliver the passes on time, between dribbles and defenders, making it all possible? If a point guard is measured by how much better he makes his teammates, few are historically better than Andre Miller. He is ninth on the NBA’s all-time assist list, behind only names like Stockton, Kidd, Nash, and Magic. He plays at his own pace, creatively identifying angles for passes and throwing his backside around for space.

“He’s the guy on the playground or in the gym that didn’t look that athletic,” said George Karl, who coached Miller for the bulk of his two stints in Denver. “He was a little older. He didn’t have the bounce that the athletes had, but you could never understand why he always won. He won every game. You could never get him off the court. I’ve seen Andre do that in our gym playing with two European guys and two CBA guys — he’d win seven in a row against Ty Lawson and Melo and whoever. He just takes whoever you got and in a very quick period of time, he understands who can do what and he’ll find a way to get that team to a win.”

Andre Miller and Andrea Robinson came to the Great Western Forum parking lot and stayed for hours. They came for Magic, Worthy, and the Showtime Lakers. But that’s not why they stayed. Andre’s younger brother Duane kept them there.

Duane suffered a seizure while at day care in 1982 and fell into a coma. Doctors diagnosed Duane with viral encephalitis, a crippling inflammation of the brain. At 6 years old, Andre Miller learned to feed his brother through a gastrostomy tube. By then, Miller’s own father was out of the family picture. “He helped me a lot,” Andrea Robinson said of her eldest son. “I used to call him Dr. Dre. Nobody knew why I was calling him Dr. Dre. He was always helping me with his brother.” Andre gravitated toward basketball. He was a short, stout youth. When he grabbed rebounds, others careered off of him. He’s been quiet for as long as anyone can remember. But he strained his voice to sell candy outside NBA games to help support Duane.

“He was semi-comatose for six years,” Robinson said. “The illness didn’t stop his growth. So he was getting bigger and bigger — I got this Mulholland wheelchair and I could not [get] it in the car, because it wasn’t that kind of chair. I needed a van — so we got out and sold candy. I had a lot of people helping me. I made $10,000. I put $5,000 on the van and [sent] $5,000 to the candy company.”

Ben Furnace, who coached Miller, and his wife, Terri, observed what the family did for each other. “Andre treated Duane as if nothing was wrong with Duane,” Terri said. “He talked to him. He helped. There was no pity party. It was as if he was a normal child.”

Duane died on Andrea’s birthday, September 7, 1988. Andrea cried for several days after the funeral. A 12-year-old Andre approached her. “You’re still crying?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she answered. “How do you feel about everything?”

Andre sat quietly, taking his time.

“Well,” he said, “I feel bad and I feel sad, but I don’t want him to keep living and be sick like that. He’s not in any pain anymore.”

Ben Furnace couldn’t tell whether anything ever bothered Andre Miller. He was still and even — a quiet, thoughtful child. Furnace’s house was a safe haven to the kids in Watts. The adults played dominoes while the kids toggled between playing basketball and eating, eating and playing basketball. “They saw the era of the Lakers and the Bulls and Detroit and the Boston Celtics,” Furnace said. “And when Magic Johnson came to the Lakers, it was a phenomenon. You saw a guy that big who could do that with the basketball and then you saw the way that Jerry West assembled that team, it was eye-catching. You couldn’t miss it.”

Miller studied Johnson. He knew about Showtime, but Miller also watched how Johnson used his size against his smaller defenders. “I never really worked on my post game,” Miller said. “It was just something [I learned] from watching TV and watching how players used their body in the post. When I was little, we would challenge each other down there. You always saw Magic Johnson backing down people and just making simple plays.”

At his youth games, Andrea baked the goods to help buy trophies for the kids. She worked the snack bar. Inevitably, as the day grew longer, she found herself running up and down the sideline and coaching alongside Ben. “I always sacrificed to put Andre in a private school,” Robinson said. “I never went to a private school in my life and my siblings never went to a private school, but Andre went through private school, K-12. How I did it? I don’t know.”

