A time for reflection by a new old rookie.
by rick olivares pic by nuki sabio
The Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters rallied and cut down a double digit lead by the Purefoods Star Hotshots only to see it balloon right at the end.
At the height of the Tropa’s endgame rally, Willie Miller, stood up to cheer his teammates. He was itching to get in the game. Instead, he applauded and loudly egged on his team.
TNT fell, 100-94, as Purefoods took the first game of the best-of-five semifinals series. Miller racked up his fifth DNP (Did Not Play – coach’s decision) in seven matches. In the two games he was able to take to the court, he logged an average of eight minutes but zero points.
He is battling conflicting emotions. On one hand, he’s just happy to be back with a team he respects after being inactive professionally for four months. On the other, he is just itching to play, to show what he can still do, and to win. Miller was left unprotected by Barako Bull who left him exposed in the expansion draft. Then came the ultimate rejection letter when none of the expansion clubs – BlackWater and Kia – picked him up.
He is bitter about the experience as he felt some people led him to believe he would be protected. “Kung kaibigan mo talaga ay hindi papabayaan mag-suffer family mo. Pinaasa ka lang. Pwede naman akong kausapin.”
And this happened around the time that he was named to the PBA’s 40 Greatest Player list (he won two Most Valuable Player awards; one with Batang Red Bull Thunder and another while wearing Alaska’s colors). “One of the PBA’s greatest pero walang respeto sa ‘yo,” he spat while shaking his head.
“Some said the reason why I was let go was because I was old.” That elicited a fiery response from Miller, the Olongapo native. “Si Asi (Taulava, NLEX’s 42-year old center who is a 16-year PBA veteran) mas matanda sa akin naglalaro pa. Hindi naman nagkakalayo yung edad namin (Miller is 37) tapos sabihin edad ko raw and deperensya.”
At no time did he think he was done with the game as he played in smaller commercial and private leagues to eke out a living. “But I wasn’t in PBA shape kasi wala na yung mga strength and conditioning,” he recalls. “Just lace up your shoes and play. A man has to do what a man has gotta do.”
Then Jimmy Alapag, who transitioned to the coaching staff of TNT after playing his entire 12-year career with the MVP franchise, gave Miller a call from out of the blue inviting him to join the team.
“Tuwang tuwa ako nung tinawagan ni Jimmy,” relates a more animated Miller of the sudden change in fortunes. “Sabi ko kung babalik ako sa PBA, gusto ko mag-join sa team na gusto manalo at hindi palit ng palit ng players.”
When he looks at his TNT teammates, he sees not only Tropang lifers like Alapag, Harvey Carey, and Jason Castro who have played with the team all their professional lives. Kelly Williams and Ryan Reyes, refugees from the defunct Sta. Lucia club, now call it home. Ali Peek, though retired, bounced around for several teams before he found a home with TNT where he finished off his career.
There is another pain that Miller carries.
“Inggit ako kay Jimmy na nag-retire siya na naglalaro siya at sa isang team. Dream ko yun. Unfortunately, sa sitwasyon ko, nalipat ako ng nalipat. It bothers me. Hidi ako nagkaroon ng team na masasabi ko na team ko. Mahirap.”
“Having played for TNT before nandun yung pressure -- not bad pressure but good -- because they expect to win. Being a basketball player playing for that team, it’s good because it rubs off on you. Nakakahawa. I asked Jimmy if they could give me a chance to contribute. Pwede ba ma-sign up for a conference or two. One conference is not enough kasi I was out and lost my conditioning. At least to win. And I am still adjusting. Kasi nga. Wala pa akong isang conference with TNT.”
He then confesses, “I feel like a rookie all over again. A new old rookie.”
But this is Miller who aside from his knack for scoring points and hitting big shots, is known also for his infectious smile and happy nature.
If you ask Miller’s former teammates with Batang Red Bull, Alaska, Ginebra, Barako Bull, or GlobalPort, he loves to talk. During games, he directs traffic like a cop. He tells teammates where to go or what they are doing right and wrong. When he sits on the bench, he calls out plays, who is coming from the weak side, and offers words of support. He talks all the time sometimes to the point of being brutally frank.
“They tell me, ‘don’t say words that you will regret later.’ I don’t think I have ever regretted anything I’ve said.”
During the time that he was off, he found himself donning the analyst’s chores for the past NCAA season. He learned to check his words. Miller played for Letran and he can’t root for his Knights. He has to be objective. When there are bad calls, he finds himself putting the microphone at a distance lest he be heard for his colorful commentary of a different kind.
“See, you can teach an old dog new tricks,” he says.
Nowadays, he does personalized coaching for his son and nephew. “Gusto ko makatulong sa bata. Sayang naman kung i-keep ko lang yung natutunan ko. Gusto ko makatulong sa paglaki at growth ng player bakit hindi. Pero sa ngayon, gusto ko pa maglaro. Mero pa tayong maipapakita.”
On the way to the locker room after the loss to Purefoods in Game One of their semis series, a fan extended a low five to Miller which he met. He smiled. It was a pained smile for his team lost.
But what hurts more is he wishes he had a chance to do something about it.