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LONG-RANGE SUCCESS : Reggie Miller Keeps Hitting Three-Pointers and Making the Pacer Fans Forget Alford

February 09, 1988|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

There's a stranger wearing Reggie Miller's body as it gets set to take the Forum floor for the first time as an Indiana Pacer. The game might look familiar from his UCLA days--you fans in the front row who've never seen anyone launch from the tassels of your Gucci loafers are in for a special treat--but what's happened to the rest of the act?

"The things I did in college?" says Reggie (Mr Nice Guy, or These Days, I Just Fit In) Miller.

"What goes on here makes me look like a sissy."

Or, in other words, he's controversial no longer. Going into tonight's game against the Lakers, he's the Pacers' third guard, averaging 11.2 points, shooting 55.7% in front of the three-point line and 33% behind it.

Everyone expects the last number to go up, since Reggie has been practicing three-pointers since he was at Riverside Poly where they only counted for two and left the coaching staff bug-eyed.

Why is it that a man with a little, uh, flair, has to keep proving himself?

Not that he minds.

"I had to show 'em what Reggie Range was here," he said Monday, laughing. "I took a few 26(-footer)s and 27s, and hit on some. You got to make 'em play you out there. When they do, it makes it easier for me."

Out where? The three-point line is a modest 23-9 at its farthest point, but what would-be legend ever backed down from a challenge?

And the reaction of his no-nonsense coach, Jack Ramsay?

"He's bald-headed and he did a couple of these (pantomiming a man rubbing his scalp, from eyebrows to spinal cord) at first," Miller said.

Says Ramsay: "I'd say he's only taken a couple of shots I'd call low percentage. A couple of times, he came down on the fast break and pulled up well beyond the three-point line. I don't think you need that."

Miller's game has always had that extra touch of marginal utility. At UCLA, he was exuberant and often well beyond that, too. There was the spitting incident at Brigham Young his sophomore year, the choke sign he gave referee Booker Turner at Tucson as a senior.

On the light(er) side, there were the chants of "Cheryl!"--an allusion to his already famous sister--when he shot free throws as a young collegian, and the over-sized paper ears the Cal band broke out when he got to be a star in his own right. One way or another, he was never far from his next headline. Off the floor, he was as forthright as a child in Bible class and as polite as the son of a career military man, which he is.

But then there was showtime.

"See, I get off on that," he says, talking of the booing, chanting, etc. "I mean, that used to get me geeked up. I just could play !

"If they wouldn't have done that, I don't think I'd have played as well as I did. I'm the kind of guy who likes to play in front of 15,000 screaming fans--all on my back. That's why I did some of the things I did, on purpose, just to get 'em to yell at me. It's 12 against 15,000. I like odds like that."

Well, then what about the times when they got mean, and donned the paper ears?

"That's an honor," laughs Miller, delighted at the memory. "A whole band is going to do that? That means they're thinking of you. It was hard to play, looking over there. I just wanted to laugh."

By the end of his career, there was some discussion among the pros about what all this represented. When draft time came, it was reckoned as next to nothing.

The Pacers made Miller and his made-for-NBA range the 11th pick, over the objections of half of Indiana which was holding out for its home-grown bomber, Steve Alford. Alford was smaller and slower, but he'd been Mr. Indiana as a prep at nearby New Castle, and led the Hoosiers to a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title at nearby Bloomington, Ind.

"We got a ton of letters," says Pacers' publicist Dale Ratterman, "some threatening to cancel their season tickets if we didn't draft Alford. Some promising to buy season tickets if we did.

"Actually, our mail split pretty much 50-50, though, with half saying we shouldn't draft Alford."

Purdue alums, no doubt. The Pacers proceeded as planned. The Hoosier-firsters booed Miller at first, but then he started making three-pointers. Meanwhile, Alford melted into the Dallas bench and a new idol was grasped to the Hoosier bosom.

Not that Miller ever noticed the struggle. After his career?

"I've faced tougher obstacles than that," he says. "Overcoming my sister's shadow was the biggest thing I ever tried to do. This was a tidbit compared to that.

"I'll always be known as Cheryl Miller's little brother. I still don't think I'm out of it. And that's helped me tremendously, too. It gave me a lot of recognition when I wasn't doing anything, in high school."

He's on his way to a better land, and all he's doing now is playing basketball. Consider the possibilities.

"I'm not doing too much because I'm a rook," he says, ducking his head modestly.

"My bad boy image--wait 'til I get a couple years under my belt. Then I can go back to my naughty ways."

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