They say you are what you eat, but even if you weren't, a good part of Oliver Miller would still qualify as ham. "When fans taunt me," says Arkansas's cholester-All-America center, "I taunt them back."
The Kansas State fans who sent a pizza to his hotel room didn't faze Miller. Neither did the spectator at Texas who threw a Twinkie at him or the Baylor fan who used a boom with a hook to dangle a Styrofoam hot-dog container in front of him as he sat on the bench. Miller goes 6'9" and anywhere from 280 to 335 pounds, depending on the time of year, his unpredictable thyroid gland and whether or not his mother, Annie, has smoked up one of her beef briskets. "You give me a hot dog," he says, "and I'll just give it to a manager to put in my locker so I can eat it after the game."
Fans have called him Cheeseburger, Whale, Porky, Fat Boy and, when feeling charitable, the Big O. "I don't take it personally," Miller says. "It'll backfire on them, because it just makes me play harder. When they ask me if I want a cheeseburger, I tell them, 'Sure. Just hold the onions and cut the mayo and pickles.' "
Oliver Twist dared say, "Please, sir, I want some more." Oliver M. dispenses with the politesse and just helps himself. And to think that there was a time when, back home in Fort Worth, Annie Miller considered putting her son on vitamin supplements because he was so skinny. Now, says roommate Jason Griffin, "He'll have anything in a sandwich. Anything. From Hamburger Helper to spaghetti."
Lost in all of Miller's gustatory bravado is this simple fact: He's such a gifted athlete that he has a standing dessert order for the last laugh. He's improbably quick around the basket and has hands every bit as soft as his midsection. Play behind him, and he'll grind you down with his backside; try fronting him, and halfway through your journey around him you'll wind up with a keener appreciation for why man built the Panama Canal. Yet Miller flourishes outside the low post too. Last month at LSU he took Shaquille O'Neal out on the floor, converted five of his seven field goal attempts and passed for 12 assists while Razorback teammate Todd Day, operating in the area Miller had vacated on the block, sprang for 43.
Miller may appear to be a singular specimen, but he isn't. These days, college basketball players who deviate from the lean-and-wiry prototype are contributing to the game as never before. Some are roundish, some are simply wide-bodied, others are ain't-no-two-ways-about-it fat. "Basketball has become so physical that you almost have to have a widebody," says Sonny Smith, who brought Charles Barkley to Auburn in 1981 and complains that the team he currently coaches at Virginia Commonwealth should avoid sidewalk grates. In Hellenistic Greece, whichever army had the most elephants generally lost. In college hoops, particularly since Barkley ate his way through the game, whichever team has the most elephants generally wins.
Great Moments in Fat-Guy History, 1983.
Frustrated by the eating habits of Mel (Dinner Bell) Turpin, Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall assigns a team manager to round-the-clock surveillance of his 6'11", 255-pound center to make sure Turpin doesn't snack.
Barkley has turned out to be drum major for a parade of endomorphs. Such former collegiate specimens as Orlando Graham (Auburn-Montgomery), Kevin Duckworth (Eastern Illinois), Jeff Moore (Auburn), Ricky Butler (UC Irvine), Bam Bam Rainey (Middle Tennessee State and Georgia) and Victor Alexander (Iowa State) have given way to Miller and his contemporaries. Among those are chunky or hunky fellows like Jamal Mashburn of Kentucky, Byron Houston of Oklahoma State, Elmore Spencer of UNLV, Gary Alexander of South Florida, Carlos Groves of Tennessee, Murray State's Popeye Jones, Don Reid of Georgetown, Johnny Walker of Mississippi State and Darren Morningstar of Pittsburgh.
As Barkley's old college coach points out, this trend is largely the by-product of the no-autopsy, no-foul form the college game has taken of late (SI, Nov. 25). The three-point shot has had its effect too, spreading defenses and leaving the ample-of-girth a wide, wide berth near the basket in which to operate. But more than anything else, credit is due the Round Mound of Rebound, whose impact has been twofold.
