Growing up a Buck: "It’s Miller Time"
In this article, the son of a longtime front office executive, Matt Babcock, shares his behind the scenes experience of seeing the Milwaukee Bucks face Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the 1999 NBA Playoffs.
The 1998-1999 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, the general manager, Bob Weinhauer, made two bold moves prior to that year’s trade deadline. The first move: a three-way trade that had the Bucks exchanging oft-injured point guard Terrell Brandon for the charismatic lead guard from the New Jersey Nets, Sam Cassell. 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. Those transactions would ultimately prove to be extremely fruitful for the Bucks.
With their core unit set, the Milwaukee Bucks went on to finish that lockout-shortened season with a record of 28-22, giving them the 7th 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 Bucks team, to say the least.
As I have discussed in previous articles of this series, due to my dad’s position within the Bucks’ front office, I was given countless opportunities to be with and around that Milwaukee Bucks team during the late 1990s. I felt like I was part of that team and, needless to say, I was beyond excited that the Bucks were headed to the playoffs! One way or another, I was going to be in that arena for Game 1. I traveled with the team earlier in the season but I wasn’t going to be on the team plane for this 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 there was a car waiting 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 simply unforgettable!
Once in the arena, I beelined to the court to find my good friend Coby Karl (the son of the head coach of the Bucks 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 have been up close to see Chris Mullin do a shooting workout was a special privilege. 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 about to begin. 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 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls team the year before, I had never been impressed by a team quite as much as I had been 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. 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 would go on to be one of the top head coaches in the industry and is currently the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks. He is in his 17th year as a head coach in the NBA.
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 6’1”, 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 7’4” skilled center that could really score. Aside Smits were two “blue-collar” big men that split playing time, Dale Davis and Antonio Davis. This was during an era of basketball when the common theme was “no layups.” The Davis duo was the epitome of power forwards during that time — 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 aging superstar, Chris Mullin. Mullin 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 he would score in bunches. He was a 1-on-1 nightmare for whoever had to match up against him. A 6’8” lefty, he had handles like a point guard, a sweet mid-range game, he 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 would end 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 this roster wasn’t enough to keep any opposing coach up late at night, these were just the complimentary players to their main weapon: Reggie Miller.
Quite possibly the cockiest player the NBA has ever seen, Reggie Miller developed a reputation for being the ultimate villain when playing on the road. One time I remember watching him during pregame warmups wearing a Superman t-shirt. And 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 three’s at the end of the game to come from behind to beat the 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 an incredible player!
At 6’7”, 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.
While I was a player in high school, I was fortunate enough to be able to have some of the Milwaukee Bucks coaches work with me on my game. I remember one instance, Bucks’ assistant coach at the time (and currently the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers), Terry Stotts, put me through a shooting workout and I suppose that I impressed him with my shooting ability. I remember Coach Stotts telling me, “Ok, 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 create an open shot for themself without the ball quite like Reggie.
During that Game 1 of the playoffs versus the Bucks, I was able to watch Reggie Miller operate while sitting nearly steps away. I watched his method closely as Mark 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 defender, many times by grabbing their jersey. He would take a couple of moments to set up his defender and 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 towards 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 3rd base 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 Pacer’s 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 a 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 a great first introduction to NBA playoff basketball for me nonetheless. The emotions I experienced during that playoff series were intoxicating. I was completely hooked and I wanted more — and well, I got it!
The following season, the Bucks would go on to finish 5th in the Eastern Conference. They would face the Indiana Pacers, again! An improved Bucks team forced a deciding Game 5 versus the Pacers in an exciting and competitive series. And again, I was there for the action, of course. Unfortunately, Reggie Miller and his Pacers were still too much for the Bucks. After defeating the Bucks that year, the Pacers went on to the NBA Finals to face Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Los Angeles Lakers. They would come up just short of an NBA title as the Lakers defeated them in six games.
As for the Bucks, in retrospect, those two consecutive years of being defeated by the Pacers in the playoffs were just what they needed to prepare for what was to come…