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Finding Her Own Space : Tammy Miller Chooses Volleyball and Cal State Fullerton to Carry On Family's Starry Athletic Tradition

August 01, 1986|SARAH SMITH | Times Staff Writer

The phone rang one spring day at the home of one of Cal State Fullerton's newest volleyball recruits, Tammy Miller, then a senior at Riverside Poly High School.

"Hello?" Tammy asked. The caller identified himself as Bill Cosby.

Between giggles, Tammy began motioning desperately for her mother to summon her friends next door. Meanwhile, Cosby inquired about Tammy's sports interests and offered her half an hour's worth of advice on track from his own experience at Temple University.

Although this was not a routine call, even at the Miller household, Tammy Miller was already well-acquainted with celebrities. She's literally next-of-kin to a trio of them.

Sports fans from here to the Soviet Union recognize her older sister--Cheryl Miller, arguably the best women's basketball player in American history, who last month led the U.S. team to a gold medal in the Goodwill games.

Two of Tammy's older brothers are also well-known young Southern California athletes--UCLA basketball player Reggie Miller and California Angel Darrell Miller.

Tammy, a willowy 6-foot-1 18-year-old whom the rest of the family affectionately refers to as "the baby," clearly idolizes her older siblings.

Still, there are a few unavoidable drawbacks associated with having such lineage. For example, when people first meet her, they usually harbor very high expectations.

Even Bill Cosby was no exception. He casually inquired how fast Tammy ran the 440.

She replied, with a degree of justifiable pride, that her personal record was 60 seconds, good enough to make her a member of the fastest girls' 400-meter relay team in the history of the Riverside City Track Championships.

Pretty fine, considering track wasn't even her primary sport.

But Cosby said he thought she should be running faster--around 57 seconds, at least. He went so far as to jokingly nickname her "Pokey."

Miller just laughed, deflecting the whole issue with a lie so outrageous, it was deft: "Well, I've been sick lately."

Fame is a double-edged sword, and it can cast a deep shadow. There are 147 trophies and 139 plaques in the Miller family room "at last count," Carrie Miller, Tammy's mother, said.

Which ones are Tammy's? Carrie Miller searches around and finally locates a trophy and a plaque. In most families, two wonderful symbols of achievement and recognition. Here, just two small branches in a forest.

But few younger siblings handle a spot on the edge of the limelight as gracefully as Tammy Miller. Far from resenting comparisons, she is only proud of her inevitable identity as Darrell--or Reggie--or Cheryl Miller's little sister.

She has had a long time to get used the role, since the days when Cheryl scored up to 105 points in a game at Riverside Poly. Tammy, in junior high, was a fixture on the bench at every Poly game as the team's "manager."

"Actually, I was the water girl, but Cheryl always called me the manager," Tammy said. "In eighth grade, I used to wear all her clothes and her letter jacket. I was so happy and proud.

"I'd say, (pointing to her shoulder) 'This is a patch Cheryl won and she just got this letter. . . .' And every time she went to a tournament, she'd always bring me back something."

Cheryl Miller's could have been the ultimate hard act to follow. Tammy was so content with her sideline supporting role in the close-knit Miller family that she didn't even play a sport until her sophomore year.

"But after going to all of Cheryl and Reggie's games, I kind of wanted to play a sport, too," she said. When Reggie graduated, she started looking for the right one.

Common sense told her that choosing basketball would be an act of lunacy, although she was tall and coaches had cast acquisitive eyes at her for years. She also remembered Reggie's discomfort in high school at frequent suggestions that Cheryl was the best player in the family.

Volleyball was the natural alternative and Tammy, who became a middle blocker, suited it well despite a relatively late start.

"Volleyball seemed more demanding than basketball," Tammy said. "It's fast-paced and I like the idea of being (enclosed) in a box and fighting it out as part of a team.

"I liked the idea that no one person could be a ball hog and everyone had to cooperate as a team to win. And in basketball, they do all that running up and down the court--" she made an unenthusiastic face.

"Plus, in basketball, everybody would have been comparing her with her sister," added Carrie Miller. "I thought it was kind of unfair for someone to expect (Tammy) to be able to do certain things."

The Bears' volleyball team advanced to the Southern Section finals in her sophomore and junior years, and she was team captain and Most Valuable Player on their second-place Ivy League team as a senior. Her club team, the Tigers coached by Molly Kavanaugh, won national junior titles in 1985 and 1986.

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