First, Barkley—who weighed as much as 278 pounds as a player at Auburn but now struts a svelte, muscular 253-pound physique—is a role model. "I know there were doubters in his case, just like there were in mine," says Jones. "And Charles remains an inspiration, because he was so big in college and lost the weight for the pros. He realized the sky was the limit if he really worked at it."
Second, Barkley's success prompted a generation of recruiters to take a chance on portly schoolboys. "Before Barkley, not many 6'5", 225-pounders were given a shot," says Georgia coach Hugh Durham. "Coaches thought they were too small to be effective rebounders. Now they say, 'Well, Barkley did it. Maybe this guy can too.' "
And, recruiters being recruiters, they're forever throwing nervous side-glances at each other. Thus, says Auburn coach Tommy Joe Eagles, "when one school gets a widebody, people have got to recruit one to play against him." And so on and so on and so on—a binge, you might call it.
Great Moments in Fat-Guy History, 1984.
Minutes before Auburn is to play Tennessee in Knoxville, a Domino's deliveryman dispatched by a witty Volunteer fan finds Barkley in the Tiger layup line and offers to take his pizza order. As Miller knows, variations on this seminal prank are now commonplace.
"Body type should not be how you're judged as a player," says Barkley. "If you can play, you can play; if you can't, you can't. No matter how tall, short, skinny or fat someone is, you can't measure athletic ability or a person's heart."
Utah lost only four games last season with 6'8", 265-pound Walter Watts in the middle. Virtually everyone but Watts returned this season, and at week's end the Utes had already stumbled into the loss column five times. "There was a mind-set Walt had, a willingness to use his body," Utah coach Rick Majerus says ruefully. "He was an enforcer with heart. Sure, guys 6'8" and 200 can look mean, but with 65 more pounds, you can be mean."
Majerus is currently eyeing a prospect in Indiana. "He's 6'7" and 295," he says, "and Number One on his high school tennis team."
A detail like that puts a glint in a coach's eye. It suggests that a recruit might prove to be an athletic widebody, not an immobile tub of lard. But there are no guarantees. "It takes more than being 6'5" and 230-plus," says Durham. "You've got to have skill."
Those with skill fall into various categories. There are:
•The Formerly Fat. That's Reginald Slater of Wyoming; call him Reggie at your peril. And don't call him fat, because this 6'7", 253-pound forward isn't—and hasn't been since his sophomore year back at Houston's Kashmere High School, where he was a chunky trumpet player in the band until a coach jawboned him into going out for basketball. As of Sunday night he was pulling down nearly 11 rebounds a game, placing him among the top 15 in the nation. "You can't get much stronger than an onion," says his coach, Benny Dees, "and he's stronger than six rows of 'em."
•The Carry-It-Well Large. Like Groves, Mashburn and other quick-jumping hefties, Clarence Weatherspoon (6'7", 240) of Southern Mississippi rebounds by using the convex lines of his body to clear himself some space in a crowd. While the Puerto Rican nationals were sticking a fork in his Pan Am Games teammates last August, Spoon was the one guy who went body to body with the more physically mature opponents.
•The Argument-Starting Big. After encountering Wake Forest's 6'7", 235-pound Rodney Rogers in the ACC/Big East Challenge Series last December, the Connecticut Huskies must have felt unworthy of their nickname. Two UConn freshmen, Richie Ashmeade and Brian Fair, were impressed, but they couldn't agree on exactly how impressed.
"He takes up a lot of room," said Ashmeade. "He's like a split-level home."
"No, he's more like a small town," said Fair.
"No, he's more like a state," said Ashmeade. "Like Rhode Island."
•The Cartoon-Character Corpulent. Ronald Jones, the man they call Popeye, leads the nation in rebounding with 14.4 a game. He carried 310 pounds on his 6'8" frame when he arrived at Murray State three seasons ago. Lasorda-like, he pared off 50 with Ultra Slim-Fast and still keeps a "before" picture in his locker as inspiration. Although this season his weight is up 10 pounds, he's still an avid proselytizer for The Popeye Diet, the secrets of which he shares here:
On pizza forgo sausage and pepperoni in favor of "more vegetarian types of things," he says. At Wendy's go for a single hamburger with lettuce and tomato "instead of getting a double- or triple-cheeseburger. Cheese is fattening." Drink diet soda instead of regular, skim milk instead of whole, and swear off french fries altogether. "I don't buy 'em," says Popeye. "What I do is, I see someone else buy 'em, and I eat a couple of theirs."
