RJ Young | December 3, 2014
AT A TINY HBCU, A BASKETBALL LEGEND IS COACHING AGAIN
When Cheryl Miller was still young enough that she could only dream about being one of the greatest basketball players in the world, her mother, Carrie Miller, rarely got to see her play. Cheryl’s mother would take her younger brother, Reggie Miller, to his game, and Cheryl’s father, Saul Miller, would take Cheryl to hers. “And that was fun in the beginning,” Cheryl said, “but my mom was always missing out on watching me play.” That didn’t mean her mother missed out on hearing what happened in Cheryl’s games, though. After each game Carrie missed she’d wait until Cheryl took a shower and got dressed for bed. “She’d sit there by my bedside and have me just go over the game, just tell her about it. I think I never got to the fourth quarter. I never got to the fourth because I’d fall asleep.” But Cheryl could always hear her mother’s soft farewell just before completely dozing off. “Goodnight, Pearl,” she’d say. “Truly my heart and soul, my mom was.”
* * *
To find Cheryl Miller now, you have to know where to look. Langston University is about 10 miles farther off the interstate than most people are willing to go. Those that do usually aren’t looking for the women’s basketball game. They’re not looking for the football game, either. Most are just looking for the Marching Pride’s halftime show. This is not a school with a budding athletic tradition or a football team that demands attention, and sometimes it seems like most people attend the games for the award-winning marching show band. Langston is a safety school for some, a last resort for many, a place many want to forget as soon as they leave it.
Driving toward that small campus in the midst of the plains of central Oklahoma — a half-hour from anywhere you want to be — you can feel like you’ve missed it. Surrounded by nothing but pasture land, you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn. It seems as if the only historically black college in Oklahoma is trying to hide from you. You can feel like you’re never going to find it. And all of a sudden, like a desert oasis, there it is. Brightly lit. Smack in the middle of nothing. Plain as day. A wave of relief washes over you as you smile, knowing it was there all the time.
Langston University campus. (Via Google)
IT SEEMS AS IF THE ONLY HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGE IN OKLAHOMA IS TRYING TO HIDE FROM YOU.
But here, now, is where you’ll find Cheryl Miller. This is where you’ll find the woman who for nearly two decades was ubiquitous as a sports broadcaster, best known for her work as a sideline reporter covering the NBA on TNT and is widely considered one of the world’s greatest amateur athletes, a pioneer — the first women’s basketball player who demanded a nation’s attention. And this is where you’ll find a woman now who is acting on the lessons she learned from her mother, lessons earned through the loss of life to change her own — and, she hopes, the lives of others.
Through the doors at the C.F. Gayle Gymnasium, Holly, Athletic Director Mike Garrett’s secretary, takes you up the stairs, past the women’s basketball assistants’ office and leaves you in Miller’s doorway. There are no awards from her past here. No trophies from a Hall of Fame career as a player or trinkets from time with Turner Sports. There’s not even a single piece of USC paraphernalia — there’s only Miller.
She rises from behind a great mahogany desk from a cushy office chair, still tall and athletic, to shake hands and greet you. There’s a couch in front of the desk and a bookshelf in the corner but the white-walled office is mostly bare. Miller’s MacBook is the only thing in the room that speaks of the 21st century. Here, in this hinterland, Garrett, the former Heisman Trophy winner and USC AD, hopes Miller will help him create an NAIA, Division I juggernaut.
With no long-sleeve shirt or jacket to conceal them, the tattoos on her wrists are prominent proof that she’s comfortable in her skin. That’s a lesson from Carrie: Be who you are, and be that person fully, wholly, without airs and full of grace. Miller wears a Team Australia T-shirt, jean capris and black flip-flops because her washer is on the fritz. She’s staying in an apartment on campus and plans to remain there for as long as she’s the coach at Langston, though she says everyone she spoke to tried to talk her out of the idea of living in such a remote place, only a forceful chest pass away from her players. “I’m a homebody,” she says. “If there is a knock right now, and I’ve got to take this up with the [Langston] president, is we have cable but it’s not HD.”
Coaching isn’t the profession many of her players and their peers know her for. It’s her talent on camera that sticks with them. At 50 years old, she is as gregarious as she’s ever been, one of the many traits she developed as a broadcaster that she’s taken with her to this place, a place where she feels she can start anew.
