Stephen Demorest said it seemed like fate when he and his wife, Nancy Curlee, pulled into Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, on their way up to Rhode Island.
Curlee, a UNC graduate, had grown up a North Carolina basketball fan. It just so happened that Larry Miller, a Catasauqua native, was her favorite player during his time at UNC — Dean Smith's early years at UNC in the 1960s.
Stephen Demorest and Larry Miller will be speaking about the book in an event hosted by McIntyre's Books on September 26. The event can be registered for here.
She convinced her husband, a former rock journalist and TV drama writer, to drive to the address she had found, and ended up sitting down with Larry Miller for a casual conversation. Days later, Curlee received a package in the mail containing a fan letter she had written him 50 years earlier.
That encounter was the catalyst for Demorest’s new book, "Larry Miller Time: The Story of the Lost Legend Who Sparked the Tar Heel Dynasty."
“That’s what made it seem like, ‘Whoa, this is kismet,’” Demorest said. “That she and I stop in and talk to him, and later that day he finds the letter in the trunk that his mother stored for him. That seemed to sort of bless the whole project with a sense of destiny, I think.”
Demorest had to make a choice about how he was going to write the book. At first, he thought about writing it in first person with Miller telling the story.
“Then I realized no, he’s actually a pretty modest guy and he wasn’t going to be able to talk about his significance to the school and the ACC and all that stuff, so I really had to make the book third person,” Demorest said.
The author and his wife made several more trips up to Catasauqua to speak with Miller. Because of the era in which Miller played, there is very little film on him, so the writing relied heavily on newspaper clippings and the stories Miller recalled.
“What you discover is sometimes you ask questions not knowing what you’re gonna get,” Demorest said. “Some of the things he’d been asked about a million times, and some of the things he’d never been asked before. It was only the third time that he talked about meeting Coach Smith that he happened to mention he was wearing a Duke sweatshirt at the time.”
Demorest said Miller also gave him the phone numbers for his former teammates, so he got a chance to pick the brains of Bobby Lewis, Billy Cunningham and George Lehmann.
“The thing that really touched me is that all these guys were delighted to hear that he was talking about his time at North Carolina,” Demorest said.
And Larry Miller was certainly worth talking about. He was a 6-foot-4 forward out-rebounding players who were 6-foot-10. Miller is the only Tar Heel to be named ACC Player of the Year twice, and he was a two-time All-American.
“Signing Larry Miller out of Pennsylvania was huge for Coach Smith, because when he signed him, he didn’t have the history of success that obviously Carolina basketball has right now," Steve Kirschner, senior associate athletic director, said. “Larry Miller sort of put Coach Smith on the map from a recruiting standpoint, then when he got here became a great player. What he did both in terms of the recruiting recognition and then his play here ... Larry Miller’s impact on this program is enormous.”
Demorest quoted Miller's former teammate Charlie Scott, saying, “Larry was the winner who made Dean Smith a winner.”
Smith appreciated Miller’s intensity, even though at times it could be too much — one party at Kentucky with Tar Heels in attendance got so out of hand that Smith almost revoked the players’ scholarships.
“He knew I would do anything for the team. In my own kind of perverted way, my motto was to work hard and then play hard also,” Miller said. “After (Smith) gave us that beat down about partying that one night, we never did it again, so we did learn from that lesson. He did say after that night, ‘I don't care who you are, if you do it again, you’re gone.’ So we all got the message.”
Miller’s relationship with Smith lasted even after he left Chapel Hill for the ABA in 1968. Miller kept at least 50 letters from Smith over the years saved in the same trunk where he’d kept the letter from Nancy Curlee.
“I love the man; he was a great man,” Miller said. “He was strict, but he was the most honest man you’ll ever meet, and a very principled person. He kept up with not only me over the years, but all the players. We stayed in touch till the end. It was a lifelong deal, so I was real happy with my choice.”
Kirschner, who worked with the Hall of Fame coach in the last years of his career, spoke about Smith’s dedication to his players and noted that it was common for alumni to call their former coach about job offers, career paths and personal and family decisions.
Although he retired from basketball in 1975 after seven seasons in the ABA, Miller still follows UNC basketball closely and tries to come to Chapel Hill at least once a year for a game.
Demorest said his book details how Miller’s career follows the arc of sports development in culture, where basketball went from a local enthusiasm to a national mania. Responsibility for that change lies in part with charismatic players like Larry Miller and the role they play in creating fan loyalty, he said.
He said his book explains the long lasting impact of Miller in creating the culture of North Carolina basketball, despite the former All-American being considered a "lost legend."
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.