The Godfather of the Rec Center

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If you’ve ever walked into the Rec Center to play a win-or-get-steppin’ pickup game to 15, then you know who Johnny Miller is. Truth be told, you couldn’t miss him if you tried.

Looking and acting far younger than any 59-year old has a right to, the retired Miller now makes a living as a professional gym rat at the Rec. His appearance and personality are as famous as his shooting touch: hair like a young Julius Irving, motor-mouth like Gary Payton, heart like Mother Theresa.

He’s been hanging around the Rec since he graduated as a Golden Eagle in 1975 – although back then he would have still been considered a Warrior, a name suitable for a man who has been playing rough-and-tumble pickup ball for 30-some years.

“There are some priests who played basketball at Marquette until they were 70,” Miller said. “So that’s my goal. Play ’till I’m 70.”

When Miller finally hangs up the sneakers, he’ll likely be the Rec Center’s unofficial record holder in minutes played, points scored, ankles broken, fools schooled and every other imaginable category. But more important are the relationships he’s forged and the people he’s impacted. Miller said he probably knows everybody who has played basketball at Marquette in the last 35 years.

“I’m a cheerleader out there. I just want to give support to the kids at Marquette. I like to initiate all the new freshmen with a nice ass-kicking at the Rec,” Miller said with a laugh.

In particular, Miller has been actively involved in the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette, a program set up for low-income students to help them succeed in higher education. The EOP was the main reason Miller – who had received offers to play football at UW-Madison and North Carolina – decided to attend Marquette. The other reason was Jim Chones.

Chones, like Miller, is a Marquette legend. But the 6-foot-11 center built his legacy on the Bradley Center hardwood, not at the Rec Center.  The two grew up together in Racine, Wis., where they grinded out one-on-one battles like Magic and Bird.

“We had some competitive games until we were around 12,” Miller said. “One year I grew to 6-foot-2 and he grew to about 7-foot. He could dunk from the free-throw line. There was no competition after that.”

With Chones’ persuasion, Miller walked on to the Marquette basketball team his freshman year. He mostly rode the bench for the year and a half he played under coaches Al McGuire and Hank Raymonds, but his experiences molded him into the tough, yet paradoxically caring, man he is today.

“Al was just a crazy individual,” Miller said. “He had this rule where if you got into a fight with a teammate at practice, the winner took the other out for lunch. You leave all that stuff on the court, you know? I used to take out the players at the Rec, but it started getting expensive.”

Miller decided to quit the team because he was playing as much as the water cooler, and, as Miller put it, “to become a professional gym rat.” He made the Rec his personal schoolyard, and he’s been giving out lessons about basketball — and about life — ever since. And although Miller still laces ’em for personal reasons, like to relieve stress and stay young, his ultimate motivation is to give back to the community that gave him a chance to succeed.

“I feel like I owe a great deal to Marquette. They saved my life,” Miller said. “They gave me opportunity to play ball with greats like Chones, Dean Meminger and Maurice Lucas. I just want to provide support for the kids now.”

So next time you’re at the Rec, do yourself a favor and pay your respects to Don Johnny Miller, The Godfather of Marquette basketball.

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