It’s a pity so few of them ever saw her really play. They never saw her lead the U.S. to gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles or watched her dominate the college game at USC from 1983-86. Most of them are too young to have watched her give her National Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1995. Even today, it’s not hard to imagine just what kind of force she must have been. Her office isn’t small. At 6’2, she just makes it look that way.
But, here, now, in her scant office that she’s only just moved into a day after classes began, she’s known simply as “Coach” with a capital ‘C.’ Right after she took the job in late April she started building trust with her players, the kind of trust that allows any of them to walk into her office without knocking.
“Coach, let me tell you,” a young lady says after appearing in the doorway, “I almost had an episode yesterday, but I took a walk.”
Miller turns her attention to the young woman carrying books and eager to share. “Did you now?” Miller said. “I’m proud of you.”
“I’m coming a long way.”
“I am proud of you.”
“I’m trying to be a better person.”
At this point, Miller is so happy she can’t take it anymore. She jumps out of her chair and grabs the young woman, senior basketball star Lynette Holmes, in a bear hug. “I’m so proud of you! That’s what I’m talking about!” That hug, that happiness, is one of the chief reasons she’s in Langston, and this is a seminal moment in the growing relationship between player and coach. Holmes had battled depression, battled the circumstances of her life that ended up pushing her to Langston, for years, and at times had taken it out on the way she behaved toward others.
“I tend to lash out at times,” Holmes said. “Me and her have been working on different coping mechanisms so that I can be OK and not lash out at people or initially or intentionally hit someone. So we’ve been working on things that I can do to be a better person outside of basketball.”
Holmes, 22, and Miller go on for 10 more minutes as they work through what had angered Holmes, how hard Holmes worked to get to where she is — notably the NAIA’s leading scorer last year — and how her tendency to think about things that affect her emotionally can best serve her in the classroom. Last February, Holmes dropped 50 in a 106-77 drubbing of Our Lady of the Lake. Holmes is the kind of player and the kind of person who inspired Miller to return to coaching in the first place.
Holmes grew up in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina displaced her and her family just two days after she turned 13, she ended up in Chicago and attended Bogan High School where she made a name for herself as a 6’1 stretch forward. Playing against some of the best girls in the country, she grew into a physically formidable player. Then, her life unraveled once more.
Her family, which was split by Katrina, had nearly become whole again in Illinois when Holmes and her four siblings unexpectedly lost their father, Tommy Bray, to liver cancer in April 2008. Without him, the family decided to move back to New Orleans. But not Holmes. She stayed behind, believing her future was at Bogan.
Holmes became a top-100 recruit and graced the cover ESPN’s RISE magazine in 2009. Elite college basketball programs — Michigan State and Missouri among them — lined up at the door, eager to sign her. She chose Xavier University and earned playing time as a freshman guard on a squad that went 29-3. Then, as so often happens when a mid-major program overachieves, XU coach Kevin McGuff was hired away by the University of Washington. Like many high school recruits, Holmes had signed with Xavier because of the coaches, and didn’t much care for the one who took over the Musketeers program after McGuff left. She considered transferring right away, but was coaxed into staying at XU by the new staff.
THAT’S WHERE MILLER’S HEART IS — WITH HER PLAYERS AND THE WOMEN, WHO SHE BELIEVES SHE CAN TRULY MAKE BETTER PEOPLE AND BASKETBALL PLAYERS.
She stayed on for one more year, but there was an incident on a bus ride home from a game XU had just lost. Holmes says she apparently wasn’t appropriately sad about losing the game. She remained upbeat, already looking ahead to the next game and the opportunity to improve, but she was also laughing and joking with her teammates. That didn’t sit well with Amy Haugh. When Haugh confronted Holmes about her postgame attitude, the two argued in front of the team. That was a battle Holmes was never going to win.
“We did not see eye-to-eye,” Holmes said. “It was always something. I had two months of these crazy workouts. Sometimes I’d do two hours bear-crawling on the treadmill or an hour on Stairmaster or sled pushes or sprints — everything. At the end of the day, I don’t regret anything, but I do look back and think I could’ve handled things differently. I could’ve gone and talked to her about how I was feeling instead of letting this keep going and going.”
