Larry Miller was 'the best ever' in Lehigh Valley basketball
Every school day, dozens of Catasauqua High students walk past a trophy case in the hallway just outside the school's gym. In that case hangs a faded, white basketball uniform with brown trim and the number 40 stitched on the front.
On a typical day, no one stops to look at the uniform and most probably don't know the person who wore it.
But 50 years ago, that uniform and the guy who wore it were known by virtually everybody; not only in Catasauqua, not only in the Lehigh Valley, but also the entire state.
The guy who wore that white jersey, and an accompanying brown No. 41 jersey for road games, was Larry Miller.
In March1964, Miller was finishing up arguably the greatest high school basketball career, and greatest career of any local high school athlete, by playing in some of the most memorable games in local basketball history before going on to play at the University of North Carolina.
Everyone was there.
And if they weren't, they wanted to be.
In the same winter that the Beatles first arrived in America to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Miller was the Beatles of Lehigh Valley basketball, the king of Catty.
He still lives in Catasauqua near the Lincoln Gym where he once packed in 1,100 people per game and attracted pregame ticket lines that stretched for blocks.
These days, Miller, who never married or had children, lives quietly by himself, choosing to avoid the limelight he could still command as a Lehigh Valley legend.
He's content to keep those memories in scrapbooks and in the hearts and minds of the people who still treasure those special nights.
When he walks around Catasauqua today, he said, most people don't recognize him.
"That's a good thing," said Miller, who declined to be photographed and was interviewed by phone for this story. "A lot of people in the town now don't know who I am, and a lot of people don't even know that I played basketball. Many of them aren't old enough to have seen me play. And I'm fine with it. Unless somebody wants to talk about it, I don't bring it up. I'm through with all of that stuff."
'The best ever'
People love to talk about Larry Miller because there was never anybody like him before, or since. He was a strapping 6-foot-4, 215 pounds; a left-hander with explosive legs and a deft shooting touch.
He played football in Catasauqua and was an all-league player before dedicating himself to basketball.
Joe Murphy, a sophomore at the time, tells of when Miller, a senior, went out for the track team at Catty.
"The guys out on the team were struggling to get over the high jump at 5-foot-3 or 5-foot-4," Murphy said. "Larry comes over and just jumps over it like he was a hurdler. It was no big deal. He had amazing physical attributes. His hands were like meat hooks."
The people of Catty had grown accustomed to success in basketball. The Rough Riders won District 11 titles in 1952 and1960, the year before Miller made his debut.
But they had never seen anybody like Miller. No one had. His physical attributes and talent along with his work ethic set him apart.
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"He was the best ever, no doubt about it," longtime RCN4-TV broadcaster Gary Laubach said.
Laubach played against Miller while at Wilson High School and has seen the area's best over the past 40 years.
"Larry was a complete player," Laubach said. "He could do everything."
Bob Riedy, a 1963 Dieruff High School grad who played against Miller on the playgrounds and then later while a starter at Duke, said simply: "Larry is the standard of anybody who has ever come out of that area."
Riedy said Miller honed his game in summer pickup games that included members of the Allentown Jets, a pro team in the Eastern League that was affiliated with the NBA.
At an early age, Riedy said, Miller could more than hold his own against guys who were often an injury away from playing in the NBA.
"Larry had all of the skills, and physically, even in high school he looked like a college player," Riedy said. "He was not only 6-foot-4, but he also was also strong. He got even better in college. When I was a senior at Duke, we played Carolina in the [Atlantic Coast Conference] tournament and he just torched me. I think he was either 12-for-13 or 11-for-12 shooting."
Riedy, who tried to help recruit Miller to join him at Duke, said players like Miller and Dieruff's Skip Kintz and Tommy Young would play on the playgrounds even after they were in college.
"Larry had such a reputation that people would find out who was playing on the playground and all of a sudden there would be 50 or 60 people there watching us," Riedy said.
Five decades after his last game, Miller is still the all-time leading scorer in District 11 boys basketball history with 2,722 points.
At the time of his graduation, he was second all-time in Pennsylvania behind only West Reading's Ron Krick, a 6-foot-8 player who scored 3,174. Even a couple of decades after the advent of the 3-point shot boosted scoring totals, Miller ranks 12th on the state's all-time scoring list.
Miller did more than score, however. He also had 2,062 career rebounds.
In his final season at Catty, 1963-64, Miller led the Rough Riders to their fifth straight Lehigh Valley League title and third straight District 11 championship. He scored 911 points in 26 games that season, an average of 35 points per game.
