THE ESSENTIAL STORIES - One of the greatest players to grace the NBA, Reggie Miller possessed one of the loudest mouths in history, too. The Indiana ace reserved his best display of shooting and verbal sniping for one famous night against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden in May 1995, where, in a little under nine seconds, Miller single-handedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Every basketball fan has to set foot in Madison Square Garden one day to fully appreciate the energy of one of the sport's most iconic homes. Magnificently squeezed between the high-rises of Manhattan, and recognisable for miles by a circular appearance dissimilar to the sharp angles and verticality of the island's architecture, the atmospheric Garden offers a microcosm of bustling New York life several days a week, a dynamo absorbing and pumping out electricity across the city.
Over the years, Madison Square Garden has opened its doors to its fair share of legends. Listing the major artists, performers and athletes who have made a name for themselves within its walls would resemble the index of Who's Who. To narrow it down, let's just say that practically all the greats have left their mark on the Garden, with perhaps one notable exception: The Beatles curiously never performed at 4 Pennsylvania Place.
Nearly half a century after the acrimonious split of the Fab Four, New Yorkers have moved on from this snub. When it comes to the Garden, they have far bigger worries – such as the Rangers failing to win the NHL's Stanley Cup since 1994 or, far greater, the Knicks losing the NBA finals in the very same year, the seven-game series against the Houston Rockets turning on a blocked shot seconds away from victory. From that moment, the Knicks became a subject of ridicule with just one division title since the turn of the century.
For the past two decades, humiliating the Knicks has become common currency in the NBA. Players no longer dream of wearing the Knickerbockers kit and yet they all want to shine in the Garden. Success at the home of the Knicks has become a rite of passage – like an actor getting their handprints immortalised on Hollywood Boulevard. From Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, not to forget Step Curry or even James Harden: they have all achieved major success in humiliating the New York Knicks.
An elastic body and a sharp tongue
There was a time when the Knicks were not so consistently spanked in their own back garden. This privilege was reserved for the biggest fish of all: Michael Jordan. This was an era when the Knicks could defend like no one else in the League. Not that this stopped MJ: during his run of six titles with the Chicago Bulls, the number 23 would defy the traps laid down by Pat Riley and his team on four occasions. Four playoff meetings in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996 resulted in four victories for Jordan and Chicago and four heart-breaking losses for Patrick Ewing and New York.
On the occasions that Riley's Knicks did not suffer at the hands of Jordan – absent for two years during his brief foray into baseball – they had to deal with another thorn in their side. A supervillain called Reggie Miller, who had the face of a troublemaker, an elastic body and a tongue too sharp to be real. Soon, he would earn the inimitable nickname of Knick Killer.
No one has better fed on the energy of Gotham and the Garden than Miller during his immense career. Nobody was as predisposed to silencing the world's most famous arena than him. Because Miller had no fear. As well as two shooting arms of diabolical precision which stretched as far as Broadway Avenue, he possessed another lethal weapon: the only mouth in the NBA that could swallow an apple as big as New York.
The Knicks paid a heavy price discovering this when they became victims of the biggest upset in playoffs history on May 7, 1995. New York were leading by six points with 18 seconds remaining. Nine seconds later, the Knicks were two points behind. In those nine seconds (or 8.9 seconds, to be precise) Miller had broken everything, and the city that never sleeps was put to bed – for good.
Miller and Indiana, a love story of deep loyalty
When it comes to the greatest players in NBA history, Reggie Miller doesn't instantly come to mind. Because Miller had a big flaw – the same as many others who crossed Michael Jordan's path: he wore no championship ring around his finger. Reggie may have never won anything in the NBA, but one mitigating factor still helped him become one of the sport's legendary figures: the shooting guard was a one-franchise man. Miller dedicated his entire career to the Pacers in a display of seamless loyalty to Indiana.
For 18 years he strived to bring the Holy Grail home to the perennially mediocre Pacers and the state of Indiana, where basketball was practically religion. There was never any question of going elsewhere to play alongside other superstars and help forge an empire. Miller loved Indianapolis too much to stab the city in the back.
"Indiana is everything," he said in an interview with The Undefeated in 2016. "People say, 'What was your problem with Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State?' I have no problem with him leaving. It's what the American Dream is. My whole criticism was people need to understand the fans' point of view, especially in small markets like Oklahoma City and, in my case, Indiana. Those fans, they live and die through everything you do. And I felt in 1987, Donnie Walsh took a gamble on me, and my whole purpose for those 18 years was to try to win a championship for those suffering fans, for that small market. Because it means so much."
