When Reggie Miller walks through the city this week, he’ll be booed and cursed. And he’ll love it. The former NBA great will be here promoting Winning Time, a new movie about the epic battles between the mid-nineties Knicks and Miller’s Indiana Pacers. Those games produced some ugly basketball—but they also overflowed with a type of passion, quite separate from the on-court violence, that’s missing from today’s NBA.
At six foot seven, with a deadly three-point-shooting touch, Miller had enviable physical skills. What made him one of the Knicks’ bitterest enemies, though, were Miller’s Hall-of-Fame talents in psychological warfare. He didn’t just excel at trash-talking and at conning officials; he reveled in playing the villain. Miller’s act became legend when he found two perfect foils: lunkheaded Knicks guard John Starks and mischievous Knicks No. 1 Fan Spike Lee.
Directed by Dan Klores, a former PR guru and lifelong Knicks fan, the movie details the amazing on-court action, particularly Miller’s still-mind-blowing eight-points-in-nine-seconds spree to steal a 1995 playoff game, and weaves together often-hilarious present-day interviews. But where the documentary, debuting March 14 on ESPN, truly excels is in its portrait of the near-life-or-death intensity of the Pacers–Knicks games, not just for the players but for their cities. It’s an atmosphere virtually impossible to imagine in today’s wimpified NBA.
The league—partly in reaction to those Pacers-Knicks mêlées—has repeatedly changed the rules to encourage scoring, in the name of entertainment value. One result is that unless a team has one of the few true superstars, it’s doomed; another is that even in the postseason, NBA games have become a disposable, quickly forgotten “product.” It’s highly unlikely anyone will be making a documentary fifteen years from now about the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, or heckling Kevin Garnett when he passes through Cleveland in 2025.
The way pro basketball is marketed has also helped drain its spirit. In order to appeal to young (and particularly white) fans, the NBA and its biggest sponsors transform today’s best black players into cuddly cartoons that border on minstrelsy. Probably Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are as tough, and they burn to win as much, as anyone back in the day. But Reggie Miller never would have allowed himself to be turned into a puppet.
These days Miller is friendly with Spike Lee. But he still loves to be hated in New York, and he is still taunting Knicks fans. “When they’d chant, ‘Reggie sucks!,’ I always wanted to know, what did I suck?” Miller says with a devilish laugh. Oh, he’s plenty smart enough to fill in the blank.