Holmes was indefinitely suspended by Haugh in January 2012 “for not fulfilling all the responsibilities of a Xavier basketball player.” She transferred to Arizona, but couldn’t stand the thought of having to sit out a year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. So she sent out feelers to schools all over the country. Langston assistant Natasha Doh responded, and Holmes came to Oklahoma. By electing to play at a lower division, she didn’t have to sit out a year. Now heading into her senior year, she’s preparing to play for her fourth different head coach in as many years.] Miller wants to do is make sure Holmes gets her shot. She believes Holmes has the ability to play at the pro level, to make a living playing basketball just as Miller did.
That’s where Miller’s heart is — with her players and the women, like Holmes, who she believes she can truly make better people and basketball players. Right now, however, during the first few days of the school, isn’t the time for coaching X’s and O’s. It’s the time for motivating. It’s time for reminding the women in her charge that they’re going to be OK. “It’s just a matter of getting them to believe, encouraging them, trying to minimize their doubts, and build that confidence in them, and that’s every day,” Miller said.
“She’s like a mother figure,” Holmes said, “and I only say this because, of course, when basketball comes she’ll yell and scream about basketball, and when we make mistakes we have to run. Anything we get in trouble for, we’re running for. But instead of us just running, or her just running the snot out of us, she actually takes time to talk with us and explain what exactly we’re doing wrong. I know, for me, with my anger problems, she actually sat down and talked to me about actually going to talk to somebody about it. She wants everybody to be better whether that’s with basketball or anger issues or you as a person.”
But before Miller could find Langston, before she could help young women become their best selves, she had to find out who she was. That had nothing to do with being the world’s greatest at anything and everything to do with losing her world’s greatest — her mom.
Cheryl’s father, Saul, was born and raised in Memphis in a modest household. But Carrie skirted that detail whenever she told stories to her children about their father’s family. As Carrie told the story, each time she visited she would ask Saul’s mom what they were having for dinner. The answer would always be that they were having chicken. “She would swear up and down,” Cheryl said, “that she would go over there for dinner at my dad’s mom’s house, and there were chickens running around the backyard.” Then Carrie would make the sound of a live chicken suddenly dying. “And Reggie and all of us, we couldn’t stop laughing,” Cheryl said. “My dad would just get severely upset, but my mom could take the piss out of anybody in the family. I mean, she could get on you until you just couldn’t stand it, but it was always in good fun.”
* * *
Cheryl Miller couldn’t get a job, and, for the first time in her life, she was failing at one of things she used to best. It was 2013, and she was out of broadcasting now. Her superiors told her they wanted to go in a different direction, and Cheryl didn’t fight the decision. Her heart wasn’t in it anymore anyway.
CHERYL MILLER COULDN’T GET A JOB, AND, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HER LIFE, SHE WAS FAILING AT ONE OF THINGS SHE USED TO BEST.
During nearly 18 months of searching, she had interviewed for several Division I head coaching positions, and every time someone came up with an excuse for why they chose to hire another candidate. Maybe it was because she hadn’t coached college basketball since the mid-‘90s and hadn’t coached any basketball since the turn of the century. Fourteen years out of coaching is a long time, but it wasn’t as if she hadn’t been around the game.
“I went on several interviews that I thought went well,” she said, “but I think the general feedback that I received was that I had been out of women’s basketball too long — that I was not relevant when it came to women’s basketball and how much the game had changed. That was puzzling for me because unless the game has completely changed I know that you play defense. You play offense. You try to outscore your opponent and whoever has the most points at the end of the game wins.”
She’d had so much fun coaching college athletes once before, and successfully, at USC from 1993-95 and believed, if she ever got back into it, that she’d have fun again. She’d taken a team to the NCAA tournament and vied for the conference crown as the Trojans’ head coach. Maybe there was a fear she’d turn her back on the program just as soon as another good broadcasting job opened up. After all, she had done that before. She left USC to take a job as an analyst and sideline reporter with TNT.
Still, for the better part of her life, Miller has been walking in and out of gyms, talking to players, coaches, agents. As a broadcast reporter, half of her job was keeping her ear to the ground. With little head coaching experience, it was understandable why some athletic directors might go with a more experienced candidate, but Miller wasn’t even getting anything close to an opportunity. But then she would see someone like Tyler Summit, the 23-year-old son of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summit, get a head coaching gig at Louisiana Tech with virtually no experience, and that would make her scratch her head.
Of course, Miller didn’t expect to land at a top-25 program. Still, she thought she’d be in demand. She believed her name recognition alone would get her in the door with recruits and prove useful with fundraising. She understood she might need some help, but that’s the role of assistant coaches everywhere.
