Cheryl Miller – Greatest Women’s Basketball Player of All Time?

Imagine that you are one of the most skilled people in the world at a particular craft. You even have a sense of humility about it, but you know that you have a gift that makes you better at this thing than nearly everyone else in the world. Now, let us also imagine that you have virtually nowhere in which to pursue this craft. And then, very suddenly, your ability to do this thing is taken away.

That is what happened to Cheryl Miller, arguably the greatest women’s basketball player ever. The sad end to her playing career came at the age of 24 when she suffered a career-ending knee injury at the 1988 Olympic tryouts. As a basketball fan, it is tough to think about the fact that we did not get to see her play more. It would be like watching Michael Jordan suffer a career-ending injury after just two or three years in the NBA. That is how good she was.

But let me take you back to the beginning of her story. She was born in Riverside, California on January 3, 1964. She was also born into an extremely athletic family. Her older brother Darrell Miller became a professional baseball player with the California Angels for nearly 10 years. Her younger brother, Reggie Miller, played professional basketball for the Indiana Pacers.

Trying Out For a Boys Team

Her skill with the basketball was incredible. She was a prodigy in the true sense of the word. She had skills beyond her years. She tried out for the school team when she was 12 years old. But the school did not have a girls team. They only had a boys team. So she signed up to play on the boy’s team.

The coach would not hear of it. A girl playing on a boy’s team? It would be an embarrassment. At least that is the way the coach thought. So, Cheryl made him a deal. She offered to play the team’s best play, who also happened to be the coach’s son. If Cheryl could beat him in one-on-one then she could be on the team. If not, then she would walk away and never bother the coach again.

So, the coach sets up the game between his son, the star of the team, and Cheryl. She beat the coach’s son 21-1. And the coach still would not let her join the team. He would not allow the best player at the school to play on the team just because the player happened to be a girl. It is shameful behavior on the part of the coach. So, the best basketball games she could find was playing pick-up at the park with the guys.

She and her brother, Reggie, liked to challenge others to two-on-two and absolutely destroy the competition. That is where she honed her skills. Their father had set up a basket in the backyard where she could work on perfecting her moves. But the park is where she could test those moves in actual competition.

Dominating at Riverside Poly High School

She then attended Riverside Poly for high school or secondary school, and they did have a girl’s team. She averaged around 46 points per game for her entire four years at the school.

Included in that was a game where they won by a score of 179-15. Cheryl scored 105 of those points by herself, setting a new American high school record for girls’ basketball. And one of those baskets was a dunk, the first-ever dunk on record by a female on a 10-foot basket. High school basketball games are only 32 minutes long.

She was a 4-time All-American and 4-time state champion in high school. She absolutely dominated high school basketball.

University of Southern California

She was the most sought-after player in the country. Everyone wanted Cheryl Miller on their team. She was leaning toward UCLA because it was close to where she grew up and her family would be able to see her play. But that is when she got a visit from the McGee twins.

The McGee twins, Paula and Pamela, were a pair of 6’3” All-American sisters who had just finished their 2nd year of college basketball ball at the University of Southern California, or USC. They told Cheryl that USC was already considered the #2 team in the country without Cheryl, but with Cheryl Miller, they would be #1 and a sure bet to win the national championship.

Cheryl kind of hesitated because she wanted to go to UCLA. But then they threw down their last argument. They said that they have two more years to play. Cheryl could either play with them for two years or against them for two years.

You see, UCLA and USC are both in Los Angeles and play each other at least twice every year. Now throw in the fact that Cynthia Cooper, future All-American and future Hall of Famer, had already committed to joining USC. This meant that USC would potentially have four All-Americans on the same college team. That is all that Cheryl needed to hear. She was headed to USC.

With her on the squad alongside Cooper and the McGee twins, USC won the next two national championships in dominating fashion. They were an absolute force. They had the best player in the country at four out of the five positions. After those two championships, the McGee twins moved on to play some professional basketball in Europe which is where the only significant women’s professional league existed. The WNBA would not start for another 10 years in the United States.

After four years at USC, Cheryl would be named an All-American four times and would graduate from USC as the school’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, steals, field goals made, and free throws made. Have you ever heard of any one player dominating their school’s record book like that? She almost sounds like a player that was created in a laboratory.

Basketball player Cheryl Miller in Final Four game against Tennessee
Photo credit Jayne Kamin (Los Angeles Times) of Basketball player Cheryl Miller in Final Four game against Tennessee (sourced via Wikimedia Commons)

Injuries Derail Miller’s Career

But here is where the story takes a bad turn. In 1987 she was playing pickup basketball on the campus of USC and was playing against some of the football players. At one point she drove to the basket and one of the football players had fallen over in front of her.

Cheryl jumped over the player and when she landed on the other side, she felt her knee pop. It did not hurt that much, but it definitely felt like something was wrong. She limped over to the training room and had the trainer take a look at her knee. As the trainer manipulated her knee her face suddenly went white. Cheryl asked, “What’s wrong?” The trainer said, “You tore your ACL. Your playing career is over.”

Had this happened 10 years later, her career would have been able to continue after surgery and rehabilitation. But the medical knowledge at the time was not there yet. At the age of 22, she was done. Despite this, she tried to make a valiant effort by trying out for the 1988 Olympic team, but could not make a go of it. She reinjured her knee and by the age of 24, she had played her last competitive game.

Life After Basketball

She then turned to coaching at USC and also went into broadcasting where she worked for the TNT channel for 17 years covering the NBA. While the viewers may not have known who Cheryl Miller was as a player, the NBA players knew who she was and there was a deep level of respect for her. Most NBA players give pre-determined answers to most questions.

But, when they are being interviewed by a former player or coach, their demeanor changes and their answers are more honest. However, when they were interviewed by Cheryl Miller, their answers were always honest. To the players, she was one of them. She was one of the true greats who played basketball at a level that even some of them have never reached. They knew they were in the company of greatness.

When the WNBA was founded Cheryl Miller was hired by the Phoenix Mercury to be their first coach. If not for the injury Cheryl would have probably been one of their star players. She was only 31 years old and would have still been in her prime for that first season of the WNBA.

If everything had gone as planned she should have been the MVP of the league that season. But in a weird twist, the MVP of the league that first season was her old college teammate Cynthia Cooper who had been honing her skills in Italy for the previous 10 years. She had a very mature game and was ready to compete against anyone.

Hall of Fame

Even though she was done playing by the age of 22, she was already considered the greatest women’s player of all time. That was the consensus. There was virtually no debate about it. When people watched her play for the first time it was as if you had been watching basketball in black and white and suddenly you were seeing it in color.

At 6’2” (188cm) she was as tall as any of the tallest players in the game, but she had the moves and the dribbling skill of a small guard. Imagine someone playing with Iverson’s flair but in the body of Giannis. That is kind of what it was like with Cheryl Miller. She possessed every skill a basketball player could ask for. She could play all 5 positions at an elite level.

And that was enough for her to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. Years later her brother, Reggie, was also inducted into the Hall of Fame making them the only brother and sister combination to be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

And when Reggie was giving his speech he said, “It’s so special to have the three greatest basketball players of all time in this room right now… Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Cheryl Miller.”

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