Blazers’ Guarded Guard

By Brian T. Smith, Columbian Sports Writer

Published:

 

Andre Miller was alone.

His Portland Trail Blazers teammates had long ago walked off the court at the organization’s practice facility in Tualatin, Ore. Now, it was just Miller, an open gym and the game.

As a large, rectangular machine shot out a constant stream of basketballs, the veteran point guard spotted up, received a series of mechanized passes, barely lifted his feet off the floor, and fired away.

More than 45 minutes passed, and Miller’s workman-like routine never changed. As he ran through his usual post-practice workout session, Miller never hurried, and he never showed frustration or emotion. He just went to work, and performed his job as a steady one-man show.

“I’m just a regular basketball player that observes the game,” Miller, 33, said. “I was taught to play the game the right way.”

It has been the same way for his entire 11-year NBA career. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Los Angeles native has been one of the most consistent and reliable point guards in the league, averaging 14.5 points, 7.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds for five teams. And as Miller has journeyed from Cleveland to Denver to Portland, he has constructed a reputation that is rock solid and nearly impenetrable. Miller has played in 554 consecutive games, which leads the NBA among all active players. And he is viewed by many as one of the premier on-the-court quarterbacks in the NBA.

“I feel like over the last seven, eight years, ‘Dre is the most underrated point guard in our league,” Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups said.

But for all the reliability in his game, one defining personal trait has remained equally consistent: Miller is an enigma.

Words such as quiet, private and reclusive are often used to describe his personality. But in some ways, the characterizations are misleading. Yes, Miller keeps to himself. But he is often the first Blazer off the bench to offer support for his teammates. And he rivals guard Brandon Roy as Portland’s loudest and fiercest in-game communicator.

Blazers center Joel Przybilla described Miller as a true professional — someone who comes in to work, does their job, and never complains.

“He’s actually opened up a lot more than I expected,” Przybilla said. “He’s very approachable — he’s just quiet. He’s very similar to myself. I’m the same way. But I’ve been around the guys a lot longer, so guys know me better.”

However, there is a deeper, more distinguishing aspect of Miller’s mercurial nature. One that captures his solo plight, while shining a light on the inner composition of the NBA’s tight-lipped Iron Man.

After 10-plus years, 839 regular-season games and numerous coaches and teammates, Miller considers none of his former allies as close friends. It is not intended as a slight, Miller says.

It is simply that the only people he allows into his personal life are either those he grew up with or is now related to: family.

And the most cherished and valued confidant in his secret world — a person Miller has turned to often in recent months as drama, controversy and trade rumors have gathered and swirled around him — is a 65-year-old man who never coached basketball above the youth level, and lives more than 2,400 miles away from Portland.

A second family

Ben Furnace is now retired. He lives with his wife, Terri, in Hutto, Texas, a small town located about 25 miles from Austin.

But for 55 years, Furnace resided in Inglewood, Calif., near Los Angeles. And while there, he and his wife developed a relationship with Miller that has persevered through major life and career changes, and remains strong to this day.

“Andre’s been a fourth son,” Furnace said. “That’s the way we look at it.”

The Furnaces found Miller when he was 5. Terri Furnace was teaching kindergarten, and she was friends with Miller’s mother, Andrea Robinson. At the time, Robinson was raising her son as a single mom in a rough neighborhood that was only getting rougher.

So the Furnaces reached out, offering Miller an open door and a backyard basketball goal during weekends when he wanted another place to go. Their house was just a quick bus ride and a couple miles away. But to Miller, it was a safe, new world.

“Their family as a whole took me in,” Miller said. “It was just a fun time in my life.”

Soon, Ben Furnace was teaching Miller basketball at a local YMCA facility located a few blocks from The Forum, where the Los Angeles Lakers then played. Ben preached layups, bounce passes, defense and floor spacing — many of the key traits that define Miller’s current game. And he strove to instill in Miller an appreciation of teamwork, sharing and selflessness.

“We didn’t have kids where they felt they were star of the team,” Furnace said. “We didn’t allow that.”

In addition, there were values such as independence and diligence that the Furnaces upheld, as well as rules that were made not to be broken: no disrespect and no misbehavior. Each value and every rule was passed on to Miller.

