Dec. 24, 2009
Jeremy Hawkes Arizona Athletic Media Relations
The phrase is oft overused and about as clichéd as it comes for many athletes in the contemporary sporting world. Anyone who is anyone seems "destined for greatness" despite the fact that it takes so much more than fate to get a person to the highest levels of competition.
But when it comes to Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller, you can go quite a ways back to find out when people started making that exact claim about him. Miller did all the other things necessary, of course, to get to the position he is in now. But it's hard to doubt that there was something special about the youngster out of Ellwood City, Pa., that has led few from his past to be surprised at what he has accomplished.
If you were to ask just about anyone from Miller's past about how he would impact the basketball world before all was said and done, it was never a matter of "if" but rather a matter of "when".
Growing up in the small town just outside of Pittsburgh, Miller seemed to live and breathe basketball from a very young age. His father, John, is one of the more storied coaches in Pennsylvania prep history and from a young age, Miller exhibited the kind of skills and basketball savvy that every coach can only dream of finding.
"When you looked at him in elementary school and those earlier years you would expect him to just be a normal person," said Daniel Aloi, a friend, training partner and competitor from Miller's pre-collegiate years. "But what made him extraordinary was that he really stood out as a basketball person at a young age."
Aloi recalls Miller's skills as a ball-handler as one of his first memories of the first-year Arizona coach. Miller was a bit of a prodigy when it came to such things, Aloi remembers. He was so impressive, in fact, that his skills with the ball earned him appearances on television and NBA halftime shows before he even reached the age of fifteen.
"If you didn't know that he had those special abilities then you would never know," said Joe Roth, a neighbor of Miller's growing up and a close friend and teammate. "He was just a friend who happened to have special abilities."
"Even so, it was always fun to stay up late and watch television and see your neighbor playing basketball."
Despite the early fame, his friends recall that he never lost sight of who he was as a person.
"When you grow up in a small town and you get as much coverage because of how exceptional he was, he really had a normal social life," Aloi said. "He was a funny guy and always a good friend and knew how to separate work and school."
Miller was the kind of kid that was always very serious about his basketball. Aloi, whose father was also a coach and a mutual friend of John Miller, says that the two often went to the gym or the park to shoot around and practice before they even began to compete in high school. They would shoot a hundred shots, work on their ball handling and then go and get some lunch or ice cream, maintaining the qualities of their youth while also making sure their basketball skills were finely tuned.
Despite being so exceptional at what he did, Roth said that it never would get to Miller's head and that he always remained just 'one of the boys' and a great friend and teammate. Roth recalled that despite being a level above those around him, that Miller never lost his focus on the team aspect of the game.
"His knowledge of the game at that age just exceeded everyone else's," Roth said. "In fifth and sixth grade he probably could have taken the ball to the hoop and scored every bucket, but he was never like that."
And even off the court, Roth remembers Miller someone that his friends could rely on to always be there and be just a normal kid. Miller would go to see his friends compete in their respective sports just to root them on, or go out and throw the football around and just take part in the normal activities you would expect from a teenage boy.
"He would always come over to our house and ask if my mom was making her pizza," Roth said. "Even when we e-mail each other nowadays, he always mentions something about my mom's pizza."
"That's how he always was - just an open kid you can have fun with."
Miller and Aloi were two of the better prep prospects in the area at the time and competed with Roth for the team at Ellwood City High School. Miller would then transfer to join his father's team Blackhawk High School where he would help lead them to back-to-back Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championships his junior and senior years.
Miller's Blackhawk squad would wind up meeting Ellwood City in WPIAL championship junior year, where he scored a late bucket to give team a one-point victory over his former teammates.
"There was never any animosity there even when he switched schools," Aloi said. "But if there is one thing to be said about him it was that he was a winner. He would do whatever it took to win, no matter who the opponent was."
Miller went on to a stellar senior season, averaging 27 points and 11 assists, and setting himself apart as one of the most heralded collegiate recruits in the Northeast.
His close proximity and basketball prowess led to a lot of attention from then-University of Pittsburgh coach Paul Evans.
"First, off his father was one of the best coaches in Pennsylvania and you always want to go for the coach's son," Evans said of his recruiting of Miller. "His father had a great work ethic and so Sean did as well and he was constantly working year round to get better."
Evans said the thing that stood out most about Miller, even before he played a game at Pitt was his maturity. Miller came in to a squad comprised mainly of seniors and became a leader off the bat. What was impressive was that he was able to lead the team so well while never upsetting the balance of the team in the process, a fact the Evans believes is hard to find in a freshman athlete.
Miller would go on to be one of the better athletes in Big East history, leading the Panthers to three NCAA Tournament appearances while scoring nearly 1,300 career points and becoming the school's all-time leader in assists and free throw shooting percentage.
Miller's ability to get his teammates involved was perhaps the most impressive aspect about him in college and echoes the sentiments of his childhood friends. Evans credited Miller for almost single-handedly making several Pitt athlete's careers more prominent than they may have been without him. One example being how Miller launched Jerome Lane into highlight lore by setting up Lane for a glass-shattering dunk that prompted Bill Raftery to famously exclaim "Send it in, Jerome!"
For someone who exceeded so much, it would have been expected to believe Miller would start to have NBA eyes. But that was never a problem, Evans said.
Evans explained that Miller had average speed, at best, and lacked the ability to penetrate to the basket as successfully as he would need to in the NBA. He feels that Miller's maturity helped him to realize these things and, starting with his junior year, he started to focus more on the coaching aspect of the game.
"Nine out of ten kids coming to play Big East basketball expect to get a shot to play in the NBA when in reality it's less than one out of ten," Evans said. "Sean realized that, I think, and really focused on being a coach on and off the floor."
If there was one thing to add to the claims of destiny for Miller, it was the fact that he would inevitably become a great coach, a fact attributed to his intense knowledge of the game and the work ethic he has maintained throughout his life.
Aloi will go as far to credit Miller for helping to make him into the person he became through the years.
"Being around Sean was contagious for your work ethic," Aloi said. "The hard work and being consistent are things you carry through your life - nothing good comes easy and Sean has showed that."
Roth echoed Aloi's thoughts on the subject.
"If there was one thing that stood out about him, it was his work ethic," said Roth. "He was constantly focusing on basketball. His work ethic helped him to be the best basketball player he could be."
"I'm sure that carries on into his coaching career - he now wants to be the best coach he could possibly be."
As far as coaching is concerned, Evans had even more to add about what Miller has achieved, noting that he has done everything the right way to get to where he is at today.
"I've really followed everything he has done and he deserves what he has gotten," Evans said. "Now that I'm out of the coaching world, I see a lot on unethical people these days and Sean is not one of them. Even doing things that way, he still gets it done. I think the world of him."
Now, as Miller starts a new path in his life leading the Wildcats, the hard work and dedication he has put forth in his time will look to continue to show.
"It's never surprised me over the years what he has done," said Aloi. "He was always destined for excellence."
This feature will appear in the Jan. 8-10 Arizona men's basketball game program.