A defender caught in a moment of isolation against Harold Miner must have felt as if he was lost in a dark tunnel without a headlamp.
In his three years as an All-American at USC, from 1990-’92, the man they called “Baby Jordan” and winner of the national college player of the year award could explode baseline for a dunk, back up for a fade-away left-handed jumper or find another way to make the crowd come to its feet.
But once the cheering stopped, Miner was somewhat blindsided.
He had only four seasons in the NBA after the Miami Heat drafted him 12th overall. Despite winning two All-Star dunk contests, he’d logged only 200 games, averaging 9.0 points a contest, his knees giving him constant problems.
It led to his own isolation.
Friends couldn’t find him, even though he was nearby in Las Vegas. USC was at a loss on how to ask if the former Inglewood High star who remains the Trojans’ all-time leading scorer and owner of 13 school records wanted to come back and have his number retired.
It took awhile, but now Miner is ready.
At halftime of Sunday night’s USC-UCLA game at Galen Center, Miner’s No. 23 will be officially be lofted, and fans will be given a bobblehead doll in his likeness.
Miner also did us the honor of answering a few questions about how he’s handled his time away from the Jordan-esque spotlight, and what he focuses on these days instead:
QUESTION: From some of the stories we’ve read over the last year, it appears for the first time in a long while that you’re satisfied with how life is going. Can you describe better what you’ve been up to lately?
ANSWER: I’m the most content now than I ever was when I was playing. My life is totally different. First and foremost, it’s all about my family. But I have also got my certification to be a fitness trainer, and I’m in the process of going to school to get my degree.
Q: In what field?
A: Human performance. It’s a branch of kinesiology, the study of movement.
Q: Will that take very long?
A: Probably another year and a half, maybe two years. Maybe take some classes online, some here at UNLV. I’ve been out of school for 20 years – since ’92. I’ll have to get acclimated all over again. It’ll be a little hectic trying to juggle that with my family and kids. But I’m the second-youngest of five in my family, and the only one without a degree. Really. My father has double masters in computer science and math. My sister’s got a Ph.D. My brothers are all graduates – except me. I’ve resisted and avoided it, but I’m 40, and it’s time to do it.
Q: What did you major in at USC when you played?
A: Public administration, but they don’t have that major any more. But since I got into training and fitness and nutrition, this is more a natural major for me. I just took longer to find it. I’ll just take a step at a time, see where it leads. I have no idea.
Q: So if you’re back to USC, does it mean you’d have one more year of eligibility?
A: (Laughing). Oh, no. Besides, my knees wouldn’t handle that. That’d be crazy. What a trip. It’s amazing that 20 years has gone by already.
Q: What led to the need to get a personal trainer?
A: I got up 280 pounds, but since my playing weight was 225 (at 6-foot-5), so you really couldn’t tell by the way I carried it. I was naturally muscular. But I ended up hiring a personal trainer and worked with him for six months, lost 55 pounds, got into great shape.
Q: What did you do to gain so much weight?
A: Just being married and having kids (laughing). I always worked out, but the thing was my diet. I took in too many carbohydrates, but not enough protein. I’m much more disciplined now. My body just responded differently to certain things. I didn’t tolerate carbs well. I couldn’t even eat good carbs, like oatmeal. I to cut them all out, just do fruits and vegetables. I give myself one free day (to eat anything) just to keep me sane. I’m doing a lot more strength training, some P90X, bike work, swimming. Not so much running. My knees make it tough to do some things. You also have to vary things to the body doesn’t adapt to one thing and make it harder to release the fat. I’m probably training five days a week, two or three hours a day.
Q: Do your kids try to train and eat the same way? How much influence do you have on them?
A: They’re getting into it. I’ve got them eating a lot of similar things, to get into good habits early. My youngest son (5 years old) is already conscious of what he’s eating. He asked me this morning, ‘How many carbs in that?’ He and my daughter (8 years old) love soccer, baskeball. My son loves football. He’s a huge Tim Tebow and Cam Newton guy.
Q: Is it still weird when you hear some of the crazy stories about what people think you’re doing these days? It sounds like some think you’re some kind of recluse living in a desert cave somewhere.
A: I have no idea where any of that came from. I know I hadn’t come around a lot, and some people came to conclusions. I’m here. I’m out. Maybe just not in places where people naturally see me.
Q: But you did kind of lay low for awhile when your NBA career ended. What happened?
A: I just kind of wanted to get away from it all, that whole basketball word. I knew I couldn’t do things I used to do. I know a lot of people don’t’ realize why I stopped playing, but the surgeries I had on my knees, that affected me in Miami (three seasons), and Cleveland (one season) and I had another setback in Toronto. I didn’t have the same explosion or life and it was extremely frustrating. I knew the writing was on the wall. And when it was over, I had to detach from it. It was painful. That was something that was part of my life forever, and to have it all abruptly taken away in that public setting was tough.
I retreated. I had to get away from it all so the pain could heal. Every year, during the NBA All-Star Weekend, or during the NCAA Tournament, it was very emotional for me. It was hard to watch and not being able to play.
Q: Did you have any other NBA or college friends to lean on?
A: Not really. I know Paul Pierce (another Inglewood High grad), but I haven’t talked to him in years – not since my wedding (in 1999). My wife Pamela has been my best friend and an integral part of that whole process.
