He was a chubby kid with the curly Afro, wandering the streets of South Central Los Angeles in the summertime in search of pickup games. Running around mostly with his cousins, Andre Miller would jump fences to find a free court and had a personal affinity for those with eight-foot rims — “dunk courts,” as he liked to call them.
“Wherever, wherever,” Miller said when asked about his constant need to be around the game. “It was an outlet for kids that didn’t have nothing to do in the summertime when school was out. I was just dribbling a ball or running the streets outside. Of course, times are a little different right now. Kids don’t want to go outside. But back then, you know if it was a court and a ball, you was there. That was pretty much everywhere I went.”
Miller will be 38 on March 19 but his passion for the game has yet to wane even as his physical abilities have diminished. And as the Washington Wizards concluded Friday’s practice at Verizon Center, Miller, the team’s oldest player, and Bradley Beal, the team’s youngest at 20, were the last two on the floor.
Miller was practicing the same flat-footed set shot that has taken him to the Final Four at the University of Utah in 1998 and through a 15-year NBA career whose latest stop is Washington after a three-team deal at last month’s trade deadline.
The fourth-oldest player in the NBA behind Steve Nash, Derek Fisher and Ray Allen, Miller ranks ninth all-time in career assists (8,077) and is one of just eight players in NBA history to score at least 15,000 points and hand out 7,500 assists. He has already promised his 14-year-old son, Duane, that he will soon step away — most likely after next season — to focus more on watching him develop as a player.
Before he joined the Wizards this season, he had been engaged in a nearly two-month stalemate with the Denver Nuggets following an altercation with Coach Brian Shaw. It was Miller’s longest stint away from the game and forced him to confront his own basketball mortality.
“Sitting out that month and a half was kind of like a reality check. Just what to expect,” Miller said. “I understand that it’s life after basketball. I’m prepared for that. I’m not ready for it but I’ve been told, ‘Don’t hang it up until you’re forced to.’ Sometimes I feel like that and sometimes I don’t. My goal was to play 15-plus or 40 [years old]. I could play that, but I don’t know, it depends on the situation.”
The Wizards (32-29) have provided Miller another opportunity to reach the playoffs, something that he has done in nine of the past 10 seasons, but he has yet to get out of the first round for reasons that aren’t all because of him. Those who have played with him marvel at his playmaking and durability.
Wizards big man Nene, who played with Miller in Denver, calls him a “money player” and said “the way he reads the game is amazing.” Philadelphia forward Thaddeus Young said he never had easier layups than when he played with Miller.
“I think he is one of the top 10 passers ever to play in the NBA,” said ESPN analyst George Karl, who coached Miller for parts of five seasons in Denver. “He has a knack of doing the fundamentals and doing the little things of basketball probably as good as anybody I’ve ever coached. Andre knows how to win basketball games and he knows how to lead people.”
Miller’s skill as a floor general is what allowed him to lead the NBA in assists at 10.9 in 2001-02 despite being on a 29-win Cavaliers team, to help the Nuggets to three straight playoff appearances from 2004 to 2006 after an eight-year drought, to allow the 76ers to make back-to-back playoff appearances in 2008 and 2009 shortly after acquiring him in exchange for Allen Iverson, and to guide Portland to its last two playoff appearances in 2010 and 2011.
“I’ve always been that type of player,” Miller said. “If you could dribble, catch and shoot, I just try to watch each player, what they do and try to make the teams even.”
That is also why the Wizards were eager to acquire Miller in their longtime quest to find a capable backup for John Wall, and to make the playoffs for the first time in six years.
“This was a no-brainer for us. When this opportunity came, we had to do it,” said Coach Randy Wittman, who had Miller for his two seasons in Cleveland. “He had a control to himself out on the floor, even as a rookie. You’re never going to be, ‘Andre is playing out of control tonight.’ And that’s been really one of his strengths, throughout his career.”
Never relying on speed or athleticism, Miller has lasted thanks to calculated maneuvers and craftiness, surprising defenders with his ability to quickly shift gears and blow by them to get to the rim. Being one of the heavier kids growing up, Miller also developed a low-post game and used his backside to back down defenders to create scoring opportunities for his teammates or spin past them.
“He’s probably one of the players who could play until 45 if he wanted to, because of the pace that he plays with and the way he take care of his body and all of the leadership things he’s going to bring to your squad,” Wizards forward Al Harrington said with a laugh. “He got that Y-league game. That old man, about 50 years old that just get buckets. Just control the whole run. He got one of those ageless games.”
Miller has also been incredibly durable, reeling off a string of 632 consecutive games played before getting suspended in December 2010 after shoving Blake Griffin. He had played another 239 straight games before being sent home by the Nuggets in January. Crediting “rest” for avoiding any major injuries, Miller said he believes too many players exhaust too much energy with strength and conditioning trainers in the summer and get “burnt out by mid-November.”
“I take pride in just always being there,” Miller said. “It’s days you take naps, like, ‘Man, I don’t want to get up.’ I had a lot of those days but I tried to set a good example and try to lead by example. Just being on the court, being involved, being involved with the team. Not taking days off, one thing the young guys will learn is, it’s going to go by fast. I wouldn’t even think, ‘Man, it’s almost time for me to sit down.’ ”