Reggie Miller lors des NBA Finals 2000
Image credit: Getty Images
Fourteen years after his last game, Miller remains the 24th highest scorer in League history (25,279 points), the first player to score more than 2,000 three-pointers in his career and, until 2011, the player who had scored the most (2,560). Only John Stockton and Karl Malone (both Utah Jazz), Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers), Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs) and Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks) were as loyal to their franchise as Miller was to Indiana.
"When you're getting beat by your sister, you learn to talk…"
But there's more to Miller than his loyalty to the Pacers. He will always stand apart from the others. From the day he was born, on August 24, 1965, "little" Reginald Wayne Miller was up against it owing to the hip deformities which prevented him from walking correctly. To overcome this handicap, Miller had to wear braces on both legs until he was five.
Reggie's siblings helped accelerate their brother's rehabilitation, scuppering the initial fears that he may never walk normally. Miller benefited from being born into an extremely sporty family: one of his brothers, Darrel, played in the MLB in the mid-1980s while his elder sister, Cheryl, was considered the greatest player in women's basketball history.
Cheryl and Reggie were born 18 months apart. Both love basketball. But Cheryl was much stronger than her gangly younger brother, whom she regularly beat in games of 1-on-1 during their childhood. Reggie may not have been as talented as his sister, but he managed to use her strength as a tool for good:
"When you're getting beat down by your sister, who's the greatest women's basketballer of all time, you learn to talk… I wasn't the biggest or the strongest of guys, so I needed to have a little bit of an edge – my mouth was my edge."
This dynamic with his big sister encapsulated the challenge faced by Miller. The young man, who, like Cheryl, would wear the number 31 throughout his career, had to emerge from the suffocating shadow of a living legend of the game to make a name for himself. Once author of 105 points in a single high-school game, an Olympic champion at Los Angeles in 1984, then world champion in Moscow in 1986, Cheryl was happy to pile on the pressure on her brother, who "talked all the time" and "wouldn't ever shut up".
At first, Reggie couldn't shoot against her because she would always block him. So, he changed his methods and invented an unorthodox type of arc shot at arm's length which would become his signature. He also developed a thick skin against those who used his talented sister's achievements to remind him that he was "only" the younger brother of a legend. Soon, all the sarcastic cheers of "Cheryl! Cheryl!" that rained down on him from opposing fans would have no hold on him whatsoever.
Born in Riverside, fifty miles east of downtown Los Angeles, Reggie Miller enrolled at UCLA in 1983 and thrived. He became the second leading scorer in the university's history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and won the NIT (National Invitation Tournament) in 1985, joining the NBA two years later with a history degree in his pocket. The 1987 draft was a good standard, with one star (David Robinson) burning brighter than the others, alongside other promising players, such as Scottie Pippen. Indiana had the eleventh choice and the whole state expected to hear one name on the night of the draft: that of Steve Alford, aka Mr Basketball.
A member of the Indiana Hoosiers, the winger had just won the NCAA title with the local university where he became the all-time leading scorer and a real star. Nine years after witnessing another homegrown star, a certain Larry Bird, join Boston, the Pacers couldn't afford to let Alford and his all-American, ideal-son-in-law vibe slip through its fingers. Missing out on him was unimaginable. But Donnie Walsh, the general manager of Indiana at the time, decided at the 11th hour to pass up Alford in the draft. While picking Miller over Alford was controversial, it was without a doubt the best decision of Walsh's career.
The next day, the headline "Reggie who?" was etched across the front page of the local newspaper. But the man himself was probably the most surprised. Californian through and through, Miller suddenly had to cross the entire country to play in the so-called Hoosier State. To say that he was excited by the prospect in store would have been a lie. You could see that simply by looking at his reaction as he watched the draft, sitting on his couch next to his family, as NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that he was being sent to Indianapolis.
"Wow, that caught me by surprise," Cheryl laughs as the young Reggie claps before high fiving his sister (she later admitted not knowing that Indiana even had an NBA team). "It's great," Miller sheepishly says on direct link. "I'd just like to come in and play hard... It's just a pleasure to be picked and to go, so I'm happy right now."
