The scene opens with a middle-age couple sitting in their car in the driveway at the home of a former basketball legend. In hushed, confident tones, the woman convinces her husband to drive away for a few minutes while she carries out her plan.
Grudgingly, the husband backs the car to the road, leaving his wife alone to try to gain access to the house and it’s reclusive superstar-of-yesterday.
The setup could be from “Murder She Wrote,” or “Law & Order.” Or “Cops,” if you want to go the reality TV route. But the reality of this unlikely story is the work of two daytime soap opera writers, Nancy and Stephen Demorest. The former basketball legend is UNC Tar Heel great Larry Miller.
In the late 1960’s, Miller captivated college basketball fans nationally and elevated college basketball locally. He was handsome, yet approachable; confident, yet blue-collar. He attracted the interest of Dean Smith, who was off to a less-than-captivating start as head coach at UNC-Chapel Hill. Miller was Smith’s first big catch and a springboard for Tar Heel basketball’s popularity, drawing in hundreds of thousands of fans, young and old, to see him play.
Among those fans was a Carolina girl who was fascinated enough with the recruit from Allentown, Pa., that she wrote him a letter when she was 10-years-old. She knew all there was to know about Miller, which was why, as an adult traveling through Pennsylvania with her husband, the highway exit for Catasauqua meant a change in plans, and possibly a meeting with her childhood crush/idol.
Ultimately, Nancy met and talked with Miller, and the two recounted favorite memories of his playing days at UNC. Nancy urged Miller to document his memories. She introduced him to her husband, who had grown up with a pedestrian knowledge of Tar Heel basketball, but had been tutored by his wife on what it means to bleed Carolina Blue.
A couple of weeks later, back at their home in Hillsborough, Nancy received a package from Larry Miller. Inside was the letter she had written him when she was 10-years-old. It also included his phone number, which Nancy immediately used to call and pitch the idea of writing a book about him. But, in a bit of a plot twist, she wanted her husband, Stephen, to write the book.
“I’ve never done anything at this length, and I don’t think I’ve done anything like this with sports before,” said Stephen Demorest. “But, I kind of knew how to shape and structure it. Nancy, who is a much better fiction writer than I am and who is a better soap opera writer than I am, had never done nonfiction. So I knew how to do this, and that’s why I’m the one who ended up writing it instead of her.”
Stephen said Nancy was the “Larry whisperer,” and was able to schmooze him, “godmother the project” and keep him interested.
“She’s the fan. She wanted to know everything about him. I only want to know what I can write,” Stephen said.
In the end, Stephen, Nancy and Larry completed the book “Larry Miller Time: The Story of the Lost Legend Who Sparked the Tar Heel Dynasty.” Stephen Demorest and Larry Miller will be at the Purple Crow bookstore in downtown Hillsborough on Oct. 20 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., to sign copies of the book. The event will be outside for safety (please where a mask).
Writing about a sports icon, even one that had been out of the public eye for decades, was a departure for Stephen, who had spent much of his career profiling rock stars and performers before becoming a writer of daytime soap operas. In fact, in his youth, Stephen was more interested in tennis and playing baseball, and didn’t take much of an interest in basketball until later.
“I kind of got into it when I was in high school outside Philadelphia,” he said. “The Big 5 teams and the Big East was coming on with Patrick Ewing against those teams. The team that I really hooked into was St. John’s because of Chris Mullen. He was such a great shooter and free-throw shooter. He could change the game. If they were ahead with two minutes to go, it was pretty much over. You couldn’t foul your way back in.”
After Stephen met Nancy in the late 1980’s, he was fully immersed in Tar Heel basketball and its culture. The two met in New York as writers for daytime soaps, and later moved to Hillsborough.
“The year that we came down here was the year that Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter were playing,” Stephen said. “That was very captivating. What I liked about them is they were always having fun, they were always laughing.”
When Stephen read and heard about Larry’s personality and rapport with his teammates, he realized the laid back nature had been a part of the team for decades. “The personality of the UNC teams have been joyous. It’s part of what makes them fun to watch aside from their winning. If you were a player, you’d want to hang out with those guys,” Stephen said.
In a way, Stephen got to hang out with those guys while pulling together the book, something he said he enjoyed in spite of the it being a larger project than he anticipated.
