Tribute to No. 31 resonates at Conseco
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Reggie Miller's farewell party was almost perfect.
After hearing celebrities laud 18 stellar seasons with Indiana, Miller"s final regular-season game had a familiar ring -- he sparked a fourth-quarter rally to lead the Pacers past Chicago 85-83 Wednesday night.
Afterward, Miller, who is retiring after this season, thanked the fans for helping him grow up and choked back tears when team owner Herb Simon gave him a parting gift -- a Bentley.
"As much as you think I've given to you for 18 years, I'm truly blessed to be a Pacer and a Hoosier," Miller said, his voice cracking. "Thank you."
Miller had so many to thank after the game, but could have started with Jermaine O'Neal, who had 21 points, and Anthony Johnson, who made the go-ahead basket and a clinching 3-pointer in the final minute.
Miller scored 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting.
Had the Pacers lost, they would have slipped to seventh in the Eastern Conference and opened the playoffs at Detroit, the site of their infamous brawl with fans early in the season. Instead they will open at Boston, the third seed, on Saturday.
Ron Artest, who was suspended the rest of the season after the brawl, watched the game Wednesday night from the Indiana bench.
Chicago, the fourth seed, was led by Jannero Pargo, who finished with a season-high 17 points. The Bulls will host Washington starting Sunday.
But the night clearly belonged to Miller, and the reaction of the soldout crowd reflected just how much he has done for the Pacers franchise.
The Indianapolis Children's Choir and the Pacemates wore jerseys with Miller's familiar No. 31. As soon as he was introduced, fans held up gold-and-blue placards that read "Thank You Reggie." Some fans brought their own signs that read "There will be only one No. 31" and "Miller Time Will Never Be The Same."
Videotaped messages were shown on the scoreboard from celebrities such as former President Clinton, actor David Caruso and comedian Dennis Miller. There also were messages from former rivals, such as John Starks and Michael Jordan, and friend Magic Johnson.
"It was almost like a big brother, little brother relationship when you were at UCLA and I want to thank you for that," Johnson said. "You have meant so much to the game of basketball because you played the game the right way."
Miller's sister, Cheryl, watched from a skybox and they walked off the court hand-in-hand when the game ended. A few minutes later, Reggie Miller re-emerged for the postgame celebration with trumpets blaring and streamers flying.
The fans roared with each of Miller's three baskets, groaned each time he missed and implored the Pacers to fight back when Miller was on the bench and the Pacers were struggling in the second half.
But Miller wasn't himself. He missed both of his 3-pointers and drew three uncharacteristic offensive fouls. On his fourth foul, Miller smacked his hands and was called for a technical foul, then had to be restrained by teammates and coaches on the bench so he wouldn't get ejected.
Even the finishing touch was a bit off. With Indiana trailing 64-60 to open the fourth quarter, Miller pulled up for a 7-footer, then hit two free throws to tie the score at 64 as the excited fans expected another one of Miller's patented fourth quarter scoring flurries.
Indiana took the cue, charging to a 76-67 lead before Chicago rallied one last time.
The Bulls went ahead 79-78 with less than 2 minutes left on a Pargo basket, but Johnson hit a 3-pointer to put the Pacers ahead for good. Johnson then ran down the court and hugged Miller.
"I've played pickup basketball with Reggie many times," said Bulls coach Scott Skiles, a former teammate of Miller's. "I'm sure it's special for everyone in the building to have been here."
In the closing seconds, Miller had a chance to seal the win with a 3-pointer from the right corner. When it rimmed out, he sat on the Bulls' bench in frustration.
"In and out, I was doing that all night," Miller said. "That's the story of my life."
After scoring more than 25,000 points and setting a league record for 3-pointers, Miller will go down as one of the greatest clutch shooters in NBA history.
The West Coast native who was booed when the Pacers chose him with the No. 11 pick in the 1987 draft is now revered by those same fans after leading the franchise from the brink of oblivion, one that once used public donations from a telethon to save the team, to the brink of an NBA title.
Miller still hopes he can bring that crown to Indiana before he leaves.
"This had to be an unbelievable thing for him to get through. A lot of this stuff, I don't think he knew was going on, a message from Clinton," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "To absorb all that and try to play a basketball game, it's just ... Wow, I couldn't imagine doing it."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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