Arizona Basketball

Reggie Miller’s jersey retirement tonight should include tribute for bringing fire to UCLA-Arizona rivalry

All-McKale Villain Team

Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O’Neal

Nate Robinson

Nate Robinson

Kyle Dodd

Kyle Dodd

Aubrey Coleman

Aubrey Coleman

Reggie Miller

Reggie Miller


The game was out of hand and so was UCLA’s grip on Pac-10 basketball. Reggie Miller, the nation’s fourth-leading scorer, was assessed his fifth foul against Arizona. The 13,316 at McKale Center grew louder with a mix of derisive cheers and boos with every step he took toward the Bruins’ bench.

When Miller reached the bench, he looked at a referee on the baseline and rubbed his pointing and middle finger with his thumb together in a payola gesture, suggesting Arizona paid him off. McKale was never more rabid. Seven minutes still remained. Miller was subjected to watch Arizona shift the power of the conference to Tucson.

The Wildcats’ 85-60 rout over UCLA on Feb. 13, 1986, ended with reserve freshman forward Bruce Wheatley banking in a 25-foot shot at the buzzer, one last dagger to Miller and the Bruins in front of the reveling McKale crowd. A month later, Arizona would clinch its first Pac-10 title with a victory against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.

A rivalry was born. Miller’s actions and comments stoked the competitive fire between the programs.

“I could have scored anytime I wanted from the baseline,” Miller told the Los Angeles Times after posting 16 points, 10 below his average, in the 1986 loss at McKale Center. “I just wasn’t in there enough to score.”

In the following season, Arizona was eliminated in the first round of the inaugural Pac-10 tournament and was still selected to the NCAA tournament despite an 18-11 record. Moreover, the Wildcats were assigned to play in McKale Center (the final year a team was allowed to play on its home court in the NCAA tournament).

“They only got in because their athletic director (Cedric Dempsey) is on the selection committee,” Miller told reporters.

RELATED LINK: Anthony Gimino of TucsonCitizen.com updates his ranking of the best Millers in Pac-10/12 history

Miller became Public Enemy No. 1 in McKale Center. While Arizona’s fans viewed him as cocky, Miller and UCLA’s supporters could argue his collegiate and NBA career backed up his words. UCLA will honor him tonight, when the Bruins play USC, by retiring his jersey No. 31 and hang it from the Pauley Pavilion rafters amid eight other Bruin greats and 11 national title banners.

UCLA’s No. 31 was already retired with Ed O’Bannon’s name in 1996. O’Bannon, another despised figure in McKale, was a consensus All-American and national player of the year (requirements for the number retirement). In 2004, UCLA expanded the requirements to allow those inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame to have their number retired. That enables 2012 inductees Miller, Jamaal Wilkes and Don Barksdale to join the club this season.

Ryan Hansen’s All-McKale Villain Team

Eddie House

Eddie House

Gary Payton

Gary Payton

Reggie Miller

Reggie Miller

Trevor Wilson

Trevor Wilson

Don MacLean

Don MacLean


The time between 1986 and now and Miller’s work with former Arizona nemesis Steve Kerr during TNT’s NBA broadcasts have doused some of the fire that existed between Miller and Wildcat followers. Arizona fans with long memories, however, will always think of him as a McKale villain.

Miller is the captain of my All-McKale Villain Team. The rest of the lineup: Houston’s Aubrey Coleman, Washington’s Nate Robinson, LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal (when he was in college, not when he became personable as an NBA player and broadcaster) and ASU’s Kyle Dodd.

Imagine that team suiting up for a game at McKale Center with UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian as the head coach and UCLA’s Jim Harrick as an assistant? Add to this nightmarish scene referees Booker Turner, Tom Harrington and Dave Libbey working the game and Dick Vitale blabbering as the broadcaster.

***

Ryan Hansen, former Arizona director of basketball operations who produces a pre-game segment and comments on some UA games on KCUB (1290-AM), lists these players as his top five McKale villains: UCLA’s Don MacLean and Trevor Wilson, Oregon State’s Gary Payton, House and Miller.

“There have been many opposing players to have played in McKale Center that have made my blood boil over the years, however, none more than Don MacLean,” Hansen told me. “MacLean was at the epicenter of the most intense basketball rivalry in Pac-12 Conference history: Arizona vs UCLA.

