It's true what they say about kids today. They don't know their geography. Andre Miller, the point guard for Utah, admits there was a time when he couldn't find the state on a map.
"When they first contacted me, it was like 'Utah? What about it?' " Miller said Sunday at the Alamodome. "I knew it was in the West, but I had no idea where. I was an L.A. person, and all I knew was I wanted to stay in L.A."
His mother, Andrea, had other ideas. She knew one thing about Utah: It wasn't South Central Los Angeles, the harsh urban section where her son walked the streets every day.
She knew if he was going to make it, he'd be better off playing college ball in a more structured, sedate environment.
The Utah assistants raved about their head man, Rick Majerus, who emphasized schoolwork. They promised that Andre would graduate on time if he went to Salt Lake City. She liked the sound of that.
"They buttered my mom up big-time," Miller said. "I wanted to go to junior-college and stay home. She said, 'Get out of this house and go to Utah, and don't come back.' "
There was no point debating. In the autumn of 1994, he headed off to Utah, leaving a mainly segregated black culture for one that was overwhelmingly white.
Miller figured it was worth a shot. It's not as if he was some hotshot recruit. The only other schools pursuing him were Oregon, Long Beach State and San Diego. He had to go somewhere, and Utah was the best program on his list.
"All my friends were trying to get out of the neighborhood, too," he said. "They were enlisting in the Army and the Navy. They said, 'You've got a free ride. You're going to play ball with all those big white guys in Corvettes.' "
Miller admits he had the Utah players stereotyped as big and slow. But once he got there and started playing with the likes of Keith Van Horn, he realized what terrific players they were. He wanted to prove he could fit in.
The problem was, he hadn't passed the SAT or ACT tests needed to be eligible. One day, just before Utah was leaving for the Maui Classic, he found out he'd failed again. He'd have to sit out a year under Proposition 48.
"He was hurt and crushed," said Majerus. "But sitting out gave him a greater appreciation for the game, and its place in his life. It helped him in the discovery of self."
Majerus took Miller to dinner and told him, "If this is the worst thing that ever happens to you, you're going to have a great life." He told him to work hard in class and prove something to people who said he was a typical dumb jock who couldn't handle Utah's system.
"He told me I was going to be a great player," Miller said. "He told me to show people I could make it, and I did."
It wasn't easy. Miller remembers sitting in his dorm room as a freshman, watching his roommate, Michael Doleac, pack for road trips, knowing the NCAA rules prohibited him from spending time around the team.
His mother had taken out "loans, loans and more loans" to pay his way, because he had lost his scholarship. Strapped for cash, he had put on 20 pounds eating junk food.
But he persevered. He succeeded in the classroom, regained his eligibility and turned into the great guard Majerus had envisioned when he saw him in an L.A. summer league game in 1993.
The 6-foot-2 junior has been the dominant player in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 16.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists to lead Utah into tonight's championship game against Kentucky.
He was a revelation in back-to-back upsets of No. 1 seeds Arizona and North Carolina. In those games, he averaged a triple-double (17 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) to become Andre the giant-killer.
"He's so strong, and yet he's very quick," said Kentucky's Scott Padgett. "He can get into the lane and still be able to muscle the ball into the hole. Also, he has great eyes. He sees the floor very well."
After the Utes' first-round NCAA win over San Francisco, Majerus called a team meeting and said from that moment forward, Miller had the green light to do what he wanted with the ball.
"I have to try to score whenever I can," he said. "The players knew I wouldn't abuse it. They knew I needed to be more aggressive and attack more."
His coach and teammates are even more impressed with the way he's attacked his studies. Miller has a 2.6 grade-point average. Majerus, who has nine players on the honor roll, said he's more proud of Miller than any other player.
As Majerus promised, Miller is on time to graduate in June. Under new NCAA rules, he can reclaim his fourth year of eligibility. "It took a lot of courage and effort to come to a place like Utah," said Doleac. "It's obviously a lot different from L.A. I was amazing at how hard he studied, the time he put in, and how he kept his spirits up. He made the best of a bad situation."
It seemed ironic Sunday to hear Miller answering questions about supposed racist comments made by a teammate, Britton Johnsen, to North Carolina's Makhtar Ndiaye in Saturday's game.
Ndiaye claims he spat in Johnson's face after Johnsen called him a "nigger." Johnsen denies it and Majerus says he'll resign if the accusations are true.
Miller said he couldn't imagine Johnson saying such a thing. During his time in Utah, he's found that people can look past skin color to the character of the man inside.
"Basketball doesn't really have a color," Miller said. "When you go out on the floor -- white, black, Asian, pink, it doesn't matter to me."