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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | On Golden Pond
/ UTAH

Miller Makes Grade

Point guard came to university for academics but has been schooling opponents in NCAA tournament for the Utes.

March 19, 1998|GREG SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Watching Utah point guard Andre Miller lead the Utes to a 26-3 season or rack up 28 points against Arkansas in Utah's second-round NCAA tournament victory Saturday, someone might take for granted that fate has always doled out success to Miller on the basketball court.

With all the overhyping of young basketball players that goes on today, people might assume that stardom and notoriety have always been Miller's and that playing in the NBA was always his goal. And of course they would be wrong.

Miller, whom Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson called one of the "most underrated players in the country," started his career as a chubby, slow-footed, undersized shooting guard on the freshmen team at Verbum Dei High.

Talk about an NBA career was practically forbidden by Miller's mother, Andrea Robinson.

"I only thought about making the NBA recently," Miller said. "I picked Verbum Dei and Utah because of academics. That was it."

"Andre didn't have a parent pointing him toward an NBA career before he could start his college career," said David Benezra, executive director of the Los Angeles Rockfish basketball club, the summer league team Miller played with in high school.

"His mother kept things in perspective. All of the guys who have played for us and gone on to the NBA had the same thing. So many parents now are putting the focus on the big dollars and on the NBA that their kids never become good college players--or good students for that matter."

This season, Miller--a junior--was named to the All-Western Athletic Conference team and is Utah's second-leading scorer. He goes into the West Regional semifinal against West Virginia today averaging 13.5 points, 4.9 assists and 2.2 steals and has raised his numbers every year at Utah.

"I would play him every minute of the game if I could," Utah Coach Rick Majerus said. "He understands the game so well. He's the best point guard I have ever coached."

Miller says now, he harbored dreams of floating above the rim in NBA arenas, the big money, adoring crowds, but his mother had a simpler goal. She was raising her son to be a man. School and yardwork came first.

Miller's high school coach, Mike Kearney, said that Miller used to scurry into practice late, wearing work boots, blades of grass still stuck to his clothes.

"Arriving late for practice was not allowed, but I could not bring myself to punish him after doing all that yardwork."

On the day Kearney moved Miller to the varsity team as a sophomore, Andrea came looking for her son, but it wasn't to offer congratulations. "Practice ran a little long that day," Kearney said. "We hear this rap on the door and she wanted to know why Andre wasn't home. He had chores to do."

That isn't to say that Robinson isn't emotionally wrapped up in her son's basketball career.

A close look at Miller's basketball success reveals a woman who did not simply say she cared about her son, but supported him in every way she could. At his high school games, she stalked the sidelines cheering him and his teammates on.

Majerus remembered the first time he saw Miller play. "I told my assistant, 'We can't have his mother doing that at our games. . . . We'll run right into each other."

While her son was in college, Robinson saved her money to travel to his games, and when she couldn't sock away the $800 air fare for a game in Dallas, she rode a bus 29 hours from Los Angeles and after the game, she rode it back. She arrived home at 4 a.m., just in time to get ready for work.

"She has done stuff like that," Miller said. "I didn't mind. She worries about me and wants me to do well, but that's her job isn't it?"

People are beginning to question Majerus on whether Miller, a junior, might make himself eligible for the NBA draft at the end of the season.

If he makes it, Miller will have made it without relying on the publicity-seeking, star-making system that so many of his peers have seemingly used and some have disappeared in.

In his senior season at Verbum Dei, nobody seemed to notice when he was voted CIF player of the year while averaging 24 points and seven rebounds. His peers--UCLA's Toby Bailey, Pepperdine's Tommy Prince and Duke's Ricky Price--got the more of the write-ups.

"Los Angeles is the hotbed for talent. A lot of kids that were more hyped than Andre got more attention," said Mark Mayemura, one of Miller's summer league coaches. "He was not a product of hype. He did not play on all the summer league teams and get a lot of press. There's always good players, it's just people listen to the hype. He did not develop as early as some, but his game has always been about improving."

Miller's coaches say it was Robinson who kept basketball down on her son's list of priorities.

"We roomed our freshman year and she called everyday to see if he had done his homework," said Miller's teammate, Utah center Michael Doleac. "And he worked hard. Not because he was afraid of her, but because all he wants to do is please her.

"But there's no doubt who runs the show there. We used to tease him a little. Like when he grew his hair out and then she'd visit. The next day the guys noticed he got a haircut."

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