SAN DIEGO — One minute to tip-off. The sights and sounds of Division I college basketball are swirling around the San Diego Sports Arena.
Courtie Miller, a 6-foot-7 freshman who was The Times' San Diego Section Player of the Year for two consecutive seasons while at Torrey Pines High School, stands toward the back of the San Diego State huddle. He listens as Coach Jim Brandenburg shouts last-minute instructions.
The cheerleaders are waving their pompons. The murmur of the crowd travels through the arena. And the pep band is as brassy as ever.
Courtie Miller has dreamed of nights like this.
The horn sounds and the huddle breaks. Five players step onto the court.
Miller walks toward the far end of the bench.
His pants are creased beautifully. His shirt is immaculate. His hair is cut just right. He is one sharp-dressed dude.
He is in street clothes.
For the next two hours, Miller will have one of the best seats in the house--right there on the SDSU bench, watching the game.
He is a redshirt this season, which is a lot like being hidden in the orchestra at a musical. He goes to all of the practices and meetings, and he works his body to exhaustion. He does everything but get on stage. Game nights are for the other guys.
You hear about what a big adjustment a college freshman has to make. Then you hear about Courtie Miller.
It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving 1989, and the SDSU basketball team was set to leave for the Maui Classic in Hawaii later in the week. Courtie Miller drove to Pasadena to visit his grandmother.
He had the feeling something wasn't quite right.
The drive was no problem--he had made it many times before. Miller's mother, Karen, and father were divorced in 1975, and he was raised by Karen and his grandmother, Meliss Wade. Karen and Courtie moved to the San Diego area midway through his fourth grade year. Courtie's grandmother stayed in her house in Pasadena. Courtie visited her several weekends a year.
This time, though, something was different. He had called a few times the previous week, but there was no answer. He left a few messages that went unreturned.
Now he was standing at her front door. There was no answer to his knocks. He looked in a window and the place seemed deserted. He finally got a neighbor to let him inside.
He found his grandmother upstairs. She had died earlier in the week after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was getting ready for bed at the time, running cold water in the bathroom sink.
The faucet had run all week.
"The medical people said it was quick and painless," Miller said. "We were super-close. I was blown away. It was a real shock. She was a vibrant, active lady. I came back and tried to do the best I could, but . . . "
The funeral was on the Monday after the team returned from Hawaii. That week in practice, he pulled up lame with a hamstring injury. Not long after that, he turned an ankle. He and Brandenburg talked. Miller decided to redshirt.
Brandenburg leaves the decision on whether to redshirt to the player. This season, three players are redshirting: Miller, Terrence Hamilton, a freshman from Patrick Henry High School, and Nelson Stewart, a junior transfer from the College of Eastern Utah, a community college.
There is plenty of discussion, usually, but Brandenburg said he has found that it isn't a good idea to force a player to do something against his will.
"It just doesn't work very well if I want them to play and they want to redshirt, or vice-versa," Brandenburg said. "Usually, there's a problem unless everyone is on the same page."
By early December, Brandenburg and Miller were.
"He said, 'You can hang in there and see how things go, but I don't want you to waste a year,' " Miller said. "At first, I didn't want to quit. But when I mulled it over, I thought it was best to redshirt."
So he's getting a free education and he is improving his skills on the basketball court. Next season, he will still have four years of eligibility.
"Taking into account everything that was happening at the time," he said, "I wanted a good year under my belt to learn the game. I wanted to get a nice base and give it all I had instead of hesitating."
The toughest part comes when the team is on the road. Redshirts don't travel.
Come game time, Miller clicks on his radio. Sometimes, he does homework while the game is on. Sometimes he just sits and listens.
"I can tell when somebody shakes somebody and pulls up for a jumper," he said. "I can see it, and I can hear the fans. I can envision it all in my head. The close games are agonizing."
Those are the ones of which he has dreamed. When he came to SDSU, he was one of the most heralded San Diego recruits in recent memory. For a while, it was nice. Particularly the headlines. The old-fashioned, local-boy-makes-good headlines.
It's not always so nice any more. This is the first time since fourth grade that Miller is not playing in organized games.