I’ve been a fan of NBA basketball for almost as long as I can remember. I bought my first pack of cards when I was seven, and I’ll never forget watching all-time greats duke it out during the 1999 playoffs! Later, I replayed those epic games on the Nintendo 64 and I found a favorite player. Although Oliver Miller is a name only known to the most ardent of basketball fans and trivia buffs, the guy became a childhood hero of mine. Today, I have nearly a hundred of his basketball cards.
Oliver Miller was born on April 6, 1970, in Fort Worth. After high school, the 6-foot-9, 280-pound center committed to play for the Arkansas Razorbacks. By the time his college career was through, Miller averaged 12.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 63.6% from the field. Scouts noted that Miller -known as the Big O due to his size- was a deft passer, a great shot-blocker, and a soft touch shooting near the basket. They also said that he needed to play more intensely and control his weight to be a force in the NBA.
Yep, the Big O was fat. Despite having real NBA-level skills, most casual fans only knew him as a punchline! I’ve always been a contrarian, though, and Miller’s size was a big part of why I connected with him as a basketball player: I was fat when I first started playing organized basketball in elementary school, fat when I played travel ball and on my middle school’s team, and fat when I scrimmaged and practiced with the high school team my senior year.
I’ve never been naturally athletic, but I practiced basketball obsessively and developed into a serviceable sixth man who averaged around six points, eight rebounds, and three assists in competitive play as a kid and as a teen. As I read the backs of my basketball cards, I realized that the Big O had a phenomenal college career. Despite what the scouts wrote, if Oliver Miller didn’t let his size get in the way of greatness, neither would I!
Oliver Miller was 280 pounds when he left Arkansas as the Razorbacks’ all-time leader in blocks and field goal percentage, but he showed up to the 1992 NBA draft combine weighing in at 318. Nevertheless, the Phoenix Suns grabbed him as the 22nd pick in the first round.
The Suns expected to make some noise during the 1992-93 season. After years of finishing near the top of the Western Conference standings, management upgraded the team’s roster to try and win it all by trading for all-time great Charles Barkley a week before the draft. Later, brash shooting guard and two-time NBA champion Danny Ainge signed with the Suns in free agency.
The changes proved positive as Barkley won the league’s MVP award and led the team to the top of the Western Conference standings. As a rookie, Miller played 56 games during the regular season and proved to be an immediate contributor by averaging 5.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over nineteen minutes of play per game. The Suns made it to the 1993 NBA Finals but were beat by Michael Jordan during the tail end of the Bulls’ first three-peat.
Basketball cards from Oliver Miller’s rookie year list his weight as 280 or 290 pounds, but he was really closer to 310 or 320. The Suns’ all-star guard Kevin Johnson got a hernia trying to lift the Big O off the floor! Despite that, Miller slimmed down during the offseason and increased his production during his second year in the NBA. Over 69 appearances, Miller recorded averages of 9.2 points, 2.3 blocks, 3.5 assists, and 6.9 rebounds over twenty-six minutes per game as the Suns finished third in their conference before they were defeated by the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals.
Miller signed with the Detroit Pistons at the end of his second NBA season. Although they’d won championships in 1989 and 1990, the Pistons were mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings by the mid 1990s and were trying to rebuild around Grant Hill, a sensational rookie out of Duke. Although his new team failed to make the playoffs, Miller started twenty-two of the sixty-four games he played, averaging 8.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 1.5 assists over 24.3 minutes in each contest.
Oliver Miller’s NBA totals were close to what I averaged during my own basketball years as a fellow fat guy. I became familiar with the Big O and other players of that era when I started playing games like NBA Jam 2000 and NBA Courtside 2, and started collecting basketball cards. Back then, there were pretty much four ways for a hobbyist to buy cards: you could buy a pack of a specific series (say, the 1995-96 Flair base series), you could buy a box of packs, you could go to a hobby shop for individual cards, or you could buy repacks.
I credit most of my basketball knowledge to repacks: they were bricks of random cards acquired by third parties that repackaged seventy-five or a hundred into a blister pack and sold them to places like Target or K-Mart. I bought a lot of repacks over the years and poured over the older cards, obsessively absorbing the stats and information they featured. I was a walking basketball encyclopedia by the time I was in third grade playing on my first team!
Playing organized basketball made me realize that it was a lot more fun to write the encyclopedia than it was to memorize it. That was a huge deal for me because I was self-conscious and shy. Playing helped me see that none of my limitations hurt me on the basketball court: I could dribble, shoot, rebound, and score, regardless of my weight. Basketball demonstrated that I could be a valuable member of a team.
I have Oliver Miller to thank for that since limitations didn’t matter for him either! At least not by the time I started following him: by the mid-1990s, most of the Big O’s basketball cards had been updated to list his weight as 310 pounds, but he was probably closer to 350. Despite it, Miller had the best season of his career in 1995-96 after a brand new team, the Toronto Raptors, chose him in the NBA expansion draft. In his first year as a full-time starter, he averaged 12.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game and was one of five players, including hall-of-famers David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, to record at least 100 points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks that season.
Nevertheless, Miller’s career year wasn’t enough to keep him on the team. His weight kept creeping up after his second season in Phoenix, and it limited his effectiveness just as the pro scouts from his days as a Razorback predicted. Worried about his commitment and focus, the Raptors released him at the end of the year.
The Big O bounced back by signing with the Dallas Mavericks the following October. Over 40 games, he recorded some of the lowest averages of his career -4.3 points, five rebounds, 1.4 assists, and a block- in about twenty minutes of action per contest. Cards from his stint in Dallas show him looking chunkier than in years past, and the Mavericks waived him. Although he went back to the Raptors for the rest of the year, the Big O started less than half of the games he appeared in there and recorded numbers similar to what he produced in Dallas. His weight -a limitation he defied for eight years in college and the pros- was finally beginning to catch up with him.
