Last night was a bittersweet one for me as a basketball fan. Yes, the Pistons beat Indiana to advance to the conference finals. But they did it by ending the career of one of my favorite players, Reggie Miller. Miller was the guy you loved to hate and then came to love out of sheer respect for his talent and his will. He was brash and bold. He talked smack on the court, but then he backed it up. And has there ever been a better clutch shooter than Reggie? I think the game against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, in the playoffs, scoring 8 points in 9 seconds to keep his team alive, answered that question.
The end of the game is what separates great talents from great players. There are athletes with all the talent in the world who treat the ball like a live grenade when the pressure is on. Chris Webber is 6’10″ with the body of a greek god and more athletic talent than practically anyone else in the NBA at his size, but you couldn’t pay him to take the last shot (though teams keep paying him millions despite his tendency to implode under pressure). Reggie was a guy who thrived on pressure, who loved having the ball in his hands at the end of the game with the score tied – and especially on the road, with 30,000 fans hating you simultaneously. He lived for it. And most of the time, he hit the shot that killed you.
Over the course of an 18 year career, he went from being one of the most hated players in the league to one of the most beloved and respected. He went from being a spastic, gangly beanpole with ears that looked like they were drawn on by a cartoonist to being a symbol of all the things that are right in professional sports. He never demanded a trade or held out for a bigger contract. He spent his entire career with a small market team. He graciously accepted a diminished role toward the end of his career and then, when his team was decimated by injuries and suspensions and needed him more than ever, he had perhaps his finest season in his last.
And he went out on top, leading his team further than anyone could ever have expected and going 11 for 16 for 27 points. We were playing poker last night with the game on in the background, but we stopped the game when they took Reggie out for the last time. My brother said, “This ovation could go on for a long, long time.” It was a touching moment, and I was happy to see the whole Pistons bench on their feet and cheering for him. He was the kind of guy that you had to respect as a competitor. And it was fitting that he was knocked out by Rip Hamilton, the man who has patterned his game after Reggie, the man Reggie says will carry on his legacy. Goodbye, Reggie. Every true basketball fan will miss you, but the hall of fame is calling.