In an era before the triple-double (at least 10 points, rebounds and assists in a game) became a staple in the basketball vocabulary, Miller averaged nearly a double triple-double per night, routinely grabbing 20 rebounds and nearly as many assists.
On the day after Christmas in 1963, Miller had 29 points and 31 rebounds in Catty's 77-72 win over Bishop McCort in the Johnstown Invitational tournament.
In a Jan. 17 game against Slatington, Miller scored 37 points, with 37 rebounds and 17 assists.
In his final game at Lincoln Gym on Feb. 21, Miller gave the Rough Riders fans something to remember — a record-breaking 65-point performance against Stroudsburg. Miller had set the Lehigh Valley League record the previous year with 53 points.
"He was a man among boys," said Evan Burian, a Lehigh Valley sports historian. "I played at Emmaus and played against Larry. Trying to guard him was futile."
"Larry was ahead of his time," Young said. "If he knew he didn't have a good shot, he'd throw the ball up against the backboard and he'd go up and get it and put it in. You couldn't stop him."
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Perhaps his most brilliant performance came in the state quarterfinals in 1964 against Steelton-Highspire. He made 19 of 29 shots in scoring 46 points and also grabbed 20 rebounds in a 65-62 win over the Steamrollers.
Miller's high school career ended a few days later on March 18, 1964, at Harrisburg against Plymouth-Whitemarsh, but Miller didn't disappoint. He scored 26 in the 75-67 loss.
"I hated to lose, but you try to move on because you're so young and have so many things to look forward to," Miller said. "When I think about it, what we accomplished at Catasauqua was impressive because we were a small school playing Class A, which was the biggest classification at that time."
Meeting at Midway
Miller's numbers on the court led to amazing attendance numbers as well. Today, anything close to 2,000 at a high school game is considered a big crowd.
Miller and Catty routinely drew five times as many people for playoff games in Hershey and Harrisburg.
"Whenever we played a home game, people were jammed out in the parking lot, even though many of them knew they weren't going to get into the game," said Miller's teammate, Jimmy Van Horn. "I remember Sports Illustrated did an article and had a picture showing all of the buses going out to Hershey and Harrisburg for playoff games. Catasauqua was a ghost town on those nights."
The entire town piled into cars and buses and created a traffic jam on Route 22 and Interstate 78 that stretched westward toward either the HersheyparkArena or Harrisburg's Farm Show Arena.
"A lot of people would stop at the Midway Diner before and after the games," said Ray "Reds" Laubach, a former Catasauqua player, coach and athletic director. "After the games, there was a lot of boasting going on because we'd usually win. Really, Larry put the entire town on his back."
It wasn't just Catty fans going to the games either. The entire Lehigh Valley knew it was seeing someone special, someone with talent they likely would never see again.
"Larry Miller didn't belong just to Catty, he belonged to the entire Lehigh Valley," Burian said. "I remember I went to the games with a bunch of Emmaus people. And there were people from Allentown, Whitehall, Northampton, everywhere around here going to the games because they knew this guy was great."
Basketball fans in Catasauqua and throughout the Lehigh Valley became North Carolina fans after Miller graduated and became one of legendary coach Dean Smith's first big-time recruits.
To this day, many Catty people remain devoted Tar Heels followers. That likely has more to do with Miller's legacy in Chapel Hill than the exploits ofMichael Jordan a couple of decades later.
Miller was so popular that a local radio station forged a deal to broadcast all North Carolina games so people in the Lehigh Valley could hear Miller's games in an era when TV coverage was sparse. In the days before satellite radio made hearing such games possible, local businesses came together to cover the broadcast costs.
"The Catty people actually started the Carolina radio network that stretched from Florida to Maine," Miller said.
Miller was a three-year starter for Smith, scoring 1,982 points and helping Smith get to the first two of his 11 Final Four appearances.
After his senior season in 1968, Miller was one-fifth of the most famous All-American team ever selected, one that included Basketball Hall of Famers Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Pete Maravich.
Tom Moll, the current Catasauqua athletic director and a big North Carolina fan, was in Greensboro, N.C., for the ACC tournament last weekend and ran into former Duke coach and NCAA basketball broadcaster Bucky Waters. Their conversation turned to Miller.
"We got to talking and he asked me where I was from," Moll said. "When I said 'Catasauqua, Pennsylvania,' he dropped the spoon he was using to eat his soup and said instantly 'Larry Miller.' We spent the rest of the time talking about Larry, and Bucky was asking about him."
Miller, a two-time All-American at North Carolina, was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA but decided to play in the now-defunct American Basketball Association. He played for eight years with various teams in the ABA, setting the league scoring record with 67 points in a game on March 18, 1972, precisely eight years to the day of his last game for Catasauqua.