Miller’s year split between Dallas and Toronto was right around when I got into basketball cards. Twenty-five years ago, card collecting was much different than it is today. Brands like Fleer, Flair, Topps, Upper Deck, Skybox, and NBA Hoops churned out tens of millions of cards each year, and retail was overstocked! In 1999, I spent a princely $20 of birthday money at Meijer on a dusty, unopened box of 1989-90 NBA Hoops cards with four David Robinson rookies in it! These days, it’s impossible to find a brand-new box unless you’re there within three minutes of the shelf being stocked.
Another thing card companies used to do more often was print mid-season refreshes of their base sets. At the start of the 1996-97 season, Fleer’s set depicted Oliver Miller as a Maverick. Card 105, released later in the season, showed the Big O as a Raptor! Slow-moving card stock allowed me to pull the Raptors card out of a retail pack I bought around 1998, and I got the Mavericks card several years later from a Walgreens in Fort Wayne from a repack.
Oliver Miller spent another year with the Raptors and averaged 6.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in twenty-five minutes a game before he played for a team in Greece for most of the 1998-99 season. No good can come from an NBA player playing a season overseas, and afterward, the Big O came back to sign with the Sacramento Kings as a free agent. At 400 pounds, Miller barely played and recorded a total of ten points, two blocks, and eight rebounds over four whole games. After the Kings released him from his contract, he returned to Phoenix, where he averaged 6.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and 1.3 assists.
There aren’t any basketball cards that depict the Big O in a Kings uniform, but I do have a few from his later tenure with the Suns. After that, Miller’s career fell apart: two brief stints with the Harlem Globetrotters bookended a year in Poland, and he played for the Gary Steelheads of the Continental Basketball Association in 2002.
Over the next year, he played for different teams in China, Puerto Rico, the CBA, the USBL, the OMG, and the IDGAF. In 2002, he joined the Indiana Pacers as he attempted to make the team’s final roster during the preseason. I was stoked, since I’d been signing him to the Pacers in every season simulation I played on the N64! The Big O was even sporting some serious cornrows at the time, which I envied as a suburban white kid who idolized the play of Allen Iverson.
Unfortunately, the Pacers waived him before the season began but the following year Miller finally came back to the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he averaged 2.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and 1.3 assists over forty-eight games as the Wolves prowled deep into the playoffs. They made it to Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, which proved to be the Big O’s last game in the NBA. In just over five minutes of play, he missed one shot, recorded a block, and committed four fouls. That’s probably about all I could do if I joined my old high school team for a game today!
After the Lakers bounced the Wolves from the playoffs, Miller continued to play for lesser, minor-league teams like the Dakota Wiards, the Texas Tycoons, the Arkansas RimRockers, and the Lawton-Fort Sill Calvalry before he finally retired in 2010 at the age of 40. Two years after his basketball career ended, Miller was in the news for pistol-whipping his girlfriend’s brother at a family cookout. Aside from recurring jokes about being the fattest NBA player that popped up every now and then, the Big O fell into relative obscurity until 2017, when he was named an Allstate® SEC Basketball Legend along with thirteen peers from other schools in the Southeastern Conference. Four years later, NBA fans began to remember him fondly when the Phoenix Suns made a run to the NBA finals, the team’s first finals trip since Miller’s rookie year.
As usual, I was early to the nostalgia since I’ve been accumulating Oliver Miller’s basketball cards for more than twenty-five years! None of them are worth much, but as of this writing I’ve got sixty-seven of the 223 Oliver Miller cards listed on Trading Card Database! Okay- so maybe I’m not the world’s preeminent collector. But I probably am the only person in the universe with an entire binder dedicated to Oliver Miller.
I connected with Oliver Miller as a kid because he showed that a person could succeed in a league of professionals despite some challenging headwinds, albeit ones that weren’t entirely out of his control. For his career, the Big O averaged 7.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.5 blocks over nine seasons. Even though he didn’t live up to his college potential, he turned in a solid NBA career, and advanced metrics like VORP and PER agree.
Could he have climbed to greater heights than he achieved in Phoenix and Toronto if he’d managed to better keep his weight in check? Maybe, but I could have too if I’d done better about it myself. As far as basketball goes, I’d probably have topped out at riding the pine in high school and checking in as a human victory cigar during the final moments of rare blowout wins.
At a minimum, the Big O had chance to bank millions of dollars and play with hall-of-famers like Charles Barkley, Grant Hill, Reggie Miller, and Kevin Garnett! He survived nine seasons in the NBA and thrived during a handful of them. That sounds like a solid career to me, and that’s what I needed to hear as I worked to overcome some of my own obstacles in elementary and middle school. Now that I’m in my early thirties, he’s the only player I still collect cards of.
A few days ago, I checked out Oliver Miller’s Twitter feed and read a couple of interviews he conducted in recent years. The Big O got his life back on track and lost a ton of weight after Sean Rooks, a fellow member of the 1992 draft class, died of heart disease in 2016. Today, he’s a grandfather who spends lots of time fishing and doting on his family. Maybe I should once again follow The Big O’s example. As I do, I’m sure I’ll keep adding to my random collection of his obscure basketball memorabilia. I’ve still got a hundred and fifty-six cards to track down, and I’ve seen a couple of his game-worn Pistons and Timberwolves jerseys on eBay. They look mighty compelling!
One thought on “Why I became the world’s preeminent collector of Oliver Miller basketball cards”
I am not the biggest sports fan, but I have always been drawn to flawed players like this guy. Flaws or not, he had a decent run in the pros and he gets my respect for that.
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