Khaalidah Miller: With her brother in her heart

Khaalidah Miller woke up around 5:30 a.m. the last time Georgia played Georgia Tech almost a year ago to the day and she couldn’t go back to sleep. Had to be adrenaline, she thought.

Miller was a senior point guard at UGA and it was game day against in-state rival Tech, which had also recruited her hard out of Douglass High. The game didn’t start until 2 p.m. that Sunday, Nov. 24. She figured she must just be excited.

That’s what she texted her coach Andy Landers, who was up early that morning too. He texted back that she should try to get some rest.

Neither one of them yet knew that as the sun set the night before, Khaalidah’s ailing brother Rashad had been taken off life support in an Atlanta intensive care unit and, in the early morning, had died. What started as testicular cancer and spread to his abdomen, had returned in September and, after two months of decline, it took his life at age 26.

“I thought it was adrenaline,” Miller said. “I had this feeling. I didn’t know what it was. But I really think it was him.”

She had been at Rashad’s bedside in Atlanta earlier that week, asking everyone to clear the room so he could realize she was the only one there. He couldn’t turn his head toward her so she went around to the other side of the bed to face him. She could see his lips trembling, like he was trying to tell her something, but words wouldn’t come. Finally, he reached out and grabbed her hand.

“I’ve been a coach all their lives, but Rashad was the one that initiated the athletic (passion) in Bilaal and Khaalidah,” Willie Miller, their father, said of Rashad’s younger siblings, just a year apart. “He would get (Khaalidah) out there and she’d run in the house crying, ‘He won’t let me shoot.’ He had no mercy on her. He would knock that kid down, pick her up, knock her down again.

“She’d try to shoot the ball. He’d block it. When she would run to me, I’d say, ‘You don’t want to play with him? Just stop playing.’ She wasn’t about to stop. She’d run right back out there and go at him again. She’d go at him until she couldn’t go anymore.”

So in the week leading up to his death, Miller’s parents thought it was best to let her keep playing. They made arrangements for a UGA assistant coach to bring Miller to Atlanta to make sure she saw him in the hospital, but they didn’t give her specifics on the downward turn he had taken.

When the ball was tipped that Sunday afternoon, only four people in Stegeman Coliseum knew Rashad was gone: Willie and wife Phyllis Miller, Georgia coach Andy Landers and his assistant coach Joni Crenshaw.

“I was following the leadership of Willie Miller,” said Landers, who offered to drive Khaalidah from Athens to Atlanta that morning himself. “I believed that he knew what was best.”

Willie Miller said he and his wife had weighed giving Khaalidah the news before the game, in part because they worried she might find out on social media. But they decided to wait.

“At least let her get past this game,” her father said. “She loves this basketball thing. … When she came out during warm-up, she was hyped. My wife and I, we were trying to keep our composure.”

Miller had one of the best games of her life. Until shortly after it was over, she had no idea why.

She sunk a 3-pointer for Georgia’s first basket and hit two more in a span of 78 seconds to give the Lady Bulldogs a commanding early lead. She finished with 20 points — she would average 10.4 points that season — and led Georgia to a 63-56 victory.

Looking back now?

“I just felt like he was with me,” Miller said. “I didn’t know that he had already passed at that point. I prayed so much before the game, just for him. After that first one, I felt like everything was going in. The basket was bigger than usual.”

Her excitement over the victory lasted only until she got a glimpse of her parents’ faces afterward. Normally her dad was jovial with her teammates and chatting away. He wasn’t smiling. Her mom was trying to smile.

Khaalidah watched as her dad said something to assistant coach Robert Mosley and then she saw Mosley’s expression change completely. So when Mosley led them into Landers’ office and left the Millers to talk, she didn’t have to hear the full sentence from her dad before she knew.

“You know your brother loved you, right?” he had begun.

In that moment, Miller showed little emotion. She had never liked crying in front of people, even those closest to her.

“But I could see the storm in her,” her father said.

Back in her dorm later that day, Miller went into the bathroom and locked the door. She turned on some music, cranked up the volume, got in the shower and as the water came down, she began to cry. She sat, tears and water flowing, for two hours.

Her brother Bilaal pounded on the bathroom door, asking if she was OK. His voice was drowned out by the song she had blaring on repeat. Playing over and over was Anthony Hamilton’s version of Stevie Wonder’s song “As”:

“As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow

But in passing we’ll grow older every day

Just as all that’s born is new, you know what I say is true

That I’ll be loving you always

Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky, always

Until the ocean covers every mountain high, always

Until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea, always

Until we dream of life and life becomes a dream.”

“It’s crazy how it worked out,” Miller says looking back on the eve of Sunday’s Georgia-Georgia Tech showdown. The Bulldogs’ holiday tournament last year wasn’t in Mexico or in Las Vegas. It was in Atlanta. And her brother’s funeral was in College Park on a Saturday between games of that tournament.

She asked Landers if it would be OK if two of her closest friends on the team, Tiaria Griffin and Marjorie Butler, could leave the team for the funeral. When she stood in front of the church that day and looked past the family limousine, she saw the team’s chartered bus. It still didn’t compute.

“I thought, ‘Why did they drive the bus for two people?’” Miller said.

Then as she walked into the church, she saw the entire team and staff filling out a row.

“We have to take our hat off to the Georgia family,” Willie Miller said. “They poured their heart out.”

After graduation last May, Miller signed as an undrafted rookie with the Atlanta Dream but was waived at the end of training camp. Yet just like she used to do when she played with her brother as a young girl, she’s coming back for more.

Miller is working out and playing basketball every day at Pebblebrook High School or her alma mater Douglass while she awaits word from her agent about a possible contract to play overseas. That could mean Brazil, Russia, France or even Turkey.

As long as she is still stateside when Georgia plays Georgia Tech at McCamish Pavilion, she planned to be there.

Looking back on last year, she said even if she’d known about her brother’s death before the game, she still would have played.

“I’m glad they didn’t tell before the game,” Miller said. “Because I felt like my team needed me for that game and I knew the role that I played, I was important to the team. Either way I would have played. It would have been harder.”

From her brother’s death, her family has learned to keep on living. Her father quoted author Napoleon Hill while making that point: “Every adversity has the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit.” Something good comes from every hardship.

“Rashad constantly told (his siblings), ‘This is not in vain,’” Willie Miller said. “We weren’t looking to die, we were looking to live. And he was telling them this was an experience to let them know, you got to fight through everything. And he fought.”