Growing up a Buck: 'It’s Reggie Miller Time'

Growing up a Buck: 'It’s Reggie Miller Time'

In this series, Matt Babcock shares his experience growing up around the Milwaukee Bucks organization since his dad, Dave Babcock, has been an executive with the team for 23 years. He also provides an inside look at the rise and fall of the Bucks during the late 1990s and early 2000s. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The 1998-99 NBA trade deadline was approaching, and the Milwaukee Bucks were in playoff contention after not having secured a playoff bid since 1991. At the time, the Bucks were built around two young, blossoming stars: 23-year-old Ray Allen and 26-year-old Glenn Robinson. However, the team’s front-office brass questioned if the supporting cast was enough to elevate their team to being championship-worthy.

Subsequently, Bucks general manager Bob Weinhauer made two bold moves prior to that year’s trade deadline. The first move: a three-way trade where the Bucks exchanged oft-injured point guard Terrell Brandon for Sam Cassell, the charismatic lead guard from the New Jersey Nets. The second move had Milwaukee trading power forward Tyrone Hill to the Philadelphia 76ers for a young developing forward, Tim Thomas, and veteran big man, Scott Williams -- two transactions that ultimately proved to be extremely fruitful for the Bucks.

With their core unit set, the Bucks went on to finish that lockout-shortened season with a record of 28-22, giving them the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference. After nearly a decade, the Bucks were headed back to the playoffs. In the first round, they faced a team that tied for the best record in the East, the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were loaded with talent and experience, a tall task for a developing Milwaukee team, to say the least.

Due to my dad’s position within the Bucks’ front office, I was given countless opportunities to be with and around that Bucks team during the late 1990s. I felt like I was part of that team, and one way or another, I was going to be in that arena for Game 1. I had traveled with the team earlier in the season, but I didn’t go on the team plane for that trip. Don’t feel too bad for me though... I was fortunate enough to be invited to fly with Senator Herb Kohl, the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks at the time, on his private jet.

Before I knew it, my dad and I were pulling into a private hangar and boarding Senator Kohl’s jet. Onboard that flight was my dad, Larry Harris (who worked with my dad in the front office), Senator Kohl and myself. There I was, a freshman in high school, sitting with a US Senator and NBA team owner on his private jet, heading to my first-ever playoff game.

After a quick flight, we landed in Indy, and awaiting us was a car to take us to the arena. I learned quickly that the playoffs were completely different than the regular season. I vividly remember walking into the old Market Square Arena that night. I felt like my heart was going to pump out of my chest. Everyone from arena security to players to fans all had an extra pep in their step. Energy and excitement filled the arena. The intensity of the atmosphere was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and this was before the game even began. It was unforgettable!

Once in the arena, I beelined to the court to find Coby Karl (the son of George Karl, Milwaukee's head coach at the time) so we could do our normal routine of shooting around with the players and hanging around the court before the formal warm-ups began. I remember being in awe watching some of the Pacers’ players.

To be able to see Chris Mullin do a shooting workout up-close was special. He is probably the most detail-oriented shooter I have ever seen. He would warm up doing a spot-shooting routine, where he would have five spots around the perimeter, which is typical. However, he would have to make a certain amount of shots in a row to move to the next spot and would not count the shot as a “make” if the ball even grazed the rim. That specific Chris Mullin workout has always stuck with me. That was one of my early lessons that elite shooters take a scientific approach to shooting and make a conscious effort to master their craft — going through the motions or just “getting shots up” is not enough to be elite.

The game was set to begin, but Coby and I didn’t have assigned seats, so we sat on the court next to the Bucks' bench, as we usually did for away games. Aside from seeing Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team the year before, I had never been impressed by a team quite as much as I was by that Pacers team.

First of all, their head coach was my childhood hero, the legendary former player, Larry Bird, who had been the recipient of the NBA Coach of the Year award the previous season in '98. His top assistant coach was Rick Carlisle, who had been Larry’s teammate when they both played for the Boston Celtics in the mid-1980s. It had been said that Carlisle was the actual technical mastermind behind that Pacers team, and that Larry’s role as head coach was somewhat as a figurehead. Regardless of their coaching structure having been set up as a hierarchy or not, whatever they did, it worked. Carlisle went on to be one of the top head coaches in the industry. He has been a head coach for nearly 20 years now, and is back with Indiana for his second stint as the team's head coach.

That Pacers roster had so much depth, and it was filled with many accomplished veteran players. Their lead guard was Mark Jackson. He ran the show and controlled the tempo. He was a modest 6-foot-1 with a stocky build, and not very quick or athletic, but he was a magician with his playmaking. He was incredibly creative with his passing, and had an uncanny ability to see the floor to find shooters on the perimeter or big men around the basket — he had “eyes in the back of his head.”

In the middle, they had the “Dunking Dutchman,” Rik Smits, a huge, 7-foot-4, skilled center who could really score. Alongside Smits were two “blue-collar” big men who split playing time: Dale Davis and Antonio Davis. It was during an era of basketball when the common theme was “no layups.” The Davis duo, no relation, was the epitome of power forwards during that time as they were “bruisers.” Both of them were extremely physical and tough and they did all of the “dirty work” (perhaps somewhat of a lost art, in my opinion).

