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Winner With Andre

In Miller, Clippers feel they have point guard to take them to next level -- the playoffs

November 01, 2002|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

Andre Miller is not shy; he's guarded. He is not aloof; he's polite. He's not fiery; he's cool. He's not a talker; he's a doer. He's not a shooter; he's a passer. He owns an expensive SUV; he drives his mother's late-model Honda.

Now that's old school.

Or as Marko Jaric, a Yugoslav who played the last four seasons in Italy, said of his new Clipper teammate, "Andre is an unselfish player. He is unusual for an American point guard. He's a very smart guy. Very unselfish. Very clever. He doesn't care if he scores 30 points or two points."

Miller, 26, made his Clipper debut Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, his former team, scoring 15 points and adding 14 assists. It was a homecoming eight years in the waiting. Tonight, he faces the Lakers, the three-time NBA champions, the team he admired most while growing up in Los Angeles.

"I'm home," he said. "For the first time in eight years, I'm on the home team at home. I'm looking forward to it."

His task is not simple.

Miller is used to facing difficult (impossible?) challenges. Turning the Clippers into a cohesive unit capable of winning, say, 50 games is only the latest one.

He grew up in Watts, a 10-minute drive from the Clippers' practice facility at Los Angeles Southwest College. He graduated from Verbum Dei High after leading the school to a 29-3 record and a Southern Section championship as a senior in 1993-94. He went to Utah, but had to sit out one season because he did not qualify under NCAA academic guidelines.

Like a lot of Southern Californians, Miller grew up watching Magic Johnson and the "Showtime" Lakers. He had other sports idols too. He also played football in high school, earning league most valuable player honors as a quarterback.

Basketball was Miller's ticket to college, although few could have predicted greatness for him.

"He was overweight when he came to the University of Utah," said Ute Coach Rick Majerus, who knows a thing or two about overweight. "He was pudgy bordering on fat."

It didn't take long, though, for Miller to win over Majerus.

"He's an old-time player," Majerus said. "He's the kind of guy who likes to play on the playground. He goes looking for a game. Usually, Southern California kids have to have an open gym. They won't play unless they have multicolored uniforms and referees. He just likes to play.

"He defines himself as a basketball player. He loves ball. He would go find games. On off days, I had to tell him, 'Andre, if I wanted you to work out, I would work you out myself.' He has a special quality. He played cards. He played golf. I took the guys horseback riding, bowling. He tried all that stuff."

Between Majerus and Andrea Robinson, Miller's mother, the young man had a support system that ensured his success at Utah. Robinson was Miller's biggest fan, rarely missing a game -- home or away. She once traveled to Dallas by bus from Los Angeles to see the Utes play in two NCAA tournament games.

"I asked a buddy of mine who had a private plane to take her back to L.A.," Majerus said. "We asked the NCAA if we could do it if she paid a fare. The NCAA said no. I remember she walked right off the bus and went right to work Monday morning."

Miller graduated with a degree in sociology in 1998. The Cavaliers selected him eighth overall in the 1999 draft. Robinson made the L.A.-to-Cleveland trip by bus at least once.

During an interview last week, Miller was uncomfortable speaking about his relationships with Majerus and his mother. He twisted in his chair, intently watching while teammates lingered after practice to work on their jump shots. He asked that a reporter not contact his mother.

"She's got some issues right now," Miller said. "Maybe give it two weeks, OK?"

You see, Albert Robinson, Miller's stepfather, has cancer and the prognosis isn't good. Miller, who lost an older brother to an illness several years ago, doesn't wish to speak about his stepfather's condition.

"He can be guarded," Majerus said. "He can be tough to get to know. I love the guy. I love him for the person he is. He's good to his mom and his stepfather. He's more Stockton than Malone. He doesn't find the camera. He's never going to be on the NBA all-interview team. That coach is fortunate to have him. He'll make [Elton] Brand and those guys better players."

It's already happened, according to Clipper Coach Alvin Gentry.

"They didn't do him justice with all the things they said about him," Gentry said of Miller. "He's a much better leader than we thought he would be. He's quiet off the floor. He talks on the floor. Guys like him very seldom fail. He leads by example. He's got an SUV, but he never drives it. He says it's too fast for him. Material things mean very little to him. Being a great, great player drives him the most, I think."

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