Still, nothing. She eventually sought the help of her friend and New Mexico women’s basketball associate head coach Tamara Inoue. The two were convinced someone, anyone, would come beating down her door before long. But “before long” was taking much longer than either of them thought it would or should. “I didn’t understand why people didn’t want to take that chance on her,” Inoue said. “It’s not really a chance. She’s proven herself.”
No Division I athletic director valued her coaching accomplishments, and it stung. They knew she was one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time, but none thought she could still coach college basketball. Her mother, a former registered nurse, had taught her to be patient and to keep working, that it’s not always going to be easy, but Miller was starting to wonder.
Mike Garrett with Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie during a 2006 ceremony to retire their USC basketball jerseys. (Getty Images)
She finally called her old boss from USC, Mike Garrett, who has been at Langston since June 2012, and asked if there was something she was doing wrong — or wasn’t doing at all. Had the climate around coaching really changed that much since she’d been gone?
Not in Garrett’s estimation. He couldn’t believe she was still on the market, that the greatest women’s basketball player in history couldn’t get a job anywhere coaching women’s basketball. Then in February, Garrett’s women’s basketball coach, David Johnson, submitted his resignation. Garrett’s first call was to Miller.
“Cheryl, do you want to coach?”
“Here, at Langston.”
“Yeah, for me at Langston.”
“Sure! Hey, Mike!” she said. “Where’s Langston?”
All of the Miller’s five children were fine athletes, and two of Cheryl’s three brothers, Reggie and Darrell, would play professionally. Reggie played 18 years in the NBA and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Darrell played Major League Baseball, but Carrie’s oldest girl might have been the best.
“You love them all, all the same, but Cheryl just shined,” Carrie once told the Los Angeles Times.
Cheryl could always hoop, but it first became apparent that she’s better with a basketball in her hand than you’ll ever be while she was still a teenager, still in high school at Riverside Polytechnic in Riverside, Calif. While she was a Koala, the girls’ basketball team won 132 of 136 games. During her senior year, she dropped 105 points on Norte Vista. That performance set the national record for points scored in a single game and put the nation on notice. She became the first person in any sport, male or female, to be named a Parade All-American for four straight years. A natural scorer, there was little she couldn’t do on the court. She could drive, kick, pass and finish all out of the low post. In a game that demands great footwork from tall individuals, Miller could waltz.
IT WAS A GOOD TIME TO CASH IN ON THE EQUITY HER NAME HAD BUILT UP OVER THE LAST DECADE.Cheryl Miller coaches USC during a 1993 game. (Getty Images)
The honors and accolades followed her through college where USC coach Linda Sharp developed her into a star player who was named Naismith College Player of the Year three out of four years. When Miller’s NCAA eligibility reached its end, she dominated the international game, leading USA Basketball to gold in five major competitions in just four years, and was drafted by a handful of fledgling pro leagues looking for publicity, including the men’s United States Basketball League in 1986. By age 25, long before the Internet, Miller was a household name in the truest sense of the phrase. But already her knees were starting to betray her, and she knew she wouldn’t last long as an everyday pro. It was a good time to cash in on the equity her name had built up over the last decade.
Her smile, wit, self-assured nature and brilliance on the court made her a natural fit to become a television color analyst and sideline reporter. When ABC Sports and the budding sports network ESPN offered her the opportunity work in front of the camera in 1987, she took hold of it with both hands. She also took a part-time assistant coaching gig with Sharp at USC, a job that paid little, but what better way to get her foot in the door in coaching than at her alma mater under a head coach who loved her? Over the next two years, Miller grew as reporter and a coach. Then, just as she was finding her way in broadcasting, she found herself in the middle of a fight between new USC head coach Marianne Stanley and AD Garrett.
Stanley wanted a contract equitable to that of USC men’s basketball coach George Raveling. After some negotiation Garrett countered with deal worth only a fraction of what Stanley was asking and told her to take it or leave it. Stanley left it, and filed suit against Garrett and USC for discrimination. (It was eventually dismissed in federal court in June 1999). In the meantime, Stanley’s decision to leave the program left Garrett and the Lady Trojans without a head coach. Assistant Athletic Director Daryl Gross called Miller on Garrett’s behalf late one night. Would you be interested in becoming the head coach at USC? Miller dropped the phone. She told him she didn’t know what to say. Gross told her to sleep on it. She didn’t — she couldn’t. That was enough for her to know she wanted the job.
