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INDIANAPOLIS — Being a junior in a men’s basketball program coming off its first national championship in nine years, Miles Plumlee figured he might have some measure of campus clout on his side.
Duke University fans wedged tightly inside Cameron Indoor Stadium howled at the sight of Plumlee entering the court on a unicycle, his 6-foot-11 frame impeccably balanced as if invisible handlebars had somehow been installed.
But that’s Plumlee, the Indiana Pacers’ rookie forward/center who might best be described as unconventionally conventional.
The arrival designed to show he’s the wheel deal took place two years ago during the Blue Devils’ annual “Countdown to Craziness,” one of those preseason college hoops extravaganzas where bells, whistles and laughs tend not to be spared. Duke might have cornered the market on effective implementation of a unicycle.
That’s Miles, said his father, Millard “Perky” Plumlee, patriarch of a family that has two sons, Mason and Marshall, still playing for Duke, and a daughter, Madeline, 17, who recently orally committed to play volleyball at the University of Notre Dame starting the 2014-15 school year.
“Miles was always more of a risk-taker. I can remember we lived on a farm in Battle Ground (north of Lafayette); and one day we couldn’t find Miles, who was about 3 at the time,” Perky remembered. “Finally, I look out a second-story window and I hear, ‘Hey, Dad.’ Miles was in a tree looking straight at me.”
The child who would grow into a player talented enough to warrant the Pacers selecting him 26th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft still rides a mean unicycle. At one point, there was a video of Plumlee riding one while jumping from one rooftop to another making the rounds on the Internet. Perky and Leslie saw it once, and that was more than enough.
Plumlee juggles, too, and can do things with a yo-yo most people can’t. But it’s on a basketball court where he shines brightest.
“My brothers and I started so early that I never felt any kind of pressure to play,” Plumlee said. “We all had the basketball gene, so we all started to gravitate toward that.”
The ‘big’ time
It shocked no one when Plumlee checked into this world 23 inches long and weighing 10.5 pounds. His old man, a 1978 product of Lafayette Harrison High School who later played basketball at Tennessee Tech University, stands 6-7. His mother, Leslie, is 6-1.
His mother, a Wisconsin native who in her college days was known as Leslie Schultz, was one of the first legitimate stars of Purdue University’s women’s basketball program, having played there from 1979-83. Thirty-one years later she still holds the Boilermakers’ single-game rebounding record with 25 in a game at Miami (Ohio).
The couple met the summer of 1979 as both were counselors at a Purdue basketball camp. They reconnected years later through — what else? — a basketball game, began dating and were married in August 1987. Just over a year later, Miles would come along, making an immediate impression.
“It’s your first child, and after he’s delivered they weigh the baby and roll his feet on an ink pad. The nurse said, ‘His foot doesn’t fit,’” Perky said. “I thought then that this is probably a pretty big kid.”
At birth, yes. Currently, yes. The times in between, not so much. Difficult as it might seem today looking at the young man with feet clad in size-18 high-tops, Plumlee actually played point guard through eighth grade.
Then came the growth spurt, 5-10 as a freshman and 6-3 by the end of his sophomore year. By the time he graduated from Christ School in Arden, N.C., near Asheville, Plumlee stood 6-9. Perky believes his son grew another two inches during his four years at Duke.
Plumlee’s brother, Mason, a 6-11 senior forward for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils, is the more serious of the three brothers, according to their father. His teammate and “little” brother, Marshall, a 6-11, 235-pound redshirt freshman, is the social butterfly of the group.
Miles, meanwhile, “Always had ants in his pants,” Perky said. “When he played baseball, he would be the catcher, so he would be in on every play.”
Plumlee’s growth arc physically mirrors that of his mother. Leslie was a 5-6 gymnast and tennis player in high school before approaching and eventually passing the 6-foot plateau.
The family moved from rural west-central Indiana to Warsaw in 1997 the summer before Miles entered second grade. It would be the least controversial geographical move Perky and Leslie would orchestrate for their children, all four of whom would star for private high schools along Tobacco Road while the parents remained in Warsaw.
Reminded of those times and the verbal backlash that ultimately ensued, Miles Plumlee turns serious.
“It was,” he said diplomatically, “just an amazing opportunity for us both athletically and academically. I just knew playing in college was one of my dreams. I got to expand in all areas.”
Just like the Washington Hatchets had brothers Luke, Tyler and Cody Zeller dominating opposing frontcourts throughout southern Indiana, the Warsaw Tigers might have had the Plumlee trio up north.
As parents, however, Perky and Leslie sought what was best for their children. The couple ultimately came to the decision to enroll Miles and Mason in Christ School some 600 miles from home before the 2006-07 school year, the brothers’ junior and sophomore years, respectively. The Plumlees got the boys settled in, exchanged emotional goodbyes and then proceeded to cry all the way home.
Miles would attend Christ School for two years, Mason three and Marshall all four of his high school experience. Madeline, meanwhile, a 6-2 outside hitter on the volleyball court, is in her junior year at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh.
“Gosh, it was a firestorm. The letters to the editor. ... It attracted a lot of coverage,” Perky said of having his three sons continue their academic and athletics pursuits elsewhere. “It was something that hadn’t been done before. People didn’t understand it. For a year there it was sort of a lightning-rod subject.
“Some people admired what we did, and there were some who despised us because of what we had done. We were pioneers and Benedict Arnolds at the same time. Most of the angst was probably directed at me.”
By no means was it a slam dunk that Miles Plumlee would someday wear the blue and gold of his home state’s professional basketball team. Mock drafts had the Pacers selecting everyone from 6-7 Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor to Iowa State’s 6-8, 270-pound space-eater Royce White to 7-foot Syracuse enigma Fab Melo.
Pretty much everyone but Plumlee.
Impressed with his athleticism and character, Indiana made him the 26th pick overall the night of June 28 despite the fact Plumlee averaged only 6.6 points and 7.1 boards as a Duke senior. Many in NBA circles viewed Plumlee as a reach pick, but it wouldn’t be the first time former Pacers president Larry Bird had his judgment questioned.
Plumlee, meanwhile, was thrilled. His paternal grandparents, Millard and Evelyn, live in the Lafayette area and would be able to occasionally make it down for a game. The same can be said for his parents, as well as his youngest sibling once she resides in South Bend.
“You always have doubters, but I have a great deal of confidence and feel like I belong here,” Plumlee said. “I want to be a great role player here, hit the boards and support my teammates. I feel so blessed and lucky that I get to play here.”
A few blocks west of Bankers Life Fieldhouse is Lucas Oil Stadium, home to Duke’s dramatic 61-59 victory against Butler in the 2010 national championship game. It’s difficult for Plumlee, a sophomore backup forward/center on that squad, not to smile when passing the architectural monstrosity.
Had Gordon Hayward’s unforgettable half-court heave been true, this likely wouldn’t be the case. And then maybe Plumlee isn’t riding a unicycle onto such hallowed hardwood months later to the delight of college basketball’s most imposing fraternity of fans. And maybe for whatever reason he doesn’t become an Indiana Pacer, but rather becomes property of another NBA franchise.
Make no mistake, though, Miles Plumlee is here, the comparisons to retired Pacers player Jeff Foster trailing his every step whether fair or not.
Indiana assistant coach Dan Burke understands this. To a point. The energy, quickness and athleticism both possess might bond the two, but Plumlee is his own man with his own list of areas requiring improvement.
“Miles is eager to learn, and the improvements he’s made since July have been great. He just has to be patient,” Burke said. “Right now what he’s getting used to is the speed of the game. The best thing for him is to watch and learn. He’s still got a long way to go to where he can produce.”
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