Q: : So you’ve got no reservations about coming back for this number retirement ceremony?
A: It’s an awesome thing. It’s incredible to have my name and number up there with Bill Sharman and Paul Westphal and John Rudometkin. As a kid growing up in Inglewood, dribbling up and down the street just finding a court I could play on, now I’ll be in the rafters at USC? That’s tremendous.
Q: Will it be a rare trip to L.A. for the ceremony?
A: Oh, no, I come out all the time for family and friends. (Last March) it was such a great thing to come out for the Pac-10 (basketball Hall of Honor at Staples Center), meet with Pat Haden and Lane Kiffin.
Q: Did you have any imput in how your bobblehead came out?
A: No, I didn’t but I saw the pictures of it, and it’s OK, I guess. I’ll take it. My kids are looking forward to seeing it. I’ll bring a lot of family out there – probably 50. Everyone will be there. My mother passed away in 2004, but all my brothers and sisters will be there. I’m hoping to see Coach (George) Raveling.
Q: Raveling once said he thought it was unfair that you got pinned with that “Baby Jordan” nickname, that it put far too much pressure on you. How did you handle it, looking back?
A: I look at it as something that gave me exposure and recognition that I might not otherwise have had, but it did come with some extra burden and set the bar very high. The way I figure it, you dare to be great. You might not get there, but why not try your best? They started calling me that in high school, even younger, because of my style of play, and there really wasn’t anything I could do about it. I didn’t put it on myself.
Q: Did it make it awkward when you finally made it to the NBA and had to play against the real Michael Jordan?
A: I actually met him when I was in the ninth grade and I was at a summer basketball came in Fresno with Rod Higgins. Jordan came to speak and I ended up playing him one-on-one, because that was what the camp MVP got to do as his reward. So there I was, with everyone sitting there at halfcourt, watching us play to five by ones. I had him up 4-0. And I was just about to win. I had the ball and went for a fadeaway in the corner, and I knew it was the winner. He looked at me, reached up and just grabbed it out of the sky. Then he turned around and dunked, and then looked at me and said, ‘I can’t let you win.’ That was the summer he just scored 63 against Boston in the playoffs. It was crazy.
When we were both in the NBA, we were both with Nike, and he was always nice to me. I know when he guarded me during game, he played harder. He was so strong and quick and athletic, it was ridiculous. But when he retired, he told me he wanted me to wear his shoes. He was really nice about it.
Q: When you flash back to USC, what are the moment that stays with you the most?
A: It’s always the big games. We were actually 4-2 against UCLA during my time. But did you know we were actually 5-0 against Top 5 ranked teams? That’s a little known fact. All those big games back at the Sports Arena – UCLA, Arizona, Ohio State and Jimmy Jackson, Notre Dame. Loud and packed.
Q: The press conference you had at USC when you decided to leave (after the devastating NCAA tournament loss to Georgia Tech) was emotional. What do you remember about that time?
A: You want to take advantage of all your opportunities, and I felt it was time to go. I got to be a first-team All-American, national player of the year. The way I played, I didn’t want to get injured. It was emotional because, this was it. A lot of people don’t understand that. It’s like when (USC football player Matt) Barkley had to decide the same thing, but he wanted to stay. It’s something each one of us has to decide. You want to stay but there’s a great opportunity you don’t want to pass up on.
Q: Was it true you were afraid to go to play in Miami (the team that drafted you) because there were alligators in Florida?
A: (Laughing) I actually was concerned about that when I went down there. You hear so many things about alligators coming into people’s backyards. I just wanted it clarified before I got there. I’d never been to Florida. The humidity there just hits you and you’ve got to make an adjustment. So I never saw an alligator, but they are there in the lakes. You gotta wonder about it and be aware of it.
Q: You also had that quirky thing about rubbing your nose on the ball before you shot free throws. Any other things like that you still do without noticing?
A: That was just part of who I am. I have a compulsion to do certain things. I still may skip a line when I’m walking on the sidewalk, to avoid it. I may touch the door a certain way. I’ve been doing it 30 years, so I don’t think of it anymore. Maybe I rub my nose on the weights when I’m working out and don’t realize it.
Q: It’s also pretty interesting how you’ve been able to live off the millions you earned from the NBA and endorsements. What was behind that, when so many players often squander their millions of dollars away?
A: Just having good financial people helping me. I know when I grew up, I didn’t have the need for a lot of things. I went through that phase early in my career, that was natural, but as you get older, you get wiser and realize, especially after the knee surgeries started, you don’t know how long it will last. I was always the guy who preferred to save through the future – stocks and bonds, very conservative, with an eye on long-term growth.
Q: Do you have any kind of trophy room at home, or have you tried to put all those memories away?
A: I don’t have a trophy room now. Most of it’s all in storage – trophies, photo albums, newspaper clippings. Maybe when I have time, I’ll bring it all out. My kids like to watch video on line of when I played every now and then. It gives them something to aspire to, try to challenge them to be better and greater. Growing up, that’s how I did it. My friends might have been out at parties on the weekends, but I was in my room studying tape. You’ve got to make those sacrifices. That’s the formula, to have that discipline and avoid all those other things and stay focused, in sports or in life.