BOSTON – Reggie Miller had come to his old friend’s neighborhood gym in the Malibu Hills, searching for a voice to trust, an honest assessment on this most tantalizing proposition. The Boston Celtics had asked Miller to come out of a two-year retirement in the summer of 2007 and chase a championship with Kevin Garnett(notes), Paul Pierce(notes) and Ray Allen(notes). The shots dropped out of the sky at the Calabasas Community Center, out of all those years past, and it barely mattered that Miller was the ungodly age of 42.
“My suggestion to him was, ‘Go for it,’ ” his old Pacers point guard, Mark Jackson, says now. “He had it in his tank to play again.”
Eventually, Allen would’ve passed Miller’s 3-point record, but Miller could’ve created a greater gulf in the 2007-08 season. Over and over, Miller believed he was close to picking up the phone, calling Boston general manager Danny Ainge and telling him he wanted to do it. He had gone into the gym long and hard that summer and tried to get back into shape to ultimately make the call on the comeback. Here was an old boxer returning to the heavy bag to see what was left in those legs, in that flick of a wrist.
With the way he was working, with the glowing reports from Garnett, Miller’s workout partner in Malibu, Ainge had come to believe Miller was destined to play for the Celtics.
“I thought there was a good chance he was coming to come play for us,” Ainge says. “He was going hard at it with two-a-days and really working to make it happen. We were very serious. …We wanted him.”
Looking back, Miller has never been clear on the reason he turned down the job offer – except that he had come to the cusp of accepting it. Even now, Ainge isn’t sure. Miller declined to discuss it, but Jackson never believed it was because Miller couldn’t still play, or that the desire was gone.
“It was not wanting to wear another uniform, and not wanting to feel like somebody else got him a ring,” Jackson says.
To his core, Miller had such deep love and loyalty to those 18 years with the Indiana Pacers. The Celtics hadn’t been the first team to offer him a chance to return to the NBA. Mark Cuban called him to play with Dirk Nowitzki(notes). Cleveland Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry wanted him to play with LeBron James(notes). To Miller, it never felt right for his legacy. He did the rare thing: He retired when he was still an outstanding player, and he couldn’t be lured back when Mark Jackson and Garnett were working out with him, telling him he still could make a difference.
“I knew Reggie wouldn’t do it unless he felt he could still contribute,” Ainge says. “But you know, I think Reggie was probably wise in turning it down. A lot of players hang on too long and start playing against the guys of the next generation and they end up just remembering the 42-year-old Reggie Miller – and not the guy who was one of the best players in the game for almost two decades.”
The Celtics never did get Miller, but they ended up with his worthy heir: Allen. He’s one 3-pointer short of tying the record of 2,560, and it could come on the immense stage of a Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers game on Thursday night at the Boston Garden. Miller will be courtside, calling the game on cable television. Ainge marvels over Allen, over the way he’s playing his best basketball as a Celtic beyond his 35th birthday. “He’s still the Ray of when he first got here, and maybe even better than his first season because he was coming off ankle surgery,” Ainge says.
He isn’t simply running to the 3-point line, catching and shooting. He’s scoring every way possible, and this doesn’t happen with NBA shooting guards at such an advanced age. Allen will play well into his late 30s barring a major injury, but that NBA title in ’08 probably means he’ll never be faced with the fortysomething temptations of Miller to come out of retirement and keep shooting.
After all those years in Milwaukee and Seattle, Boston has represented so much for Allen’s career. Here, he won a title. He made himself an undeniable Hall of Famer. He’ll be remembered as a Celtic, and no one would’ve thought that when the Big Three was thrown together in 2007. Who knows how Miller would’ve impacted those Celtics in that season, how the chemistry would’ve been affected. Miller stayed away, kept pure his Pacers legacy, and now he comes to the Garden to watch Allen pass his record.
“I know he could’ve helped,” Jackson says of Miller. “And I don’t think he would’ve been stealing a ring. He would’ve contributed.”
Whatever the case, Reggie Miller will still have to stop, take a peek to the rafters and see that 17th championship banner dangling and privately ask himself: What if?