Finally getting his Phil
The game of life almost prevented Phil Miller from putting together a stellar career at Jefferson
By KARL PEARSON
Fifth of a series...
One of the many things sports can provide is an emotional outlet. It can be a source of great joy, but it can also be an avenue to find release in times of great sorrow.
If anybody is equipped to relate how important the emotional side of basketball can be, it's Phil Miller. Certainly it provided plenty of joyful moments to him when he was a young man.
Phil Miller (front row, No. 33) as a senior on the 1945-46 Jefferson Falcons. The team included (seated, from left) Francis Fasula, Don Reuschling, Ed White, Dan Share, George Lukianchuk, Miller and Roger Brenneman, (middle, from left) coach R.L. Shoaf, Cecil Hammum, Raymond Shore, Richard Elderkin, Martin Brenkus, Raymond Fasula and Donald Tietz and (back, from left) Paul Bowers, Richard Dugan and Duane Martin.
Perhaps even more important, though, was that Miller was able to use basketball to get him through some of the toughest times that anyone can imagine. Especially when he was a teenager growing up in Jefferson, the sport helped him deal with issues no one should ever have to deal, but too many youngsters and families of his generation were forced to. It helped him fight through the sorrow that struck his family when his older brother, Gus Jr., was killed in a barracks fire in Japan just a few months after World War II ended in 1945.
Basketball gave him the strength to carry on through the balance of his senior season of 1945-46 with the Falcons. It turned out to be the best of his career as he averaged 14.1 points per game, according to information submitted by the late Bill Brainard, his old teammate, and led Jefferson to a 15-5 record and a runner-up finish in the county Class B tournament. His scoring represented roughly 40 percent of the Falcons' offensive output for the season.
It also gave him the structure needed to help with family matters in a time of tragedy near the close of World War II, equipped him with the determination to serve his country when he was called upon, then return and build a fine family, all the while continuing to contribute to the daily life of his community.
For a number of years after he returned from military service at the end of 1947, Miller continued to play the game with excellence for one of the finest independent adult teams to grace the area, the Clinton Drugs team sponsored by Jefferson pharmacist Joe Clinton. The skills of Miller and his Clinton Drugs teammates, which included Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Famer Brainard, were also important to helping provide for the underprivileged of Ashtabula County through their participation in the Milk Fund charity games.
Although he has been away from the court for more than 50 years, basketball still brings Miller lots of joy, mainly as a Cleveland Cavaliers fan.
"I love watching them play," he said with a big smile. "I hope they go all the way this year."
It's probably not totally by chance, either, that his daughter, Linda, is married to a basketball coach, former Geneva, Jefferson and St. John boys coach Al Graper.
Nor is it surprising that the four children of he and his wife of 60 years, Louise, are all involved in serving others. Eldest son Philip is the priest of Ashtabula's St. Joseph parish. Second son Jerry followed his father into work with the U.S. Postal Service. Linda Graper is a teacher at Jefferson High School, while youngest daughter Susan Miller lives in Euclid and teaches in North Ridgeville. Jerry has presented the Millers with a granddaughter and grandson, while the Grapers have given them a granddaughter.
Despite all he did with the game and has done as a citizen, Miller expressed surprise with the news that he had been selected as a member of the Class of 2010 of the ACBF Hall of Fame.
"I was really surprised," he said. "I knew I was a good player, but I didn't think I was that good. There are so many great players in the Hall of Fame. I'm very happy to be one of those guys because I think they were better players than I was."
Miller felt his greatest asset was his shooting ability.
"I could shoot," he said. "I still shoot around with the kids around here, and I think they're surprised.
"I wish they'd had the 3-pointer when I played. If I had my life to live over, I would drive more and try to get fouled because I was a good foul shooter."
The passage of time is breaking up the old basketball gang with which Miller hung around. But there is still at least one of his teammates who can vouch for his skills.
Don Reuschling believes Miller has the proper credentials for the ACBF Hall of Fame.
"Phil was a great team player," he said. "At that time, he did a lot of scoring because things were a lot more defensive back then. He's definitely worthy of going into the Hall of Fame.
"His teamwork and his shooting were what made him special. He was really fast, too. We were all seniors together and we really knew how to work with each other."
Miller's high school coach would probably also qualify as someone who could speak to his skills with authority.
"(The late) Robert Shoaf was our coach," Miller said. "He told me in my senior year that I was the best shot in the county. Mr. Shoaf didn't give out many compliments, and he'd had championship teams back in the 1930s."