It was her first head coaching gig. She was 29 and jumping straight into a situation that was still unresolved with players who were loyal to the woman who recruited them — not the woman whose shadow they were all trying to get out from under. Yet, after an initially cool reception, Miller’s team started winning. With Fred Williams, associate head coach, on board, Miller led the team to back-to-back NCAA tournament bids, a Pac-10 championship and an Elite Eight showing in 1994, going 44-14 during those two years. Then, just when USC seemed to be on the precipice of competing for a national title, Miller resigned in September 1995.
Her resignation letter spoke of a chance to get back into broadcasting, an opportunity she couldn’t bring herself to turn down, financially or professionally. A couple days later the LA Times reported that she’d be back in front of a national television audience reporting for Turner Sports covering the NBA. She loved the appeal of being on the sidelines with the greatest athletes around the world.
In a life already filled with records she had broken, Miller broke another and became the first woman to call an NBA game, and besides, the salary of a woman’s basketball coach just couldn’t compete with television. She was content, believing she’d found how to enjoy a life around basketball.
But when the WNBA’s upstart Phoenix franchise came to her in January 1997 and asked her to not only coach the team but to act as its general manager, it gave her pause. She was flattered by the franchise’s offer, but didn’t want to give up her broadcasting career. When the franchise told her she wouldn’t have to, she took the offer more seriously. Here was another chance to be a pioneer. Miller was 33 years old when she joined the team — even before the franchise had a mascot — and became the first woman to hold the head coach and GM title in professional basketball. Soon the juggling act began.
MILLER BECAME THE FIRST WOMAN TO HOLD THE HEAD COACH AND GM TITLE IN PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL.
For four years, Miller worked her TV gig with Turner and managed the day-to-day operations of the Phoenix Mercury. The team finished the 1998 season with a trip to the WNBA Finals, but that was the high point of her time in Phoenix. In the end, she realized she couldn’t handle the workload and stepped down in 2000, citing fatigue.
“It was too much,” she said. “I was doing Turner, TNT, and coaching. It was year-round. It was just too much. And as much as I like to look at myself as an iron woman, just keep going and going and going, eventually you are going to crash and burn. Then you’re not going to be good to your team, you’re not going to be good to your employer, TNT. I had to make a decision, and it was broadcasting.”
Broadcasting satisfied her for the next 13 years. Halfway through that stint, though, one moment in her life made her question what she really wanted, what she really should be doing. When that happened, Carrie provided her daughter a lasting gift, one that eventually allowed her to come to grips with who she is and what she really needed to be, and showed her where she needed to be.
Four years after being unceremoniously fired as the athletic director of what was once the premier athletic department in the country, Mike Garrett sits in a conference room office no bigger than a roomy broom closet explaining how he got here. There are no photos of better times on the shelves and the Heisman Trophy he won as a tailback at USC is nowhere to be seen.
These four walls look barren, drab and old — much like the athletic program at Langston that Garrett presides over today. Yet they fill up quickly with Garrett’s ambition. He talks fast about winning championships, hiring the right people and new beginnings. He’s sure he can turn this rural college into one of the best programs in the country. The only time Garrett slows down is when his past at USC is brought up.
He doesn’t shy from it and doesn’t mince words. He believes he was thrown under the bus, and still doesn’t think the LA Times, who led coverage of USC’s fall, got it right about him and refuses to talk with them in print to this day. But it wasn’t the Times that dropped the hammer on USC and Garrett. It was the NCAA.
The sanctions — some self-imposed and some mandated by the NCAA — were many, but the most stringent was a two-year postseason bowl ban and a reduction of 10 scholarships from the football program’s allotted 85 for three seasons (2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14). New USC President Max Nikias believed the USC athletic department position needed a makeover and he started by removing Garrett. Following Southern Cal’s athletic program being placed on probation, Nikias did away with all the principals associated with the fiasco that had begun with improper benefits being paid to 2004 Heisman winner Reggie Bush. For this, the NCAA cited USC for a “lack of institutional control.” After 17 successful years, Garrett was out.
