As they say on TV, welcome to Miller time. Cheryl Miller, 18, the University of Southern California's spectacular 6'2" freshman wing, made her college debut last Sunday in a 105-62 win over Pepperdine. As a high school senior she was the most highly recruited woman athlete ever. Now she can concentrate on becoming the best woman basketball player ever. She already possesses the deftness and charisma of a Nancy Lieberman, the virtuosity in fundamentals of an Ann Meyers, and the speed and athleticism of a Lynette Woodard—players who made All-America 11 times among them. To top off her talents, Miller has done what almost certainly no other woman player has ever accomplished in a formal game. She has dunked.
Last August, after nearly six months of deliberation, Miller chose USC over more than 250 schools. Her presence in an already powerful lineup has made the Trojans a heavy favorite to win this season's NCAA women's title. "Cheryl is the difference between USC being in the Top 10 and being the top team," says UCLA Coach Billie Moore. "Her skills at this stage are probably further along than those of any other player to come out of high school."
In four seasons at Riverside (Calif.) Polytechnic High, Miller led the Bears to a 132-4 record, California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section 4A titles in 1980, '81 and '82 and to the first CIF statewide 4A championship last year. She holds the CIF records for most points in a career (3,405), a season (1,156) and a game (105). Her 37.5-point average as a junior is also a record. She hit her 105 points last January in a 179-15 win over Norte Vista High, surpassing her previous high of 77, set the season before against the same team.
But that scoring mark wasn't her most memorable accomplishment; two of those 105 points came on a one-handed breakaway dunk. That gave her two dunks in her career—the other was also against Norte Vista. Those two dunks have made her a watershed figure in the history of the women's game. As far as anyone knows, Miller is the only woman ever to jam in organized competition. So she's much more than a basketball star—she's an attraction, something women's college hoops has sorely needed since the colorful Lieberman departed in 1980.
"When I dunk, it's like I'm on Cloud 15," Miller says with a smile as bright as her future. "But I can't do it every time out. I don't have it down pat yet. The conditions have to be just right, the game situation, the condition of the floor. But I know I can do it if my timing is right."
Her timing is perfect for the Trojans. Last season, USC won 18 straight games over one span and had a 23-4 record, the best in the history of women's basketball at the school. But the Trojans slumped during the second half of the season, losing three of their final six Western Collegiate Athletic Association games. Then, after two wins in the first two rounds of the NCAA Mideast Regional, USC lost in triple-overtime to Tennessee in the regional final.
"We were competitive," says Coach Linda Sharp. "But when we'd go up against teams like Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, we always seemed to be one player short. But now we have Cheryl. She's the finest triple-threat player I've ever seen." As dangerous an offensive player as Miller is—she's particularly adept on the offensive boards—she's prouder of her defense. "I like to intimidate my opponent," she says. "When I shut down someone who's scoring 20 or 30 points a game, that's a compliment to my defense."
That's as close as Miller will come to complimenting herself. She's mature beyond her 18 years and has already learned how to enhance her image by saying the right things to the media. Example: Though others may see her as a significant figure in the history of women's basketball, she says, "I don't consider myself a superstar." Her teammates, however, think otherwise. "She can do it all," says Paula McGee, the Trojans' leading scorer last year and one half of a dynamite twin-sister act. "She has an eagerness to get going, to see what college basketball is all about. She wants to see if she's the Cheryl Miller she thinks she is, or perhaps the player other people think she is."
Miller, who comes from an athletically inclined family of five children, received much of her early training at home. The Millers' athletic heritage runs deep. The father, Saul, a 6'5" retired Air Force chief master sergeant, was an all-state high school forward in Memphis and played three years at Memphis' LeMoyne-Owen College before enlisting in 1951. The Millers' oldest son, Saul Jr., 26, played basketball for a season at Ramona High and is now a saxophone soloist with the 15th Air Force band at nearby March Air Force Base. Darrell, 23, an outfielder in the California chain, earned All-America honors in baseball at Cal Poly Pomona after rejecting several football scholarship offers, including one to USC. Reggie, 17, is a highly regarded forward at Riverside Poly, while Tammy, 14, hopes to begin her athletic career as a volleyball player next year, when she's a sophomore.