He makes no mention of spinach.
•The Nouveau Fat. Acie Earl, Iowa's 6'10" center, spent his first two seasons being harangued on the road by Big Ten fans. "Never about being fat," he says. No—just for his haircut, his 18E shoe size, his all-around gangliness and his faint resemblance to Manute Bol. That was before this season, during which Earl has topped out at 250 pounds, nearly 35 more than he weighed as a senior in high school. Earl says he and his Hawkeye teammates went absolutely zaftig on coach Tom Davis during a December road trip to Florida, and ever since then Davis has required them to weigh in daily. "Chips are my downfall," Earl says. "Tortilla chips and picante salsa. I try to get my girlfriend not to buy them, but if they're there. I'll eat them."
•The Broad-by-Local-Tradition. Maybe it's a result of all that fried food, but the South produces more than its share of widebodies. Ground zero for such creatures is Auburn, Ala., also known as the Loveliest Village of the Plain, soon to be known as the Loveliest Village of the Extra Cheese and Pepperoni. With six regular-season games yet to play, 6'5", 230-pound sophomore Aaron Swinson has already thrown down 46 dunks. Six-foot-six-inch, 240-pound juco transfer Aubrey Wiley was hauling down 11.7 rebounds a game before breaking his foot on Jan. 5, more than Sir Charles averaged as a freshman. Not to worry: Wiley's injury has given 6'6", 260-pound freshman Willie Jones, an all-state defensive tackle in high school, a chance to shine on the hardwood. "If we only played like we ate," says Eagles, who gives his players the run of a buffet table for pregame meals, "we'd win the conference."
•The Baby Fat. Seton Hall's Luther Wright, who weighed 360 pounds last spring, did nothing through his first six Big East games. Only late last month, when he shot 11 for 17 over consecutive outings against Boston College, St. John's and Ohio State, did the 7'2" freshman—he makes teammates Darrell Mims (6'8", 270 pounds) and Jerry Walker (6'7", 240 pounds) look positively svelte—start living half as large as he is. Wright finally seems to be comfortable with both his new body (285 pounds) and his role as a North Jersey cult hero. When he makes a block or plucks a rebound, Seton Hall students hold placards aloft—with an L followed by a string of U's.
•The Feckless Fat. Jarrad Smith is a 6'11", 315-pound, XXXXL-jersey-wearing freshman at Morgan State, and Matt Burrell is a 6'7", 270-pound junior college transfer. Smith's nickname in high school was The Most; Burrell's could just as well have been Pretty Darn Much. Alas, they are monuments—literally, it would seem—to the maxim that bulk alone won't get the job done. The Bears are a pitiful 3-19.
•The Learned-Their-Lesson Large. Rodney Camper, a 6'5", 230-pound senior at NAIA Biola College, weighed 310 pounds as a senior at Long Beach (Calif.) Millikan High and rode the bench. Poor bench. In six months at Long Beach City College he dropped 40 pounds and has had nothing but good things happen to him since coming to Biola four years ago. "I hold my own against Division I guys during the summer," says Camper, who averages 13.2 points and seven 'bounds for the 22-3 Eagles.
•The Require-a-Zoning-Variance Fat. You've heard of Twin Towers in various incarnations. Meet Georgia Southern's Twin Strip Malls: Shawn Brown, a 6'5", 253-pound freshman, and D'Andre Goggans, a 6'6", 256-pound redshirt. They have all the tools, as they say—a refrigerator and a hot plate in the dorm room they share. Their coach, Frank Kerns, sees the potential rewards in a Brown or a Goggans but is wary of their ilk too. "Even if they have good basketball skills, you have to make sure kids like that play with intensity," he says. "A lot just don't do it."
