MATTHEW MORIARTY: Further Down the Road to Blue Heaven
There was a time when Wes Miller might have been most famous for his spot-on Roy Williams impression.
Miller had a gray wig he would wear, and he had all the mannerisms down, even the walk that sometimes looks like one hip is higher than the other.
These days, Miller is a former UNC basketball player and an author. He hopes to get into college coaching next year. He was in Southern Pines last week to sign copies of his book "The Road to Blue Heaven" at the Country Bookshop.
Miller kept a diary during last year's season and turned it into the book with the help of TarHeelBlue.com's Adam Lucas.
"It was a really nice thing to do," Miller said. "It really helped me not take (the season) for granted."
He was willing to sit down with me for a brief interview after the book-signing. Full disclosure: I'm a huge Carolina fan. I figured I could squeeze the interview in during the signing, but I was way off. It was a mob scene.
I should have known. Miller is one of the more beloved Tar Heels in recent memory. He used heart and determination to turn himself into a significant contributor to a 2006 team that defied pre-season expectations and had a terrific year.
"Coach always said that I didn't play because I could shoot," Miller said. "I played because I could play defense. It was a positive that I could shoot."
Miller was a leader on a team that embodied everything we Tar Heel fans love about Carolina basketball. Armed with no discernible superstar (other than a freshman named Tyler Hansbrough who'd managed to become something of a legend before the season even started, thanks to stories of obscene workout habits and pick-up games against NBA vets that trickled out via the Internet) and depleted by defections to the NBA, the group gamely defended UNC's title and proved that a team is truly more than the sum of its parts.
"It's most special to me, that I was a big part of it," Miller said. "A lot of times, I felt like I may never be a big part of a team, in terms of playing time, at Carolina."
Miller loves Carolina, and Carolina loves him back. He's short, slow and nonathletic. I don't know a Carolina fan who doesn't love Wes. One of my buddies named his dog "Miller."
"I think when you play basketball at North Carolina you're already in the spotlight," he said. "But when I started playing, people really recognized me. The fans are great and they support us. That's just how it is."
Miller got to play in some epic UNC-Duke match-ups, including Carolina's win at Cameron Indoor Stadium on senior night in 2006. Duke once had a player a lot like Miller -- short and scrapy. Duke turned Steve Wojciechowski into defensive player of the year and he's now an assistant coach.
I wondered: Ever wish that was you, Wes?
"No," he said, laughing.
I'm certain it was the first time anyone had asked him such a dumb question.
"I think the greatest thing about the rivalry is how intense the fans are," Miller said. "But you want to win that game as a player more than any fan out there. It's as emotional as a national championship game."
Miller said that he found that kids really responded to him, maybe because he's short so they can see themselves in him.
"Kids identify with me," he said.
Prior to that 2006 season, Miller was already something of a fan favorite and not just for his Williams impression. His nickname on the 2005 national championship was "Biscuits," because of his proclivity for entering blow-out games and nailing three-pointers to get the Tar Heel tally over 100, ensuring that students would get to take advantage of Bojangles, buy-one-get-one-free offer the day after the Heels break the century mark.
But then came 2006, and we saw Miller nailing key three-pointers in close games and playing lock-down defense. In 2007, he played less, but for a more talented team that eventually tragically coughed up a huge lead in the Elite Eight to Georgetown.
Had it been me, I'd have played Miller more down the stretch. UNC needed his defense.
I also think Miller has the makings of a great coach. I asked Miller which of his teammates he would want as assistants if he were a coach.
"That's a great question," he said, thinking for a while. "I would hire Bobby Frasor, Sean May and David Noel."
That would be a heck of a bench, I have to agree. But it would be led by Wes Miller, doing his best Roy Williams.
Matthew Moriarty may be reached at email@example.com.
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