“I ALWAYS THOUGHT IF SOMEONE COULD TAKE WHAT THEY GOT AT A WHITE SCHOOL, AND TAKE IT TO A BLACK SCHOOL, COULD IT WORK?”Mike Garrett attends a charity event earlier this year. (Getty Images)
He stayed in the Pasadena area waiting for another opportunity when a friend asked if he’d be interested in taking a job at a small college in the middle of Oklahoma? Garrett wasn’t initially interested in the job until he found out the school was a historically black university.
“I always thought if someone could take what they got in Division I school, at a white school, and take it to a black school, could it work?” Garrett says from behind his desk in a room with no windows to the outside world. “It’s the same business in that it’s relative to the quality and the level you are, but it’s the same business. More difficult here because it’s less money, and less understanding what it takes to do it.”
Garrett and his wife took a trip out to the university before taking the job. He saw it as a place with potential, a place that could challenge him. At 68 years old, he was still looking for some way to compete against himself. That is what he is at his core — a competitor who is unapologetic for being who he is, even if that means ruffling feathers. And being the athletic director at Langston is a challenge to be sure.
The school doesn’t award athletic scholarships. For now, the athletic department gives tuition waivers and works with a budget of just $4 million. With a student body of fewer than 4,000, there’s not a lot whole lot of grassroots support either. Still, Garrett began by making the changes he could. He fired five head coaches in his first year and replaced them with people he thought not only could do the job better, but shared his need to turn Langston into a brand name; coaches he thought could win. “If you told me that Barry Switzer was available, I would jump on him like stink on shit,” Garrett said.
Garrett knew this was a place where Miller could help him and help herself. As he sees it now, his job is to make sure Miller only has to take care of the women’s basketball team.
Miller has been working the phones since she took the job and already landed some commitments from players she’s excited about. There’s no telling how her first season will end, but she believes her team can compete for a conference title and possibly make a run in the NAIA tournament. If this season should go especially well for the Lady Lions, it would be tough to see her sticking around in rural Oklahoma. But there’s no guarantee that it will, and she’s committed to taking things day-by-day, game-by-game.
Now, more than ever, she has to. She knows that now.
Despite earning a degree in broadcasting, when Cheryl took her first television job she was inexperienced. “It’s one thing when you say I’ve got a broadcasting degree from college,” Cheryl said. “Well, it’s not the same when you get out there in the field.” Among the many things she still had to learn was no one told her there would be a producer talking into a headset in her ear while she was talking — let alone that there would be a countdown to when she was live on the air. Well, in her first appearance she was in mid-sentence when she heard someone counting down from five.
“Who’s counting in my ear?”
She had this conversation with her producer live on television in front of viewers that numbered in the millions. She’s forgotten the rest of what happened in the game that was her first venture into professional broadcasting, but not the conversation with her mother Carrie after the game.
“So what’d you think, mom?”
“You looked beautiful.”
“I appreciate that, but how’d I do?”
Carrie didn’t hold back. “Oh, you were horrible! Oh my God, who were you talking to? I’m going to have a tough time going to church on Sunday. Oh, the deaconesses are gonna have a field day! You were just standing there!”
“I still laugh about that conversation today,” Cheryl said. “I loved that woman.”
* * *
Despite that rough start, there was an air of confidence, a certain swagger, Cheryl Miller had when she was standing in front of a camera with a microphone in hand. Hers was the kind of swagger that isn’t as much about attitude as it is about experience. She eventually found comfort in routine and liked that she could still call her mom and laugh at herself. During her time as a broadcaster, most of those years as a sideline reporter for Turner, she became skilled at real-time reporting; beginning a short conversation with someone who might not be especially talkative and eliciting news from it.
“I haven’t always been comfortable in my skin — not at all,” she said. “Anybody that tells you that they are, they’re lying to you. It’s taken me a long time, because I think people’s perceptions of you, if you allow it, could be absolutely crippling.”
“I HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN COMFORTABLE IN MY SKIN —NOT AT ALL.”
Her father, a military man, taught her to compete to go for the win, but also that there was no fault in losing as long as you’ve tried your best. But her mother gave her perspective.
Carrie gave Cheryl her wit, her humor, her sense of perspective — and her heart. It was Carrie who taught her how to tell a good story. It was Carrie who taught her to laugh at herself. It was Carrie who taught her how to be selfless when it is easy to be selfish.
But then Carrie began to disappear, fighting a long, slow battle with Alzheimer’s. Carrie’s girl began to lose herself.