“What we did as a family then, we still do today,” Furnace said. “We don’t deviate. We don’t have no highs, we don’t have no lows.”

As Miller grew up, Furnace stayed close. He still pushed and coached, but he also allowed for space and development. And when Miller began playing club ball — showing off skills that would soon rival those of Paul Pierce, a fellow YMCA attendee now playing for the Boston Celtics — Furnace momentarily stepped back.

But he always kept on eye on Miller. And when the current Blazers guard started playing as many as six pick-up games a day on neighborhood basketball courts, the Furnaces still made sure their door was open.

“He always had our phone number,” Furnace said.

Now, Miller dials the number more than ever. He keeps in close contact with the Furnaces’ three sons, with whom he grew up and shared the game with. And Miller makes regular offseason trips to Texas.

“I pretty much keep the same company as I kept growing up,” Miller said. “I’ve always surrounded myself with solid people. I think as I get older, some situations get a little tougher, where you can’t take them on yourself — you might look for a little bit of advice.”

The relationship between Miller and Ben Furnace runs deeper than friendly advice, though. As a child, Miller failed to develop a relationship with his father. During interviews, it was the only topic neither he nor Furnace were willing to discuss. “I don’t get into that,” Miller said.

However, he was at ease when talking about the parental role Ben assumed. And Miller said that when he now needs to open up and explore his feelings about issues relating to basketball or his personal life, his former YMCA mentor is his truest ear and closest confidant.

“Now, more than ever in my life, I look for advice,” Miller said. “I guess I look at him as a father figure. If something is going on serious in my life or if something is important, he’s the person I’ve talked to the most.”

New changes

While Miller’s relationship with the Furnaces dates back 28 years and is the steadiest, straightest road in his criss-crossed basketball journey, his bond with the Blazers is still forming.

From the second Miller signed a three-year, $21-million deal with Portland last summer as a free agent, the question of whether he would fit in with a young, tight Blazers team led by Roy and coach Nate McMillan was analyzed and dissected.

An ongoing debate concerning who should hold down Portland’s starting point guard position — Miller or incumbent starter Steve Blake — did not ease the transition.

Neither did a decision by Miller in which he turned to a national media outlet to vocalize his frustration about his role on the Blazers, after feeling that he had been burned and then turned into a scapegoat by the regional press.

A nine-game experiment in which McMillan inserted Miller and Blake into the same starting lineup only added to the confusion. The duo led Portland to a 7-2 record during the stretch. But McMillan removed Miller from the first unit following a 108-94 blowout road loss to the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 20, one that ranks among the lowest points of Portland’s already surreal season.

Since the change, Miller has spent the last 10 games coming off the bench. He has averaged 12.4 points during the span, evolving into Portland’s third scoring option as a result of his improved play and attrition through injuries.

But at times, Miller has been more of a scorer than a passer. And any progress he has made has been shadowed by tension-filled moments, such as when Miller scored zero points and was limited to six minutes of action during a 108-92 road defeat to the Utah Jazz on Nov. 28.

McMillan said he kept Miller off the court because the guard was hurt. In return, Miller stated that he was healthy and fully able to contribute. But the second public confrontation in less than two months between Portland’s coach and the team’s main offseason acquisition failed to ignite when both played down the event two days later.

“There’s no point in getting into a fuss or getting worked up, because the coach is always right,” Miller said. “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to fight the system; fight the coach. He made a decision. I dealt with it.”

Any still-burning embers were smothered in the days that followed by a deluge of bad news. Two of the Blazers’ top players — center Greg Oden and guard Rudy Fernandez — were lost to injuries, while McMillan was sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured right Achilles tendon.

New relationships

Less than an hour before Oden suffered a season-ending fractured left patella injury during a home game against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 5, several key members of Portland’s team voiced their support of Miller. While Przybilla complimented his professionalism, guard Martell Webster referred to Miller as a phenomenal player whose contributions are at times “mind boggling.”

“We definitely honor him,” Webster said. “He plays through injuries, and he just plays. He wants to play and continue playing. I tip my hat to him. I haven’t even got a consecutive 82 (games); I’m trying to get that in. He’s got hundreds. So, I tip my hat to him.”

