Goodbye, Reggie

This is not how it was supposed to end, my friends. Reggie Miller, the greatest Indiana Pacer, if not the greatest pure shooter, of all time, was supposed to rally his team, lead them to the Finals again against all odds to finish a season that defied all reason.

Everything was thrown against the Pacers this year. Suspensions, injuries, a lack of experience at key positions; no one thought the Pacers could still make the playoffs, let alone scare the defending champion Detroit Pistons in a quarterfinal series.

But the one thing that kept everyone fighting, through 35 different starting lineups and over 100 games of suspensions, was that this was Reggie’s last year – his last chance. His teammates knew that as long as they were in Indiana, they would never play along side a number 31 again. His coach knew that when this season was finished there would be a gaping hole in the leadership department. His peers knew that one of the games’ elder statesmen was going to spend the next five years preparing for his Hall of Fame speech.

His fans knew that he deserved to go out on top.

Thursday night, game 6 of the series, was located in Indianapolis. Reggie, on 11 of 16 shooting, scored 27 points in what would be his last game. He tried to take over the game, attempting to do the impossible – reverse a dead team and lead them into the Finals after Ron Artest threw away the Pacers’ season – Reggie’s last season – and forced predictions from experts of Indiana’s demise.

These fans, the same ones that booed when Reggie was picked in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft, have become a second family to him. When Fred Jones subbed in for Miller in the closing seconds of the game, a game that Indiana had already lost, the thousands of Pacers faithful rose to their feet, saluting the player that defined the team for 18 years. Pistons coach Larry Brown called a time out to allow the standing ovation to continue, while the Pistons themselves led the cheers. Piston forward Rasheed Wallace embraced him at this point, and after the game there was no celebration of the Pistons’ series win. It was all Reggie.

Both teams paid tribute to Reggie Miller. The fans paid tribute to Reggie Miller. Even the referees were caught embracing the man who gave them fits for years, kicking off from opponents as he launched a long shot or flopping and complaining about hard screens. I’ll admit – when I heard the radio broadcast of the ovation, I had chills.

Reggie Miller leaves the game with some momentous milestones: First all time in three point shots made (leading second place Dale Ellis by nearly 1000), sixth all time in minutes and games played, seventh all time in free throw percentage, twelfth all time in points scored. Reggie Miller leaves the game after taking a team – his team – as far as humanly possible after a disastrous season.

Reggie Miller leaves the game with a standard of professionalism and excellence that will be difficult to top. Reggie Miller leaves the game by closing a chapter in NBA history, a chapter started by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, continued by Michael Jordan and Karl Malone; the final superstar of the NBA’s glory days stayed around just long enough to turn out the lights and leave the game to the next generation.

Reggie Miller leaves the game as my all time favorite player, a player that I always liked, even when I was a young Bulls fan: a player that embodied everything I’ve ever cared about in a sport – excitement, clutch play, sensibility about his place in the league, and a real loyalty to a team, and a city, that wasn’t so sure about him in the first place.

Reggie Miller leaves the game with his head high.

And don’t think that the game won’t miss him.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 20th, 2005