They say you are what you eat, but even if you weren't, a good part of Oliver Miller would still qualify as ham. "When fans taunt me," says Arkansas's cholester-All-America center, "I taunt them back."
The Kansas State fans who sent a pizza to his hotel room didn't faze Miller. Neither did the spectator at Texas who threw a Twinkie at him or the Baylor fan who used a boom with a hook to dangle a Styrofoam hot-dog container in front of him as he sat on the bench. Miller goes 6'9" and anywhere from 280 to 335 pounds, depending on the time of year, his unpredictable thyroid gland and whether or not his mother, Annie, has smoked up one of her beef briskets. "You give me a hot dog," he says, "and I'll just give it to a manager to put in my locker so I can eat it after the game."
Fans have called him Cheeseburger, Whale, Porky, Fat Boy and, when feeling charitable, the Big O. "I don't take it personally," Miller says. "It'll backfire on them, because it just makes me play harder. When they ask me if I want a cheeseburger, I tell them, 'Sure. Just hold the onions and cut the mayo and pickles.' "
Oliver Twist dared say, "Please, sir, I want some more." Oliver M. dispenses with the politesse and just helps himself. And to think that there was a time when, back home in Fort Worth, Annie Miller considered putting her son on vitamin supplements because he was so skinny. Now, says roommate Jason Griffin, "He'll have anything in a sandwich. Anything. From Hamburger Helper to spaghetti."
Lost in all of Miller's gustatory bravado is this simple fact: He's such a gifted athlete that he has a standing dessert order for the last laugh. He's improbably quick around the basket and has hands every bit as soft as his midsection. Play behind him, and he'll grind you down with his backside; try fronting him, and halfway through your journey around him you'll wind up with a keener appreciation for why man built the Panama Canal. Yet Miller flourishes outside the low post too. Last month at LSU he took Shaquille O'Neal out on the floor, converted five of his seven field goal attempts and passed for 12 assists while Razorback teammate Todd Day, operating in the area Miller had vacated on the block, sprang for 43.
Miller may appear to be a singular specimen, but he isn't. These days, college basketball players who deviate from the lean-and-wiry prototype are contributing to the game as never before. Some are roundish, some are simply wide-bodied, others are ain't-no-two-ways-about-it fat. "Basketball has become so physical that you almost have to have a widebody," says Sonny Smith, who brought Charles Barkley to Auburn in 1981 and complains that the team he currently coaches at Virginia Commonwealth should avoid sidewalk grates. In Hellenistic Greece, whichever army had the most elephants generally lost. In college hoops, particularly since Barkley ate his way through the game, whichever team has the most elephants generally wins.
Great Moments in Fat-Guy History, 1983.
Frustrated by the eating habits of Mel (Dinner Bell) Turpin, Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall assigns a team manager to round-the-clock surveillance of his 6'11", 255-pound center to make sure Turpin doesn't snack.
Barkley has turned out to be drum major for a parade of endomorphs. Such former collegiate specimens as Orlando Graham (Auburn-Montgomery), Kevin Duckworth (Eastern Illinois), Jeff Moore (Auburn), Ricky Butler (UC Irvine), Bam Bam Rainey (Middle Tennessee State and Georgia) and Victor Alexander (Iowa State) have given way to Miller and his contemporaries. Among those are chunky or hunky fellows like Jamal Mashburn of Kentucky, Byron Houston of Oklahoma State, Elmore Spencer of UNLV, Gary Alexander of South Florida, Carlos Groves of Tennessee, Murray State's Popeye Jones, Don Reid of Georgetown, Johnny Walker of Mississippi State and Darren Morningstar of Pittsburgh.
As Barkley's old college coach points out, this trend is largely the by-product of the no-autopsy, no-foul form the college game has taken of late (SI, Nov. 25). The three-point shot has had its effect too, spreading defenses and leaving the ample-of-girth a wide, wide berth near the basket in which to operate. But more than anything else, credit is due the Round Mound of Rebound, whose impact has been twofold.