TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — “MVP! MVP!”
The chants erupted Wednesday as Brandon Miller took to the free-throw line with six seconds left in Alabama’s come-from-behind victory over Auburn, a win that clinched the SEC’s regular-season title for the Crimson Tide.
If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know that Miller, a once-in-a-generation player for the Tide, has been embroiled in controversy since his role in a Jan. 15 shooting that left a 23-year-old mother dead was revealed last week.
The line outside Coleman Coliseum prior to the Auburn game was one of the largest Alabama has had all season, with the crowd of students stretching well over a half mile away. Crimson Chaos, the student-run basketball hype squad, has shown up in massive numbers to all of Alabama’s home games, even now, in spite of all of the controversy surrounding Miller.
“I think the important thing is that nothing’s changed,” explained Eddie Bassett, a member of the Crimson Chaos. “We’re not directly involved with the players. Our specific goal is to create a great student atmosphere. We’re not going to go out and say something when we don’t know everything.”
This stance on withholding opinions and statements is one that has pervaded throughout the university beyond the dedicated basketball fan club, the athletic department and the university hierarchy, including school president Stuart Bell. Despite a growing firestorm of criticism across social media and the internet, there is almost no discussion of it on campus. There are no “Free 24” signs, few people are wearing Miller jerseys at games, almost nothing. The campus is basically radio silent on the issue.
Even within Greek life, sororities and fraternities don’t keep discussion up around it as noted by Gamma Phi Beta sister Sami Skendarian. “I haven’t really heard anybody talking about it in person,” Skendarian said.
Sigma Alpha Mu’s Cade Carter concurred, saying Miller is “not a common sort of conversational topic, but every now and then you’ll have a two-three minute conversation. Maybe once a week or something.”
This isn’t to say that Tuscaloosa has been quiet on the shooting as a whole. The initial incident on Jan. 15 was a much bigger deal locally than anything related to Brandon Miller.
The incident occurred in the early morning hours, near a strip of bars just off the Alabama campus. Darius Miles, then a member of the Crimson Tide basketball squad, and a friend, Michael Davis, got into an altercation with 23-year-old Jamea Harris. Police said Miles texted Miller asking him to bring him his gun, which Miles had left in the backseat of Miller’s car. Miller arrived, Miles allegedly gave the gun to Davis and Davis allegedly shot Harris, who died on the scene.
The University of Alabama athletics department called for a mandatory meeting for all athletes on Jan. 24, well before Miller’s involvement was revealed. In the meeting, the athletics and police departments addressed the issue, but “focused on making sure [athletes] know who your friends are and what their intentions are,” according to student-athlete Kelsey Matsen. Also discussed was the seriousness of the issue and how there are consequences when actions become serious. “It was in response to the issue but it was also a generalized safety response,” Matsen said. “I don’t think it was information that was necessarily new to anybody, but a good reminder and it was good to have everybody together.”
The shock of Harris’ death and a shooting right down the road from campus stirred plenty of conversation in and around Tuscaloosa. However, only after Miller’s name got attached did the story take off nationally.
“Fair or not, it becomes such a big story because he’s such a big name,” Alabama journalism professor and author Lars Anderson noted.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about it on campus. A big part of it was that everyone was so shocked when the Darius Miles stuff first came out, and that was a month before this,” explained student journalist Nicholas Pursley.
“I heard way more when the shooting happened,” seconded Kiley Price, a resident assistant at the university. “I got texts from people concerned about safety.”
From now until the end of Alabama’s season, every time Miller takes the court there is going to be a discussion about what happened on Jan. 15, with some people saying he should be in jail while others defend him. But in Tuscaloosa, this story has run its course several times over. The danger and loss of life that happened just blocks away from the residence halls were the real story, not what has happened since.
Logan Busbee, son of Yahoo Sports staff writer Jay Busbee, is a second-year student at the University of Alabama.