INDIANAPOLIS – A tall kid from California, a guard who could turn off the lights on a basketball court was on Donnie Walsh’s radar.
But to be clear, and it’s a bit painful for Walsh to say that 35 years later, this kid – Reggie Miller – was not his first choice.
The player that Walsh believed could make the biggest difference for the Indiana Pacers in the 1987 NBA Draft was a 6-foot point guard named Kevin Johnson.
Johnson excelled at the University of California, Berkeley. He ended his college career as the all-time leader of the school in assists, steals and scoring and 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 to get his favorite Steve Alford, who had just won an NCAA title at IU. Walsh said he never had that thought.
He had in mind Johnson, who in high school led the state of California to score (32.5 points) and was named the best player of the year in Northern California.
“This kid was good,” Walsh said of his home in Indianapolis this month. “So if I could have taken him, I probably would have taken him. But I realized very quickly that we were not going to take him.”
Walsh studied the draft. And when he says he studied, analyzed and examined the players, he dropped statistics, watched a tape and researched the needs of NBA rival teams.
“I could tell you all and where they were going when I entered the room,” Walsh said. “So if there was a change, then you had to make a quick decision because it meant that a player you thought was better than the guy selected was out there.”
Walsh never expected to take Johnson in 1987. His research told him that Johnson would leave long before the 11th election. Walsh began designing.
He went to the then Pacers coach, Jack Ramsay.
“And I had a tape with Reggie and I said, ‘Jack, I want you to see it because I do not know if we will get the kid we’re looking for,'” Walls said. “He watched it that night and came back and said, ‘Yes, I would take it.’ And I said, ‘I would do it,’ and so we did.”
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“Things went well”
The draft is very difficult, Walsh said.
“You can not just go for a position,” he said. “In other words, you may need a point guard, but there may be another great player out there that you should take if you do not need a point guard.”
With Johnson already selected 7th by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1987, Walsh did not go for the position. He overcame his need for a point guard and got this great player, Miller.
Then Walsh sat down and waited for the season to start. “Hopefully Reggie would be fine.”
Walsh compares options in the plan with being a stockbroker.
“I’m sure for the guys on Wall Street, it’s like choosing the right stock. They think it will go, but they’re not sure it will go,” he said. “They have all this data that says it will go, but it does not always go.”
Fortunately for Walsh, Miller is gone. He says he immediately realized he had made the right decision.
“I do not care what you choose, suddenly when you go out there and you have to play for a professional team, you will be exposed very quickly because there are elements in the professional game you have I did not care at all,” said Walsh. “You could tell by the way he played that he was not intimidated at all. That was Reggie.”
Miller is widely regarded as the Pacers’ greatest player of all time. He was a loyal Indiana player who played all 18 years of his NBA career with the Pacers. He was a five-time All-Star, led the league with five free throws and won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“I can tell you that. It was ridiculous how many last-minute shots he made,” Walsh said. “And at the end of the game when he was very close and they would have fouled him? The minute they fouled him, I just added two points to my mind in the scoreboard and he always made them.”
Johnson, Walsh’s first pick in the NBA Draft in 1987, played his first season in Cleveland and then spent a decade with the Phoenix Suns. He was a three-time NBA All-Star and made the playoffs every year of his career as a rookie. In 2001, Johnson No. 7 retired from the Suns and entered their Ring of Honor.
“He proved to be a very good player,” said Walsh. Johnson later became mayor of Sacramento from 2008 to 2016.
Miller also became mayor – the king of the Indiana Pacers.
“Things went well,” Walsh said.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Contact her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared on the Indianapolis Star: Reggie Miller was not the Pacers’ first choice in 1987. Kevin Johnson was.