“Not only did MacLean lead the Bruins in their win over the Wildcats in January of 1992 that snapped Arizona’s 71-game home-court winning streak, he dethroned Arizona’s hometown hero Sean Elliott as the all-time leading scorer in conference history. He did it with a smugness that only made me and the rest of the McKale faithful hate him even more.”

Hansen was not finished.

“The combination of his arrogant walk, cocky grin, and all-around great play became so irritating that I even developed a dislike of his free-throw shooting technique,” he said. “He would spread his feet far beyond shoulder width apart and crouch down 6 inches from the ground in preparation to shoot.

“It appeared as if he was just trying to draw the ire of the Wildcat fans. I have to admit, it worked. Still to this day, when MacLean walks into McKale Center to broadcast a game for UCLA radio or the Pac-12 Networks, my blood begins to percolate.”

Hansen lists his honorable — or its it dishonorable mention? — as the O’Bannon brothers (Ed and Charles), James Harden of ASU, Christian Laettner of Duke, Jason Kidd of Cal, Isaiah Thomas of Washington, Doug Moe of Iowa, Stacy Augmon of UNLV, Harold Miner of USC, Todd Lichti of Stanford, John Wallace of Syracuse, Coleman and Dodd.

Hansen’s sentiments of MacLean echo many others. I posed a question of who is McKale’s most hated on my Facebook wall and MacLean’s name popped up the most with Miller along with Dodd, House, and UCLA’s Jason Kapono and Darren Collison. Adding to the irritation of MacLean for Arizona followers: Lute Olson actively recruited MacLean out of Simi Valley (Calif.) High School but MacLean opted instead to become a member of Harrick’s first recruiting class at UCLA in 1988.

***

Miller, to me, is No. 1 because of his arrogance when he played at UCLA. People in high places agree with me.

Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated wrote in 1987 that a West Coast coach informed him that if a poll were taken of Pac-10 coaches, “they would vote 8-2 that Reggie’s an ——.”

Kirkpatrick wrote: “In his senior season, (Miller is) besmirching his surpassingly elegant play with some basic Jugheadian behavior. Spitting at opposing players, slapping away defenders’ hands, disdainfully bouncing balls off their legs on inbounds plays and gesturing at officials with rubbing fingers (the familiar sign for payola) are just a few of Miller’s lowlights.”

Miller, as his payola gesture suggests, had a knack for crying foul with refs, which also crawled under the skin of his adversaries.

He was quoted as saying by Bob Keisser of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner: “I like my bad-boy image. It’s gotten me a lot of places. … People don’t know about all the dirty stuff underneath the basket. They only see me throw an elbow back. There are two sides to every coin and everyone only sees heads. My side is tails.”

The following are reasons why Coleman, O’Neal, Robinson and Dodd join Miller on my All-McKale Villain team:

Coleman: On Jan. 24, 2009, the former Houston player took one small step, not for man, but for barbarism when he planted his sneaker on Chase Budinger’s face. Budinger took a charge from Coleman and was on the ground looking for the ref’s call when Coleman continued to walk and stepped on Budinger’s face. Coleman was ejected. The most heinous act in McKale Center history spurred the Wildcats to a dramatic comeback after trailing by 10 points with a minute remaining. The UA prevailed in overtime 96-90. Coleman, who later apologized to Budinger in a letter and claimed the incident was a mistake, was suspended one game by Conference USA afterward.

O’Neal: A year after O’Neal scored 29 points and hauled 14 rebounds in an upset of No. 2 Arizona in Baton Rouge in 1990, the 7-foot-1 center and LSU made a return trip to Tucson. Visions of O’Neal’s dance — the Shaq-de-Shaq — a hip-hop step he performed after a thunderous breakaway jam against the Wildcats at the end of the game the previous year, was still fresh on the mind of many in McKale. Sean Rooks extracted some revenge against O’Neal to the delight of the McKale crowd, who thought O’Neal should have been called for a foul every time Rooks tried to post him up. O’Neal finally fouled out late in the game after posting only 10 points and four rebounds in the UA’s 87-67 victory. O’Neal reportedly told Rooks before he fouled out: “I don’t care how good you play. I’m still a No. 1 draft pick.”

