My main goal is just to be consistent. I know I could do a lot more, but when you’re out there a long time, you just just try to stay consistent. —Andre Miller
SALT LAKE CITY — In 1994, when Andre Miller arrived from Los Angeles as a pudgy, relatively undistinguished point guard to play basketball for the University of Utah, no one ever dreamed he’d play in the NBA some day, let alone play longer than 99 percent of the players who’ve ever played in the league.
Yet here is Miller two decades later at the age of 39, still playing and getting it done on the court against players literally half his age. Miller is the oldest player in the NBA — 36 days older than San Antonio’s Tim Duncan — playing for his seventh team in 16 seasons as he returns to his old stomping grounds Wednesday night with the Sacramento Kings to play the Utah Jazz (7 p.m.)
Miller isn’t sentimental about coming back to Utah — after all he’s been playing games here every year since he graduated in 1999 and he often comes back in the offseason for various reasons. But he still has fond memories of his time in Utah and has left a legacy with a $300,000 donation for an endowed scholarship in his name and a $200,000 contribution towards Utah basketball facilities. His retired number 24 will always hang in the rafters of the Huntsman Center.
These days Miller is a role player, playing backup point guard for a young Kings team that is rebuilding under new ownership and new coach George Karl.
“My main goal is just to be consistent,’’ Miller says in his unpretentious way of speaking. “I know I could do a lot more, but when you’re out there a long time, you just just try to stay consistent.’’
Miller says he was enjoying his time in Washington this season and anticipating the 11th playoff appearance of his career when he was unexpectedly traded to Sacramento for Ramon Sessions on Feb. 19, the day of the NBA trade deadline. Even though he’d been traded numerous times in his career, the move caught Miller by surprise.
The good news was that the trade was made because he was a wanted man, not an unwanted one. The deal for Miller came at the behest of Karl, his former coach in Denver, who sought Miller’s experience and extensive NBA knowledge to help the young Kings.
“The decision for me, with a young team that’s struggling, is that you’ve got to have older players,’’ Karl said Sunday night in Sacramento.
“The veteran player has to help the younger player persevere though the difficult moments of a losing situation. And Andre’s been in all those situations. He’s been on bad teams, he’s been on tremendous teams. He’s not very vocal, but he’s a calm presence in the locker room.’’
After getting over the initial shock, Miller has adapted to his new Kings teammates that include up-and-coming stars such as DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum.
“Yeah it’s cool,’’ Miller said when asked about being reunited with Karl. “We go way back and I’m happy to see him again. After all the years I played for him in Denver, it’s good to see him get back into coaching.’’
Like Karl, Melvin Hunt, the current Denver coach, who was an assistant coach for the Nuggets under Karl, can’t say enough about Miller, calling him “one of the most underrated point guards of his era.’’
“Man, we all loved Andre,’’ Hunt said when he was in town last week. “I mean you talk about a guy who’s a coach on the court that can still play. He’s a special talent and you forget about his age when he’s out there because he’s so dominant on both ends of the floor. I’m a big fan.’’
Miller will forever be remembered in Utah for leading the Utes to the brink of a national championship in 1998. His performance in the West Regional final against Arizona when he had a triple-double with 18 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists is one of the greatest individual games in NCAA Tournament history.
He originally came to Utah in 1994, in a class that included future Ute great Alex Jensen, out of Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles.
Miller wasn’t highly recruited, but he caught the eye of Ute coach Rick Majerus, who was almost as enamored by his mother, Andrea, who would run the length of the floor during games on the sidelines, watching her son play, as he was by Andre.
"I thought he could be a really good player and obviously he really bought into everything here," Majerus said back in 1999. "He came in as a really good competitor and he overhauled his body. He's very smart and coachable and has worked hard to improve his shooting."
Jensen remembers how unselfish Miller was right from the start, something he’s displayed throughout his career.
“Everyone has a dream to be in the NBA, but he didn’t come to Utah thinking he was going to play in the NBA,’’ said Jensen. “He just wanted to play basketball. He loves playing.’’
He recalls a game when Miller took him aside towards the end and told him he was close to a triple-double.
“He had it wrong, I wasn’t that close to it, but just the fact that he was thinking about it was amazing to me,’’ says Jensen, now a Utah Jazz assistant coach. “He was very unselfish.’’
Jensen calls his old teammate, “the best point guard in the post” and “probably the best lob passer in the history of the game,’’ something Keith Van Horn wouldn't argue with (see SMU, 1997 WAC Tournament).
Britton Johnsen was a freshman on the 1997-98 Ute team and is grateful to Miller for going to bat for him with Majerus to get him more playing time because he was impressed with the lanky freshman in practice.
Johnsen remembers how different Miller was around his teammates than he was with his quiet public persona.
“Off the court he was one of the funniest people you ever met,’’ he said. “We nicknamed him Richard Pryor because he looked so much like him.’’
He also remembers Miller sharing a love of the Discovery Channel and recalls an incident when Miller nearly crashed a wave runner into the side of a houseboat at Lake Powell because he’d never ridden one before.
“Look, I’m from Murray, Utah and he’s from Compton and we didn’t have a lot in common,’’ said Johnsen. “But I felt like I could hang out with him.’’
Miller had sat out his first season as an NCAA Prop 48 player because one of his test scores out of high school was barely under the minimum required by the NCAA. He became a diligent student at the U. and graduated in four years, even before his senior season.
