"Think you still got it?"
A meeting between Adrian Peterson and his lifelong hero, NBA legend Reggie Milller, stops the Vikings RB in his tracks.
This story appears in the Aug. 8, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
AS FAR AS ADRIAN PETERSON KNOWS, he's here for a photo shoot. What he gets instead is something a lot less everyday for an NFL superstar. While Peterson's standing at the center of a photographer's faux rig at The Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, Calif., an unannounced visitor emerges from behind a curtain, offering his hand and a big smile. "How ya doing, AP?" Reggie Miller asks.
How's he doing? At the moment, the ferocious Vikings back is doing as well as a tween would do face-to-face with the Biebs: rapidly losing motor function. His legs buckle. His hands tremble. Eventually, Peterson gathers his jaw off the floor long enough to form several unintelligible sounds ("ergh" being one) and two words: "Oh, man."
Peterson has long said that if his older brother, Brian, hadn't been killed in an accident when he was 8 years old, he'd have grown up to look -- and play -- like Miller. Adrian was 7 when Brian died, and he's worshipped the future Hall of Famer ever since. Despite a shared social circle, the two had never met. Until now.
Once the shock subsides, Peterson tells Miller how his fandom originated. "Brian was slim, light-skinned, with the same ears and the same passion for the game that you had," he says. Miller laughs. "It's always the ears."
Then Peterson does what any admirer would do if found suddenly in a conversation with his idol: He peppers him with questions. What's your career highlight? (A competitive 2002 playoff series against the heavily favored Nets.) Your toughest defender? (Joe Dumars, by a lot.) Who'd win between you and your sister, Cheryl? (Cheryl, by a lot.) Biggest regret?
"Not winning a championship," Miller says. "If I'd never been to a Finals, I'd be like, 'Who cares?' But when you're so close you can taste it and you're playing in a small market that bleeds with your team, it hurts." Peterson sighs. "Playing for the passionate fans in Minnesota, I know what that's like. As you're talking, I'm reflecting back on my fumble on the 3-yard line against New Orleans," he says of the NFC title game in 2010.
Their athletic trials serve as common ground, but it's the fan within Peterson who poses the final query: "Think you still got it?" To Miller, the challenge is like a jolt of lightning.
"Not a chance in hell!" the renowned trash-talker replies.
With that, they sprint to the nearby court, where Peterson attempts to impress Miller with a series of dribble-drives. "You gotta develop your left hand," he tells Peterson after swatting away his jumper. "Let me show you how it's done." Then the sharpshooter unloads his arsenal of J's before subjecting the Viking to the mother of all hardcourt insults: With AP in a defensive crouch, Miller squares up at the elbow, bounces the ball between Peterson's legs and burns the dumbfounded running back for a layup.
"I wish you were still playing, man," Peterson says.
"No," Miller says. "It's time to move on."
Maybe so. But Miller's still got it. And Peterson knows it, firsthand.
Sam Alipour is a contributing writer to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter here.
ESPN The Magazine: August 8, 2011