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‘He’s an inspiration, in all candor’
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‘He’s an inspiration, in all candor’

Miller’s journey from walk-on, to scholarship player, to starting lineup

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CHAPEL HILL — The night before Wes Miller came into this world, his parents attended a Wake Forest-North Carolina basketball game at the Greensboro Coliseum.

The Tar Heels won, 80-78. It wasn’t the result they’d hoped for, given that Ken Miller was a former Wake baseball player who would go on to become one of his alma mater’s more generous donors. But the details were easily forgotten when, several hours later, Susan Miller went into labor and, on the morning of Jan. 28, 1983, their first child was born.

Life has come full circle for Wes Miller in the intervening 23 years. He grew up with a front-row seat to ACC basketball. Now he has fulfilled his dream of playing in the league, something that, at 5-foot-11, seemed a long-shot at times. He’ll be on the court today at Joel Coliseum, for the first time a participant in a Wake-UNC game (1:30 p.m., WXLV-45).

Miller is a North Carolina junior, a former walk-on who has started the last eight games at guard. For obvious reasons, the family’s loyalties have been split. Susan, now living in Charlotte, says she bleeds Carolina blue. Ken, a Greensboro businessman, attends as many games in Chapel Hill as in Winston-Salem these days.

“I can’t tell you how great a feeling it is for me,” Wes Miller said. “But I can’t stress enough that the dream’s not over. I’m not satisfied or complacent with where I am. I want to keep pushing forward, and I want this team to keep doing good things. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

To get to this point, Miller has spent hours alone in his driveway or in an empty high school gym flicking shot after shot, perfecting a stroke that would keep his ambitions alive. He attended prep schools in Mercersburg, Pa., and Nashua, N.H., to improve his game and for recruiting exposure. Thinking a Division I scholarship was the thing, he spent a year at James Madison.

Then came a conversation with North Carolina coach Roy Williams in the spring of 2003. Miller told him he wanted to be a coach some day, too.

“Here’s a youngster who has big-time dreams,” Williams thought, “and is working as hard as any person I’ve ever been around to make those dreams come true.”

There was no guarantee of a scholarship or playing time. But if he worked hard, he’d be on the team. Matt Doherty had made a similar offer a year earlier when he recruited Miller’s New Hampton Prep teammate, Rashad McCants. But Miller took a last-minute visit to James Madison and found it difficult to turn down the Dukes’ scholarship offer.

“I wanted to play,” Miller said. “I was worried that if I came here, I’d never play and that, if I wasn’t on scholarship, I’d be looked at differently and would feel differently about being here. Basically, I was just insecure about it.”

He was thankful for a second chance at North Carolina. Skip Prosser offered Miller the same opportunity at Wake Forest, where since 2001 the 50,000-square foot Kenneth D. Miller Center has been an integral part of the Deacons’ athletics complex. But it just didn’t seem as good a fit.

“Chris Paul was thought to be here forever, Wes went to prep school with McCants and they were close, things like that,” Prosser said. “We absolutely would have loved to have had him. I think he felt that his prospects at playing more earlier would be available more at Carolina than they would at Wake Forest.”

Miller also considered transferring to Columbia or Penn before he met with Williams. His mother reminded him he could be a star player at Columbia, whereas he might never play for the Tar Heels. Just something to think about.

“But I didn’t persuade him in any way,” Susan Miller said, “because what if he went to Columbia and regretted it the rest of his life?”

She understood the ACC was his dream, not the Ivy League.

With that in mind, a 3-point arc was drawn in the driveway when Wes was young. In junior high, he’d pull the Shoot-A-Way ball retriever out of the garage and shoot jumpers, sometimes until midnight.

Miller attended Greensboro Day through fourth grade. After his parents divorced, he went to Charlotte Country Day through ninth grade .

In high school, when Wes was in town on weekends visiting his father, he often called Greensboro Day coach Freddy Johnson and asked him to open the gym. Saturday morning, Sunday night, whenever.

“I use his name all the time with my players,” said Johnson, a good friend of Wes’ dad. “Here’s a kid who knew what he wanted to do and he made all the sacrifices to do it. He worked extremely hard to get there. A lot of people didn’t think he could do it.”

For two years, including the one he had to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules, Miller tried to guard Raymond Felton in practice. His effort earned him a scholarship going into his sophomore season. His defense has improved so much that Williams moved him into the starting lineup a month ago.

Miller scored 26 points last season, playing sporadically for the star-studded Heels. He had 18 in his first career start, Jan. 22 at Florida State, and averages 7.1 points per game .

“He’s an inspiration, in all candor,” Prosser said. “I haven’t seen anybody, watching tapes of other teams, play harder than (Tyler) Hansbrough and Wes Miller.”

Staff Writer Bill Hass contributed to this report.

Contact Jeff Carlton at 373-7065 or jcarlton@news-record.com

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