Mike Kearney, Miller’s coach at the all-boys Catholic school Verbum Dei High, promoted Miller to varsity his sophomore season. Miller caught the ball in the open court in his first high school game, pump-faked, and when a kid went flying, Miller softly laid the ball in. “And the rest is history,” Kearney said.

“We always ran plays for him, just so he could get the ball on the block, even when he wasn’t one of the bigger guys on the court,” Kearney said. “He always made good decisions on the break. As a high school coach, I was incredibly spoiled.”

Still, few big schools recruited Miller. He didn’t look like much of an athlete and he struggled with standardized tests to qualify academically for college.

“He was a very conscientious student,” Kearney said. “He was the kind of kid who would stay after class and ask questions if he didn’t understand something. In that way, I knew he was going to do fine once he got to college. I just think more of it had to do with test-taking skills. Thankfully for him, it didn’t end up destroying opportunities.”

Miller had to sit out his freshman year of college. But Rick Majerus had watched Miller play in high school, and offered him a scholarship to the University of Utah when he became eligible. Donny Daniels, one of Majerus’s assistants, had also attended Verbum Dei, and tipped Majerus off to Miller. Majerus promised Robinson that her son would graduate from college.

“It was better for him to go away, so he could grow,” Robinson said.

Majerus promised Miller that he would promptly return him to Los Angeles if he turned to showboating in games. But Miller, ever unflashy, was never a threat to Majerus’s philosophy. He redshirted and became a starter midway through his first season, quickly making himself essential by constantly feeding Majerus’s star, Keith Van Horn, and the rest of his teammates.

“You were guaranteed at least two easy baskets every game,” said Alex Jensen, one of Miller’s teammates at Utah. “I never played with a better passer. It’s not just the lobs or if you run a cut and in that split second, he always had it there. Even if he was just passing it to you for a wide-open jump shot, the pass was on time, in the right spot.”

“You get spoiled by it because you don’t realize it’s exceptional until you play without him,” said Michael Doleac, another teammate. “When I was at Utah, I was learning to play the game. I didn’t know any better. When I started playing away from Andre, I started to realize.”

Miller and Doleac led the Utes to the 1998 Final Four after Van Horn had graduated. Andrea Robinson faithfully followed the team, once traveling some 29 hours by bus to a game in Texas when the plane ticket prices were exorbitantly expensive. She arrived back in Watts at about four on a Monday morning, splashed her face with water, grabbed a fresh change of clothes, and went to work. “She’s a wonderful mother,” Majerus told the Deseret News. “They ought to make a video of her on how to be a mother. Her whole life is her kid.”

Miller dominated the West regional finals, abusing defending champion Arizona and its All-American backcourt triumvirate of Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, and Jason Terry. He became just the fourth player to record a triple-double in the NCAA tournament, with 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 13 assists. “Offensively, we jumped on his back,” Jensen said of the win. “It’s always kind of surreal. You always think it could happen and when it happens, it happens real quick and then it comes to a crashing halt.” Utah fell, 78-69, to Kentucky in the championship game. “Honestly, we just ran into Kentucky one too many times,” Doleac said.

Miller contemplated entering the NBA draft. He had spent four years at Utah, transforming himself into a premier point guard. He opted to stay for one more year of eligibility. “I still didn’t think I was prepared or ready,” Miller said. “At that time, the NBA was very competitive. You could still be a high draft pick and there’s no guarantee as far as minutes. I had that extra year to really tighten my game up as much as I could.”

Phoenix Suns' guard Jason Kidd (L) and Cleveland C

His patience paid off. One year later, the Cleveland Cavaliers chose Miller with the eighth pick of the 1999 draft. The team named Keith Smart its director of player personnel and assigned him to meet with and chart the evolution of the franchise’s young players. Smart talked to Miller during the meetings. Miller hardly talked back. He finally relented in their fourth session, opening up to Smart. “They want me to be this vocal point guard,” he said. “That’s just not me.”

