North Carolina star Larry Miller at last will get his due in College Basketball hall of fame

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Larry Miller
UNC Athletics

If you know your college basketball history, if you know it well, you probably are aware of the story of North Carolina’s return to campus after a dreadful loss and the players on the bus looking out the window to discover a depiction of young head coach Dean Smith hanging from a tree.

You might not know Smith being “hanged in effigy” occurred in January 1965 and followed a loss at Wake Forest that dropped the Tar Heels to 6-6 on the season after they’d finished 12-12 the year before. You also might not know the player who became eligible the following autumn and propelled North Carolina basketball toward five decades of basketball dominance.

Larry Miller came along before college basketball was widely televised on a national basis, which helped make celebrities of such successors as Phil Ford, James Worthy, Michael Jordan and Tyler Hansbrough. He played before March Madness became an annual celebration and before the two Final Fours he visited had earned their current brand name. He had a productive pro career but not a long one, which also has allowed his greatness to fade into history.

MORE: Hamilton, Beilein, Miller headline College Hall's 2022 class

Miller was outstanding at a time when Carolina basketball needed it, though, when the man his players still call “Coach Smith” otherwise might not have been able to hold onto his job.

“If there was an individual that lit the fuse that started that success, it was Larry as the leader of those of first two Final Four teams,” said retired Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Miller’s teammate in 1967-68. “That’s how I remember it. That’s why -- in the pantheon of all the great players and all the great teams and all the great coaches -- he deserves to be recognized, in my view.”

At last, that day has arrived. His jersey has been in the Smith Center rafters for years, but the excellence of the UNC program and the standards for having one’s jersey honored meant there was more than a little company for his No. 44. 

Only seven more Tar Heels, though, and 155 other players in the century-long history of the game have been honored with induction to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Larry Miller will have his day Nov. 20 in Kansas City, where the College Basketball Experience houses the hall.

In 1968, Miller was consensus first-team on what many consider to be the greatest All-America team of all time, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pete Maravich, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. The other four are all in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Now, Miller, 76, will enter the College Basketball hall later than was necessary, but not too late.

Delany has lobbied for Miller’s induction along with a number of people associated with North Carolina basketball, including former Tar Heels guard Eddie Fogler and retired Tar Heels coach Roy Williams. Inducted as part of the College Hall’s “Founding Class” in 2006 but unavailable to attend because he still was coaching, Williams also will be honored at this year’s ceremony.

Miller played seven seasons in the ABA and set the league’s single-game scoring record with 67 points for the Carolina Cougars against Memphis in 1972. But his lasting contribution to the game was authored not with a red-white-and-blue basketball but rather in Carolina blue gear.

“I agreed that Jim Haney and others created the College Basketball hall of fame, because the Naismith Hall hadn’t been as aggressive with college coaches and players,” Delany told TSN. “I kept up with it, and as I was watching it evolve and develop, I was thinking that a person like Larry Miller – No. 1 recruit in the country coming out of high school, a teammate of mine, and I knew how he was a seminal player in the development of Coach Smith’s early success.

“There were other players during Coach Smith’s early years who were really great, but they hadn’t had the team success: Billy Cunningham, Larry Brown, Bob Lewis. But when I was a freshman, wasn’t on the varsity, that was the first time Coach Smith won an ACC championship, won an ACC Tournament, won the first of three Eastern Regionals and went to the Final Four. And I thought Larry, in that season, play after play after play made winning plays. I just thought he had that special competitive ‘it’ factor that raised everybody.”

A native of Catasauqua, Pa., where his father worked in the Mack Trucks plant, Miller was a 6-4 forward who developed into a superstar at the local high school and became the most coveted recruit in America during the spring of 1964. Duke was the reigning power in the ACC at the time, and North Carolina was struggling to build toward success after three seasons with Smith as head coach. 

Miller canceled a visit to UCLA in order to make a second trip to North Carolina because he had such a strong feeling about the campus and players, but he actually preferred Duke’s Vic Bubas to Smith in the recruiting process, according to “Miller Time”, the autobiography of Miller authored by Stephen Demorest, an award-winning television writer.

Miller still was unsure about his college choice just days before his high school graduation, but when that big day arrived, Smith flew to Pennsylvania to acquire his signature on a letter of intent.

Miller was not the only significant player Smith had recruited. Bobby Lewis, a 6-3 forward who was a class ahead of Miller at UNC, averaged 27.3 points in the 1965-66 season as Miller averaged 20.9 points and 10.3 rebounds in his sophomore year. The Heels posted a 16-11 record, their second consecutive winning season.

When Miller became the team’s leader as a junior, with averages of 21.9 and 9.3, and the team’s offense became more balanced, the Tar Heels blossomed into the ACC’s best team, ranked in the Associated Press top 10 throughout the season. They won the ACC Tournament for the first time under Smith and reached the Final Four with a victory over Boston College, which also recruited Smith heavily.

It was that year, when Delany was a freshman and ineligible to play, he found out what a generous teammate Miller could be. With a winter storm looming as Christmas approached, Smith allowed his players to leave campus ahead of schedule and return home. Delany, a New Jersey native, had no idea how he would get home. But Miller was catching a ride with senior guard Tom Gauntlett, who was from the Scranton area. They suggested Delany come along and then his father could drive over to pick him up.

They got to Miller’s home late at night, and Gauntlett dropped them off and continued on. “Larry wouldn’t let me sleep on the couch. He gave me his room, and he slept on the couch,” Delany said. “Here’s the best player on the team with a freshman trying to get home … He was very popular, let me say that. He was respected and beloved and a lot of fun.”

As a senior, Miller increased his scoring average to 22.4 points and scored in double figures in every NCAA Tournament game as the Tar Heels reached the NCAA Championship before falling to Abdul-Jabbar and the UCLA Bruins. 

The Heels were joined that year by Charlie Scott, the first Black player in the program’s history, and Delany said Miller was among those who worked hard during the recruiting process to make him feel comfortable about joining the Tar Heels – and feel at home once he joined the team. Scott went on to become a member of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

For his part, Scott told Demorest for the book, “People need to understand, Larry was the winner who made Coach Smith a winner. Like Bill Russell started the Boston Celtics tradition, Larry Miller is the tradition that Carolina talks about. Everything starts with him.”
 

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Mike DeCourcy is a Senior Writer at The Sporting News