On the court, Alabama didn't miss a beat, other than Brandon Miller going scoreless. Off it, controversy swirls on edges
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know.
If you didn’t already know that at least two of Alabama’s players had been present at a Tuscaloosa murder scene exactly 60 days ago … if you didn’t know that another, now-former Alabama player whose name is still in the season stats has been charged with capital murder … if you didn’t know this was a program and an administration in lockdown mode against all inquiries into the circumstances surrounding Jamea Harris’ death … the Tide’s 96-75 first-round victory over 16th-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi would have appeared nothing more than a routine tournament-opening blowout.
There were no offensive “Killing Our Way Through The SEC” T-shirts, no audible “Lock him up!” cheers. No protesters gathered on the streets around the arena. This year’s Alabama team entered the 2023 NCAA tournament under a cloud unlike any ever seen in college basketball, but you wouldn’t have known it from an utterly routine Thursday afternoon in Birmingham.
The only remarkable thing about Brandon Miller, the Alabama player who delivered a weapon to what would become a crime scene in January, was that Miller — who averaged 19.6 points per game this season — didn’t score a single point all afternoon. He passed, he blocked, he called his teammates into an on-court huddle during the one time that TA&MCC made the tiniest of runs, but for most of the afternoon he was a supporting player, far outside the spotlight he’s been in all year long.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 15, former Alabama player Darius Miles became involved in an altercation on The Strip, the row of bars and restaurants just off Alabama’s campus. According to police reports, Miles texted Miller, telling him to bring Miles’ gun to The Strip. Miller later arrived with the gun in his backseat. His attorney says Miller never touched the gun. Shortly afterward, a gunfight erupted and Jamea Harris, 23, was hit and died at the scene.
The presence of Miller and teammate Jaden Bradley wasn’t known until mid-February, when a detective involved in the investigation of Harris’ death testified that they were at the scene. In a disastrous news conference shortly after Miller’s involvement became known, Alabama head coach Nate Oats appeared to downplay the severity of the incident, calling it a case of "wrong spot at the wrong time.”
Tuscaloosa prosecutors indicated that there was not sufficient evidence to charge Miller with a crime. He remained an active member of the team, pouring in points for Alabama’s stretch run, winning SEC Player of the Year, and pacing the Tide to its first-ever overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The entire Alabama basketball industrial complex has sought to keep the focus on the team’s spectacular performance on the court … and nothing else. Only one of the nine questions asked of Oats, and only two of the 14 asked of Miller, in a Wednesday pre-tournament news conference touched on the incidents of Jan. 15.
There were signs around the edges, though, that this story isn’t going away. For one, a security guard accompanied Miller throughout his tournament news conference, a move Oats suggested was taken out of an abundance of caution.
“If you guys saw some of what I've seen sent his way, I think you would understand why that's the case,” he said. “It's nothing that a college kid should have to go through.”
Miller kept his answers short and borderline non-responsive. “I feel like we always travel with security,” he said. “That's all I'm going to say on that.”
Security was present everywhere in Birmingham, as it always is at high-profile NCAA events. Outside Legacy Arena on Thursday, an array of law enforcement agencies, from Birmingham police to S.W.A.T. teams to K-9 units ringed the building. The Jefferson County bomb squad stood just off-court as Miller and his Alabama teammates warmed up before the game. (Tournament officials did not respond to a Yahoo Sports inquiry about the extent of the security around the tournament.)
As Alabama ran layup lines, CBS’ studio crew ran through a timeline of the events in Tuscaloosa, from the night of the shooting to the indictments of Miles and Michael Davis, who allegedly fired the bullet that killed Harris. A brief roundtable followed, in which Clark Kellogg, Charles Barkley and the rest of the panel seemed to indicate that because Miller is not currently a person of interest in the case, the time for suspending him is past.
Meanwhile, off the court, the story continues to unfurl. On Wednesday night, The New York Times reported that a fourth player — freshman Kai Spears, who has not played in a game this season — was also at the scene of the crime. This marked the first time Spears’ name had been mentioned in connection with Harris’ killing.
In an Instagram comment posted a few hours before tip, Spears contended that the Times’ report was “100% inaccurate” and that “the writer had complete disregard for the truth.” While the game was in progress, Alabama released a statement from athletic director Greg Byrne that forcefully denied the Times report.
Calling the Times article “untrue,” Byrne stated in the release that “some inaccurate narratives have been reported about the involvement of Alabama student-athletes that display an unfortunate disregard of the facts.”
After the game, Oats’ only comments about Miller focused on his lack of production. “He's got a groin injury that he's been nursing since Sunday in the SEC tournament,” Oats said. “We were trying to play him limited minutes. We were able to keep him under 20.”
Back in the Alabama locker room, Miller sat in a corner for one of his first extended, unmoderated interview sessions since February, at ease and joking about brackets busted by Furman. He quickly dismissed almost all questions related to the night and its impact on the season with a few words or a shake of his head, but did allow that he has been receiving hate mail and threats “through all platforms,” and reported those to the university.
As for how he’s handled the chaos, Miller repeated an often-used line: “Lean on my teammates.” Those same teammates flanked Miller, keeping a watchful eye on the two dozen media members who crowded into Alabama’s tiny locker room.
Running out the clock might not be the most glamorous of basketball strategies, but it’s a highly effective public relations one. The longer Alabama remains in the tournament, the more Jamea Harris' story recedes, from predominant topic of discussion to pregame roundtable fodder to brief in-game mention ... to maybe no mention at all — at least, that's what Alabama basketball would like.
As the Alabama fans left the arena, they crossed paths with Auburn fans arriving for the Tigers’ evening-session game. The blood rivals mingled, orange and blue blending with crimson and white, tiger stripes with houndstooth. Just like this was a normal season.