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Love Arike Ogunbowale’s ‘Mamba Mentality’? Thank Cheryl Miller

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Ahead of her time, Cheryl Miller broke behavioral boundaries on the basketball court. Because of her sometimes controversial confidence, today’s stars can show off their assured swagger — or, “Mamba Mentality.”

USC Trojans
USC star Cheryl Miller confidently propelled the Women of Troy from 1982 to 1986.
Photo by: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

We need no reminder of what Arike Ogunbowale did during last year’s Final Four ...

Ogunbowale proved her “Mamba Mentality” to the nation, sinking a pair of preposterous shots that stole the 2018 national title for Notre Dame.

However, more than exemplifying “Mamba Mentality,” Ogunbowale should be recognized for resetting the clock to “Miller Time.” Ogunbowale’s actions and attitudes echo the unapologetic sense of confidence that Cheryl Miller introduced to women’s college basketball as a superstar for the USC Women of Troy from 1982 to 1986.

The dawn of “Miller Time”

During her freshman season, Cheryl Miller led the Women of Troy in points, steals and blocked shots, as well as to a 30-2 record and the 1983 National Championship game, where they would face the Louisiana Tech University Lady Techsters. Trailing by eleven points at halftime, Miller and the Trojans were undaunted. Sports Illustrated suggested, “Southern Cal wasn’t rattled. The tournament’s most talented, spectacular club, the Women of Troy were also its most confident.”

To ignite the comeback, USC head coach Linda Sharp implemented a full-court press. Miller then provided the additional fuel needed to secure a two-point victory, 69-67. Reflecting on her performance, Miller exhibited her cool, casual confidence, quipping to reporters, “It’s Easter Sunday and I love Sundays.”

“We’re very Hollywood”

Buoyed by this success, Miller embraced the ways of Hollywood. Almost twenty-five years before Arike Ogunbowale would parlay her heroics into a meeting with the Black Mamba himself and an appearance on Dancing with the Stars, Miller made a guest appearance at the Grammy Awards, where she dunked a ball through a hoop as Donna Summer sang “She Works Hard for the Money.”

Often accompanied by teammates Pam and Paula McGee, Miller also frequently dined with titans of sport and entertainment, including Dr. Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Lionel Richie and Cicely Tyson. “We’re very Hollywood,” Pam McGee, now the mother of Imani and JaVale, proudly admitted.

Miller further would declare, “The Women of Troy want to own L.A.”

USC coach Linda Sharp, embraced and encouraged this attitude. Of Miller, Sharp said:

There’s an aura about her. She can create things on court and in the stands. She’s a delight. ... I certainly don’t see her as a hot dog. I see her as a competitive athlete who is very emotional and very responsive to the environment she’s in.

Today, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw similarly supports her star’s style. Before the season, McGraw told Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader, “I love her swagger. I wish more women would have it.”

“Miller Time,” turned up

Yet, the rest of the world of women’s basketball in the mid-1980s did not consider Miller delightful, increasingly expressing criticisms of the Women of Troy for their so-called “hot dog” ways. “USC is a lot of hype,” stated then-Louisiana Tech Lady Techster and current Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. University of Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt even posited that Miller “runs the risk of taking herself out of games by overreacting.”

In short, Miller made much of women’s college basketball culture uncomfortable. She introduced a new brand of women’s basketball that defied the sport’s staid traditions, which implicitly required that women athletes be “appropriate” role models.

Ahead of the 1984 national championship game against Tennessee, Southern Cal, according to Sports Illustrated, “came out fired up, all high fives, hugs and fists in the air, playing up to the crowd.” Yet, for all their Hollywood histrionics, old-fashioned hustle, especially from Miller, propelled USC’s success.

As Miller put it after the game:

Then we decided we had to have another championship. So we really turned it on.

Once USC secured the 66-53 victory, Miller further turned it on, turning cartwheels in front of the Tennessee bench to celebrate her second straight national title, as well as her second straight tournament Most Valuable Player award.

In her preseason conversation with Fader, Ogunbowale’s estimation of herself echoes Miller’s attitude. She asserted:

I’m always in attack mode. I don’t really hold back. ... I always think I am the best player on the court. Whether that’s true or not, that’s what I am going to believe. Really, nobody can tell me otherwise.

Too much “Miller Time”?

But Miller’s persona continued to irritate many of women’s basketball’s most influential voices during her junior and senior seasons. Sportswriters, coaches, players and former players increasingly suggested that Miller was “too much,” or even “bad,” for the collegiate game.

Former UCLA star Ann Meyers emerged as one of Miller’s most prominent critics. Meyers Drysdale, now a commentator for the Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns, explained to Sports Illustrated in 1985:

I don’t want to knock Miller’s game because she plays hard, she’s exciting and she’s great for the sport. But sometimes I think Cheryl goes overboard with theatrics. She blatantly plays to the crowd and the media. ... There’s no doubt in my mind that we were as good in our eras as Cheryl is now.

However, Miller was such a pioneering phenomenon because she inserted “theatrics” into mid-1980s women’s college basketball. She was a captivating agent of change. And Miller never abandoned her ways, asserting:

Everybody has a style. My style is right there. It’s always been that way. I hear people say to me, ‘Are you for real?’ No, I’m a phony. I am what I am. Believe it or not.

“Miller Time” strikes again?

Ogunbowale scored two unbelievable buckets during last year’s Final Four. But her style and swagger were not unbelievable. More than thirty years prior, Cheryl Miller forced the world of women’s basketball to bear witness to, or believe in, the boldness of women athletes.

That a young woman athlete now can be celebrated, without controversy, for showing the cold-blooded clutchness of Kobe Bryant (or the cold-blooded clutchness that Bryant thinks he embodies) represents progress. Women athletes no longer are bound by strict behavioral expectations. They can be cocky, confident and chase triple-doubles.

Miller faced the backlash that now allows Arike Ogunbowale, Sabrina Ionescu and others to break boundaries.

So, during the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four and National Championship games, let’s hope we see Asia Durr, Morgan Williams, Teaira McCowan, Ionescu, or, yet again, Ogunbowale turn back the clock to “Miller Time.”