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During his time as a pro basketball player, where he played for the Los Angeles Stars and San Diego Conquistadors, Miller was referred to as "The West Coast's Joe Namath" in one newspaper and his good looks generated some interest in Hollywood, where he appeared on TV's "The Dating Game." But Miller, who calls himself "an East Coast kind of guy," didn't stay in California.
When his playing career ended in 1975, he made his way to Virginia Beach, where he worked in real estate, and Raleigh, N.C., for a few decades. He returned to Catasauqua a little more than 10 years ago to take care of his mother, Magdalene, who has since died. His father, Julius "Chummy" Miller, died in 1992 while Larry was living out of the area.
Miller never looked at himself as anything special when he was a high school kid in Catty, and he didn't want a hero's welcome when he returned. He prefers to keep it low-key and let others talk about his exploits of five decades ago.
"When he first came back to the area, we invited him to come out and talk to our team or to come to a practice," current Catty boys basketball coach Eric Snyder said. "But he declined. He wasn't rude about it or anything. It's just not something he wanted to do. But there's no doubt that he could still own this town if he wanted to."
Miller, who will turn 68 on April 4, is content to let others do the boasting for him. It's not his style. Neither, evidently, has it ever been.
"I always considered myself to be just another kid in town or the guy who lived next door," he said. "I moved back here when my mother was ill about 10 years ago, and I stayed with her in the last year of her life. After she died, I wasn't sure where I was going to go after that, but I reconnected with so many people and made some new friends.
"I've lived in other places. This is as good as any place to live. I don't drive anymore, but everything is so close by."
Miller said he hasn't even attended an event at North Carolina since the early 1990s. In the 2005 book "North Carolina Tar Heels: Where Have You Gone?" author Scott Fowler devotes a chapter to Miller, referring to him as "mysterious" at one point.
"Several years ago, ESPN honored Dean Smith with a special show and asked me to be on it, but I didn't do it," Miller said. "Carolina also had a 100th basketball anniversary and I was invited back, but I didn't go to that either. I've been honored enough. Even if they put me in the College Basketball Hall of Fame, I wouldn't attend the ceremony."
In 2004 shortly after Miller's return to the area, Catasauqua created a Sports Hall of Fame and Miller was among the first inducted.
"With the Hall of Fame, we spread it over two nights," athletic director Moll said. "The first night we honor the inductees at a basketball game. We were still at Lincoln Gym in 2004, and the place was packed just like it was when Larry played. There was a huge groan from the crowd when I announced that Larry wasn't there.
"But the second night is a banquet at the CatasauquaAmerican Legion. A lot of people said he wouldn't come to that either, but he was there. And when he spoke, he was great. He brought the house down."
One place Miller doesn't shy away from is the Catasauqua Public Library. Martha Birtcher, the library's director, said he had done volunteer work and donated a treasure trove of memorabilia.
"He has been very personable, very kind and generous," she said. "He donated a lot of clerical-type things for us and his memorabilia to us for use in our history room. He told us it was on indefinite loan. He has definitely been a friend to us."
Among the highlights of the collection are four scrapbooks that Miller's mother filled up with clippings of his career.
"People have come in just to look at those scrapbooks, even people from outside the area who played against Larry," Birtcher said. "You can tell he means a lot to so many people."
While he likes his privacy, Miller is cordial to people who have found out where he lives and have stopped by.
"I don't even know how they knew where I lived, but I was working in the backyard on a Saturday morning last summer and two guys drove up and had me signing things from Carolina," he said. "And then there was a guy from Northampton who came down and had his picture taken with me. I still get letters in the mail with people who want cards signed. So, it's still there."
Because he doesn't do public appearances, many wonder and worry about Miller's health.
Miller insists he's fine.
"God bless, my health is OK," he said. "I still do a lot but I can't do some of the physical things I used to do, and that's why it's sometimes hard for me to imagine the things I did as a player. Your body changes as you get older."
Miller's basketball life ended with the end of his professional career nearly 40 years ago.
"I had a lot of opportunities to get back into basketball after I quit playing," he said. "But when I walked away, I walked away. I didn't like pro basketball. Once you're in it, you understand it's a money game. It wasn't fun for me. So I didn't want to get back in it."
But in the hearts and minds of many, Larry Miller will always be synonymous with Lehigh Valley basketball, and he has no regrets.
"I can't argue with how my life has gone," he said. "Very few people get to set the standards or marks I set or leave an imprint for so many years as I have done. I'd also like to feel as though as I've treated people well and they remember me for that.
"I think I have the right values, which I got from my parents, and that, in turn, leads to a good life. No, I can't complain."