BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Brandon Miller is the best player on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s best team. Two months ago, he drove a car containing a gun that belonged to a teammate that was then used by another man to shoot and kill a young mother. The first sentence is a widely held opinion. The second has been alleged by Tuscaloosa police and rebutted by no one at the University of Alabama, including Miller. So those two story lines somehow will live parallel existences as long as the Crimson Tide remains in this tournament, which figures to be a while.
Miller is traveling to and from Legacy Arena — where the top-seeded Crimson Tide will face eighth-seeded Maryland — with an armed security guard, a development Alabama Coach Nate Oats said is necessary because, “If you guys saw some of what I’ve seen sent his way, I think you would understand why that’s the case.”
So this is an issue. The certainties are that Jamea Jonae Harris, the 23-year-old mother of a 5-year-old boy, is dead and that Miller isn’t being charged with a crime or pursued as a suspect. “I never lose sight of the fact that a family has lost one of their loved ones that night,” Miller said this month.
He has not, however, delved publicly into what transpired when Harris was killed. Jim Standridge, his attorney, said in a statement Miller “never saw the handgun or handled it.” It belonged to his then-teammate, Darius Miles, and Miles and his friend Michael Lynn Davis, who police allege fired shots into a car in which Harris was riding, have been charged with capital murder.
How, exactly, do you marry those events with Alabama’s prospects in a basketball tournament? One involves the tragic death of a young woman. The other involves brackets. Looking away feels willfully ignorant. Remember: Miller doesn’t just find himself in the middle of this. According to testimony from Branden Culpepper of the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes unit, Miles texted Miller, and Miller subsequently drove his car, which contained Miles’s gun, to a downtown Tuscaloosa entertainment district early on the morning of Jan. 15.
That’s not exactly “wrong spot at the wrong time,” as Oats argued initially. ESPN reported shots were fired from the car Harris rode in, hitting Miller’s car. That’s frightening.
On Friday, Oats spoke measuredly and haltingly about how Miller has handled himself since that night — and since police publicly alleged that he was at the scene of Harris’s death.
“He’s a really good kid that I think’s done a really good job of handling a heartbreaking situation that we all know is very tough,” Oats said. “So, you know, we just see him show his mental toughness throughout the year. I think we’ve all seen it.”
These assessments are just … off. Miller may not be a criminal, but he is decidedly not a victim. His basketball ability as an almost certain top-five pick in this year’s NBA draft is irrelevant when considering Harris’s death and her orphaned son and still central to Saturday’s game against Maryland and any games the Tide plays after that. Maybe the story lines aren’t so much parallel as they are intertwined, impossible to separate.
On Friday afternoon, Miller stood in the Alabama locker room at Legacy Arena, flanked by a pair of teammates, facing a bank of cameras and microphones.
“It’s a lot of lights,” he said.
He was smiling, joking, happy to take questions on the groin strain that is hobbling him or the Crimson Tide teammates who prop him up. Alabama has backed him unequivocally. He did not miss a game even as he has been what Alabama has described as a “cooperating witness” in a murder case that involves a former teammate.
“Just tell him to keep his head up,” said forward Noah Gurley, standing at Miller’s side. “ … We’re here to support him.”
Had the events of Jan. 15 not occurred or had Miller not been alleged to drive the car that carried the gun, Alabama’s basketball would be the story. The Crimson Tide is uber-talented and deep as the Pacific. Maryland Coach Kevin Willard called Alabama the most talented college team since those coached by his former boss, Rick Pitino, at Kentucky in the mid-1990s. As one coach who watched Alabama’s tournament-opening victory over Texas A&M Corpus Christi said: “They’re like Noah’s ark. They’ve got two of everything.”
“It’s a talented roster,” Willard said. “And I think what I’m really impressed with them … is how unselfish they are. They really pass the basketball. It’s not a complicated offense, but it’s a good offense because they’re unselfish.”
The scouting report on the 6-foot-9, 200-pound Miller, the SEC’s newcomer and player of the year?
“Oof,” Willard said.
“For a freshman, he plays with such a good pace,” Maryland point guard Jahmir Young said. “He doesn’t force anything.”
“He’s such a tough player to play the wing spot because he can dribble the ball,” said Terrapins forward Hakim Hart, who will be assigned to defend Miller quite a bit.
“You’re not going to sit there and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to pressure him and make him dribble,’ ” Willard said. “He can dribble. He makes plays, and he’s unselfish.”
Which is all a pertinent and interesting basketball assessment that draws the eye away from the most important situation Miller was involved with during his freshman year at Alabama.
“This season is stained in the blood of Jamea Harris,” Kelvin Heard, Harris’s stepfather, told AL.com, “and it’s not ever washing out. Coach Oats … said they prayed at practice. They weren’t praying for Jamea. They were praying for their own players.”
Standridge, Miller’s attorney, said in his statement that Miller was unaware of any conflict at the scene of Harris’s murder and did not know Miles had left the gun in the back seat of Miller’s car. But Standridge also said, “Mr. Miles texted Brandon and asked him to bring his firearm,” and Miller indeed drove the car to meet Miles.
Could Miller’s groin strain impact his performance against Maryland? It certainly did in the first round, when he went scoreless for the only time in his career — 19.6 points below his average.
“I’m always going to tell you I’m 100 percent,” Miller said. “So right now, I’m 100 percent.”
Does focusing on Miller’s health or Miller’s game or Miller’s draft prospects feel inappropriate given the events of Jan. 15? It sure does. The best player on college basketball’s best team allegedly drove a gun to a friend, and it was used in a murder. The victim here was Jamea Jonae Harris, and no one else.