On the wing, the Pacers started Mullin, an aging star. He was not quite the player he had been when he was a perennial All-Star earlier in his career, but the guy just knew how to play. And although he wasn’t moving all that well anymore, he could still shoot the lights out.

That Pacers team was so good that they had an emerging star, Jalen Rose, coming off the bench. Jalen’s role was to come into the game and aggressively look to score. He had the full green light and would score in bunches. He was a 1-on-1 nightmare for whoever had to match up against him. A 6-foot-8 lefty, he had handles like a point guard, a sweet mid-range game, was extremely crafty and had an overall knack to score the ball.

The Indiana bench also consisted of shooting big man Sam “Big Smooth” Perkins, the defensively-versatile forward Derrick McKey and speedy scoring point guard Travis Best. (Ironically, I ended up coaching Travis Best years later in Italy when I was a young assistant coach for the team Virtus Bologna, and Travis was finishing up his playing career.)

As if that Pacers roster wasn’t enough to keep any opposing coach up late at night, those were just the complementary players to their main weapon: Reggie Miller.

Quite possibly the cockiest player the NBA has ever seen, Miller developed a reputation for being the ultimate villain when playing on the road. I remember watching him during pregame warmups wearing a Superman T-shirt. We’ve all seen the highlights of the show he put on at the Madison Square Garden in 1995, where he hit all of those threes at the end of the game to come from behind and beat the New York Knicks — doing so as he relentlessly trash-talked Spike Lee, who had been sitting courtside. Miller even wrapped his hands around his neck to give Spike “the choke sign.” Reggie fed off negativity. He talked trash constantly. He was arrogant and abrasive. The more hostile the environment, the more he turned up his play. Heckling from fans only added fuel to the fire. I joined a large contingent of non-Pacers fans throughout the NBA that despised him. But now, after all of these years, I have to admit: Reggie Miller was incredible.

At 6-foot-7, a thin physical build, and an extremely unorthodox shooting release, Miller is arguably the best shooter of all-time. Of course, we have Steph Curry now and Ray Allen before him, but Reggie is the one that set the stage for them, in my opinion.

While I was a player in high school, I was fortunate enough to be able to have some of the Bucks coaches work with me on my game. I remember in one instance, Terry Stotts (an assistant for Milwaukee at the time) put me through a shooting workout, and I suppose that I impressed him with my shooting ability. I remember Coach Stotts telling me, “Okay, you’ve proven that you are a high-level shooter, but now we need to make sure you are able to get your shot off.” The lesson he was trying to teach me is exactly where Reggie thrived. The NBA has had many capable shooters that could make open shots at a high percentage, but there has not been anyone that could shoot at an elite level while also being able to create an open shot for himself without the ball quite like Reggie.

During Game 1 of the playoffs versus the Bucks, I was able to watch Miller operate while sitting only  steps away. I watched his method closely.

As Jackson would initiate the offense off the dribble, Reggie would take his defender deep into the paint -- under or around the basket -- and he would initiate contact with his defenders, many times by grabbing their jersey. He would take a couple of moments to set up his defender; then, at the right moment, he would take off, a lot of times beginning with a shove to his defender’s chest. He would sprint toward one of the hammering screens that were to be set by Smits or one of the Davis’; if the screener’s defender didn’t show, Reggie would turn the corner off those screens like a runner in baseball rounding third base going to home plate. Jackson would deliver a pass right into Miller’s numbers as he would do a quick one-two step into his jump shot -- a high release and a high-arcing trajectory. When Miller would release a deep three, the Pacers' arena would have sound effects of a bomb being dropped while the ball was in the air, and when the ball would go through the net, it would have the sound of an explosion. The images and sounds of Reggie Miller coming off screens to bury deep threes are tattooed in my head to this day.

Unfortunately, those sights and sounds were seen and heard routinely in that series, as the Pacers would go on to sweep the Bucks. Although the outcome was not what we had hoped for, it was nonetheless a great introduction to playoff basketball for me. The emotions I experienced during that playoff series were intoxicating. I was completely hooked and I wanted more. 

Well, I got it.

The following season, 1999-00, the Bucks would go on to finish No. 5 in the Eastern Conference. They faced the Pacers, again. An improved Bucks team forced a deciding Game 5 versus the Pacers in an exciting and competitive series. I was there for the action, of course. Unfortunately, Miller and his Pacers were still too much for the Bucks. After defeating Milwaukee that year, the Pacers went on to the NBA Finals to face Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers. They came up just short of an NBA title, as the Lakers defeated them in six games.

As for the Bucks, in retrospect, the two consecutive years of being defeated by the Pacers in the playoffs were just what they needed to prepare for what was to come…

Read Part 4 of this series: "Growing Up a Buck: The 2001 Playoff Run."

Also, check out Matt Babcock and's latest 2021 NBA Mock Draft.

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