He became eligible in 1995-96 and quickly established himself as a starter, supplanting Terry Preston and helped lead the Utes to a Sweet 16 appearance, along with Van Horn. The following year, the Utes made the Elite Eight and then came the magical 1997-98 season when the Utes made it to the NCAA Finals only to lose to Kentucky.
That game played out similarly to Monday night’s Duke-Wisconsin game in which the Badgers lost a large second-half lead. In ’98, the Utes led by 12 early in the second half, only to run out of gas as the Wildcats ran past them for a nine-point victory. What people don’t know, and Miller never talked about, was that he was plagued by a thumb injury in that title game.
After leading the Utes on a 23-game winning streak in 1998-99 that ended with a second-round upset loss in the NCAA Tournament, Miller was drafted No. 8 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers. By his third season, he lead the league in assists at 10.9, but was traded after the season to the Los Angeles Clippers, the first of many moves in his NBA career.
He spent just a year in his old hometown and then signed with the Nuggets, where he spent three years before being traded to Philadelphia. After three years there, he signed a free-agent deal with Portland, where he spent another three years.
During his time in Portland he once scored 51 points in a game, making 22 of 31 shots. It was also in Portland where his remarkable streak of consecutive games played came to an end.
During his first four years in the league, Miller missed just three games, one with a bruised shoulder while in Cleveland and two with a sprained ankle in Los Angeles. Then over the next seven-plus seasons, he never missed a game for any reason, reeling off 632 straight games, the eighth-best streak in NBA history.
However, his long streak came to a crashing halt, of all things, by a league suspension in December of 2010.
Miller has always been mild-mannered on the floor, but he wasn’t going to take it any more when Blake Griffin pushed him in the back twice during a game. So Miller got a running start and body-slammed the much-bigger Griffin who went sprawling to the floor.
The officials didn’t call a foul on any of the three plays and Miller told the official, “We can call it even now.’’ However the next day, the NBA office gave Miller a flagrant 2 foul and suspended him for one game.
“I never thought about it, it just happened,’’ Miller said of the streak. “Then when they took it away, I was upset about it.’’
The one blemish on Miller’s NBA career came last season when he got into a clash with rookie coach Brian Shaw in Denver.
On Dec. 31, 2013, Miller received his first DNP-CD (coaches decision) of his long career of over 1,000 games and said he felt disrespected by Shaw. The Nuggets were reeling at the time with eight straight losses and after first being suspended for two games, Miller refused to play, taking a leave of absence of sorts.
Eventually he was traded to Washington, where he played for the Wizards for 28 regular-season games and 13 playoff games.
Miller called the blowup in Denver “a miscommunication,’’ saying “that’s all the NBA is, treating people right and communicating to them.’’
Hunt called the situation “unfortunate” and blamed the coaches as much as Miller.
“It was a little bit of us making some poor choices and maybe we didn’t communicate as well as we should,’’ he said. “It was both sides, it was a very unfortunate deal. But we were all fans of Andre. It was great to coach him. It was unfortunate because coach Shaw, everybody, we all had man-crushes on Andre because he was so good for us.’’
Except for those two dozen games he missed after the incident in Denver, Miller has missed just four out of a possible 1,263 games, an astonishing feat in these days when players sit out several games a year.
“I like being able to contribute and be involved with the team,’’ Miller said. “I don’t want to take the easy way out by sitting out.’’
“Andre is a warrior,’’ Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson once said of his Denver teammate. “You have to chop off his leg for him to sit out a game.’’
Miller is well aware his career is winding down. Although at times he still glides around the court like a 22-year-old, he knows his final days on the NBA court are approaching and he wants to make the most of them.
He can still contribute as he showed with back-to-back 16-point games last month as well as a 10-assist game.
“Andre gives you that old veteran leader that can win a game for you,’’ Karl says. “When I first coached him, it was as much his brain as my brain helping the team to win. At times, he can orchestrate a game, especially with the second unit and he’s done that for us. He’s made the second unit more viable, more powerful, more adaptable.’’
Miller has never been one to overwork himself in the offseason, which is one reason he’s lasted so long. He also has the ability to play through minor injuries, unlike many of today’s players, who sit out when they have a sore pinkie finger.
“I feel healthy — I feel like I’m staying in the right condition, still feel I can still help contribute to a team,’’ Miller says. “I haven’t had any major injuries. Sometimes I’ll get ankle pain that I’ll just play through. I’m just trying to take care of my body and I try to do things the right way.’’
When asked about playing until he turns 40, Miller replies, “That’s the goal for sure. I always wanted to play 15 years-plus or until I’m 40.’’
He’s already got the 15 years-plus, so he needs another complete season to make it to 40 and join the 22 players in NBA history, including former Jazz greats John Stockton and Karl Malone, who have played into their 40s.
As long as Karl is the Sacramento coach, Miller should have a chance to stay with the Kings for at least another year. If not, there are a few teams that could use a veteran point guard with the skills and smarts of Miller.
Say, a team like the Utah Jazz, whose starting point guard, Dante Exum, is less than half the age of Miller at 19 while backup Trey Burke is just 22.
It likely won’t happen, but wouldn’t that be something, for Miller to finish his extraordinary basketball career by playing in the town where it all started a couple of decades earlier.
Sure seems fitting.