Dodd: On Feb. 20, 2002, Arizona’s Luke Walton and ASU’s Chris Osborne wrestled for a rebound on the ground and Dodd piled on. After a tussle with Walton — Walton of all people, a likable sort — Dodd was ejected from the game. Arizona prevailed 83-75. “Everyone just got tangled up down there,” Dodd told the Arizona Republic. “There was lots of pushing and pulling. I definitely did take a part in it all but I won’t take the full blame. I was just trying to protect myself.” When Dodd returned to McKale the following season, he was booed every time he touched the ball. Dodd has since done Web chats with former UA center Joseph Blair during a Wildcat-Sun Devil telecast and he currently serves as color commentator on ASU radio broadcasts.

Robinson: I will never forget my mother, who is mostly indifferent about the Wildcats when they play, noticing the boastful Robinson (listed at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds) beating his chest in celebration after making a basket while being fouled. “Who is that little guy?” she said, annoyed. That indicates how some at McKale Center did not care for the guy. In 2004, after scoring a career-high 31 points in an upset of No. 9 Arizona in Seattle — which included a thunderous alley-oop dunk by Robinson — he led a sweep of the Cats with 18 points in Tucson. His demonstrative ways got the best of some people, but like Miller, Robinson backed up his cocky ways by leading the Huskies to impressive wins over Arizona during his career at Washington.

***

The refs — Turner, Harrington and Libbey — became a sidebar to most games at McKale Center and elsewhere. Turner’s officiating drew the ire of Fred Snowden and Olson. Snowden objected to Turner’s calls so much in one game that he called timeout to specifically stare at Turner during the entire timeout. The McKale crowd has rarely booed so loud at a referee like that night.

Jim Harrick emphasized the UCLA-Arizona rivalry and recruited many players Wildcat fans loved to hate

Jim Harrick emphasized the UCLA-Arizona rivalry and recruited many players Wildcat fans loved to hate

Harrington had a quick trigger when it came to calling technical fouls, including one on Olson late in the game when UCLA ended Arizona’s 71-game home winning streak in 1992. Libbey, without fail, made it a mission to tip the scale against the home team for most calls. He apparently did not want to be called a homer.

Tarkanian is loathed in Tucson because of his well-documented strained relationship with Olson. He also had battles with Snowden going back to when Arizona was in the WAC.

Harrick coached UCLA to an NCAA title after the Bruins suffered a lull with Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard. He emphasized the UCLA-Arizona rivalry and thought the Bruins got a raw deal when Arizona received a better seed in the 1996 NCAA tournament, the year after UCLA won it all. The Wildcats were seeded No. 3 in the West (playing early-round games in Tempe) while UCLA, which won the Pac-10 by three games over the Wildcats, was seeded No. 4 in the Southeast Regional. Princeton upset UCLA in the first round that year.

“A regular-season championship seems not to be the most important thing, which I always thought it was,” Harrick told the media. “I know every time I’ve questioned the committee, the committee’s said you play your way into it and you play your way out of it. If winning your league by three games isn’t playing your way into it, I don’t know what is.”

Harrick also recruited a who’s who of players UA fans loved to hate: MacLean, Cameron Dollar, Tyus Edney, Toby Bailey, the O’Bannons, Gerald Madkins, Tracy Murray, George Zidek, Jelani McCoy, Baron Davis and Darrick Martin (the guy who made the shot to end Arizona’s 71-game home winning streak).

Martin’s game-winning off-balance shot with three seconds left over Damon Stoudamire is the most painful shot for the Wildcats to stomach since they started playing in the Pac-10 in 1978. Martin was a quiet player, stuck to his business, so he was not as loathed as others. His name was not mentioned when I compiled a list for this blog.

Colorado’s Sabatino Chen, another quiet, non-demonstrative player, had a career game against Arizona on Jan. 3. When he nearly beat the Wildcats with a straightaway three-point bank shot at the buzzer, the Wildcats’ fans throats sunk to their stomachs.

UA coach Sean Miller, who played with more decorum than his namesake Reggie Miller, made a comment about Chen (who had a career-high 15 points) that must have made the UA fans’ stomachs turn even more.

“He looked like Reggie Miller tonight,” the UA coach told reporters.

Not entirely, coach. Although the refs made a controversial call waving off his three-pointer because he released it after the clock read “0:00”, Chen did not make a payola gesture toward them.

Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner

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