“He’s quiet off the floor,” Smart said. “If you listen to him when he’s on the floor and he’s on defense or the ball is away from him on offense, he’s talking a lot. He’s talking about coverages. He’s talking about the plays the team is running. He’s talking about the down screen that’s getting ready to happen when he’s away from the play. He’s still a quiet person off the floor. But on the floor, the guy is a very, very vocal guy.”

Randy Wittman was Miller’s coach when he first broke into the league, just as he is now with the Wizards. “You always looked at him as a slow guard, but you couldn’t stop him,” Wittman said. “He had that in him even as a young guy.”

All these years later, one moment stands out to Smart. Miller is and was a man of routine — he goes through the same motions before every game. Before one game, Smart noticed a kink in Miller’s jump shot, and made a suggestion for improving it. Miller rebuffed Smart. “He said, ‘If I do that, Coach, I’m going to want to shoot more,’” Smart said. “Only a point guard that knows what he wants to do in a game would think like that. I thought that was pretty unique.”

That’s Miller. He found a niche early on as the purest of point guards, and he stuck with it. The Clippers traded Darius Miles and Harold Jamison for Miller and Bryant Stith in 2002. Miller’s return home was widely viewed as the piece that would finally vault a young, dynamic Clippers team into contention. Instead, the relationship was disappointing and short-lived. “It was tough, just how big my family is and how local I am and all the friends that I have — I had to hide sometimes, just kind of keep myself suppressed with basketball,” Miller said.

Denver Nuggets Real Training Camp

He joined the Nuggets in 2003 and helped guide that franchise to respectability instead. In 2005, George Karl became the team’s coach.

“He’s a very respectful player toward a coach, but he doesn’t want a close relationship with his coach” Karl said of Miller. “I think he’d rather have a close relationship with his teammates. It’s almost like he thinks he can’t have both. If you’re going to be close to your teammates, you’re going to tell your teammates what you think is right and sometimes you can’t be looked at as someone who is tight with the coach.”

Miller wasn’t the up-and-down point guard that Karl preferred. Still, he was a steady presence who always made the kinds of plays that coaches crave. Miller proved durable, too. He took pride in showing up day after day for work, no matter how hard it was to get up some mornings. “I saw Andre play 25 games with a separated shoulder,” Karl said. “There probably weren’t 10 guys in basketball that would have done it … maybe 10 guys ever. He was playing with a shoulder that he couldn’t get above his head for at least two weeks and all he shot were layups and hook shots and things he could tolerate. He’s not sitting down, and even with one arm, he thought he could still help us win games. And he did.”

But the Nuggets never made it out of the first round with Miller. “All three, four years that I was there, I felt that the team could get to the conference finals. But we tended to run into teams that felt the same way: Lakers, Minnesota, Clippers, San Antonio,” Miller said. “It was stacked. It’s still stacked.”

In 2006, Miller joined the 76ers as part of the Allen Iverson trade to team with another AI, Andre Iguodala. “Some of us [in the league], in order for us to get paid, we’ve got to have a certain type of point guard,” Iguodala said. “The timing was perfect for him coming on my team and helping me get to the next level. I was developing into the player I became during that time. He just made my time easier. A lot of times you talk about scoring and how important it is. When a player wants to get paid, he has to score. He got me like six to eight points every night almost effortlessly and made my whole life a lot easier. I should have given him a piece of my contract.”

Mo Cheeks, then Philadelphia’s coach, felt a kinship with Miller. Cheeks is 11th on the NBA’s all-time assists list, although only devoted NBA fans know as much. “Like I was quiet, he was quiet, and I think the relationship was good because I knew he understands the game. And when you have a point guard that really understands the game, understands the team, it makes your relationship even better,” Cheeks said. “There’s not a lot of demands when you’re dealing with a player like Andre because his knowledge goes a long way — he just understands the game so well. When you have a guy like that, you can sit down and relax and watch and let him run the game because his IQ is so high.”

