Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Feb. 24, 2006.
It’s the body. It has to be the body. Paul Miller is 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. And everyone knows 6-10, 250 screams: “I’m a really mean and tough man.’’
But if there is one thing people should have learned about Miller during his five years as a Shocker basketball player – a career that ends its home portion Saturday against Illinois State – it’s that he isn’t really mean or really tough.
In fact, when Miller arrived in Wichita in 2001 to play basketball and baseball, there wasn’t a mean or tough bone in his body.
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Now there is one, in his left little toe.
Miller just isn’t mean. He doesn’t growl. And his gentle nature has driven some Shocker fans bonkers.
But there’s a simple explanation: He was raised too well.
“Wrong behavior demands consequences,” said Paul’s father, Mike.
Those four words resonated within the Miller household in Jefferson City, Mo. Paul heard them. Older brother Jeremiah heard them. Younger sister Kristin heard them.
Not that they were perfect kids. Paul and Jeremiah, two years apart, were especially rambunctious, as boys will be.
But their misbehavior was usually mild, stopping short of the requiring the “consequences” their father spoke of.
FROZEN IN TIME
It was a cold, winter day with lots of snow on the ground near the Miller home on a plot of land near Jefferson City.
The ponds surrounding the property were frozen as the Miller boys went sleigh riding with one explicit warning from their dad - do not go near the ponds.
Jeremiah was around 12 at the time; Paul 10. They were supposed to be home by a certain time, and they weren’t.
So Mike Miller went looking for them. He followed their tracks as they wound through the woods. Then they started leading toward a frozen pond, right up to the water’s bank.
Mike knew if his boys fell through the ice and into the frigid water, they could die.
He was worried, and he was mad. When he finally found the boys, who were fine, they knew there would be “consequences.”
“That probably was as upset as I’ve seen him when we were younger,” Paul said. “We were thinking it was something he was never gonna know. But you do leave tracks in the snow.”
Jeremiah Miller, a WSU grad who is a wildlife biologist in St. Louis, says the small, red plastic shovel his dad used to swat the boys made quite a mark – literally and figuratively.
“I’m sure Paul was in tears, and I know I was,” Jeremiah said.
It’s not that Mike Miller is a red plastic shovel-wielding tyrant, but he made it abundantly clear that lines could not be crossed, and frozen ponds could not be walked on. A lesson for Paul in obedience.
“As the father of a daughter, Paul is the kind of kid you want your daughter to bring home to meet mom and dad,” Wichita State assistant coach Tad Boyle said.
Yet in the next sentence, Boyle referred to Miller as a beast, a verb that seems to target Miller’s body more than his demeanor.
“There’s definitely a competitive streak that has come out in Paul,” Boyle said. “I think it’s just taken time. You saw early in his career where something had to provoke it. For the last year and a half, I think it’s something he has brought to the floor with him.”
A RARE FOUL MOOD
Miller plays center, the most physical position on the basketball court. He bangs and tussles with big-bodied players. He has worked on getting stronger, quicker and maybe just a tad meaner.
Dish it out, Miller will dish it back. If he can get to the rim for a dunk, he might add a bit of attitude at the end.
During the Shockers’ big home win over Creighton on Feb. 14, Miller was even assessed the second technical foul of his career after he got a personal foul and slammed the basketball to the floor.
It was as close as he’s been to walking on a frozen pond since that winter day years ago.
Miller’s first technical came when he was in high school. A referee ruled he hung on to the rim too long after missing a dunk.
“It was ludicrous,” Miller said. “I shouldn’t even count it.”
He said he was guilty as charged for the second technical, allowing his emotions to get the better of him.
“I let my team down,” he said.
Miller is all about team. He played mostly baseball and soccer as a child. It wasn’t until some neighbors noticed that he was growing like a weed that they thought to invite him to suit up for a basketball tournament near Jefferson City.
“I didn’t know what a zone defense was, I didn’t even know how to line up for a free throw,” Miller said. “Well, I guess I knew how to do it, but I had never done it.”
Those matters were overlooked by his coaches, who liked having a tall kid on the team.
Meanwhile, Miller remembers specifically when he began to think basketball was his sport.
It was in that tournament, in either the first or second game he played. He put up a shot and missed. He reached over everyone else for the rebound and shot gain. Missed, rebounded, shot again. Missed. Rebounded. And finally made his shot.
“Nobody could get the ball away from me,” he said.
He didn’t need to be mean. Or tough. He just needed to be tall.
AMONG OTHER TREES
Miller led Blair Oaks High to a Class 2A Missouri championship, then arrived at WSU and began to see his opponents eye to eye. It started in practice against former Shocker Troy Mack.
“I was just happy when I could score a basket against him,” said Miller, whose freshman season was cut short because of a broken foot.
But that meant Miller would be around for four more seasons. And he’s the only one of the recruiting class that helped turn around the fortunes of Shocker basketball able to bask in the glory of a Missouri Valley Conference championship.
The others – Rob Kampman, Jamar Howard and Randy Burns – graduated last year.
“Those guys will be my friends for the rest of my life,” Miller said. “I love those guys. But there’s something about this team – it’s hard to explain. Whether it’s making plays or doing what Coach (Mark) Turgeon asks us to do, that’s what this team is good at doing.”
Obedience. Maybe it’s Miller leading by example, which is the way he chooses to lead.
He has never been a rah-rah guy. He doesn’t play with a lot of emotion, though there is emotion rushing through him.
He has heard the complaints of fans who want him to bare his fangs more often.
“The way I look at it, if people didn’t think I was capable, they wouldn’t be saying some of the stuff they say,” Miller said. “To have people care enough to scrutinize me, that means they expect a lot out of me. So I’ve had to push myself and try to get more out of myself. I’ve never been satisfied.”
Miller still has ups and downs. Sometimes he’s not quick enough to guard someone. Sometimes he’s unable to get himself free from a double-team.
He’s not a perfect player. But his skills are immense and could easily make him an All-MVC pick this season. He’s the only senior starter on a champion ship team.
When he is introduced Saturday, before his final home game, more than 10,000 fans will rise in unison and give Miller a send-off for the ages.
He never did acquire the mean streak some of them wanted. And he’s a better man for it.