To a basketball junkie point guard growing up in the Pittsburgh area in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Isiah Thomas was the gold standard.
For a Steel City kid with no local NBA team, Thomas and the blue collar Detroit Pistons stood out above the rest.
That’s why when it was time for a young Archie Miller to pick jersey number in grade school, the choice was easy.
“For me, when I was growing up, I wore No. 11 growing up because of Isiah Thomas, Miller said earlier this week.
“When I was at the grade school and junior high level, I wore No. 11 all the way into college and it started with Isiah Thomas and those (Detroit Pistons) ‘Bad Boy’ teams in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
Of course Thomas wore No. 11 with the Pistons, and he also wore that jersey number for his two season as the starting point guard at Indiana.
What Miller did not know of course when he chose Thomas’ No. 11 as a young boy was that he would one day become the head coach at his idol’s alma mater.
It is kind of just like that with Miller and the Indiana jersey No. 11 — almost like a game of six degrees of separation.
Former No. 11 Dane Fife helped Indiana beat Miller’s ACC nemesis Duke in the 2002 NCAA Tournament, and now goes against Miller at Michigan State.
Former No. 11 Dan Dakich has hosted Miller on his radio show, served as color commentator on some of his games, and hasn’t been afraid to publicly criticize the IU head coach.
Former No. 11 Errek Suhr is the IU radio network color commentator that sits just a few rows up from Miller at every home game and travels with the team on the road.
Former No. 11 Daniel Moore played high school basketball for Mark Galloway, the father of IU class of 2020 signee Trey Galloway.
Former No. 11 Yogi Ferrell’s high school coach Ed Schilling was part of Miller’s first coaching staff in Bloomington.
And so of course it stands to reason that Miller’s greatest challenge on his current team — and at times his greatest talent — is No. 11 Devonte Green.
But it all started Isiah.
“Growing up Isiah Thomas was the guy,” Miller said. “He was the best of the best. When you thought about point guards, you thought about Isiah Thomas.”
A member of the hall-of-fame, a 12-time NBA All-Star and two-time NBA champion, Thomas played his last game in 1994, before anyone on the current Indiana team was born.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how good he was,” Miller said.
If he had to compare Thomas to a present day NBA star that his players could relate to? Why not another No. 11.
“He was Kyrie Irving before Kyrie Irving ever showed up,” Miller added.
Miller was talking about Thomas this week because Indiana is going to honor the 1979-80 Big Ten championship team at halftime of the game on Saturday against Purdue. Thomas was a true freshman starting point guard on that squad, averaging 14.6 points and 5.5 assists.
There are likely to be no degrees of separation between the former No. 11s Miller and Thomas this weekend. While not confirmed, it sounds likely that Thomas will be at the game, along with a host of other former IU greats. Maybe even the coach of that ’79-80 team?
No one knows for sure on that latter point except for Bob Knight and his wife Karen, but the rumors and the speculation seem much more legitimate than they have been in the past. Just as has always been the case, that decision rests solely with the Coach and his family.
Thomas was the first Indiana player to wear No. 11 for Knight at Indiana. Perhaps on Saturday, the player who Miller idolized and the coach whose shadow he in so many ways serves under will all be at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Indiana does not retire numbers, which is of course the only reason why we can talk about all of the subsequent Hoosiers to wear No. 11.
The passing down of legendary jersey numbers is part of the fabric of IU basketball. Just like Thomas and Knight.
And the enduring question about whether Knight will ever return to an Indiana game has also become stitched into the narrative around the program.
While the jersey numbers seem destined to continue to be passed down at Indiana forever, Miller might get to spend some time this weekend with his boyhood idol and the greatest Hoosier to wear No. 11.
Thomas’ No. 11 doesn’t hang from the rafters in Bloomington, but his likeness is portrayed in a larger than life sculpture depicting his iconic layup against North Carolina in the 1981 National Championship game, Knight’s second title at Indiana.
Knight is notably absent from the sculptures that adorn the south lobby of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
He declined to be portrayed, just like he has declined to return to the building for a game so many times before.
While the passing down of jersey numbers seems destined to carry on forever, the lingering questions about Knight just might finally come to an end on Saturday.
Maybe with his best No. 11 there.
Along with the kid from Pittsburgh who idolized a point guard, and followed in the footsteps of his coach.
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