Saul has played an important role in his children's athletic development. "Their father was responsible for their being athletes," says Tim Mead, who works in the Angels front office and knows the family. "He's really been their coach as well as their father. Whichever sport they decided to concentrate on, he concentrated on it too. If Cheryl needed to practice her hook shot, he'd be out there watching her. If Darrell needed someone to go out there and throw him bad-hop ground balls, his father would be out there doing it."
Saul has been more than a coach and fan. After Cheryl sprained her right ankle her freshman year in high school, the same ankle she had broken a few months before and strained three weeks ago, the family doctor advised that she be taped before playing. "Cheryl had never been taped before," says Saul. "Our doctor told us that if she opened her eyes and even looked at a ball, she was to be taped. A relative was visiting who was studying sports medicine at the University of Arkansas. I told him I wanted to learn the right way to do it. Pretty soon I was taping the whole team."
There was some grumbling that Saul is so protective of his daughter that he choreographed the entire course of her recruitment. "He took a lot of flak," says Cheryl. "A lot of people who were criticizing my father didn't know what he's really like. All he was doing was making sure that no one took advantage of me."
It wasn't until Aug. 12, 25 days before the start of the fall term, that Miller announced she intended to play for USC. Sharp, normally as calm and businesslike as they come, sweated it out with the other finalists, the coaches of Louisiana Tech, UCLA, Tennessee and Kansas. She got the good news from Ted Dawson, a local sportscaster.
"When Ted called me, the first thing he said was, 'Linda, I've got some bad news for you.' I felt my heart skip," Sharp says. "I thought we'd lost her. Then he said, 'You're going to have to put up with a superstar for the next four years.' That was a mean thing to do."
Superstar is right, but truth be told, the Trojans wouldn't have done too badly without Miller. With nine players, including six of the top seven, back from last season's team, Southern Cal would have had a legitimate shot at the national championship anyway. Foremost among the holdovers are the glamorous McGee twins, Pam and Paula, who averaged 39.8 points (19.6 for Pam, 20.2 for Paula) and 21.9 rebounds (11.6, 10.3) between them last year and, with Miller, should form USC's starting frontcourt.
Paula spent the summer playing center for the U.S. team that came in second in the Jones Cup Tournament in Taiwan and has become an even more formidable inside player. Pam, whose poor defense last season would have made El Cordobes stand up and shout olé!, should now be a force at both ends of the court. And then there's 6-foot sophomore Tracy Longo, the daughter of a 1961 UCLA alumnus. When Tracy graduated from high school, her father, Tony, gave her a Ford Mustang and a license plate inscribed TRAITOR. Longo can fill in at any frontcourt position.
The only question is: Who will get the Trojan fast break off and running? Thera Smith, USC's alltime assist leader, has graduated, so Sharp is counting on a slick freshman, Rhonda Windham, from the nearby suburb of the Bronx. Windham is lightning quick and a dangerous open-court passer, but at 5'5" she might be swallowed up by the increasing number of guards who can match her stride for stride and more than match her inch for inch. "I'm not worried about her size," says Sharp. "If she were 5'9", she'd be playing above the rim."
USC is loaded at the second-guard spot. Senior Kathy Doyle, a steady player who always seems to do the right thing, should start alongside Windham. If Windham finds the adjustment to the college game difficult, Doyle will move to the point, where her size (5'11"), scoring ability (11 points per game in 1981-82) and savvy should offset her lack of speed. That would bring Cynthia Cooper, a 14.6 point scorer and a blazing end-to-end player, off the bench.
This embarrassment of riches could be just a plain old embarrassment if the Trojans don't win an NCAA title in the two seasons Miller and the McGees play together. "I really don't think it's fair that that's being said about us," says Sharp. "We've never had a superstar, someone to attract attention." Sharp wants skeptics to give the Trojans a year to jell. After all, Miller scored only 11 points against Pepperdine. But as Billie Moore says, "Some teams are so good they don't have to jell."
PETER READ MILLER
THE TOP 10
1. SOUTHERN CAL
3. LOUISIANA TECH
4. OLD DOMINION
7. LONG BEACH STATE
9. CHEYNEY STATE
10. KANSAS STATE