“Roy Williams gave me a half an hour on the phone. Former teammates Billy Cunningham and Charlie Scott and all of those guys. It’s kind of cool. And they all were happy to talk about it, so it was great to get a window into that brotherhood. I didn’t know how it was going to work out when I started it. I didn’t know anything about his life except what Nancy told me and what I could read about North Carolina stuff. I had to learn about the ABA (American Basketball Association). There’s a guy named George Lehmann, who was on a couple of his (Larry Miller’s) teams, and he gave me an idea of the ABA. I didn’t know what Larry’s career in real estate was like when he was at Virginia Beach, Va. I didn’t know what Catasaqua was like, which sort of bookends the story. It starts in Catasaqua and it ends in Catasaqua, because he’s back in his hometown. I kept finding things that were interesting as I moved into it.”
The opportunity to again work closely with Nancy reaffirmed to Stephen a number of things about his wife. She is bold and proactive, as evidenced by her decision to put the ball in play that morning in Catasaqua. She wasn’t afraid to approach him one-on-one just to let him know how much she appreciated what he brought to her youth.
Stephen also gained a deeper appreciation for Nancy’s love of her childhood. “To be honest, she has always been very sentimental about her childhood in Iredell County,” he said. “Part of the story that has interested me is sort of the Brigadoon of living in the past as a foreign country and realizing what was it like growing up in a steel town in the 1960’s. And what North Carolina was like when there still were black and white drinking fountains and the Tar Heels were not a big deal. That’s kind of a foreign country, too. My wife has really nurtured this project. I’ve been impressed by her dedication. She’s even more like herself than I thought.”
And what about Larry Miller, a man who, even after his playing days have long passed, is a well-known chapter in one of college basketball’s most storied programs. How did the reclusive No. 44 handle being pulled back into the limelight?
“I think he was uncertain at the beginning,” Stephen said. “Nancy basically convinced him that there would be people interested in this. He’s been out of the star business for decades and hadn’t been coming back for reunions or any of that. He sort of established that was then and this is now, and that he lives in the present. I think he’s been reminded of what he means to people. One of the things I mention in the epilogue of the book is that he has all these stories and anecdotes he can tell you about, but I don’t think he’d ever seen it sequenced. He didn’t always remember the sequence of events, and by me having to do it and follow up with, “Why were you doing this here? After that, is that why you did that?” It made him think about the arc of his life in a way that he hadn’t before. I think he found that to be a positive experience.”
The Demorests’ daughter has set up a Facebook page for Larry Miller. The page has been flooded with comments from not only fans who recall watching Miller play, but also from people who had more personal experiences with him. One such commenter recalled going to the local YMCA on a Saturday when he was in high school and finding Miller practicing alone in the gym. Larry let him shoot hoops with him.
“There’s thousands of those guys. My wife isn’t the only one he had that impact on. I think it had to do with his magnetism and self confidence,” Stephen said.
For what it’s worth, Stephen Demorest has been away from writing soap operas since 2008, and he said he doesn’t miss it. Not that he is ashamed of his work for the oft poked at daytime dramas.
“When somebody recommended I should look at soap operas, I said ‘Soap opera? I’ve been writing about Brian Eno and rock stars like the Talking Heads. Soap operas?’ I told him that I didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, but I learned half of them were done in New York. So, I called and found out it paid about five times what I was making at that moment. When I realized it was a 52-week job, with a paycheck coming under the door every Friday, I was, like, ‘oh, this is a regular job.’ I loved that. I used to spend half my time writing query letters trying to get the assignment and only half my time doing the actual writing. In the soap opera world, you get an agent who can get you a three-year contract, then all you have to do is the writing and not think about the business of it. Just as a business model, it was great to be in. It just stabilized my life. And, of course, it’s how I met Nancy. So that helped, too.”
Stephen said the pace of writing for a daily show meant the time for notes and re-writes was limited. He learned to trust his instincts and not over-worry. “There were fun things that I enjoyed, like if our leading man just broke his leg doing something last weekend. Those six weeks of scripts we have in the pipeline, now you have to rewrite them for a guy on crutches. So you just go through there and you say, ‘OK, instead of chasing the bad guy, he trips him with his crutch.’ It was a great training ground for how to dramatize scenes and learning to be nimble with your writing.“
Stephen and Nancy won numerous awards, including Daytime Emmys, for their writing on the soaps. But it may be the dramatic way by which the two unexpectedly were able to draw a key part of Nancy’s past into the present that proves to be the most rewarding. At least among Tar Heel fans.