Living a Dream: Miller's Book Details Final Year in Tar Heel Blue
He was called "the little guy from Charlotte," too small and too slow to play Division I basketball, much less play for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
But all Wes Miller ever wanted to do was play basketball in the ACC. So with courage and toughness, and a desire to work harder than anyone else, Miller made his dream come true.
Five years ago, he walked on the court at UNC for the first time, looked down at his practice jersey and said, "It's real. I'm here. I'm playing for the Tar Heels." Last March, No. 22 walked off the court for the last time wearing Carolina blue.
"I played basketball at North Carolina," Miller said. "I realize how fortunate I am. Just having the chance to be a part of this has gone beyond my wildest dreams."
On Thursday, March 13, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, Miller will share his experiences on and off the court during his final year in Chapel Hill, chronicled in his book, "The Road to Blue Heaven: An Insider's Diary of North Carolina's 2007 Basketball Season."
"We're constantly bombarded with stories of athletes whose priorities are misplaced," says Bobbie Bicket, owner of The Country Bookshop. "It is a pleasure and privilege to meet a young man who embodies the finest qualities we could hope for in an athlete and in a person."
Intensity, dedication, competitiveness, and a great big heart are what Tar Heel Coach Roy Williams calls "Wes Miller qualities" -- qualities he would love for every player he coaches to have.
Miller's father, Ken, who played baseball for Wake Forest, started taking him to the ACC Tournament as a babe in arms.
"I had to overcome 18 years of brainwashing to come play at Carolina," Miller says with a laugh. "Going to these games as a kid is one of the things that inspired me to want to work at the game."
Miller would practice for hours at a time, even in the coldest weather, throwing 500 balls a day from the 3-point arc drawn on his driveway. When he was in the eighth grade, he announced to his mother he would one day play Division I basketball.
"I'd say are you sure about this," she recalls. "You do know I'm only 5'4" and your dad's 5'10", don't you?"
Miller, who grew to a diminutive 5'11", attended Greensboro Day and Charlotte Country Day. Greensboro coach Freddy Johnson said he was a "kid who knew what he wanted to do and he made all the sacrifices to do it. He worked extremely hard to get there. A lot of people didn't think he could do it."
Miller continued pursuing his dream as a three-year starter and captain at New Hampton Preparatory School, N.H., where he helped lead his team to the league championship. Matt Doherty, then UNC's coach, saw him in action and told him he could walk on at UNC.
"I wanted to play," Miller says. "I was worried that if I came here, I'd never play and that, if I wasn't on scholarship, I'd be looked at differently and would feel differently about being here."
Instead, he accepted a scholarship to James Madison for 2002-03. Opportunity doesn't often knock twice, but in the spring of 2003, Miller met with UNC's new coach Roy Williams who offered him the same deal -- no guarantee of a scholarship or playing time. He simply assured him if he worked hard, he'd be on the team.
Miller arrived in Chapel Hill in the fall of 2003 where he sat out a year because of NCAA transfer rules; but he improved his game as "practice fodder," guarding first-round 2005 NBA draft pick Raymond Felton. In his sophomore year, Miller played as a walk-on in 24 games, and was a member of the 2005 NCAA Tournament team, and won UNC's Rick Sharp Award, given to the player who contributed the most in practice and behind the scenes.
The next year, after Carolina lost its top seven scorers to the NBA, he was offered a scholarship and moved into the starting lineup. Miller "pushed himself probably as close to the max as anybody I've coached in a long, long time," said Coach Williams.
His effort paid off. He won the Carmichael Cobb Award (2005-06 defensive player of the year) and the Roy Roberson Award (most improved player). He led the Tar Heels with nine defensive player-of-the-game awards and 64 three-point field goals. He won Carolina's defensive player of the game eight times in ACC action.
In his senior year, Miller willingly gave up his scholarship to make room for the "talented six-pack of freshmen," and accepted a move back to walk-on status. Williams believes such selfless behavior is the hallmark of championship teams.
"On any team, it's about everybody doing what's best for the team, not the individual," Miller said.
"Wes is one of the hardest workers I've ever been around as an assistant coach, a head coach or a high school coach," Williams said. "Even though someone else is in that starting position, he's still working just as hard. There has never been any doubt about his goals or his work ethic."
In his final year at UNC, co-captain Miller was "like the big brother" of his team.
"There are a lot of simple things you learn being in this program, but you need someone to teach them to you," he said. "For me this year is about being able to set an example."
"Wes is that older guy everybody looks up to," said sophomore Danny Green. "With the way he works and his intensity, he's been a natural leader for us. People see how hard he works and it makes other people want to follow."
"The key to becoming a respected veteran," Miller says, "lies in developing a measure of contagious tenacity" and embracing what he believes to be the single greatest component of leadership: Sacrifice.
For information about the "Meet the Author" event, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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