INDIANAPOLIS — A tall, spindly California kid, a guard who could shoot the lights out on a basketball court was on Donnie Walsh’s radar.
But to be clear, and it kind of pains Walsh to say it 35 years later, that kid — Reggie Miller — wasn’t his first choice.
The player Walsh thought could make the biggest difference for the Indiana Pacers going into the 1987 NBA draft was a 6-foot-1 point guard named Kevin Johnson.
Johnson was a standout at the University of California, Berkeley. He ended his college career as the school’s all-time leader in assists, steals and scoring and he was the guy Walsh wanted for the team’s 11th pick.
Going into the draft, the Pacers needed a point guard, said Walsh, who was then the team’s general manager. People in Indiana wanted him to take hometown favorite Steve Alford, who had just won an NCAA title at IU. Walsh said he never entertained that thought.
He had his mind set on Johnson, who in high school led the state of California in scoring (32.5 points) and was named the Northern California Player of the Year.
“This kid was good,” Walsh said from his Indianapolis home this month. “So if I could have gotten him, I probably would have taken him. But I realized pretty quickly that we weren’t going to get him.”
Walsh studied the draft. And when he says he studied, he analyzed and scrutinized players, crunched stats, watched tape and scoured the needs of opposing NBA teams.
“I could tell you everybody and where they were going when I walked in the room,” Walsh said. “So if there was any change, that’s when you had to make a quick decision because that meant a player you thought was better than the guy that got chosen was out there.”
Walsh never counted on getting Johnson in 1987. His research told him Johnson would be gone long before the 11th pick. Walsh started plotting.
He went to then-Pacers coach Jack Ramsay.
“And I had a tape of Reggie and I said, ‘Jack, I want you to look at this because I don’t know if we’re going to get the kid we were looking for,'” Walsh said. “I watched it that night and he came back in and said, ‘Yeah, I’d take him.’ And I said, ‘So would I,’ and so that’s what we did.”
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‘Things turned out OK’
The draft is very tricky, Walsh said.
“You can’t just go for a position,” he said. “In other words, you might need a point guard but there may be some other great player there that you should take if you didn’t need a point guard.”
With Johnson already picked 7th by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1987, Walsh didn’t go for position. He passed up his need for a point guard and took that great player, Miller.
Then, Walsh sat and waited for the season to begin. “I’m hoping like hell that Reggie would be good.”
Walsh compares making picks in the draft to being a stockbroker.
“I’m sure for the guys on Wall Street, it’s like picking the right stock. They think it’s going to go, but they’re not sure it’s going to go,” he said. “They have all this data that says it’s going to go, but it doesn’t always go.”
Thankfully for Walsh, Miller went. He says he knew immediately that he’d made the right decision.
“I don’t care what you get picked, all of a sudden when you come out there and you have to play for a pro team, you’re going to get exposed really quick because there are elements to the pro game that you haven’t ‘t dealt with at all,” Walsh said. “You could just tell the way he played that he wasn’t intimidated at all. That’s the way Reggie was.”
Miller is widely regarded as the Pacers’ greatest player of all time. He was a loyal Indiana fixture who played all 18 years of his NBA career with the Pacers. He was a five-time All-Star selection, led the league in free throw percentage five times and won a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“I can tell you this. It was ridiculous how many last second shots he made,” Walsh said. “And at the end of the game when it was really close and they would foul him? The minute they fouled him, I just added in my mind two points to the scoreboard and he always made them.”
Johnson, Walsh’s first choice in the 1987 NBA draft, played his first season in Cleveland then spent a decade with the Phoenix Suns. He was a 3-time NBA All-Star and made the playoffs every year of his career after his rookie season. In 2001, Johnson’s No. 7 was retired by the Suns and he was inducted into their Ring of Honor.
“I’ve turned out to be a very good player,” Walsh said. Johnson later became the mayor of Sacramento from 2008-2016.
Miller became the oldest, too — the king of the Indiana Pacers.
“Things turned out OK,” Walsh said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism