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INDIANAPOLIS – It was supposed to end like this, wasn't it? The ball in his hands, the game still undecided? The only thing he needed was for his last shot to drop.
The Pacers weren't even supposed to be here. Game 6 in the Eastern semis? Reggie Miller's career was supposed to be over the day that "thank you" Bentley rolled out on the court a month ago. Then it was supposed to be over in Boston 10 days ago.
Somehow, his shot just kept dropping.
He would no longer come to Conseco early.
He would no longer yell at David Benner before games.
He would no longer look down at his feet before he let the ball go, to make sure they were behind the line that defined his career.
He would no longer have to save a team.
With 6:07 left Thursday night, he rose off the bench to enter a game for the last time. ESPN's Rachel Nichols made the statement that everyone in the place – including the Pistons – was thinking: It's going to come down to him! He was 9-for-12 at the time, 21 points. The game was his to win, never to lose. He just needed to get the ball. He needed the clock to keep going down whenever he had the ball in his hands.
He has a tendency to do this, you know … play for other people, play for the love of someone else.
Jermaine O'Neal, once again, knew that the stakes were much bigger than advancing the series to one more game and a chance to advance to the next round. He knew this was all about extending a career that might be one of the most important in basketball history.
See, this game was not about Miller. It was about a young team leader who played in a series against the world champs with only one arm. It was about O'Neal battling against Rasheed and Ben Wallace, solo. Left-handed. Never once saying anything about how injured he really is.
Because he knew. He knew deep down that the man who gave him the opportunity to become who he has become in this game was about to say goodbye. Jermaine promised this man when he came here that he'd get him a title. And even though he knew it wasn't going to happen tonight – and, therefore, that it wasn't ever going to happen – J.O. wanted to let his hero know that he was going out doing whatever he could to keep his promise.
O'Neal scored 22 points, had 11 boards and swatted three shots. All with 40 percent mobility in his right (shooting) shoulder. He gave this last game more than everything he had. He did everything he could to extend Reggie's career. He tried.
This meant more to Reggie than anything else. The attempt, not the outcome. This is the reason he is able to leave with his head held high.
It was hard to watch and not get caught up in the moment. Even in the stands, it was hard to concentrate on which was more important: the possibility that this was Reggie's last game, or the possibility that this was the game that knocks the Pacers out of the playoffs.
The reminders were omnipresent. Tribute books, I (heart) Reggie T-shirts, commemorative white leather basketballs engraved with his career stats, Ron Artest jerseys offered at 25 percent off.
And the chants. … They'd chant his name three times, then stop. Then they'd chant again. Three times, then stop. It went on all night. Reggie. Reggie. Reggie.
Yet you asked yourself as the clock kept ticking …
At what point is the adrenaline going to stop?
At what point will they realize that this is it?
At what point will it all come to an end?
With the Pacers up by eight midway through the third quarter, you got the answers to those questions. The Pistons went on an 11-2 run. The only thing left was for Reggie to make it exciting.
It would have been nice to see him go out in a Game 7.
In the end, he sat in a chair, on a podium, in a suit. Head held high, in front of the media who for many years hated him.
You could still see the redness in his eyes from his "Cooley High" moment in the locker room with his fellas. Damn yesterday; it's hard to say goodbye today.
He used words like "bittersweet." Said things like, "words could never express how I feel … " and "I came here to Indiana not knowing anyone … " and "I was 2,000 miles away from home … "
In the end, it was just him and us. No kids, no fam, no Cheryl. Just him against the enemy. The enemy that fell in love with him. Jordan, Magic, Bird, Malone, Isiah … none of them went out the way he did: the opposing team stopping the game to give him a five-minute standing ovation, the media at his last news conference standing up and clapping for him, the refs giving him hugs and good wishes on the court when the game was over.
Reggie had the ability to make you love him. Even in contempt. In the end, it wasn't the 27 points (11-for-16!) he scored in this last game. It was the attempt. It was the fact that you knew, whether the shots were going to drop or not, that he was going out with the clip empty. That was all that mattered.
So when he sat up there at that podium and his last words were, "I didn't win the ultimate prize, but I'll leave it at this: I tried," all anyone could do was say nothing, remain speechless. Stand. Recognize. Know that we might never see another one like him again.
They say that all great shooters, clutch shooters, have a superstition. They never leave the court without making their last shot.
Reggie missed his last two. Not that they would have made a difference in how the game ended, but they would have been a beautiful final brushstroke on the portrait that is his career.
As Reggie climbed into his car, O'Neal was already outside the arena in his Range, signing autographs for the kids on the streets who came to say goodbye to Reggie, who were also there to say hello to J.O. Come October, it's all on him. The Pacers are his team now. Tonight, after 18 years, Reggie officially handed it over to him. Now he has to reshape Reggie's franchise into his own image.
He wants to keep his promise.
"Everything I do now, I have to dedicate to Reggie," he said.
As long as he continues to perfect the process Reggie passed on to him Thursday night, the outcome will finally exceed the attempt.