Hold on, Coach. That sounds like the old stereotype—fat and lazy. Don't tell it to Brown, who, while running a wind sprint during preseason drills, feared he wouldn't finish within the prescribed time and threw himself over the end line. Indeed, don't tell it to the put-upon floorboards at GSU's Hanner Fieldhouse.
Great Moments in Fat-Guy History, 1985.
The Memphis State basketball team pays a visit to Sea World in San Diego while in town for a holiday tournament. Among the Tigers making the trip is 6'7", 255-pound Marvin Alexander, who had to have the seams of his uniform trunks let out before he could slip them on. A number of teammates remarked upon the uncanny resemblance between Alexander and Shamu the Killer Whale. Later they simply called him Tank.
Great Moments in Fat-Guy History, 1987.
The Georgia Bureau of Weights and Measures appears at Georgia Tech's first practice each year for the ritual recording of the vital statistics of every player. Freshman Dennis Scott, who arrived in Atlanta with the nickname Legs 'n' Butt, is chagrined to find that, despite having dieted all summer, he still tips the scales at 255—not unreasonable for a banger, but altogether too much for a 6'7" shooting guard. Is it possible that he didn't diet all summer? No, but Scott does know how to account for the 10-to 15-pound discrepancy between what he thinks he weighs and what the scale says. "Shoes and socks," he says.
For a while Scott had to wear a sort of girdle under his trunks to keep his thighs from chafing when he ran. Yet he eventually slimmed down, led Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four and found an NBA home with the Orlando Magic. Duckworth, who has been an All-Star in Portland, and Victor Alexander, who has started as a rookie for Golden State, also succeeded in emulating Barkley and controlling their weight and enhancing their bankbooks. For many others, however, a waist is a terrible thing to mind. Turpin first ate himself out of the NBA, then out of European ball. Watts ballooned to nearly 300 pounds within months of the end of last season and flunked his tryouts with the Jazz and the Warriors.
No one thought of John Williams as overweight when he played at LSU between 1984 and 1986, but rather as a Los Angeles schoolyard wizard. After joining the Bullets, he has, alas, spent the last two off-seasons incommunicado and swelling to as much as 305 pounds. When he showed up after training camp last fall, it was clear he hadn't been summering at La Costa. The Bullets have since suspended him indefinitely without pay, and he has sat out all of this season.
Great Moments in Fat-Guy History, 1991.
In Dallas for Spud Webb's charity fundraiser, Barkley spots Oliver Miller in an arena hallway. He flashes a smile, extends his hand and says, "What's up, big fella?"
Miller gets giddy just recalling the moment. "He stopped me," says Miller. "I was, like, dazed. I mean, he said 'What's up?" like we'd been friends for a while! We went out to a club later that night and talked."
About local cuisine, perchance? Big-men's boutiques in NBA cities? The music of Barry White?
"Nah," says Miller. "We talked mainly about women."
Miller, a senior, should probably lose another 20 pounds before the NBA draft in June, but Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson and his staff are more concerned with slimming down Miller's likely replacement, 6'9" Dwight (Fat Flight) Stewart, the juco transfer and academic sit-out who showed up in Fayetteville last fall weighing 320 pounds. Besides, Miller has an awfully light heart for so heavy a guy. "If I could lose 20 pounds," he says with a faraway look in his eye, "I'd be quicker. I could get up and down the floor better. I'd be a better shot-blocker. And I could fill the lane on the break."
There's nothing a big man wants to do more than fill the lane on the break. Isn't that incentive enough?
"Losing weight would help all parts of my game," he says. "Believe me, I know that. But I've been playing with my [extra] weight all my life, and I do pretty well. If the coach puts me out there, I'll do the things he wants me to do."
And if the coach doesn't put him out there, and you happen to be sitting in the front row....
That's no onions, no pickles, and hold the mayo, please.
With Barkley having parlayed heft into wealth, his flabby followers pray for similiar success.
Though still a fleshy frosh, Wright has shed 75 pounds of baby fat and become a hero at the Hall.
Having Ultra Slim-Fasted, Jones keeps a cautionary image of his plumper self in his locker.
You can call him Cheeseburger or Whale or Porky, Miller says. Just don't forget to hold the onions.