Miller hit free agency in 2009. He had helped a young Philadelphia team to the playoffs. The franchise had overachieved in the estimation of Ed Stefanski, the team’s general manager, and they wanted to hand the team’s reins to their younger crop of guards, Jrue Holiday and Louis Williams. Stefanski compared Miller’s ability to make players better to Jason Kidd’s. “An aging point guard,” Stefanski said. “He could still play, no doubt about it. But he and his agent wanted a good number from us in Philadelphia and we were not willing. We were in that eighth spot, and you always wanted to try to jump to that other level — we felt that we [needed to] go younger.”

Miller moved yet again, joining the Trail Blazers in 2009. “It’s one of those things — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, basically,” Iguodala said. “I think that’s been the case pretty much everywhere he’s been. You may think you got rid of him, made a good trade, you get something in return and then it’s like, ‘What are we missing?’ It’s a glaring mistake. When you don’t have him on the floor, you realize you wish you had Andre Miller back.”

Miller’s streak of 632 consecutive games played ended when the NBA retroactively penalized him for a running shove on Blake Griffin.1 The highlight of his two-year stint was an unlikely 52-point explosion against the Dallas Mavericks in an overtime win. Portland, marred by injuries, failed to make it out of the first round during Miller’s tenure. He remained a professional, almost to a fault.

“I come to practice and go home,” Miller told The Oregonian. “I practice and put in the time, talk to guys during practice and keep going. If it was college, then maybe that would be different. But this is a professional environment … a business. That’s just how I get down.” Miller also clashed with Nate McMillan, Portland’s coach, over splitting playing time with Steve Blake.

But five years later, McMillan, now a Pacers assistant coach, complimented Miller in a recent interview. “He doesn’t waste words,” McMillan said. “He is a leader. He does lead when he’s on the floor. A lot of times, you don’t see him communicating, but when the ball is tossed, I was really comfortable with him making sure that the team was doing what they needed to do, both in practice as well as in the games. He’s constantly talking with his teammates even though coaches and the media don’t see a lot of the conversations — his teammates trust him.”

Miller rejoined the Nuggets in a draft-day trade three years ago. Some members of the Nuggets organization had changed between his stints. Miller had not.

“We didn’t like a lot of post-ups, and he was probably our number-one post-up option for the last two years,” Karl said. Miller signed a three-year deal with Denver in 2012 and scored his 15,000th point in January 2013. But Denver fired Karl in the summer of that year, shortly after he was named the league’s coach of the year.

Miller’s playing time slowly dwindled under first-year coach Brian Shaw this season. Shaw didn’t play him in a game against Philadelphia and Miller loudly voiced his feelings over being disrespected from the bench. His whole career, his mentality has been that if he is healthy, he plays. Shaw, he felt, had taken that away from him.2

“It was tough for me to swallow just because the coach was an ex-player,” Miller said. “If it was a coach just coaching that never played and just did that and not understanding how to communicate and all that type of stuff, I probably would have given him a pass, but it was an ex-player.”

“He’s a good dude,” Miller continued. “It was just a bad communication thing. That’s all that happened.”

Shaw and Miller are both admired throughout the league. Afterward, Shaw voiced his respect for Miller. “I have all the respect in the world for Andre,” Shaw told the Washington Post. “His reputation as a player has been great throughout his career, and he’s a guy that wants to play and be out on the floor all the time. I’ve always heard as players get older, it’s more and more difficult to coach them, and I remember. I played until I was 37. In our minds we may think we’re one thing, but in reality, it could be something totally different.”

The organization and Miller came to a stalemate. Miller spent several weeks away from the NBA until the Nuggets dealt him to Washington in February. An organization again felt that it would improve by subtracting Miller.

