Darius Miles: Headbanger’s Ball


Headbangers Ball
December 2002 – SLAM magazine

Darius Miles entered the NBA as a manchild but an off-season trade to the Cavs makes him the Man in Cleveland. Is the phenom ready to make that leap?

By Morgan Campbell

Darius Miles never planned to step onstage at that Nelly concert. Was too shy to show his face even as the rap star introduced him and thousands of teens screamed his name.

Miles didn’t want to perform that September night, as Nelly played to a sold-out auditorium at Cleveland State University. He just wanted to catch up with an old friend.

Miles and Nelly hooped together in a pro-am league in St. Louis a few summers ago and they’ve been friends ever since. Miles had just moved to Cleveland after being traded from the Clippers to the Cavaliers, and spending a day with his boy from back home helped him adjust to his new city. On the night of the concert, Miles hung out backstage and watched the show through a crack in the curtains. Invisible, anonymous, happy.

But not for long. To acquire Miles the Cavs shipped the league’s top assist man – point guard Andre Miller – to the Clippers in July. Later in the off-season they traded away the team’s leading scorer, Lamond Murray (16.6 ppg). In Cleveland Miles doesn’t have Quentin Richardson and Lamar Odom to share the ball with him, and doesn’t have Shaq, Kobe and a million other L.A. celebrities to overshadow him. The moment he arrived in town, he was it. Whether Miles liked it or not, he was already one of the biggest names in Cleveland pro sports, fitting in somewhere between the Browns’ Tim Couch and the Indians’ Jim Thome. A guy that famous isn’t allowed to be shy.

So he stepped onstage, smiled and waved to his fans and did a dance called “The Chickenhead.” Then he scooted offstage to watch the end of the show.

Miles managed to avoid the spotlight for the rest of the night, but that won’t happen in Cleveland this season. The trade transformed Miles from the sixth man on the up-and-coming Clippers to the centerpiece of the young-and-struggling Cavs. And the attention he receives will intensify as the season wears on, regardless of the team’s results. If they win he’ll receive much of the credit, and he’ll take a lot of the blame if they lose. The league’s superstars know the drill, but it’s a lot of pressure for somebody who, at the beginning of this season, had started only 27 regular season games.

And Miles loves it.

“I played a role in Clipperland,” he says. “I was the best defensive player. I passed the ball around but I didn’t have plays called for me. But now I’m in a position where I can show the world what I can really do. I’m here and (the Cavs) are looking for so much out of me. I’m looking to give so much to them.”

First, Miles must give fans a reason to come to Cavs games. If you looked around Gund Arena during a preseason game against the Utah Jazz, you could see plenty of stereotypical Cleveland sports fans: Heavyset middle-aged men with nachos in one hand and a brew in the other, faded Browns jerseys stretched tight over beer bellies. But you could also see plenty of empty seats. Gund Arena holds nearly 21,000 fans, but the Cavs averaged only 14,539 for home games last season.

After the third quarter of a close game – one that the Cavs would win 95-91 – a pair of teenage boys seated near the Cavs’ bench stood and grabbed their jackets. “Let’s go,” one kid said to the other.

“Yeah,” the friend replied. “Let’s go do something fun.”

The Cavs hope Miles can help combat that kind of fan apathy. That’s why Lucas was glad when Miles showed up at that Nelly concert. And that’s why he wasn’t upset that Miles spent the summer filming a movie in Vancouver instead of studying a playbook in Cleveland.

“I love it,” Lucas says. “It helps promote our team. The younger kids will want to see our team because of him.”

Of course, nothing promotes a team better than a winning record, and even with Miller and Murray the Cavs went 29-53 last season. They haven’t finished above .500 since 1998.

Not that anybody in Cleveland expects Miles to save the team on his own. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is healthy after missing 20 games last season with foot injuries. Swingman Ricky Davis averaged 22 points in the Cavs’ final 13 games last year. And teammates say rookie PG Dajuan Wagner has the skills and killer instinct to be the next Allen Iverson.

But Lucas knows that much of the Cavs’ success this season will depend on whether Miles can cash in on his vast potential. And in some ways, he already has.

He’s in the third year of an endorsement contract with the Jordan brand, and his breakaway dunks make him a regular on SportsCenter. His trademark gesture – tapping his forehead with his fists after a big play – is this century’s Ickey Shuffle, and last year Miles had the seventh-best selling jersey in the league.

After last season Miles was cast in a feature film called The Perfect Score. The movie – produced by Brian Robbins for MTV – is about a group of teens who break into the Princeton Testing Center and try to steal the answers to the upcoming SAT. Miles plays (surprise, surprise) a high school basketball star named Desmond Rhodes. Writers Jon Zack and Marc Hyman are big Clippers fans and Miles says they had him in mind when they developed Desmond’s character.

Entering his third season, Miles already is one of the NBA’s most popular players, but he has a tough time explaining why. “I don’t know how I sold that many jerseys,” he says. “It’s crazy. I guess (people) like what they see. I just be me. I don’t change for nobody in the world. I just play my game.”

Lucas knows Miles’ game has room to improve, and that despite his blossoming stardom Miles is still an NBA novice.

