/Harold Miner – Baby Jordan

Harold Miner – Baby Jordan

Harold Miner pulls up in a black Cadillac Escalade, rolls down a window and extends his right hand to greet a visitor.

Later, the publicity-shy former USC basketball All-American is friendly and engaging. He shows no sign of discomfort as he recalls the pain of failed expectations and explains why he has mostly strayed from the public eye since his surprisingly unremarkable NBA career short-circuited 24 years ago.

Smiling and laughing easily, he appears thoroughly at ease.

This is a recluse?

“I guess to a lot of people I disappeared,” says Miner, who not only routinely spurned overtures from USC and the media in recent years but also failed to keep in contact with old friends. “I’ve just kind of retreated to family life. I raise my kids. I have a wife. There’s really nothing more to the story.”

But of course there is.

Miner, so electrifying a talent that he was dubbed “Baby Jordan” while still a prep star at Inglewood High, was seemingly destined for NBA greatness from a young age.

USC’s all-time scoring leader, the gravity-defying 6-foot-5 left-hander was Sports Illustrated’s national college player of the year and a first-round Miami Heat draft pick in 1992.

He signed a five-year, $7.3-million contract with the Heat, an endorsement deal with Nike reportedly worth $14 million and twice in his first three seasons won the NBA dunk contest.

But after only 3½ seasons and 200 games with the Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, in which Miner averaged nine points in about 18 minutes a game, his career was over.

He played his last NBA game in February 1996.

A balky right knee, he says, robbed him of his signature explosion and lift, hastening his exit.

Just like that, he notes, his life was turned upside down.

“I was kind of a quiet guy [who] used basketball as a way to express myself,” Miner says, “so when my athletic ability became more limited and I couldn’t do the things that I could do before, it kind of took away my zest for the game.”

Emotionally broken, he retreated into semi-seclusion, settling in Las Vegas with wife Pamela and starting a family. (Their brood includes a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.)

“I needed to purge myself of the game, kind of keep a safe distance from the game,” Miner explains over lunch, “because it really hurt to not be able to play anymore.

“Basketball was my life, and for it to be taken away so abruptly was tough. Every time March Madness would come around, or the NBA playoffs or All-Star weekend, it was kind of an emotional time for me. It was tough to watch, you know?

“Basketball was who I was. It was everything.”

Only recently, he says, has he put the torment behind.

This Saturday at Staples Center he’ll make his first public appearance in more than a decade, joining former UCLA great Don MacLean and eight others in being inducted into the Pacific 10 Conference men’s basketball Hall of Honor.

Next season, in what would be his first visit to the on-campus Galen Center, Miner promises to be in attendance when USC retires his jersey No. 23 before a game against Kansas.

Asked why he is finally emerging from his cocoon, Miner says, “I guess I feel like I’m over it now. I’ve kind of purged my system and come to a point of accepting what happened with my career: that I wasn’t able to live up to my own personal expectations.”

Nearly 40, Miner is happily ensconced in Las Vegas — “A lot of people only see the Strip,” he says, “but this is a very nice community” — and proud to be a stay-at-home dad.

He has not worked since leaving basketball, living off the money he made while playing in the NBA.

“I have some pretty good financial people helping me,” he says, “so I’ve invested pretty decently over the years.”

Miner, whose devotion to basketball was such that he spent countless hours studying videotape of Michael Jordan, Julius Erving and other greats, has not played the game in years.

But he’s still active.

Two years ago, when his weight ballooned to 280 pounds, he hired a personal trainer and threw himself so devotedly into physical fitness and nutrition that he lost about 55 pounds, returning to his playing weight.

So inspired was Miner that he is studying to gain certification as a personal trainer and even talks of possibly returning to USC to pursue a degree in kinesiology or a similar field.

He has significantly altered his diet, starting most days by juicing a bowl of kale, beets and other fresh vegetables.

“It’s so funny,” he says, “because when I was growing up, one of the main things that motivated me to make it to the NBA was that I wanted to be able to eat anything and everything that I didn’t have the means to eat when I was a kid.

“But now that I have the means to eat whatever I want,” he adds, laughing, “I’ve become a health-food aficionado.”

Gary Pine, associate athletic director at Azusa Pacific and a longtime friend, is glad to see Miner opening up.

“It’s clear he’s matured over the years,” says Pine, an assistant sports information director at USC when Miner played for the Trojans. “He’s just become more comfortable in his skin.”

That much is evident.

Notes Miner, revealingly, “I’m happier now and more content in my life than I ever was when I was playing.”