Tonight (March 10) HBO is set to release “Women of Troy,” a documentary that will explore the USC women’s basketball dynasty of the 1980s that was led by Cheryl Miller. The film will feature Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Paula and Pam McGee, Juliette Robinson, Rhonda Windham and USC head coach Linda Sharp, the foundation that forever changed women’s basketball, as they won two national titles and were the first women’s collegiate team to visit the White House.
Cheryl Miller, sister of NBA bomber Reggie, is considered “The Michael Jordan” of women’s hoops and the undisputed “Queen of the Court.”
She was the first USC basketball player—male or female—to have her jersey number retired by the university. After an illustrious career, she coached two seasons at USC (1993-95) and reached the NCAA tournament twice. Miller also coached three seasons in the WNBA (1997-2000) with the Phoenix Mercury.
Then she embarked on a post-basketball journey that would lead her to more accolades and more game-breaking moments as a pioneer in the field of broadcasting.
In honor of HBO’s documentary, I dug in the archives to grab excerpts from a two-part Shadow League exclusive I did with Miller back in 2014 when she returned to coaching as the Head Coach of the Women’s Basketball team at Langston University in Oklahoma, a Historically Black College & University. Miller led the Lions to a #18 NAIA ranking in two seasons as head coach. From there she moved on to Cal State LA (2016- 2019) where she led the Golden Eagles their first winning season since 2014.
The Shadow League had the honor of picking this basketball maestro’s brain, and the jewels she dropped about life, victory, reality checks, failure, and fortitude are official. This is Part I of our exclusive chat with basketball and broadcasting icon, and game-changer, Cheryl Miller.
JR Gamble: You coached the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA Finals in 1998 and lost to the Dynasty Houston Comets led by your former college teammate at USC, Cynthia Cooper.
Cheryl Miller: “It was a surprise first of all when I got the call from Brian Colangelo regarding the job. I thought it was for a consultant position and when he said that he wanted me to coach and be the general manager, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. Then he kind of twisted my arm and that was all she wrote. It was a great opportunity for me. I always felt in the back of my mind that after leaving USC, at some point or some stage in my life I wanted to great back to coaching.”
Gamble: Reflect on the early years of the WNBA.
C. Miller: “I think everybody was basically piggybacking the success of the USA Women’s basketball team in Atlanta in the 1996 Olympic Games. We had heard rumors that there was another women’s professional basketball league starting up. There was excitement…and then we heard rumblings that David Stern was going to put something together and once it materialized the excitement was automatically there.
Not in my wildest dreams, JR, did I ever imagine walking into our arena our first game and we had over 15,000 fans there. I was shocked. Absolutely shocked and then, from there on, between us and NY, we led the league in attendance at 15,000 plus. The excitement…The support was just awesome and continues to be.”
Gamble: They say great players don’t make great coaches. Are you an exception to the rule?
C. Miller: “They say a lot of things. I’ve heard that. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Mark Jackson and Jason Kidd wouldn’t be successful as NBA head coaches because it’s their first time. They say it’s hard to make that transition from former player to head coach. I think it depends on the individual.
Depends on the situation. The saving grace for me is that I’ve never looked at myself as a great player. I’m just one of many who have helped propel and promote women’s basketball. So I don’t get caught up in who “Cheryl Miller” is. I learn to teach as I go. Do I have all of the answers? Definitely not. And I believe that iron sharpens iron and I make sure that I surround myself with other quality coaches and it’s worked for me.”
Gamble: This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Can you tie that into how women’s athletic has skyrocketed in the past half century?
C. Miller: “Not only the Civil Rights Act, but you have to throw in Title IX. There are so many things that have happened in my life in which I’ve been the beneficiary of the advancement of women’s rights. I don’t know and my parents didn’t have to sit on the back of a bus, but my grandmother and grandfather, they did. So we were brought up with that knowledge and history so we would never take anything for granted.
Like I said I’m one of many who have benefited from the efforts and contributions of so many in our history and it’s not just women’s basketball. It women’s sports across the board. There’s been an explosion and it’s the young girls growing up and now they have a dream, but they, more importantly, have faces that they can attach to that dream. They have faces and role models that they can look at and touch and they identify with. I think that’s where we see the biggest growth and the biggest prosperity that we see in women’s sports today.”
Gamble: Who are the three most influential figures in women’s sports today?
C. Miller: “Wow. That’s a…can I get back to you? There’s so many…You know, the person I identify with and I’m talking just a powerhouse as an athlete and as a woman is Laila Ali. I just think she’s extraordinary and people like her. Also Robin Roberts, although people may not define her as an “athlete” which I do because she played ball. To watch her transcend her sport and transcend the business aspect and also excel in that arena has been amazing. Then the obstacles and health issues she’s overcome personally, just says a lot for me.”
“You know, back in the day it was Jackie Joyner-Kersee.”
“Ann Meyers, Nancy Lieberman… from a pure basketball standpoint. I can go on and on but those are the women that really transcended their sport. They showed a different side to women in sports.”
