8.08.2008

ABA Interludes

Who Was Larry Miller?

On the night of Friday, March 17, 1972, after helping the Carolina Cougars beat the New York Nets 147-127 on Long Island, Larry Miller spent some time with a couple of friends from Catasauqua.

Basically, the whole night.

"I think between the three of us we drank a couple of cases of beer, and then Larry went to his room to watch a [Mister Moto] movie," said Buff Schwenk, who traveled to New York with Rich Petro for the American Basketball Association game.

"I was with those guys until at least 5 a.m.," Miller said.

At 7 a.m. the next day, Miller and the Cougars flew back to Greensboro, where Carolina had another game Saturday against Memphis, on a night the franchise was honoring the king of stock-car racing, Richard Petty.

"We got in after the flight, and I went home and slept a little before getting up to go to the game," Miller recalls. "During warm-ups I felt queasy a little bit, and I even said to someone that I wasn't feeling that good and maybe I shouldn't play. But I did."

It turned out that night, just over 45 years ago, was one to remember. The former North Carolina All-American stole the thunder from King Richard, breaking the league's single-game scoring record with 67 points in a 139-125 victory.

Miller, who had 38 points at halftime, was 25-of-40 from the field, scoring mostly on 15-foot jumpers and drives through the porous Memphis defense. He missed his only 3-point attempt but converted 17 of 23 free throws, adding eight rebounds and four assists while breaking the previous league mark of 63, set the previous month by Utah's Zelmo Beaty.

At the time, only two professional basketball players, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, had scored more points in a game, and no guards. Some 45 years later, Miller is still one of just five pro guards (David Thompson, Pete Maravich, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant) to reach that mark in a game.

"It was just one of those nights," said Miller, whose previous career-high had been 47 against Oakland when he was playing for the Los Angeles Stars as a rookie in 1968-69. "And everyone kept passing me the ball."

As a senior at North Carolina Miller was a first-team AP All-American, along with Houston's Elvin Hayes, UCLA's Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), LSU's Pete Maravich and Louisville's Wes Unseld.

All four went on to Hall of Fame careers in the established NBA. So how did he wind up playing in the upstart ABA, about to begin its second season?

Call it a combination of circumstance, pride, and Lehigh Valley stubbornness.

In an attempt to head off its new rival, the NBA had moved the first round of its draft up four weeks to right after the collegiate season. Hayes went first, to the San Diego (now Houston) Rockets. The Baltimore Bullets, now playing in Washington, took Unseld second.

In all, 14 players were selected. Miller wasn't one of them.

"They took Gary Gregor [Phoenix] and Skip Harlicka [Atlanta], from South Carolina, who I played against in the ABA, and Bill Hoskett [New York] from Ohio State, who I played against in the Final Four," Miller said. "I knew I was better than any of them."

That perceived snub gave the ABA an opening, and the Stars, who had just hired Bill Sharman -- whose son was a Parade All-American with Miller in 1964 -- as coach away from the NBA's San Francisco Warriors, jumped right in.

In late April general manager Jim Hardy traveled to Chapel Hill and met with Miller in the home of Tar Heel coach Dean Smith, offering a three-year package that totaled almost $150,000.

Although Smith attempted to persuade Miller to be patient, Miller took it.

"I tried to tell him there was no rush, to let things play out a little, but Larry was just so anxious to graduate and go play pro ball," Smith said. "He was so determined. They were offering so much money for that time, and the more we talked I just knew he was going to play in the ABA."

A week later, when the NBA completed its draft, the 76ers took him in the fifth round. By then it was too late.

"When [the NBA] made their decision that they didn't think I could play as well as those other guys, I just said I'm going to play for someone who wants me," Miller said.

The popular notion at the time was that Miller was a "tweener" too small to play forward, too slow to play guard. But Larry Brown, an assistant under Smith during Miller's sophomore and junior years before going on to his own Hall of Fame coaching career, disputes that notion.

"There's no doubt in my mind he would have been successful [in the NBA]," Brown said. "Larry was a great athlete, an unbelievable jumper at 6-4 with great strength. He could guard big guys; he could guard small guys.

"When I look at the way the game is played today, on the perimeter, he's a guy who would really fit in now. If you go small he's strong enough to guard a big guy, go big and he was quick enough to play small forward or big guard. If he was coming out of college today everyone in the NBA would want him."

Miller had a solid if not spectacular six-year career in the ABA. In his first season he averaged 17.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists a game and was a first-team all-rookie selection. He averaged double-figures in five of his six seasons, with a high of 18.4 in 1971-72 with the Cougars.

In all, he averaged 13.6 points and 5.0 rebounds over his career, retiring after playing just five games in what would have been his seventh season.. However, Miller was never able to find stability. He played for five teams Los Angeles, Carolina, San Diego, Virginia and Utah and nine different coaches, including K.C. Jones and Wilt Chamberlain in San Diego.

He was traded twice and left unprotected after his best season, 1971-72, for the expansion draft, which is how he wound up in San Diego.

"[The Cougars] were paying Billy Cunningham $400,000 a year to leave the Sixers and come back to Carolina to play," Miller said of his former UNC teammate. "I was the team MVP, the best defender, the leading scorer the year before, and probably should have been an all-star. I was getting $45,000 [in the last year of his rookie contract] and wanted $60,000. They said I was holding them up and let me go."

Although Miller never regretted his decision to go with the ABA, the instability eventually got to him.

"We thought we were as good as they were in the NBA; hell, we were as good," Miller said. "I knew a lot of those guys and I knew I could play with them, and I knew a lot of us could play with them. And I saw history. I saw George Gervin's first game, and Julius [Erving's] first game.

"But it just got so bizarre. George Lehmann played with me in Carolina, and he was good. We could have dominated for 10 years if we could have played together because I could read his eyes and he could read mine. He told the coaches, "Start me and Mills together and we'll win,' and we started together for three games and won each one on the road. But they traded him a couple of days later because he was eating popcorn on the bench. At San Diego, Wilt never showed up [for practice]. He'd just send his manservant down from Los Angeles to run things.

"It all just added up," Miller continued. "It just wasn't any fun any more. I played for one coach at Catasauqua [Bob Mushrush], one coach at North Carolina. Jerry West and I talked about it one night. It's all about situations. He said he was lucky; he played for one team and six coaches [two in his first season] in 13 years with the Lakers. I was with different teams, different coaches, different philosophies. I don't care what anybody says, I could have scored 30 points a game if I wanted to and played with anybody. But it was about selling yourself every year, and I got tired of it."

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