The Wichita State Shockers won the NCAA West Regional Championship last weekend, earning a ticket to the Final Four and a chance to win the men's national title. Wellington native, Darin Miller played for WSU in the 90's and is happy to see the Shockers on the big stage.
As the Wichita State Basketball team makes their way to Atlanta to play in the NCAA Final Four, you can picture the local kids on playground, pretending to be their favorite Shocker.
Here in Wellington, we have a local legend that laced up the same sneakers as our neighbors to the north…
Twenty years ago, a gangly teenager had a shot to play division one basketball in Wichita.
"I don't remember the first time I picked up a basketball. I've just always done it … and a lot of it," said Miller.
Researching Miller's career, the first place to look is to veteran Wichita sports columnist Bob Lutz.
He remembers Miller well.
"Darin's one of the nicest guys I've covered in my years at the Eagle. And he was always so complimentary of Wellington. He always made it known how much that community meant to him."
Miller's career started at the Wellington Fast Break Club, a program designed to teach youth the fundamentals of basketball.
He didn't start playing competitive basketball until the sixth grade. Although he was 'a head' above the competition, he didn't come into his own until much later.
His high school teammate, and good friend today, Lance Russell, remembers the awkward Miller.
"In seventh grade, he was probably 75 pounds, 6'3", and lanky. He really didn't develop until the 9th grade. When he hit that growth spurt, it was all over."
Miller would eventually top out at 6'10" – filling his frame with 265 pounds of muscle. That was after several off-season workout programs with the weight staff at WSU.
Talking with Miller, he reminisces about his high school days – his teammates, his coaches, but mainly the disappointments.
"I'd love to have a team banner hanging at Wellington High School. But my senior year, we couldn't beat Goddard."
In fact, the 1993 Crusaders had four chances to beat the Lions. Each game they lost by less than three points.
"Tracy McCue asked me once, 'What was your worst game ever?' It was the game I scored 46 points. My teammates weren't' involved. We lost," said Miller.
In that game, he set the all-time Crusader single-game scoring record.
"If we would have won that, we would have won the league title. If I would have scored five points, and we would have won, it would have been worth it," said Miller.
The Crusaders exited the sub-state tournament to – you guessed it – the Goddard Lions.
Miller struggled to maintain a positive attitude. But how could he not. He was a highly-touted senior with a list of division one schools knocking at his door.
"I let it known that if WSU gave me a scholarship, I would go there."
Scott Thompson was Wichita State's new coach at the time. He was an up-and-coming coach, who let Miller know he was interested.
What is interesting is who else was giving Miller a look, Kansas University Assistant Coach Mark Turgeon.
"Coach Turgeon expressed interest in me coming in as a walk-on, red-shirting me my freshman year. I really thought about it, but I just had a good feeling about WSU … coulda' woulda' shoulda'," said Miller.
"I thought, by my senior year, I could be playing 14-15 minutes a game in Lawrence."
But Miller committed to WSU and thrived. He was a consistent player, averaging double digit points and six rebounds a game as a senior.
By the time he graduated, he was the only senior left on the team. The other two players in his freshman class left Wichita.
The Wichita Eagle featured Miller on the front page of the sports section after his senior night celebration.
"You don't see that a lot for just an average player. We werent' a great team. They probably thought, 'maybe we criticized Darin enough. Maybe we'll just be nice to him, he's been good to us.'"
Although Miller is humble, his accolades speak for themselves. He is the only player in Wichita State history to be named the Shelley Cox/KAKE-TV Leadership Award winner for four straight years.
After the lights on the court dimmed, Miller began mentoring other prospective big men and ultimately landed a job at AT&T, where he currently works.
Miller appreciates the gifts that basketball has blessed him with, but the wear and tear of his frame has proven costly.
"I've dealt with injuries and depression. But I have a lot of friends like Lance that have kept my head up."
Throughout Miller's career he dealt with asthma and adversity, but he's a fighter.
The one thing that eats at him is missing that league title. Despite holding several Crusader scoring and rebounding records, he wanted his teams to be a champions.
Darin Miller, you're a winner in the eyes of Wellington, Wichita, and the state of Kansas – not because of the records, because you're a winner in life.
As the Shockers play in the Final Four, win or lose, remember that Wellington has its own Shocker to be proud of. Let's let him know it.