SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
November 20, 1985
As she kicks off her fourth college season, USC's Cheryl Miller is a big star in a town that has a lot of them
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November 20, 1985

Lights! Camera! Cheryl!

As she kicks off her fourth college season, USC's Cheryl Miller is a big star in a town that has a lot of them

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All the trillions of front-running women's basketball supporters who disappeared after the Olympics shall now be forgiven for assuming Miller had vanished as well. Last year she merely slipped down the rabbit hole beneath the mire of her team's 21-9 season from which the Trojanettes exited in the semifinals of the NCAA West Regional.

Some hole. In 1984-85 Miller averaged 26.8 points and 15.8 rebounds (raising her career marks to 23 and 11.9) and accumulated 80 blocks, 86 assists and 116 steals. She had 36 points and 20 rebounds in USC's 73-71 victory over second-ranked Texas, 18 and nine in a 52-48 giveaway defeat to eventual national champion Old Dominion and an outrageous 43 and 23 in an 83-79 smoke-out loss to old rival Louisiana Tech. Miller broke the USC single-game scoring record three times and set a new rebounding standard with 24 against Iowa. In addition, says USC men's coach Stan Morrison, "Cheryl enlarged her aura by creating an identity at the defensive end. She seems to search for those opportunities to hit the deck for a tie-up, dive into the crowd for a save, leap back over a press table for the loose ball. Everything and anything to turn the game her way."

As if it were a contest, Miller won the Naismith player of the year award for the second time and the Wade Trophy and a Victor award. She was named All-America for the third year running. USC's nine losses, however, were one fewer than Miller's teams had experienced over the previous six seasons combined—picky, picky—and she took it very hard. There was even some speculation fueled by Miller herself, who sometimes moans and groans that she is old and tired and (here it comes)...b-u-r-n-e-d-o-u-t...and even ready to retire as if she were Bjorn Borg or somebody, that she would pass up her final college year to go off and save the Globetrotters or Twentieth Century Fox or the CBS Morning News or the chemically dependent among us or South Africa. But in the end everyone knew that like her friend and perhaps future costar, E.T., CM. would return for the sequel.

Just as the Los Angeles Olympics surely aroused interest in the women's game, so have Miller's yeowoman individual efforts. Her captivating interpretive style has taken the sport to another level and added visibility and drawing power both locally and on the national scene. In Miller's freshman season the Women of Troy broke 11 attendance records on the road and sold out four home dates. Since then the team has had to abandon the small campus gym and schedule its home games in the Los Angeles Sports Arena and elsewhere.

While Miller's impetuous spirit and spotlight instincts have galvanized every team lucky enough to have her, USC coach Linda Sharp merits special praise for her wise handling of the irrepressible filly. Even Olympic coach Pat Head Summitt, the stern Tennessee disciplinarian whose philosophy is hardly a stranger to the Knight, not to mention diametrically opposed to Miller's, found a way to compromise in the best interests of the home force. Nearly as much as Sharp, Summitt simply let Miller be Miller, which is not quite the same as the White House staff letting Reagan be Reagan but close enough.

While hosannas for Miller continue to be heard in the basketball halls of academe, an underground backlash has developed among some wizened bearers of the women's flame, who point to Miller's lucky "timing." They resent the media's portrayal of her as a "revolutionary" and question whether her own colorful M.O. shows proper respect for the game. They fear that amid the Miller hoopla the contributions of older pioneers of the game will be obscured.

Miller's arrival in the big time did indeed coincide with a combination of powerful forces such as the positive effects of Title IX, the greater attention shown women athletes by the media and the growth of the feminist movement.

No such forces existed back when Nera White was burning up the AAU nets for Nashville Business College in the 1960s. In that era of the six-woman teams (inclusive of twin "rovers" and the three-dribble rule), White was an All-America for a full decade. Theresa Shank of Immaculata and Lucy Harris of Delta State, each of whom led her team to three national championships in the 1970s, were the next female superstars. Carol (The Blaze) Blazejowski of Rutgers, Ann Meyers of UCLA, Nancy Lieberman of Old Dominion and Lynette Woodard of Kansas followed them, talented maids all in a layup row.

"Not taking anything away from Cheryl," says Meyers, who recently was inducted as the first basketball player in the Women's Sports International Hall of Fame, "but like anything else the game has gone through several stages and I don't think you can say she's head and shoulders the best. I was considered a revolutionary myself. So was Nancy. Blaze shot the ball better than anybody. Nera White was compared to Jerry West. I don't want to knock Miller's game because she plays hard, she's exciting and she's great for the sport. But sometimes I think Cheryl goes overboard with her theatrics. She blatantly plays to the crowd and the media, and that influences comparisons. There's no doubt in my mind that we were as good in our eras as Cheryl is now."

Meyers made her name on full-out aggression and competitive hustle at both ends of the floor. (Obviously she still isn't afraid to drive into heavy traffic.) Harris was a terror on the inside. Lieberman was the mistress of the floor—ball handling, passing, controlling the game—while Blazejowski was the consummate outside shooter and Woodard a consistent scoring machine. Each and every one was a complete player, but the truth is that all were most effective in only one aspect of the game.

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