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Miller's struggle a renewed testament to Father's Day

by | CBSSports.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: Through Father's Day, CBSSports.com writers will present a series of articles portraying fatherhood and sporting figures.

Monday was such a good day. You have all the experiences you've been thinking about for nine months, or longer, depending on how long you and your partner tried for. The first time you hold your child, it is (insert cliché here). I'm not making fun of those clichés, because if there was one thing that startled me more than anything about the entire process of becoming a father, it was how much those clichés wound up being true. It does change you. There is nothing like it. And you do love that child you've just met more than anything you've encountered.

Miami's Mike Miller said that dealing with issues surrounding his daughter's health 'was way harder than the Finals.' (Getty Images)  
Miami's Mike Miller said that dealing with issues surrounding his daughter's health 'was way harder than the Finals.' (Getty Images)  
Whether it's evolutionary psychology/biology, a predetermined expectation bred from a system of societal values or some sort of spiritual intervention, the first time I saw my son I was knocked completely off my feet by how stirring the experience was. That first day you spend commenting on how strange he looks (and they do look weird when they're first out), filling out paperwork, and in the case of my wife and me, trying to physically recover from 39 hours of labor. (Note: They tell me it was 39. I would have personally sworn in court it was 17 days had I been asked.) Monday really was one of the best days of our lives.

Tuesday, they told us they were taking him to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

When someone tells you that, you have a number of ways you can react. You can flip out. You can grab control of the situation, ask the appropriate questions and try your best to adapt to this new reality taking shape in front of you. Or you can stare blankly into space, incapable of doing anything but nodding your head to what the nurse is telling you. My wife chose the second option. I became a vegetable.

Turns out the kiddo's respiration had increased overnight and was to the point where the attending pediatrician felt he needed to be admitted to NICU for observation and antibiotics out of concern of infection. His other vitals were good and his responses were normal. The kid was just breathing too fast.

Typical. My son was just too excited.

All this week as I watched Mike Miller play in the NBA Finals, bandages on both thumbs, wraps around an arm, a limp in his gait and a wince every time he dove for the floor or a rebound, I've wondered what went through his head when he found out his daughter was to be admitted to NICU.

These NBA Finals were brutal. They were tough, physical grinds (yes, Erik Spoelstra's favorite word is apt here) separated by inches, not miles, where every moment is live or die, in the basketball sense. But Miller has been dealing with his newborn daughter's heart condition. Miller said he and his wife had expected problems when daughter Jaelyn arrived; doctors had thought there would be a possible hole in her heart. Instead doctors found four, a condition called ventricular septal defect.

It has been more than two weeks since Miller's daughter was brought home. And he played in each Finals game for the Miami Heat. When I found about it, I couldn't believe it. How could he possibly be playing basketball, let alone play in the Finals, with this going on? Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a question of outrage, far from it. It was an unbelievable idea to me that you could actually function as a person, let alone perform at the highest athletic level in your field, with this going on.

With my son in NICU, I couldn't function. The days are a haze to me, of distressed visits to this person you brought into the world, that you took so much care to protect, only to have to visit it under the watch of eternally helpful nurses, while the child feeds through a tube and is attached to monitors.

Focusing on things like "driving a car" and "ordering extra fries at Wendy's" were difficult for me. My mental and physical exhaustion were pretty high, having not recovered at all from "the labor that would not end," but mostly from the constant and overwhelming storm of fear and anxiety. Yet there's Mike Miller, his daughter home on monitors, knocking down 3-pointers vs. the Mavericks, and, oh, yeah, answering questions from the media. How was he not completely overwhelmed?

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"The deal with the daughter was way harder than the Finals," Miller said Saturday, before Miami's loss in Game 6 on Sunday. "This has been fun. Whenever you go through stuff with your family like that, there's a fear factor. On the court, there's no fear factor. It's the complete opposite."

I would have bit someone's head off from all the stress, but instead Miller has held up his responsibilities to everything asked of him the past three weeks. We talk about the Heat as if they're all hard-hearted, selfish buffoons. But the team rallied around Miller and supported him, and Miller was nothing but gracious to everyone who needed him in the playoffs -- from the offense that needed jumpers, media who needed quotes, family who needed support and to defense that needed rebounding with an injured thumb, arm and shoulder. Miller did all of this while still smiling most of the time.

This Sunday is Father's Day, and a week before I was in a hotel in Florida, covering another father whose thoughts inevitably turned to his daughter.

"Being away is the hardest part, really," Miller said. "But it's part of the business."

My son's visit to NICU was nothing dramatic or severe, certainly not the kind of difficult situation Miller and his family have been through. A pediatrics resident friend of mine explained that often because newborns don't express symptoms, because they're incapable of telling us what's wrong, they are admitted to NICU. He reminded me during those dark days that there's really only one place infants in need of care go. There's not a "general newborn's" ward. And after conferring with the infinitely gracious, caring and considerate doctor on call, my friend assured me that he would be fine. And he was.

He was released after a little less than a week, and is currently somewhere in the state of Nebraska with family, causing my wife to exclaim something about murdering me when I get back for sticking her with a month-old baby and all the, ahem, fluids that come with it. As the Finals progressed and Miller tried to push aside the enormous personal weight that has been put on his shoulders these past few weeks, I'm startled to discover the reality of fatherhood. It pushes you to consider things through those eyes, not to make snarky comments about Miller's breakable hands or where his jump shot went. (Though I was terrified of shaking his hand and causing his thumbs to crumble into dust.)

There's no bond between Miller and I, no special connection. Fatherhood is not a brotherhood, and I've watched as countless people have inquired about Jaelyn both on and off the record to Miller, shaking his hand and wishing him well each time. But his performance, on the court, off the court and in life over the past few weeks still gives me pause as a new father on this day to celebrate the patriarch, and remember just how overwhelming the whole of life can be. I'm not rooting for Mike Miller on the court, Mike Miller, member of the Miami Heat.

But I'm sure rooting for Mike Miller, father of three.


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