SPORTS: Don’t Hate the Playa

Basketball coach Tim Miller does whatever it takes to win national championchips. He’s even been accused of stealing fourth-graders.

ABOUT
TWO DOZEN 12- AND 13-YEAR-OLD BOYS stand on the baseline of a
basketball court in the Lake Highlands freshman gym. Parents watch from
the stands. The boys stare at their sneakers, tug on their baggy shorts
to ensure that they ride low enough.

Coach Tim Miller, wearing
an Adidas track suit, whistle around his neck, wants the boys to know
how he feels about walking. “I don’t want to see any walking,” he yells
in his perpetually hoarse voice. “When I call your name, I don’t want
to see any walking. If I see walking, I get frustrated. When I get
frustrated, I get mad. When I get mad, I’m no fun.” His point, boiled
down to its essence: no walking.

Then he makes the boys run. And
as the boys run, he tells them about the crystal bowl that sits on a
table beside the court. The bowl is the national championship trophy
won this summer by one of Miller’s teams, the team these boys want to
play for. Miller promises them that if they play for him, they will
train. And they will cry, cry, cry, cry. He says it four times.

In
the world of select youth basketball, Miller is the man of the moment.
This season, which gets under way in earnest next month, he projects
he’ll have 10 teams, boys and girls from the second grade through high
school, playing in his T.G. organization. (“T.G.” stands for “Thank
God.”) Last summer, his teams won seven national championships in
various leagues and age divisions. His seventh-graders have drawn
attention from college scouts. Adidas sponsors them—which is why Miller
renamed them Team T.G. Adidas.

But being the man of the moment
isn’t all crystal bowls and free sneakers. Competition for talent among
select basketball coaches in Dallas has heated up in recent years. For
Miller, a recent transplant to Dallas, success has earned him at least
one enemy. His name is Wes Grandstaff.

BEFORE DALLAS, THERE WAS MUNCIE, INDIANA. That’s where
Miller, now 36, got his start. He played basketball, football, and
baseball in high school and was good enough that he was recruited,
though that’s not the way things worked out. “I didn’t go to jail or
nothing,” he says. “But once I became a Christian, I said I would give
something back to the kids. My life became ministry.”

He took up
coaching youth basketball and found he was good at it. Bonzi Wells, of
the Memphis Grizzlies, played for him. So did his own children, after
Miller married a woman who had twins named Lydia and K.C. Then, in
1999, Miller and his family moved to Dallas (Lewisville, actually).

“I
kind of felt in my heart, this is what God wanted me to do, come to
Dallas,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen in Dallas. I
just knew I was supposed to come to Dallas.” One presumes that others
have moved away from Muncie on flimsier motives than divine inspiration.

In
any case, after Miller arrived, select youth basketball in North Texas
would never be the same. Suddenly there was a new guy in town who did
things differently, recruiting inner-city kids who’d previously been
overlooked and then using their talent to draw kids from established
teams. Miller will go to great lengths to find talent. He’ll sometimes
cruise playgrounds in South Dallas, looking for, say, a precocious
sixth-grader who knows how to run the fast break. And because that kid
won’t always have a Leave It to Beaver home life—parents on drugs, in
jail, or simply without a car—Miller will pick him up and take him to
practice. Last year, he took two kids under his own roof to make sure
they stayed out of trouble.

His formula has worked. Most of
Miller’s championships have come in the alphabet soup of smaller
leagues: YBOA, BCI, MAYB. The granddaddy of all leagues, though, is the
Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU. Team T.G. Adidas won the AAU
12-and-under national championship this year. They won it last year,
too, as 11-year-olds. They beat their tournament opponents by an
average of 25 points. In the 53-43 title game against the defending
champion Orlando Dream Team, Miller’s son, K.C., scored 22 points.

Which
brings us to the unpleasant business with Wes Grandstaff. He’s the
director of another select youth basketball organization called Team
Texas. He’s also the chairman of AAU boys basketball in the
Southwestern District, which includes North Texas. Grandstaff has
coached basketball for a dozen years or so, and he has a whole bunch of
unflattering things to say about Tim Miller.

Grandstaff says,
“Last conversation we had, I told him, you know, I thought he was slime
and that he had no business being in the industry of working with
kids.” This happened last summer, when Grandstaff says Miller tried to
recruit some of his fifth-graders right off the court. “We’re all
aggressive. But when you go and get a team that’s wearing Team Texas
uniforms at a tournament and start trying to tell them to come to your
program—to me, that’s just bad business. That’s like going out to
another guy’s car lot and trying to sell one of his cars. I mean, you
just don’t do it.”

It gets more complicated. Because in addition
to the alleged recruiting improprieties, there is the matter of the
team merger. At one point early on, apparently, Grandstaff and Miller
combined two of their teams. We’re talking two or three years ago, with
fourth- or fifth-graders, best this reporter can tell. The two men
disagree about certain particulars and are vague on others. In any
case, the merger did not go smoothly, and Grandstaff claims Miller
hijacked part of his team.

Miller, though, has a simple
explanation for why Grandstaff doesn’t like him: “Because he’s a peanut
head.” The pronouncement sends him into a fit of laughter.

“Before
I got here,” Miller says, “Wes controlled everything. Well, when I got
here, guess what? I controlled everything. I came out of nowhere, and
everybody started wanting to play with T.G. instead of Team Texas. The
other reason he hates me is because I’m Adidas and he’s Nike. There you
go.”

Two points are worth making. The first is that coach Tim
Miller can flat-out coach. Yes, he knows how to find talent. But he
also knows how to mold it.

Take the case of the Highland Park
girls varsity basketball team. Last year, they amassed an underwhelming
record of seven wins and 21 losses. It was at that point that the
players’ parents hired Miller to come in and train the girls in the
off-season. (Full disclosure: one of the parents was the publisher of D Magazine, Wick Allison.)

“These
were well-cared-for young ladies,” Miller says. “They had nothing to
worry about. This was like a financial dream team. You know what I’m
saying? Here I am, a little guy from the hood. And I’m over here trying
to train these ladies to play good, fast-break basketball.”

One
of the players says Miller completely changed the team’s mindset about
how to play the game, emphasizing a less-structured offense centered on
the fast break. And there was something else: “He was tough on us,” she
says. “He was always yelling stuff, but not a mean yelling. We
respected him. If he says do something, you do it—and you do it fast.”

The HP girls played against girls from 5A high school teams—tough competition—and went undefeated in their spring league.

The
other point worth making is that when you talk to select youth
basketball coaches in the area who aren’t named Wes Grandstaff, they
will tell you that they’ve never had a problem with Miller. Joey
Simmons, for instance, thinks there’s a lot of jealousy out there, and
he would know. Until recently, he was the chairman of AAU girls
basketball in the Southwestern District—Grandstaff’s counterpart.
Simmons has also coached for about 30 years, and his Texas Express
girls have won three national championships in a row. Several of his
players have gone on to the WNBA. And he has coached against Miller.

Simmons
says gender is a factor. “The boys have gotten real bad over the last
five or six years,” he says. “I can tell you that I wouldn’t be
surprised by anything that goes on out there on the boys side. If money
was changing hands, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

As for Miller, he
says, “When you’re on top, you’re going to have people that don’t want
to say nice things about you. Who’s on top right now? Tim Miller.”

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