The early years
Even as a little boy, Miller and his family went through some incredibly tough times.
"My father (Gus Miller Sr.) died in 1934 when I was only 6," he said. "He had been the manager of an estate in Mentor next to Lawnfield (the home of President James A. Garfield)."
That left his mother, Zita, as a single mother during the darkest days of the Great Depression trying to care for two boys who were barely in elementary school. Fortunately, their father had purchased a farm at the corner of Chapel Road and Clay Street, and the family moved there.
"Those were hard times," Miller said. "The farm was 37 acres. My mother had an office job in Ashtabula. We raised things like strawberries and rhubarb and we also grew hay. The neighbors would do the haying. My mother sold the farm when I was in junior high."
The family moved into Jefferson, briefly to a home at the corner of Pine Street and Route 46 near the present-day office of dentist Dr. Elliott Rice. Eventually, Zita Miller, who died in 1974, bought a house at 35 East Ashtabula Street.
"That's where I got to know Bill Brainard," Miller said. "He lived on West Ashtabula Street."
That's also where the Miller brothers got into basketball.
"My brother and I put a hoop up on the barn," he said. "A lot of the kids from the neighborhood came over to play. Eventually, our mother even let us put a light up out there and we'd play out there until 11 o'clock at night."
But most of the time, the games were pretty intimate.
"A lot of the games were one-on-one with my brother. I was only 5-5, which is why I had to learn to shoot. He was 5-10 and much better than me. He could dribble the ball from end to end of the court.
"There wasn't much dribbling out there, though. It was more about passing and shooting. I think that really helped me. I think dribbling should be a last resort."
Building his game
Miller's love for basketball really spiked when he was in the eighth grade.
Always an inspirational force for Phil Miller was his older brother, Gus Jr., who is shown during World War II in Luzon, Philippines during a relaxing moment. Gus Miller survived fighting in the Pacific theater only to perish in a barracks fire in November, 1946 in Japan.
"We won the Ashtabula County Junior High Tournament that year," he said. "We beat Saybrook in a game played at Windermere School in 1942."
But as the country descended deeper into World War II, less opportunities for younger players existed.
"There really wasn't anything formal when I was a freshman," Miller said.
But that didn't stop him from continuing to work hard on his skills. He had a goal in mind for his sophomore year in 1943-44.
"I really wanted to play with my brother," Miller said. "The whole team that year was seniors, so I had to work real hard."
His work ethic must have made an impression on Shoaf, too, who had been forced to return to the bench because so many young teachers and potential coaches had gone off to war. Miller was able to crack the starting lineup.
All that work turned out to be worth it as the Miller brothers were an effective 1-2 punch for Jefferson. Brainard was also a part of that team. Together, they produced a truly memorable moment in a solid 9-7 season.
"Probably the biggest game of my sophomore year was when we playing Orwell," Miller said. "I think it was my brother's biggest game, too.
"Orwell was undefeated when we played them. Late in the game, it was tied at 48-all. Somebody took a wild shot, my brother got the rebound and he passed it ahead to me for a layup that gave us the lead.
"They took another shot and my brother got the rebound again," Miller said. "He passed it to me and I got it to (Brainard) down in the corner. His shot didn't even hit the rim. They got a basket in the last few seconds, but we won, 52-50."
The Millers had such an impact that they were both recognized on the all-tournament team of the Class B county tournament, held annually at Edgewood, or what is now known as Braden Junior High. Gus Miller was chosen to the second team as a guard, while Phil Miller was an honorable-mention choice. Another ACBF Hall of Famer, Rowe's Robert Puffer, was named to the first team that year.
It wasn't long after he graduated that Gus Miller received his draft notice. When he traveled to Cleveland for his physical examination, it was discovered that he had a heart murmur, which earned him 4-F status and would have exempted him from the service.
But he was not to be denied his opportunity to serve, so he returned and begged officials to let him into the Army. Perhaps his determination was born of his own experiences as the product of a single-parent home.
"(The draft board) let him go," Phil Miller said. "Gus said he would feel terrible if he'd let a guy who had a family go off to war, get killed and leave those kids behind."
Gus Miller wound up going to the Pacific Theater, eventually serving with the 32nd Red Arrow Division of the Army in hotly contested campaigns in the Leyte Gulf and Luzon in the Philippine Islands.
Meanwhile, Phil Miller was definitely the main man for the Falcons in his junior year. They finished 7-8 in his junior year.