Her broadcasting career meant less to her. Oh, she still worked hard, but she couldn’t focus as she once had. Before, her mother had always been there to tell her when she screwed up and make her laugh and move on.
Now things were different. Without Carrie, Miller felt the pressure, making a hard job even tougher. Before her first interview of the night, Miller would be antsy, even borderline neurotic moments before she had to perform. She knew she had to nail it — just like the opening jumper of a game. Only then could she breathe a sigh of relief.
But she didn’t nail every interview. Every question didn’t come out just right. Sometimes she stammered, stuttered, lost her train of thought. Before, her mother could her help through the rough times. But now Carrie wasn’t there anymore. After a long struggle, she succumbed to the disease and passed away at age 77 in April 2007.
“God, and I had a really hard time with this one,” Miller said. “Of all the things she could’ve gone out with, why rob her of her memory, her dignity, her personality? She just became a shell, and I think that was difficult for me to handle.”
Her death hit Miller hard. So hard in fact, she told her bosses at Turner Sports she couldn’t work the rest of the season. In a business where executives are looking for any reason to employ younger, cheaper women at her position, knowingly putting her career in jeopardy wasn’t a wise choice. Miller was not getting any younger, and she had been afforded some standing in the industry for her professionalism and longevity. Still, her contract was up after that year, and the NBA Playoffs were just beginning.
If ever there was a time to be on her game, this was it, but she couldn’t find it in her. There was no way she could bring herself to do it, not when she’d lost the person who meant the most to her, because with that loss had gone her identity. Although she stayed with Turner for six more years before being let go, she felt lost and her work suffered. The loss of her mother lingered, and she became depressed. She couldn’t come to terms with her mother’s passing and Miller finally sought out help. There were basic questions about herself she needed to answer.
“I never understood that,” she said. “I never got that. It wasn’t until she passed away that I realized that. For the first time, I was selfish. She passed away, and I told them I couldn’t do it. It was a final year of my contract, and I knew that I’d probably shot myself in the foot, and wasn’t going to get re-signed. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it, because I thought it was going to be a lie. I knew I was going to crack up and implode on television, and I didn’t want that.
“I went to therapy, because I had lost the big piece of me, and I’d lost who I was. I needed to find out desperately, ‘Who am I? Who am I really? What do I love, what do I like, what do I dislike? What am I comfortable with?’”
MILLER CAME TO REALIZE THAT BASKETBALL IS THE ONE THING THAT SHE TRULY, UTTERLY, TOTALLY LOVES.
Over time, she discovered the answer to each of those questions, and began to make herself whole again. She was still Carrie’s girl, only now she couldn’t be on the court herself. But she could still have a role: She could be that person who sat there and listened, just as her mother had once listened to her when she tried to tell her everything that happened in a game.
Miller came to realize that basketball, the game itself and the relationships it provides, is the one thing that she truly, utterly, totally loves. That is why she decided to coach again, and that is what has led her here, to this little college in Oklahoma, where the rhythm of a ball steadily pounding against the hardwood floor keeps pace with her heart, where she can now play the role for others that Carrie once played for her.
That is why she’s at Langston. It is a place with an administration that wanted her, with players who want to be coached.
Langston wasn’t her first choice. But, for now at least, it is unquestionably the right choice. She’s surrounded with people who have been forced to come together, who need each other. People like Mike Garrett. People like Lynette Holmes. People who have picked each other up when the rest of the world keeps kicking them down, but it is a situation where she can get back to basics, become comfortable and possibly build something worth remembering. “To be honest, it’s the perfect fit for me,” she said.
She’s right, of course. Through seven games into her first season, the Lions are 6-0 and ranked No. 24 in the country — including a win over No. 1-ranked and defending national champ Oklahoma City University. Holmes is once again one of the NAIA’s top scorers, and a professional career might be in her future. It’s still basketball. They’re playing offense, they’re playing defense. They’re scoring more than the other team, and the team with the most points still wins.
This is a place where Cheryl Miller can act on those lessons she learned from Carrie. This is a place where she can teach those lessons to women who need them. This is a place where she can make a difference.
“Coach Miller is just that person that Langston needs, that Langston women’s basketball needs,” Holmes said. And Langston women’s basketball is exactly the kind program and team Miller needs.
It’s the perfect place for Carrie’s girl.