So, young Reggie Miller packed his bags and made his way to the Midwest. He took with him a major quality which detracted nothing from his talent: he was a grafter. And in Indiana, that was an appreciated skill. "I've never seen anyone work as hard as Reggie Miller," Magic Johnson once said, having met the player on the UCLA campus during summer training matches. For his part, Larry Bird, who became the Pacers head coach for three years after retirement, said Miller was "much harder than he looks".
"Mr Potato Head on a stick"
But what did Miller look like exactly? Well, he wasn't much to write home about. "The first time I saw him, I was taken aback. The guy looked like Mr Potato Head on a stick," joked Mark Boyle in the documentary Winning Time: Miller vs Knicks. Boyle has now been the official play-by-play announcer at Pacers games for almost three decades, and no player had his name uttered more times by Boyle in that period than Miller.
From a purely physical point of view, Indiana's new number 31 was more like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo than He-Man. But what he lacked in muscles, he made up between the ears. Sure, his arms were spindly and his back long and arched, but Miller was an extremely shrewd player who feared very little – and he wasn't afraid of reminding his opponents.
It just so happened that, in the autumn of 1987, Miller and the Pacers took on the Bulls in a preseason exhibition game. Reggie the rookie found himself up against Michael Jordan. Now MJ at this point was not quite the basketball god that he would become, but he was well on the road to legendary status. And yet, after the first two quarters, the Bulls number 23 had failed to make much of an impact. Going through the motions, he'd scored a meagre four points. Miller, on the other hand, already had 10.
Chuck Person, the Pacers' renowned trash-talker, decided to give his young team-mate some advice: "Can you believe Michael Jordan, the guy everyone's talking about… who's supposed to be able to walk on water… but you're out here killing him, Reg. You should be talking to him!" Reggie did just that – only to regret it almost instantly. Michael Jordan went on to outscore him 40 to 2 in the second period before humiliating Miller with a few choice words: "Be careful that you never speak to black Jesus like that again."
This episode taught Miller a lesson that, almost three decades later, he revealed to talk show host Jimmy Kimmel: "Never trash-talk Michael Jordan. Never to Michael!" But promises – even those made in hindsight – mean very little if you can't keep them, and Miller would never stop looking for trouble from the king. He even managed to make Jordan lose his cool in 1993 – something that happened so seldom that it's worth mentioning.
A deadly poison
On court, Reggie Miller was a snake that slid between defenders and whose tongue, barbed and vicious, inflicted a deadly poison. In 1990 the Pacers gave him a bumper contract worth $16 million over five years – and as his average points tally grew in proportion to his salary, so too did Miller the showman. He became louder and louder during games, until he was considered one of the League's biggest trash-talkers at the start of the 90s.
"Seventy percent of me talking on the court is personally for me to get me motivated and going. Thirty percent is to see if I can get into the opponent's head," he explained in Winning Time: Miller vs The Knicks.
Miller pounced on anything that moved. Big, small, fat, skinny: it made no difference to the man pulling the trigger for Indiana. But he still had his preferred targets – such as John Starks, the Knicks shooting guard who closely resembled Miller but always struggled to contain himself when crossing the path of the Pacers' number 31. The two players were born in the same year, both loved shooting from distance and defending. But marking the slippery Miller was tantamount to running a marathon behind an eel, taking a few sneaky hits and being subject to a relentless verbal assault. This usually continued until his opponents cracked in a bundle of nerves. Starks was better placed than anyone to testify to this.
"John, look at your stat line! Are you kidding me? You're supposed to be a starting shooting guard in this league? This is embarrassing," Miller sledged Starks one day in the middle of a game. "Reggie, I know what you're trying to do," Starks replied. He knew, but he couldn't do anything about it. It was a lost cause. He was powerless to resist. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first round playoffs in 1993, Starks resorted to headbutting Miller in the third quarter and was ejected…
But if Reggie found an easy target in Starks, it was also because his rival played for the Knicks, and because the Knicks played at the Garden. This was what really motivated Miller:
"The Knicks, New York and Madison Square Garden bring out the best in me. Always has. It lights a fire inside of me. There's nothing I want more than to beat them on their stage, to steal their show. I get great enjoyment from it."