"I was generally the high-point man," he said.
Shoaf came to depend upon him even more. The coach wasn't very vocal, but he had definite ideas of how he wanted the game played.
"He would work with us before the season a lot with things like medicine balls (to get the players' hands stronger)," Miller said. "He was kind of quiet. He never bawled us out at halftime. He might make some adjustments. The biggest thing he'd say was to slow it down and work the ball inside."
That was because Shoaf was really the product of another era when scores were even lower, center jumps had been held after each basket scored and the pace of play was much slower.
"He had to change his philosophy from the center-jump days," Miller said. "He said he would never tell a guy to shoot the ball. Because I was comfortable shooting the ball, he let me. I would also steal the ball a lot and score. I think Mr. Shoaf trusted me."
Actually, Miller and his teammates found out that Shoaf even had a softer side away from basketball.
"He owned a hot dog stand at Conneaut Lake Park (Pa.)," Miller said. "The whole team would go over there. They were good hot dogs. He never charged us. I think he enjoyed having us over there."
The young Falcons struggled early in the 1944-45 season, but one of the highlights was another big victory over Orwell, this time on the opponent's home court. It served as a launching pad for his senior season.
That fateful season
There was a much more experienced group of seniors to share the load with Miller in his senior year. They included classmates Roger Brenneman, Fran Fasula, George Lukianchuk and Dan Sharpe, who are all deceased, and Reuschling. Ed White, a junior that season, is also still alive.
"We were excited about the season," Miller said. "We thought we'd have a good team."
But, a few weeks before the 1945-46 season was to begin, Miller and his mother were devastated by the news that Gus had perished in a barracks fire at his base in Japan, where many U.S. soldiers were sent after the war ended in early August to oversee the occupation.
"He was killed on Nov. 17, 1945," Miller said as his eyes misted and his voice cracked a bit. "When they had the fire, he got out at first, but he realized one of his comrades was still in the barracks, so he went back in and they both died in the fire."
Jefferson was preparing for its opening game against Kingsville. A memorial service was conducted by the local parish priest just a few days before that game was to be played.
Miller said he wrestled the whole time in the days leading up to the game about whether to even play. His mother settled the issue.
"My mother said Gus would have wanted me to play," he said.
But their mother, who had been an avid fan, especially when her sons had played together, never saw another of Phil's games. She did have a way of following his exploits, though, and always supported him in his passion.
"My mother never saw me play again after my brother was killed," he said. "She just couldn't bear to be at the games. She'd always put a call into the schools where we were playing just to see how we were doing, though."
Phil Miller continued to wrestle with the decision to play right up until the Falcons took the court on Dec. 7, 1945.
"When I took the floor, I was very emotional," he said. "It was hard for me not to cry before we went out on the court."
But he fought his way through the game, scoring 18 points in Jefferson's 33-22 victory over Kingsville. He wasn't that impressed with his play, but others certainly were.
"I had a hard time during the game," Miller said. "The principal, Charles Watson, came into the locker room and told me what a great game I had played. I told him I had missed a lot of shots."
"We tried to be as supportive of him as we could," Reuschling, who often was the team's secondary scorer, said. "(Miller's grief) certainly didn't affect his playing."
Actually, his ability to channel his emotions, fueled by a desire to represent his brother well, seems to have made Miller an even better player.
"After that game, I didn't have the feeling of wanting to cry," he said. "I dedicated the season to my brother."
There were other highlights. One of the biggest came in the third game of the Class B tournament. Kingsville was again the victim.
"We beat them, 44-35," Miller said. "I had 28 points, the most I ever scored in a game."
That victory also put the Falcons in the championship game against a Rowe team coached by ACBF Hall of Famer Charles Hirshey that was on its way to a 24-2 season and a trip to the district tournament.
The Falcons had lost a tough 33-30 decision to the Vikings in late January at Rowe, so Jefferson was primed for the rematch. The Falcons held a 22-16 halftime lead and still clung to a 32-31 lead with one minute remaining. Then some bizarre things happened.
Jerry Puffer, one of the stars for Rowe, was fouled and calmly sank a free throw to tie the game. As Miller describes it, a rule that had just been instituted that season kicked in.
"They passed a rule that if you fouled someone in the last two minutes of the game, that they got to shoot the foul shot and also got to take possession of the ball," he said. "They scored off of (the possession)."
