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.
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.
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: UCLA’s Don MacLean, Houston’s Aubrey Coleman, Washington’s Nate Robinson 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 as the broadcaster.
“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,” Arizona IMG network broadcaster Ryan Hansen told me a few years back. “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’s sentiments of MacLean echo many others. 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, Robinson and Dodd join Miller and MacLean on the 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. If that incident does not happen, nobody would remember Aubrey Coleman.
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 serves as color commentator on ASU radio broadcasts. Folks, I’ve met Dodd. He’s a good dude. Just one episode got out of hand. Ironically, his favorite NBA team is the Lakers, the team coached by … yes … Walton.
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.
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 had a career game against Arizona on Jan. 3, 2013, when he nearly beat the Wildcats with a straightaway three-point bank shot at the buzzer, the Wildcats’ fans throats sunk to their stomachs.
Arizona coach Sean Miller made a peculiar comment about Chen (who had a career-high 15 points).
“He looked like Reggie Miller tonight,” Miller told reporters.
Not entirely, coach. Although the refs made a controversial call waving off his 3-pointer because he released it after the clock read “0:00”, Chen did not make a payola gesture toward them.
Harold Miner, USC
Trevor Wilson, UCLA
Ed O’Bannon, UCLA
Baron Davis, UCLA
Todd Lichti, Stanford
Mario Bennett, ASU
Eddie House, ASU
Venoy Overton, Washington
Gary Payton, Oregon State
Bobby Hurley, Duke
Danny Ferry, Duke
Shaquille O’Neal, LSU
Jorge Gutierrez, Cal
Xavier Johnson, Colorado
James Harden, ASU
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.