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Helene Elliott

Of all the titles, `Trojan' still resonates

November 10, 2006|Helene Elliott

The first time USC retired Cheryl Miller's basketball jersey, 20 years ago, she didn't fully appreciate the honor.

"I was a little too young and dumb to understand the magnitude of it," said Miller, a Riverside native who led the Trojans to NCAA championships in 1983 and 1984.

"It didn't resonate. Now it does. I'm 42 and older, and, hopefully, wiser."

While celebrating its present and future in its season opener tonight at the new Galen Center, the USC women's team will offer a respectful nod to the past. Miller's jersey and number (31) will be retired again during a halftime ceremony, to be joined by the jersey and number (33) so admirably worn by Lisa Leslie from 1991 through 1994.

For Miller, tonight's ceremony will be a perfect confluence of people and history. Dozens of other former Trojans basketball players are expected to attend as part of a women's basketball alumni reunion and homecoming weekend.

"I'm an extension of Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman and Lynette Woodard, the women who came before me, and Lisa's an extension of me," Miller said Thursday. "We want that to continue."

For Leslie, 34, the retirement of her jersey adds a line to a still-growing list of accolades. A sensation since her days at Inglewood Morningside High, she recently won her third most-valuable-player award in her 10th season with the WNBA's Sparks, whom she has led to two league titles.

"I have put my heart and soul into this sport and it feels awesome to get rewarded in this way," she said via e-mail before ending a tropical vacation to participate in tonight's festivities.

"I have always played basketball to win, and win awards. I felt so good when I received my first trophy when I was 12. I have been playing for trophies ever since."

Miller, a 6-2 forward, brought athleticism and a dash of personality to the women's college game. She scored 3,018 points, second only to Carol Blazejowski, and was a three-time winner of the Naismith Award as the college player of the year. During her career, the Trojans were 112-20 and she set nine school records. She also played on the triumphant 1984 U.S. Olympic team at the Los Angeles Games and won titles at the 1983 Pan Am Games and 1986 Goodwill Games.

Miller spent two seasons as a coach at USC, compiling a 44-14 record. She also guided the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury for four seasons, including a loss to Houston in the 1998 finals. She was elected to basketball's Hall of Fame in 1995, a tribute that will surely be conferred upon Leslie someday.

If Miller brought athleticism, Leslie brought a kind of manicured but fierce grace. The 6-5 center was the Naismith player of the year in 1994 and was the first player to earn all-Pacific 10 honors in each of her four college seasons, setting conference records with 2,414 points and 1,214 rebounds.

A key figure on USA Basketball teams since her debut at the world junior championships as a high school senior in 1989, Leslie won Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 and world titles in 1998 and 2002.

Asked what she hoped spectators at the Galen Center might think about her when they see her jersey on the wall, Leslie replied: "I would like for people to remember that I was always a lady, but I could kick butt when it came to playing basketball."

Miller could kick butt and take names, but bad knees prevented her from prolonging her career. She said she probably would have played professionally if she'd been physically able, but she has found satisfaction as a TV basketball commentator, currently for Turner Sports.

"If I'd played I wouldn't be near where I am professionally, as a reporter," said Miller, who still lives in Los Angeles. "I'm not saying I've arrived, but I'm working at it.

"Honestly, the best thing that happened to me was blowing out my knee. It really humbled me and made me realize that it's easy to take things for granted."

She has carved out a reputation as a strong and knowledgeable presence in a business that too often pigeonholes women as token sideline reporters or unabashed eye candy. Miller is bold, observant, credible. She's a role model again, although she deflects any praise.

"If anything, my broadcast career is like my basketball career," she said. "I wasn't the fastest or quickest or most athletic, but I worked the hardest.

"I know I'm no Halle Berry. I may be Chuck Berry. I think women really have to want to make a mark and open the doors and maybe shatter them."

Should her jersey inspire people to reflect on her playing career, Miller said she'd like to be remembered more for her attitude than the points she scored. "I hope they'll think that I played the game with a passion that no one else did and a love and a flair," she said. "That the bigger the game was, the better I played.

"I'm a Trojan for life."

She and Leslie will have jerseys on exhibit to prove that.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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