John Starks #3 of the New York Knicks and Reggie Miller #31 of the Indiana Pacers looks on during game six of the Eastern Conference Finals
Image credit: Getty Images
The infamous choke sign
The first proof of this fixation came in 1994. One year after the Pacers' first round defeat in the playoffs at the hands of the Knicks (despite that lapse from John Starks), Miller signed his first work of art in the Garden. This time it was the final of the Eastern Conference. Match 5. Both franchises were tied on two wins each. Indiana started the final quarter trailing by 12 points. But it was almost "Miller Time".
A white-hot streak saw the All-Star shooting guard pocket 25 points in 12 minutes and bring the usually ruthless Knicks defence to its knees. Indiana won as Miller netted 39 points on an incredible evening. Not if your name was Spike Lee, that's for sure. Seated courtside, the animated director of Do The Right Thing and diehard Knicks fan spent most the night winding up Miller. It was a bad idea, for it merely lit a fire which quickly tore through the Garden.
After each basket, Miller stared at Lee and hurled abuse back at him. He then made a gesture which would go down in history: the famous choke sign. With one hand over the throat to simulate strangulation, he then put the other around his private parts and pretended to squeeze. Both Spike Lee and the Knicks had been sent sprawling – two birds with one stone. That would teach them to think twice about taking on Miller at his own game.
From "Thanks A Lot, Spike" to "Shut Your Mouth," the headlines on the front pages of the New York papers captured the general feeling after the crushing defeat. The Knicks turned things around, though: trailing 3-2, the City slickers won the seven-match series over the good Midwestern heroes before losing the NBA finals against the Rockets. But on that night, Miller had the entire Garden in his pocket.
Fast forward to the 1994/95 season, which marked the pivotal return of Michael Jordan on the NBA courts. On March 18 that year, MJ announced he was coming out of retirement through a two-word press release: "I'm back". A little rusty, and wearing the 45 he wore as a kid, His Airness was not yet ready to take back his crown. But he made sure everyone knew that he wasn't merely going through the motions. Scoring 55 points at the Garden on only his fifth match back with the Bulls was a good way of ensuring that. New York – and the NBA – now knew that MJ meant business.
With time running out, the window of opportunity was closing on the fingers of the Knicks and the Pacers. Especially in the light of the youthful exuberance of the Orlando Magic, whose majestic duo of Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway were wreaking havoc. New York finished the regular season in second place in the Eastern Conference behind Orlando, with Indiana one place further back. When the Hicks and Knicks found themselves in the playoffs for the third time in three seasons, the two franchises knew that the loser of the latest series would not have many more shots at glory.
"Reggie just tied the game!"
Up until 18.7 seconds from the end, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals was just what you would expect from the first of a seven-game series. John Starks was cast as the happy hero with 21 points and 7 assists while Rik Smits, for all his brilliance, cut a frustrated figure. The giant 'Dunkin' Dutchman' had played the game of his postseason life for the Pacers, scoring 34 points and holding Patrick Ewing, the Knicks All-Star centre, to 11. But it was all in vain – for the Knicks were leading 105-99 and were marching towards victory. What followed was engraved in the legend of the NBA and the Knick Killer, Reggie Miller.
"Everyone thought that the game was over – even the Pacers," recalled Jeff van Gundy, then Pat Riley's assistant coach. But Miller had not given up. On the inbound that followed, he shouted for Mark Johnson to pass him the ball directly so he could go for a quick three-pointer. It's a long shot, but you never know…
But Donnie Walsh, the man who brought Miller to Indianapolis, had already reached the end of his tether. "Disgusted" and "p***ed at our team," Walsh had left his courtside seat, gone down the tunnel and entered the locker room. "I shut the door," he later told the New Yorker, "I'm in there cursing [and] all of a sudden, someone knocks on the door and says, 'Donnie! Reggie just tied the game!' And I say, 'Quit f***ing with me, I'm not in the mood!'. I'm yelling at him, and he's laughing. We find a TV." And on that TV, Walsh saw Miller taking two free shots to give the Pacers the lead. Surreal, but true.
Between Jackson's inbound pass with 18.7 seconds remaining and the moment where Walsh, the general manager of the Pacers, switched on the TV to see Miller on the free-throw line, a mere 8.9 seconds of actual play had passed. Peanuts in the grand scheme of things – but an eternity that night. In the meantime, the roaring volcano of the Garden had become as quiet as a Midwestern meadow.
