Even though his former date still hasn't forgiven him, Rick Majerus doesn't regret that decision 4 1/2 years ago to stay an extra night in Los Angeles.
The Utah coach was in L.A. to watch an unheralded point guard during a summer league. He had watched the player in the morning and come away unimpressed. Majerus was supposed to go back to Utah that night for a party but was talked into coming back for another look at the young guard from Verbum Dei High School. He did and, as they say, the rest is history.Majerus lost the girl but he found a point guard.
These days Andre Miller is the main cog for the only undefeated team in college basketball. Sunday he leads the No. 3-ranked, 18-0 Utes in their biggest game of the year against No. 13-ranked New Mexico in Albuquerque.
On that night in Los Angeles so many years ago, Majerus discovered a nice young man with a remarkable ability to see the floor and deliver outstanding passes. Majerus was also just as taken by the kid's mother, who showed such enthusiasm for her son that she ran up and down the sidelines following the action.
"Gosh, does his mom come with him?" was Majerus' first question to Miller's coach when he saw Andrea Robinson. (Majerus said he could just picture the two of them colliding on the sidelines during a game.)
By the end of that night game in L.A., Majerus was so impressed he told Miller's coach and his mother he wanted to offer him a scholarship.
"Are you kidding?" was their collective reply.
Perhaps that's because Miller had hardly been recruited, with only Long Beach State and San Diego going after him. But Majerus, whose track record also includes Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac among little-recruited players who went on the become stars, saw something special about Miller.
This year's Ute team doesn't have Van Horn, but it is a well-oiled machine with Miller as the spark that makes it run. He's the most valuable player, the one guy the Utes could least afford to lose and still be successful.
"Absolutely, if he went down I don't know what we'd do," said Majerus.
"It's such a hard position to fill and to cultivate. Terry Preston and Tyrone Tate (two previous Ute point guards) were good players, but Andre gives us a dimension they didn't."
Miller had a couple of rough games early on turnoverwise, including a whopping seven turnovers against Oregon State. But lately his numbers have been phenomenal.
Most coaches would be thrilled with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is about what Miller has for the season. But since the start of 1998, he has an incredible 6-to-1 ratio with 37 assists to just six turnovers.
After Miller made no turnovers in the two games against Colorado State and Wyoming, while picking up 14 assists, Majerus told Miller to "maybe get a turnover" by taking a few more chances. Miller, always the obedient student, went out and picked up three turnovers against Air Force.
So after the game, Majerus called Miller aside and said, "Ah, let's go back to not making any turnovers."
Two days later at UNLV, Miller again followed his coach's orders, getting no turnovers for the fourth time in six games. He also came up with a game-high seven rebounds, six assists and four steals and was named WAC Player of the Week for the second time.
In Thursday's game against UTEP, Miller would have had his fifth zero-turnover game in his last seven, except for a pass that got knocked away in the first minute of the game. His second half explosion of 14 points was the key to the Utes' victory.
During that game, just as she is for all Ute home games, Miller's mother was sitting with her husband, Albert Robinson, up there in section B row 7. She saves her money to travel to as many Ute home games as possible. While she's not as wild as she was when she used to run up and down the sidelines, she's still enthusiastic about her son and the Utes.
She works at Department of Veterans Administration every day from March to October so she can take days off during the season to watch her son. "They take my blood all year long, but when the season starts, they know where I am," she says. She's gone on an occasional road trip but usually saves her money up for the NCAAs.
Two years ago, she was determined to see her son play in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Dallas. When she found out the fare from Los Angeles to Dallas was a whopping $800, she took a more economic route - Greyhound bus, 29 hours each way. After the Utes won their game on Sunday, she got back on a bus and arrived home at 4:30 in the morning and went to work a couple of hours later.
"She's a wonderful mother," says Majerus. "She's terrific. They ought to make a video of her on how to be a mother. Her whole life is her kid."
Some might believe she's a bit overprotective of Andre because she lost another son, Duane, to encephalitis at the age of 11 after caring for him in a semi-comatose state for several years. That was obviously hard on her and Andre, who prefers not to talk about his brother, who was 11 months young-er.
Andre is especially close to his mother, and the two talk daily by telephone. Mom makes sure he goes to class and to study hall and is even interested in what he had for dinner. Asked if it was "tough" flying up to her son's games and making all those phone calls, Andrea let out a hearty laugh and said, "Not tough, it's expensive!"
She urged him to go away from home but not too far from their South Central L.A. neighborhood. Miller had to sit out his first year at Utah as a Prop 48 non-qualifier after he missed qualifying by the smallest of margins on his ACT test. The next year he took over for incumbent point guard Terry Preston by midseason, which hastened Preston's early departure the following year.
Last year, when Miller was second on the team in minutes played behind Van Horn, he was third in scoring with a 9.8 average and also averaged 6.1 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
This year he's having his best season, improving his foul shooting by nearly 20 percent and becoming, get this, the team's leading rebounder. In WAC play, the 6-foot-2 Miller is the leading the Utes with 6.2 boards per game, better than Doleac, Hanno Mottola and Alex Jensen. Miller's exceptional rebounding skill dates back to his days in high school when there were no big men on the team and Miller was forced to play every position.
He's also grown as a person, going from that painfully shy teenager, who backed away from any interviews, to a guy who leads the cheers in the locker room. Majerus is most thrilled with his academic progress, saying he's as proud of Miller's 2.6 GPA as he is of Drew Hansen's 3.9.
Miller is listed as a senior and was even mentioned by one publication recently as the best senior point guard in college basketball.
However, the Utes are so confident of his academic standing, they list him as a junior, because of a new NCAA rule that allows players who are on track to graduate to regain their lost Prop 48 year. According to Miller, he's on track to graduate this summer, and Majerus said he even has some extra breathing room.
The question, though, is will Miller be back for one more year if he is a hot NBA draft prospect?
Majerus acknowledges that Miller could be an NBA prospect after this season but said many factors will play into whether Miller will turn pro. He said he'll sit down with Miller and his mother sometime in early April to discuss the pros and cons, much as he did with Keith Van Horn after his junior season. He'll give his advice to Andre and Andrea and then leave the decision to them.
And if Miller never makes it in pro basketball?
"He's always got a coaching job with me if he wants it," says Majerus. "Andre is a guy who knows all the answers in practice. He understands the game so well, he could go into coaching and be a tremendous success."
Numbers prove it's Miller time
Here's Andre Miller's remarkable lines during the month of January.
Date Opponent FG FT Reb Asst TO Pts
Jan. 3 Rice 6-11 5-10 7 4 0 17
Jan. 10 BYU 2-4 6-8 7 7 3 11
Jan. 15 Colo. St. 7-11 1-2 7 6 0 17
Jan. 17 Wyoming 2-4 3-4 5 8 0 8
Jan. 22 Air Force 4-8 4-6 7 2 2 12
Jan. 24 UNLV 4-6 2-2 7 6 0 10
Jan. 29 UTEP 5-11 3-4 4 4 1 14
Totals 30-55 24-36 44 37 6 89
Jan. avg. 54.5% 66.7% 6.3 5.3 0.8 12.7
Season avg. 55.3% 73.3% 5.6 4.7 1.9 14.0