In Miller, Majerus finds key ingredient to a winning recipe Utes point guard overcomes adversity to get just desserts

March 30, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- This is how much Rick Majerus liked what he heard about Andre Miller the first time he saw the Utah point guard play in high school.

Majerus, even more renowned for his appetite than his coaching before this year's NCAA tournament, gave up a meal to watch Miller play a second time. A big meal, no less.

"I was going to go back to Utah to a barbecue with my girlfriend," Majerus recalled yesterday. "I watched him play and I didn't like him that much. But I loved his mom. I loved his coach and his coach's wife. They told me what a great kid he was. I canceled going to the barbecue and I watched him play a second game. I liked him a lot more. I told them, 'Go tell him he's got a scholarship.' "

What Majerus lost in caloric intake that day the Utah program has gained in prestige. As much as the Utes have overcome the graduation of All-American Keith Van Horn with balance and harmony, Miller is the reason they will play Kentucky for the national championship tonight at the Alamodome.

And, for Utah to claim its first national championship since 1944, he will have to play just as well against the Wildcats as he did in Utah's shocking, 25-point victory over defending national champion Arizona (18 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists) in the West Regional final and top-seeded North Carolina (16 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists) in Saturday's 65-59 victory in the semifinals. Maybe better.

"Andre is the key to our offense and our defense," said senior guard Drew Hansen. "Everyone tries to keep the ball out of his hands. I'm sure that he will be Kentucky's focus, and if they are able to do that, we will have a tough time. Not many teams have been able to successfully do that, though. I've been with him three years, and he's been a great player since he's been here."

Miller's path to this game has not quite been as unimpeded as the one his 300-pound coach usually takes to the breakfast buffet in the Salt Lake City hotel in which Majerus lives. It hasn't HTC as much to do with the fact that Miller is one of only two black players on the team and one of a handful of black students at the mostly Mormon school, as with the academic stereotype he had to overcome.

"When I got there, some people might have thought of me as another dumb athlete," said Miller, who failed to qualify under Proposition 48 because he fell 10 points shy of the necessary standardized test score under the previous NCAA guidelines. "I had to show everybody that I should have been eligible."

Said Majerus: "I think it [the redshirt year] helped Andre more in the discovery of self. I think when something that you love very much is taken away from you I think it gave him a better appreciation of the game. Andre loves basketball. He loves the game and loves to compete. I remember him taking a night off when he didn't make it, and he was so hurt and so crushed. I still remember telling Andre, 'If this is the worst thing that happens to you in your life, it will be a great life.' "

Miller's first year at Utah was, as expected, a huge adjustment. He grew up outside of Los Angeles in Compton, Calif., went to high school in Watts and admittedly only went to Salt Lake City because his mother wanted him to go there. His friends at home kidded him about playing with a bunch of slow white guys. "But they were getting out of the neighborhood and joining the Army or the Navy," he said. "They said, 'You've got a scholarship. You've got it easy.' "

In truth, it wasn't.

Because he had to pay for his first year at Utah, Miller said, "I took out loans. And more loans. And more loans." He recalled how roommate Michael Doleac, now the team's other star, talked about the food at the team's training table. "I was nibbling on noodles," Miller said. "I wound up putting on a lot of weight. My teammates called me, 'Chubby.' "

But as much progress as Miller has made over the past three years on the court, becoming a first-team all-Western Athletic Conference player this season, his academic record is much more impressive to Majerus. On the only Division I team that boasts two first-team academic All-Americans, Majerus said, "This is a very bright young man and a hard worker who has demonstrated the fact that he will graduate. Andre to me is an academic giant. He has done more for the kids in his dorm than the university has done for him."

Asked yesterday if he could see doing what Miller did, Doleac said, "I don't know if I can envision doing that myself because I've been pretty fortunate my whole life. I think that it took a lot of courage and effort on Andre's part to come to a school like Utah, which is obviously a lot different than L.A., and not even being able to play ball. It was amazing to me to see how hard he studied and how he kept his spirits up. It's pretty impressive."

As impressive as leading the Utes to the brink of a national championship.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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