“JaVale McGee may not ever be the same player,” Smart said. “I don’t know. But Andre Miller made him a great player because he realized, Let me get him something that he’s very, very comfortable with. Let me give him a nice lob play. When you’re preparing to play him, you’ve got to say, ‘With this play with Andre Miller, you’ve got to be careful because he’s going to look for this lob play,’ and you knew it was going to come. But he still managed, without eye contact, without really giving any clues. Before you know it, there’s a lob dunk to one of his guys.”

Washington Wizards v Portland Trail Blazers

The Wizards brass, including coach Randy Wittman, had a brief discussion when it became apparent Miller was available. It amounted to, Let’s get him.

“He could play in any era,” said Ernie Grunfeld, Washington’s team president. “He could have played 40 years ago, and obviously he can play today. He has a great understanding of the game. He understands angles. He understands spacing and timing and he’s been a big help for us.” Few point guards are now in a better position to be tutored than John Wall. Assistant Sam Cassell is in one ear. Miller is in another.

“My wish was granted and I get the opportunity to get to play with some guys that I played with before and get to know some new guys,” Miller said. “It’s been a good experience and I try to take it one day at a time, just stay in the moment. A lot of guys don’t get this opportunity to get to the second round or get to the conference finals. I’m just trying to stay in the moment.”

Miller took 20-year-old Bradley Beal down into the block during his first practice with the team.

“I thought, He’s not going to score on me,” Beal said. “He spun so quick and scored on me, I was like, ‘What the … ?

“He goes at his own pace,” Beal continued. “It’s like a real slow, old-school game. It’s kind of funny to watch, but at the same time, it’s effective.”

“He’s still faster than people think he is,” John Wall said. “He just does a great job of running the team and getting everyone involved. The one thing I can say I’m trying to take from him is his post-up game.”

In these playoffs, Miller has helped lead Washington’s old guard off the bench, an assemblage that includes thirtysomething veterans Al Harrington and Drew Gooden.3 Miller had his way in the post in the playoff’s first round against Chicago’s smaller point guard, D.J. Augustin. In Game 4 of the conference semifinals against Indiana, Miller helped Washington to a large lead that eventually evaporated. At one point, he delivered a perfect lob to Martell Webster, his former teammate in Portland.

“It’s just quick eye contact,” Webster said. “I know when he’s comfortable throwing the pass, he’ll do a little look away before he throws it and it’s kind of a cue to keep running and head to the basket.”

Meanwhile, Miller still refuses to bother himself with the league’s popularity contest.

“It’s a waste of time,” Miller said. “Before basketball, it’s business and entertainment. There’s only so many players that can promote the league that people want to see. You have to have the blue-collar workers that help make it go also.”4

Andre named his son after his brother, Duane. As on the court, he is trying to lead his son by example.

“Life is a grind,” Miller said. “You’ve got to do things the right way and no matter what you do, you’ve got to keep doing it. It’s never going to be good enough. You’ve got to always prove people wrong. You’ve got to always prove to people you’re serious about what you want to do, what you want to accomplish in life. It’s just a grind from early age to a grown man.”

Donny Daniels, the assistant who helped recruit Miller to Utah, doubts many will see Miller once he retires.

“In a lot of ways, he’s like John Stockton, meaning this: There’s no billboards of him,” Daniels said. “There’s no deodorant commercials of him. You don’t see him on the red carpet of the ESPYS. There’s no anything, really. He’s just Andre Miller, point guard in the best league in the world. And he’s fine with that. What you see is what he’s always been.”

Even after his career is over, odds are that Miller will be backing down some poor sap at some rec center. “He’s the type of guy who can play until he’s 40,” said Jensen, his Utah teammate, “and when he’s 50, he’ll be playing somewhere. That’s Andre.” 

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Andre Miller, Washington Wizards, George Karl, John Wall, Rick Majerus

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, is due out in March.

Archive @ JPdabrams