Rowe made the most of its opportunities. The Vikings inbounded and Rich Wheeler, Puffer's cousin, was fouled. He made the free throw to give Rowe the lead. Blessed with another possession, Puffer secured a 35-32 victory for Rowe with a basket in the last 15 seconds despite several desperation shots by the Falcons. It extended a Rowe winning streak to 21 games to that point.
Miller scored 14 points to finish as Jefferson's only double-digit scorer. It didn't reduce the pain then. He has become philosophical about it in the years since.
"We did well, but I was still disappointed that we didn't win the championship," he said. "I hated to lose, but it taught me that you don't always get what you want."
There was one final moment of high school glory. He was selected to play in an all-star benefit game on a team that was, ironically, coached by Hirshey and also included Rowe standouts Puffer, Wheeler and Clarence Kennedy.
Miller was the star of the game, which was won by Hirshey's team over a squad coached by Kingsville's Robert McNutt. He scored 20 points.
"That was a lot of fun," he said with a smile.
The next steps
Miller followed his brother's example in entering the Army, actually ending up in the Pacific like Gus.
"I went into the service right after graduation on June 5, 1946," he said. "I ended up going to the Philippines and doing some basic stuff there. I was there on July 4, 1946 when they were declared an independent nation. Downtown Manila was quite a sight."
He stayed in the Philippines until July of 1947. He had a brief stay in the Palau Islands, then gradually moved back to the U.S., first to Hawaii, then San Francisco, where he received his discharge papers in December of 1947.
He charted a course back to Jefferson. He found Brainard waiting there with an offer to join up with the newly forming Clinton Drugs team, which was located in what is now the Sonshine Corner Christian bookstore on Chestnut Street.
That team clicked immediately.
"We won the first 10 games we played in 1947-48," Miller said. "In 1948-49, we won the first 19. After a few seasons, we started a Clintons' B team so more men could play. Mr. Clinton was a wonderful sponsor."
The team was blessed with fine coaching, too.
"One of our first coaches was Bud Woodbury, an attorney from Jefferson who was also a good athlete," Miller said. "He got a writeup in the Plain Dealer.
"We played a lot of good teams from Warren, Youngstown and Sharon, Pa. One year, we played in the Cortland Lions Club Tournament. Out of 60 teams, we lost in the final game to Greenville, Pa., 64-62."
Miller also remembers Clinton Drugs' involvement in the Milk Fund games, which helped raise money to buy milk for the underprivileged in the county.
"I played in two championship Milk Fund games," he said. "The first one was against Martin Brothers Realty with (ACBF Hall of Famer) Ray Peet and other Ashtabula stars. We won, 47-41, and Bill Brainard and I scored 10 points each.
"The second Milk Fund game was played at the new Harbor gym (Fawcett Gymnasium). Ray Peet and I were co-captains of the all-star team that played the Pruden Chicks (from Geneva). Ray played the first three quarters and I played the second and fourth. We won in overtime, although I can't remember the score."
Miller played for several season with Clinton Drugs.
"I played with Clinton Drugs for about seven years, until we had our four children," he said.
On the home front
Miller made other important connections almost immediately when he got back to Jefferson in 1947. They both turned out to be early Christmas presents that year.
One was meeting Louise, who had moved to Jefferson in her junior year of high school from Perrysburg. The Millers celebrated their 60th anniversary on Feb. 26.
"Our kids took us to Presque Isle to celebrate," he said with another big smile.
He also made his connection with the postal service almost immediately upon his return to Jefferson. In a way, Miller had Gus to thank for that.
"My brother had worked at the post office when he was in high school," he said. "After I got home, the postmaster asked me if I could help out with the Christmas rush.
A recent gathering of Jefferson's Miller family finds (seated, from left) Phil and his wife of 60 years, Louise, with children (standing, from left) Jerry Miller, Linda Graper, Susan Miller and Philip Miller. Phil Miller will be one of Jefferson High School's inductees into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame.
"After that, I took the civil service exam and passed it. I worked at the post office for 40 years until I retired in November of 1988."
But that doesn't mean Miller has let any grass grow under his feet. He and his family members have had a group activity for nearly 30 years.
"We started working with concession trailers in 1981," he said. "Now we have three. We sell corn dogs, Swiss cheese and fudge.
"We've worked all the local fairs. My wife and I pretty much count the money now."
The Millers also find time to travel and work hard on their own garden.
Through it all, the principles of basketball still ring true for Miller.
"It's still a part of my life," he said. "I always try to be honest, to be a good sport and a team player.
"Losing that last (high-school) game taught me you don't always win everything."