Mark Jackson did indeed spot Miller's movement. The eel gave Patrick Ewing and John Starks the slip and found some space. He caught the ball, turned and sunk a three – right under the watchful eye of Spike Lee. 105-102. Starks had no chance. Anthony Mason picked up the ball and prepared for the inbound pass. But the Pacers pressed, and Mason was all at sea. The ball burned his fingers and he panicked, throwing the hot potato in the direction of Greg Anthony and hoping for the best. No such luck. The Knicks forward fell flat on his face – with a little help from a gentle shove from Miller (on his introduction to the Hall of Fame in 2012, Miller later admitted that "I pushed him").
The Garden cathedral is silenced
Sometimes, crime pays. Miller gathered the loose ball and, in a split-second, gave the ultimate proof of his intelligence. Instantly, and showing extraordinary aplomb, he retreated behind the arc until he found himself at the exact same spot as before. He shoots, he scores. 105-105. Only 3.2 seconds have come off the clock and the Garden, the Knicks, New York and Spike Lee – wearing a jersey with Starks' name on the back – have just taken two sucker-punches on the bounce. The cathedral has been silenced. Everyone is rooted to their seats. "I had never heard the Garden that quiet. We've had shootarounds at the Garden when there was no one there but the janitors, and it wasn't that quiet," Greg Anthony later said.
"What shocked me was that Reggie had the presence of mind to not take a quick two-point shot and instead took one dribble and got back behind the three-point line to shoot a three," Larry Brown, the then-Pacers coach, said years later. "That takes an amazing athlete to do that, a guy who literally has ice in his veins, a guy who loves the pressure and is willing to face the consequences if he doesn’t make the shot. I've never seen anything like it, even today." High praise, indeed.
The Knicks were both "shell-shocked" and "numb" according to forward Anthony Mason. "His second three-pointer knocked us out. We became totally disorientated. It was like a nightmare that we couldn't escape. I still think of it today. I can laugh about it now but that wasn't the case back then."
But it should have still ended up an evening the Knicks could laugh about. For Indiana, who had done the seemingly impossible, instantly gave New York an opportunity to kill off the game. After Sam Mitchell inexplicably fouled Starks from the inbound, the referee awarded the Knicks number 3 two free throws. With the scores level and just 13 seconds remaining, it was a gift that had dropped from heaven into the Garden. But the story doesn't end there.
Miller keeps his cool after Starks meltdown
It's fair to say that Starks was not a great shooter. But his 73.7% success rate over the season should have been enough to nick it for the Knicks. Except that he, too, had been completely thrown by Miller's double heroics. Doubt and the general nervousness murmuring through the Garden accompanied him behind the line, as he would later admit with his immortal, if grammatically incoherent, words: "I'm walking to the free-throw line and I'm thinking, like, 'Man, did this dude just did this?'"
Four weeks before Nick Andersen's four missed shots in the NBA final, Stacks would tee up his Orlando counterpart in the pantheon of the incomprehensible. He missed the first, prompting Miller to clench his first at the other end of the key. The second then fell too short. After a mad tangle of limbs, Ewing managed to get the offensive rebound, but his 10-footer was too long and hit the back rim. This time, Miller grabbed the rebound. But after a Mason foul, the clock was stopped – prompting a funeral procession for the Knicks as the game painfully shifted to the other end for Miller's free throws.
Unlike Stark, Miller made no mistake, hitting the target twice to take the score to 105-107. In fewer than nine seconds, the shooting guard had hit eight points to write the craziest page in the history of his career. With 7.5 seconds left on the clock, Greg Anthony gathered the inbound pass, carried the ball forward and into the D, tried to get around Miller, but stumbled and fell. The ground swallowed him up, the curtain dropped, and a euphoric Miller ran off the Madison Square Garden floor yelling "Choke artists!"
Indiana had won to take a 1-0 lead into a series that would see them eliminate the Knicks, for whom Pat Riley's subsequent departure marked the end of an era. As for the rivalry between Miller and the Knicks, that would continue for a few more years – only to be extinguished one day in April 2005, the moment chosen by the Knick Killer, aged 39, to say his goodbyes to the Garden. One last victory for the road. And, above all, a huge standing ovation for yesterday's executioner and a big hug with Spike Lee. Perhaps the Garden and Miller were made for each other, after all. A kind of dumb love, but reciprocal and sincere.
Spike Lee and Reggie Miller
Image credit: Getty Images
Written by Maxime Dupuis, translated by Felix Lowe