Meanwhile, forward LaMarcus Aldridge distinctly recalled a recent game in which Miller helped him exploit a pick-and-roll situation that Aldridge was initially reluctant to take advantage of.

“He sees it. I think he’s big. He’s so mature and he knows the game,” Aldridge said. “So whatever he can see and help you do, I think that’s one of the examples of the way that he helps me out on the court.”

He added: “I slipped the screen and had a layup. And I was just like, ‘That’s crazy.’ ”

Roy also took up Miller’s cause twice during recent interviews. He said that he had no preference about whether he played with Miller or Blake in the Blazers’ starting unit. And he stated that he was not the driving force behind Miller’s benching.

“He’s fitting in, like, socially, fine,” Roy said. “We’re talking off the court. We’re at practice, communicating well. So, he’s fitting in. Now, it’s just a matter of understanding what Coach wants and trying to get it down.”

That part has not been as easy for Miller.

While Portland struggled through a series of disillusioning setbacks, the only person with more power on the team than Roy said he still saw Miller as being a puzzle.

McMillan stated that he was left to wonder how he could best reach the guarded, enigmatic Miller. After admiring the veteran point guard’s game from afar for years, McMillan now has Miller under his wing. But connecting with him — and figuring out the best way to utilize his talents — is another matter.

Asked Dec. 4 whether Miller had made any progress with fitting in, McMillan paused before initially offering a one-word response: “No.”

Then McMillan expanded his answer. He compared Miller’s reserved nature to a person who sits silently in a room, and whose emotions are impossible to read.

“Because that’s who he is,” McMillan said. “The progress is — no, he doesn’t talk. He’s a very, very quiet individual. And he is to himself. It’s almost like — sometimes silence is worse than someone who talks.”

Opening up

Miller talks. He just chooses who he speaks openly with and when. And while his second family, the Furnaces, play a key role in his life, his 10-year-old son, Duane, plays the biggest part.

After spending the first two months of the season largely avoiding direct eye contact with the media and at times mumbling his way through interviews, Miller slightly opened up during a four-game homestand that surrounded Thanksgiving.

The main reason: Duane — who spends the majority of his time in Phoenix with his mother — was in town.

During the stretch, Miller laughed and showed off a warm smile, while Duane’s ability to mimic his father’s game drew approving eyes from McMillan and Roy. And in addition to attending several Blazer practices, Duane watched his dad play at the Rose Garden, all while sitting along the baseline in the same legs-out style that his father has become known for.

Ben Furnace described Miller’s relationship with his son as “beautiful.”

And together, the father-son duo helped Miller display a different, warmer side. Duane’s visit allowed Miller to temporarily drop his shield and let go of the frustration and drama that have surrounded his life since he became a Blazer.

“It keeps me level,” Miller said.

He added: “He’s at that age where he understands. And it’s fun for him to come along and see the guys he plays with (on) video games.”

But even with his son by his side, Miller was still guarded.

Following a post-practice session in which Miller had led Duane through a series of shooting drills, the Blazers guard backed up against a wall for a media interview. The first question asked drew a quick, strong response from Miller.

“This is the guy that’s been writing bad stuff about me,” said Miller, referring to a reporter.

Duane looked up, studied the situation and quickly looked away. Meanwhile, Miller began answering questions.

During the interview, Miller paused to look down at his son and smile. Soon, Duane walked into the Blazers’ workout room and disappeared. Once his son left, Miller tensed up and again shut down. Days later, McMillan was asked whether he thought the situation with Miller would improve. He again paused before answering.

“We have him now,” McMillan said. “And maybe it does or maybe it doesn’t. But what I try doing is try to put him in situations to … help him so he can help us.”

McMillan went on to discuss how injuries have decimated his vision of how Miller could improve and strengthen Portland’s second unit. And he stated that more time is required before Miller and his new teammates learn how to trust each other and develop the type of winning chemistry that sometimes takes years to create.

Then he added: “When you have a guy who’s as quiet as Andre is, it slows it down even more. Just because the guy’s learning what to say, when to say it. And he’s just an introverted guy. He’s probably one of the quietest guys I’ve seen.”