Commentary

His pain was the Heat's gain

After one magical night, Mike Miller's debilitating injuries brought him back to earth

Updated: July 18, 2012, 12:42 PM ET
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Mike MillerEdel RodriguezMiller refused to let all the pain stop him from having a heroic night.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 23, 2012 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

PAIN IS HARD to measure. I trained as a paramedic for a while, and I never did figure out how to calculate it. Asking the patient never seemed to work -- pain tolerance is relative, and trying to put it on an absolute scale always felt fruitless. One man's 10 is another man's 2. But sometimes, pain is all too plain. You can see exactly how awful it is. When we decided that a patient's pain was bad enough, we'd give him midazolam, a drug that makes you forget. Some pain is so terrible that if you let a man remember it, he'll feel it for the rest of his life.

In the hours before Game 5 of the NBA Finals, only two men sat in the Miami Heat locker room, different definitions of hurt: On one side was LeBron James, listening to pounding music, trancelike; on the other was Mike Miller, slumped in his locker, bags of ice wrapped around his knees. For James, in that moment, pain was largely metaphorical; it was an emotional state, self-inflicted, from which he was about to be relieved. For Miller, pain wasn't an idea or a theory. It was real. It was a physical fact, carried by his nervous system, not in his heart.

He had quit seeing doctors because they could not fix him. That brand of resignation is usually a bad sign, but in Miller's case, it was understandable. In his two years with the Heat, he had suffered injuries to his back, his left knee, both ankles, both thumbs, an ear and an eye. He also had surgery for a sports hernia. By the time he was sitting in his locker, he had been at the arena for hours, enduring his usual pregame routine of injections, massages, stretches and ice. I asked him what hurt the most. "It's pretty much a little bit of everything," he said, and suddenly I was in the back of the ambulance again. Sometimes, the people in the deepest agony are the least likely to tell you how they feel. It's as though they're trying to spare you from what they know.

Now we know certain things, or we think we do. We know that Miller went on to have his incredible night, sinking seven three-pointers -- that's what we'll remember, the ball in flight. But he'll remember almost as much the time he spent kneeling on a blue pad because he couldn't take the pain of sitting on the bench. He'll remember what it felt like when he collided with Kevin Durant and put his hands to his stomach, as though he were trying to keep his insides from falling out.

At the postgame news conference -- from which he was driven in a golf cart -- Miller again deflected questions; he again kept his pain to himself. "It's not anything to write or read about," he said. Still, in the hundreds of stories that spilled out of the building that night, he was celebrated for what he had done, the way we always celebrate athletes who play hurt. That's because we like to imagine that pain can be beaten. But those stories are just a more selective midazolam, as though we can somehow keep the points and forget the cost of them.

Here's a truer accounting: Miller never went back inside the locker room. He couldn't take the crush. Instead, he hid inside the trainer's room, inside that familiar torture chamber, slumped over one of the massage tables, bone spent. Shane Battier finally eased up beside him, careful not to clap his back, and he pointed at the pictures that lined the room, inspirational blowups from Miami's title in 2006: Take your medicine and one day you might know this. Now they would join those men on the walls; now they would live forever among the ranks of the motivators. Miller nodded and smiled and closed his eyes, but deep down he knew he was different from those men on the walls, just as he was different from James.

Mike Miller was victorious and halfway immortal, like the others, but he alone continues to suffer. The day after Miami's championship parade, Miller finally went to the doctor again. The fantasy narrative was over. Reality had made its hunched return. While his teammates continued in their basking, he was seeing a back surgeon, the start of a barbaric summer. His career might be over; at age 32 it's hard for him even to climb the stairs. All these days and weeks later, his hurt has not gone away. That's what real pain is. And there is no drug in the world -- including winning -- that will ever help him forget it.

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Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.