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May 20, 2005

Goodbye, Reggie, and thanks

Posted by Phil on May 20, 2005 6:57 PM

Last night was Reggie Miller's last game as an Indiana Pacer. He's retiring after 18 years, almost 12 of which I've been a pretty major fan. I didn't choke up when he left the game, with the Pacers losing the game and the series to the Detroit Pistons, but I almost did. Pacers coach Rick Carlisle and then Pistons coach Larry Brown called time-outs so the fans and players and coaches could give him an ovation. I stood up in my TV room because I didn't know what else to do. Reggie Miller is one year older than me, and he's retiring.

It's rare these days for a professional athlete in any sport to play a whole career, of that length, for the same team. He played more games with the same team than all but two players in NBA history, John Stockton and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. It may sound corny, but it would be difficult to overstate how much Reggie has meant to the team and to this city. Since the mid-'90s the Pacers have been consistent winners and an anchor for the community. Even though I'll agree with anything anyone says about arena deals being a rip-off for the taxpayers, the Pacers have a fieldhouse downtown that is the class of the league, and the city is justifiably proud of it. Without Reggie, it almost certainly would not have been built.

Reggie Miller is going to the Hall of Fame, so anyone who's an NBA fan knows him, and nearly everyone who isn't a Pacer fan probably hates him. Reggie wasn't a thug or a brawler--he was too scrawny--but he was known for his trash-talk, especially his clashes with New York Knick fan Spike Lee, and he thrived on opposing fans' antagonism. He didn't rebound, and he was merely annoying on defense. Michael Jordan said playing him was "like chicken-fighting with a woman." Fans and opposing players detested his theatrical flops, drawing the lightest of contact and then falling away like he'd been punched--because then he'd go to the foul line and drain both shots: His career free-throw percentage was 89%; this season he was #1 in the NBA at 93%.

So, he was a gawky, scrappy punk, but if he was on your team, you'd have loved him, too, because Reggie Miller was the greatest three-point shooter in the history of the game. You could look it up. He holds the all-time career record of 2,464, and hit over 100 in 15 consecutive seasons, also a record. Last night, I saw him hit the last one of his career, a long one from the top of the key, his right hand still in the follow-through as he back-pedaled away.

Purists crab about 3-pointers like baseball purists crabbed about Babe Ruth, but when Reggie would get unconscious in the final minutes of a critical game and make the threes fall like rain, it was glorious and magical--like a baseball player who could hit grand slams whenever he wanted. Reggie on offense would run and run and run, knees and elbows and ankles flailing, looking for a teammate to screen his defender, then calling for the ball and shooting in one motion. The quintessential Pacers experience is listening to Mark Boyle and Bobby "Slick" Leonard calling games on AM radio, and this was their quintessential call:

Mark: "Reggie for three..."

Slick: "BOOM, baby!"

Before I got into baseball, being a Pacer fan was the first sport-related identity I ever (to my surprise) adopted, and I did it completely and whole-heartedly. I watched the Pacers mostly with my friends Gary, Randy, and Matt. The players I'll always remember were Reggie, Mark Jackson, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin, Derrick McKey, Heywoode Workman, and Vern Fleming. The playoff runs from '95 to 2000 were thrill-rides of joy and dejection, and the first three springs ('98-'00) that I lived in New York the Pacers and the Knicks had epic series.

It's great to be in New York when the whole city is caught up in something like that, and those were great years to be a Yankee fan, but in May and June it was cool to be an iconoclastic Pacer fan, and to watch games in my Brooklyn apartment in June with the windows open and hear people reacting up and down the block. If I saw someone else in Pacer gear, which was rare, they were family. In '98, they won, then Jordan beat them in the conference finals. In '99, the Knicks won, and I watched the last game surrounded by Knick fans, some of them my friends, in one of my favorite bars and felt angry and utterly alone. In 2000, the Pacers went to the Finals.

That was the highest Reggie got with the Pacers, when Larry Bird in his second season coached them to the NBA Finals against the L.A. Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Phil Jackson. (Fucking Shaq, who with the Orlando Magic had crushed Pacer playoff hopes in I think '94 and '95.) I watched Game 6, when the Lakers won the championship, in the crowded bar of a lodge in Montana. We were staying in Glacier National Park and drove out to the lodge because the park was too remote for television. At least half the room was rooting for the Pacers just because they hated the Lakers. It felt good to be among friends.

I don't know to this day how the Pacers lost that game, and Cindy drove us back to the park through the moonlit mountain darkness. I think I said something drunk and bitter and we almost had a fight.

That was the end. The Pacers rebuilt the team after that, and only Reggie and a few reserves remained. They are and will probably remain consistent playoff contenders, but I've gotten busy with parenting and fallen out of familiarity with the players. I hope some day to get back to a fan-level involvement with basketball. Baseball is the greater game, but basketball is the fastest and most athletic and improvisational of sports, and nothing was more beautiful than the parabolic arc of a last-second shot from downtown, from the right hand of Reggie Miller.

"BOOM, baby!"


Great write up! And a great way to capture the end of an epoch. I lost a beer bet with a Reggie-despising Knicks fan (I'd bet they would take Detroit to seven) as a result of his last game, but certainly not as a result of Reggie's performance. He played his last game like it was 1995 and Spike was on the sidelines. It was all we could've asked of him.

Nitpicking stats notes--the Pacers made the 2000 Finals in Bird's third (and final) year as coach (they should'a done it in 99 but for the Knicks, and agruably their best team--97-98--ran up against the final Jordan Bulls team). Also, Shaq and the Magic only nailed us once--1995. In 1994, we actually beat them in the first round (I believe) and ended up losing to the Knicks (it was the next year, facing the Knicks in the second round, that we got to hear Mark Boyle's famous "Ding dong, the witch is dead!" call as the Knicks went down). Shaq and the Magic felled us in the conference finals. The shame of it is, I think if we got to the NBA Finals in either of those years (94 or 95), we could've taken the Rockets. Those might've been our best chances.

I'll always be a Pacer fan, but as my distance from Indianapolis (time-wise) grows greater, it's going to be harder to look at a Pacers team that was "my guys" the way Reggie's Pacers were. Even as the rest of the core moved on, I always knew I could count on Reggie.

Number 31 can't be retired fast enough. And his farewell speech where he talked about how proud he was to be a Hoosier (a rare thing for someone from out-of-state to say) choked me up, even as I was watching it on an elliptical machine in a hotel in Chicago on a little video screen.

Posted by: Matt Gaston at May 21, 2005 2:12 PM