The cloud over Alabama retreats in the opening round
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 were present at a murder scene in Tuscaloosa exactly 60 days ago…if you didn’t know that another, now former Alabama player whose name is still on the season stats, has due capital murder…if you didn’t know this was a program and administration in lockdown mode against any investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Jamea Harris…the Tide’s 96-75 first round win over the 16. Corpus Christi would have appeared as little more than a routine tournament opening blowout.
There were no obnoxious “Killing Our Way Through The SEC” t-shirts, no audible “Lock him up!” applause. No protesters gathered on the streets surrounding the arena. This year’s team from Alabama entered the 2023 NCAA tournament under a cloud unlike anything seen in college basketball, but you wouldn’t have known it from a totally routine Thursday afternoon in Birmingham.
The only notable thing about Brandon Miller, the Alabama player who delivered a gun to a crime scene in January, was that Miller — who’s averaged 19.6 points per game this season — didn’t score a single point all afternoon. He folded, he blocked, he called his teammates for an on-court huddle when TA&MCC once made the smallest runs, but for most of the afternoon he was a support player, well out of the limelight where he could stood all year round.
In the early hours of January 15, former Alabama player Darius Miles became involved in an altercation on the Strip, a row of bars and restaurants just off the Alabama campus. According to police reports, Miles texted Miller, demanding that he bring Miles’ gun to the Strip. Miller later arrived with the gun in his back seat. His attorney says Miller never touched the gun. Shortly after, a shootout broke out and Jamea Harris, 23, was hit and died at the scene.
The presence of Miller and teammate Jaden Bradley was not known until mid-February, when a detective involved in the investigation into Harris’ death testified that they were at the scene. In a disastrous news conference shortly after Miller’s involvement broke, Alabama head coach Nate Oats appeared to downplay the seriousness of the incident, calling it a case of “wrong place at wrong time.”
Tuscaloosa prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to charge Miller with a crime. He remained an active member of the team, scoring points for Alabama’s stretch run, being named SEC Player of the Year, and leading the Tide to No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
The entire Alabama basketball industrial complex has tried to focus on the team’s spectacular on-court performance… and nothing else. Only one of the nine questions asked to Oats in a pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday and only two of the 14 questions asked to Miller touched on the Jan. 15 incidents.
However, there were signs on the fringes that this story isn’t going away. For one, a security guard escorted Miller during his tournament press conference, a move Oats suggested out of caution.
“If you saw what I saw, you would understand why that is,” he said. “It’s not something a college kid should go through.”
Miller kept his answers short and borderline unresponsive. “I feel like we always travel with safety,” he said. “That’s all I’ll say about that.”
Safety was present throughout Birmingham, as is always the case at high-profile NCAA events. Outside the Legacy Arena on Thursday, a range of law enforcement, ranging from Birmingham police to SWAT teams and K-9 units, surrounded the building. The Jefferson County Bomb Squad stood right off the field as Miller and his Alabama teammates warmed up before the game. (Tournament officials did not respond to a query from Yahoo Sports about the level of security around the tournament.)
As Alabama performed layup lines, the CBS studio crew went through a timeline of events in Tuscaloosa, from the night of the shooting to the charges against Miles and Michael Davis, who allegedly fired the bullet that killed Harris. A brief roundtable discussion ensued, during which Clark Kellogg, Charles Barkley and the rest of the panel seemed to indicate that the time for his suspension was over because Miller is not currently a person of interest on the case.
Meanwhile, off the field, the story continues to unfold. On Wednesday night, The New York Times reported that a fourth player – freshman Kai Spears, who has not played a game this season – was also at the scene. This was the first time Spears’ name had been mentioned in connection with the Harris assassination.
In an Instagram comment posted a few hours before the tip, Spears claimed that the Times report was “100% inaccurate” and that “the author totally disregarded the truth.” While the game was underway, Alabama released a statement from sporting director Greg Byrne who vehemently denied the Times report.
Byrne called the Times article “untrue” and stated in the press release that “some inaccurate narratives have been reported of the involvement of student-athletes from Alabama, showing an unfortunate disregard for the facts.”
After the game, Oats’ only comments about Miller focused on his lack of performance. “He has a groin injury that he’s been nursing since Sunday in the SEC tournament,” Oats said. “We tried to give 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 lengthy unmoderated interview sessions since February, relaxed and joking about braces busted by Furman. He quickly dismissed almost all questions about the night and its impact on the season with a few words or a shake of the head, but admitted that he had received hate mail and threats “across all platforms” and reported them to the university.
Dealing with the chaos, Miller repeated a commonly used line: “Lean on my teammates.” Flanking Miller, those same teammates kept an eye on the two dozen members of the media crowded into Alabama’s tiny dressing rooms.
Running the clock might not be the most glamorous basketball strategy, but it is a highly effective PR strategy. The longer Alabama stays in the tournament, the more Jamea Harris’ story fades into the background, from the dominant topic of discussion to the pregame round-table fodder to the brief in-game mention…to maybe not mentioned at all–at least, that’s what basketball wants from Alabama.
As the Alabama fans exited the arena, they crossed paths with Auburn fans arriving for the Tigers’ game that night. The blood rivals mingled, orange and blue mingled with purple and white, tiger stripes with houndstooth. Just like this was a normal season.