J.R. Gamble: Is your legacy as a supreme basketball player – the best in your family some say – properly understood by today’s young ballers?
Cheryl Miller: “Well If I’m not the best basketball player, I’m certainly the most underpaid (laughter). I really don’t know. I’m probably the wrong person to ask that question. I let everyone else dictate that end. I never get into who’s the greatest and everything else. I think that’s meaningless and that’s not who I am. I’ve certainly been blessed and I certainly feel a responsibility for young women coming up as future basketball players, whether it’s WNBA or playing overseas or a broadcaster.
I get more questions from young people majoring in communications about how they can get their foot in the broadcasting door, then someone asking, ‘Cheryl, who has the best crossover?’ and that sort of thing. I’m always shocked when people tell me that I look like I just finished playing 5 to 10 years ago. I’m like, ‘Thank You!’ I think whether pursuing basketball or broadcasting or just your life goals and career, the common question is, ‘Cheryl, what does it take?
Gamble: So what’s your prevailing philosophy?
C. Miller: “Don’t take things personal. You can be driven. But be driven in a way that you can enjoy the journey. Understand that there are going to be obstacles and pitfalls and mountains that seem insurmountable and valleys that seem too low or too deep and sometimes you will feel like you’re in the promised land. But through it all always maintain who you are. Maintain and understand that with your success there’s an obligation you have to further yourself, your community and your sport, but you always have to think about giving back and preparing the way for someone else.”
Gamble: You became the first female analyst to announce a nationally televised NBA game in 1996.
C. Miller: “Yes I believe it was with the Clippers. With the Clippers.”
Gamble: What was that like?
C. Miller: “Exhilarating and frightening at the same time. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and knew I could do. The fact that it was in my own backyard…you try to fool yourself and pretend it’s just your mom and dad watching. Well, it’s your mom and dad and the entire church and the pastor and the deacon and the congregation and everybody else.
And the cousins and the aunties and everybody’s watching. You know what; it’s the same thing as when I was a basketball player. If I hit my first jumper or got a key steal or a big rebound. I was good for the rest of the game. My thing with broadcast was if I could just nail my opening, the rest would be fine. I did that and the rest was easy for me.”
Gamble: The rest was history.
C. Miller: “Yep. That was it…that was it.”
Gamble: Despite his dominance as a shooter and his ability to shoot rainbow jumpers over a defending skyscraper, do you think that your brother Reggie with his wiry frame, lack of speed and serviceable but not dynamic ball handling ability, would still be a Top 10 player in today’s game?
C. Miller: “Without question! Without question! You’ve got to understand something. Even if you used that equation. OK? You look at when Reggie played and that was in essence, kind of before the Jordan rules when you could just lay wood on the wings and beat the hell out of them. Yeah (laughter).
If you put Reggie in today’s game where you can barely breathe on a player without there being a foul called and the way that he could move without the ball…C’mon on. Reggie wasn’t the fastest and he wasn’t the quickest, but he had the best footwork and quickest release. He knew his opponent and knew how to work the system. Absolutely. If Reggie was playing today whatever record that Ray Allen has, Reggie would have set that and then set it higher. No question.”
C. Miller: “I’m going to go with Tim Duncan. I just take the entire package of his whole career. I’m looking at titles. I’m looking at longevity and I’m looking at the sacrifice. People who aren’t privy to what goes on behind the doors of San Antonio’s operation have no idea to what degree Tim Duncan has sacrificed. Taking a back door and letting Tony Parker and (Manu) Ginobili come first and allowing them to grow into who they became and who they really are. That takes a special, special player to cultivate that process. It really, really does.”
Gamble: And Kobe wouldn’t make sacrifices like that?
C. Miller: “You can be the man, but then it comes down to at what expense and at whose expense. You never had to have that conversation about Tim Duncan in that regard. He’s just a selfless, humble human being on and off the court. What you see is definitely what you get and you talk about rooting for someone; I love LeBron and when you talk about class you have to mention Dwyane Wade, but I was so happy to see that and I just knew that once San Antonio got back to the Finals and had a chance to face Miami again, there was no way they were losing.”
Gamble: Do you have any regrets that you didn’t get to play in the WNBA?
C. Miller: “Not at all. I’ve been asked that so much and not at all. I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching about that and the answer is no. Not at all. I only tell a few people this, but I think the best thing that ever happened to me was in 1986 it was the fourth-quarter of a pickup game against some of the USC men’s football team and I jumped over one of the players, headed down the court and heard a pop. It was my ACL. And that was all she wrote, so that in essence ended my career in ’86.
But it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I then knew I had to fall back on my education which was communications. I had to grow up and be a big girl now. What was next? That was utilizing my education and I know that’s the reason why I was with ABC early on and then did some work for ESPN and then 17 years with TNT I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Gamble: So everything happens for a reason.
C. Miller: “Yes it does. Yes it does.”