Miles was hailed as the second coming of Kevin Garnett when he entered the league in 2000: Six-foot-nine, long-armed and lean; a great defender who could run the floor and score. He declared for the NBA draft after his senior year at East St. Louis (Ill.) High School, where he averaged 22.1 points and 12.4 rebounds and was a McDonald’s All-American. The Clippers drafted him third overall.

But after two seasons in the league, Miles’ stats don’t match KG’s. He might have endorsements, movie roles and cameos at hip hop shows, but until this year Miles has been a part-time starter who averages 9.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

If Lucas has his way, Miles will be a movie star and an all-star before too long.

“I want him to be a basketball player without all the glitz and glamour,” Lucas says. “It’s great to have flair and (to be in) all the magazines, but be a basketball player. He’s doing it with his style of play, not his substance. He’s loaded with talent and he’s better than four dunks and a free throw.”

Lucas plans to play Miles at just about every position on the floor, and even let him run point with Davis and Wagner on the wings. “He’s showed us he can handle the basketball, so we can run some sets through him,” says Cavs’ assistant coach Keith Smart. “He has great presence, passes the ball well and has really good vision. But to play him at point guard full time would take away from his overall game. He fills up a stat sheet.”

Now that Miles is a starter Cavs’ coaches expect him to average 17 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game.

“That’s asking a whole lot for a guy who hasn’t been in that role since he’s been in the league, but that’s the ultimate goal to get to,” Lucas says. “He won’t ever be the guy who’s getting 28, 29 (ppg), not unless he really goes to work in the off-season. But he can get Lamar Odom-type numbers. Those are winning numbers.” Miles wants even more. He says he can put up 20, 10 boards and 7 assists, plus 2 blocks and 2 steals. As the preseason ended he wasn’t far from his targets. He averaged a team-high 18.4 points, 7.7 boards, 3.6 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.7 steals in the Cavs’ seven preseason games. He led the Cavs in scoring four times, and dropped 33 on Milwaukee in the preseason finale.

“Darius has a chance to be one of those rare breeds,” Lucas says. “But he’s going to have to work.”

Miles accepts that challenge. He has already impressed Lucas with his willingness to learn the details of the game, and he often watches game film on team buses and flights.

And even though Miles spent the summer making a movie, he never neglected his game. Before Miles accepted the movie role, he let producers know just what his priorities were.

“I told them I can’t quit my day job,” he says. “I told them I’d need a shooting coach because y’all are taking time away from my game.”

As a result, the movie’s producers made sure that no matter where Miles was, he always had a hoop and a place to lift weights. Sometimes they’d put up a basket near the set and Miles would shoot between scenes. When they filmed downtown, Miles would work out at the YMCA on his lunch break. Once, while shooting a scene in a forest, the movie crew flattened about 15 trees to clear space for Miles’ basket and his weights.

Shooting coach Buzz Braman, who has worked with Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace in the past, spent the summer with Miles in Vancouver. Every day Miles would shoot 1000 jumpers and 250 free throws, and every day Braman would tinker with his technique.

“He changed my shot a whole lot,” Miles says. “He helped me out.”

And Miles helped himself out by continuing his shooting regimen through the preseason. When the Cavs were doing two-a-days, Miles did four-a-days. He’d meet Lucas an hour before the first practice and shoot 500 jumpers, then he’d show up early for the second session and launch 500 more.

Miles also added weights to his off-season training routine. After playing his first two seasons at 205 pounds, Miles arrived in Cleveland weighing a solid 230. His opponents won’t mistake him for Ben Wallace, but they won’t push him around so easily, either.

“I worked out every day,” Miles says. “I bulked up and it’s paying off. These last couple of games when I jump and bump somebody, it’s not like I bump and I’m falling back. I bump and I stand my ground.”

And he can still cover ground, despite the extra muscle.

“I know I’m real fast to be my size,” Miles says. “And I knew if I put on some weight I maybe could slow myself down.”

Anybody who saw him chase down John Stockton during that preseason game against the Jazz knows Miles is just as fast as ever. Stockton made a steal at midcourt and raced away for a layup. But Miles ran him down, blocked his shot, then sprinted 94 feet to finish the play with a dunk.

But the Cavs still want Miles to improve other aspects of his defense. That night Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko repeatedly ran Miles through screens and drained long jumpers in his face.

“He has great anticipation one pass away,” says Smart, who is also the Cavs’ director of player development. “Now, when he’s two players away (he needs to be) more aware of what’s going on. That comes with time.”

Offensively, Smart says, Miles needs to realize that he’s not a Clipper anymore. “His first instinct right now is passing,” Smart says. “It’s good for young players to be unselfish, but he doesn’t quite understand that when we want to go to him, he needs to be the go-to guy. He’s a work in progress.”

Work and progress. Miles says he can handle them both. That’s why he arrives early for every practice. It’s why visits the weight room daily. And it’s why he looks at game film like an architect looks as blueprints: analytically. Looking for ways to get better.

“When it’s all said and done, I do the work,” Miles says. “And it always pays off.”

Copyright ©2002 SLAM
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