SCOREBOARD By Jim Hague Memories of ‘Doc’ Long-time Prep, St. Anthony trainer dies at 84

If you went to a St. Anthony basketball game over the last 20 years or so, chances are you saw him.

Same goes for any St. Peter’s Prep athletic event. You had to see him if you were there. He was as much a part of a St. Anthony basketball game as the stifling man-to-man defense and as much of the Marauders’ grid games as the ball itself.

He was the stately gray-haired fellow at the end of the Friar bench or perched on the sidelines at Marauder games, with the impressive military stance and approach to things, with the black bag at his side, filled with an assortment of tape and gauze. He was quick with a smile and a handshake, but don’t ever dare to do him wrong, or you could face the death stare.

He was Phil “Doc” Miller, a true legend in the Hudson County world of sports – and he’s gone now. Cancer finally got Doc over the Christmas holidays. He was 84 years old.

But if you truly got to know Doc, like I was fortunate enough to do over the last 25 years or so, you know that this was a man who lived life to the fullest. In fact, he didn’t just live his life. He embodied vitality. He was energetic and alive and in touch and tune with the kids he worked with daily, even though he had seven decades of experience on them.

And Doc lived that life to the fullest until cancer finally beat him in his final months.

Doc Miller had such a full life, as a husband, a father, a friend. He also had so many different facets to his life.

Veteran Doc was a World War II veteran and embraced his military service with pride and dignity. When you met Doc for the first time and he put his hand in yours, you knew right away that he had a military background, just by the way his handshake meant something.

Before he ever became “Doc” Miller, he was Phil Miller, an iron worker and provider for his family in Weehawken. He helped to build the lower level of the George Washington Bridge.

He was also a legendary basketball referee. He refereed 17 HCIAA championships and officiated at the ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden for nine years. He always said that doing games at the Garden was the highlight of his career as an official. He also worked games in the early days of the National Basketball Association, long before it became widely known as the true professional basketball league.

If there was a basketball game to be played from the 1940s through the ’70s, Phil Miller was there, with his trusty whistle and his jersey. He just loved the game of basketball, loved to be around the people, the excitement. Phil Miller had the distinction of working on the first-ever three-man officiating crew, with fellow Hudson County legends “Red” Pasch and Richie Arricale. He also gave suggestions to then-NJSIAA executive director Bob Kanaby (a Union City native) to hold a basketball Tournament of Champions. Kanaby agreed. So Phil Miller had a hand in the inception of the T of C, something that will be a part of the New Jersey basketball lexicon forever.

The kids There was another aspect to Phil Miller’s incredible life. After retiring as an iron worker, he was a recreation director in Weehawken, Secaucus and Ridgefield, coordinating programs for kids, especially basketball.

Then, he became the athletic trainer at St. Anthony and then St. Peter’s Prep. Thus, it’s how he acquired the moniker of “Doc,” one that definitely stuck.

Bob Hurley, the legendary basketball coach at St. Anthony and currently the director of recreation for Jersey City, recalls a 40-year relationship with “Doc” Miller.

“He was a good friend of my Dad’s,” Hurley said. “They met working municipal court more than 40 years ago. Then I remember him from refereeing my high school games [when Hurley played at St. Peter’s Prep]. I’ve known him for so long. Then, he just came aboard as our trainer in 1988 and had been with us all that time. He was like a member of the family. It was like having my uncle with us at St. Anthony.”

Over the years, Hurley and Miller developed a special relationship.

“We would regularly butt heads, but I think it’s because our personalities are very similar,” Hurley said. “We would always get into these crazy conversations. He was our resident psychiatrist, for me and the kids. But we always had so much fun. He had this old school way of doing things. You had to admire his toughness and his approach. We had a ball together. I think every kid who ever played at St. Anthony feels the loss, but has a million Doc stories and memories. He lived a full life. He was busy every day of his life, doing something.”

Rich Hansen, the athletic director and football coach at St. Peter’s Prep, appreciated what Miller meant to his program so much that he hired him as a full-time athletic trainer eight years ago.

“I think the thing that I will remember most about him was the little things that he did for people that no one knew about,” Hansen said. “He would buy socks for the kids who couldn’t afford them. He would go out of his way to help anyone. Just his makeup, his character as a person, was something to be around. He certainly had his own way and style. He was an old school guy, but the kids all appreciated him and respected him. Everyone knew he was a good person.”

Doc Miller was always willing to give whatever he could to everyone else. He never worried about himself.

When winter came, he had a truckload of firewood for anyone he knew who had a wood-burning fireplace.

I can’t even begin to count the people who received wood for the winter from Doc. I can safely say that I have enough wood at my home to last every winter until 2029.

Hall of Fame When I approached him with the idea that the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame was nominating him for induction five years ago, he was the first to mention that he couldn’t go in before his father, Phil “Muggsy” Miller, Sr., who was known as “Mr. Basketball” in the Hudson County circles in the 1930s. The elder Miller was the owner, manager, promoter and coach for the old Union City (Jersey) Reds, which won the 1938 World Championship of professional basketball, defeating the Boston Celtics and Joe Lapchick.

“I can’t go in before my father, Jimmy,” he said to me. “He was more important than I’ll ever be.”

So as a fitting tribute, Doc and his father, who died in 1976, earned induction together.

He was also so very proud of his new-fangled way of treating athletes’ injuries. In 1996, St. Anthony was on its way to another T of C title, when standout point guard Rashon Burno (a kid I coached in Biddy basketball when he was 10 through 12) came up with Achilles tendonitis.

It didn’t look as if Burno was going to be able to play, until Doc thought of a way to cushion Burno’s sneakers, using a tampon, of all things. He took a tampon, cut it and wrapped it around the inside base of Burno’s sneakers. Sure enough, Burno played and was the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. It had to be the best use of a feminine product in the history of boys’ sports anywhere.

And you can rest assured that Doc was proud of that moment, because he was quick to tell anyone and everyone about the cure that saved the Friars.

Funeral service At his funeral service last week, current St. Peter’s Prep standout linebacker Will Thompson spoke brilliantly about his relationship with Doc. Thompson relayed another story of peculiar athletic procedures.

In 1995, before St. Peter’s Prep played Seton Hall Prep in a wickedly muddy Caven Point Cochrane Field (an event that eventually forced Jersey City to turn Cochrane into an artificial turf facility), Miller sprayed the Marauders’ cleats with Pam, the cooking spray, so that the mud would not stick to their shoes. Sure enough, the trick worked and the Marauders won the state playoff game, thanks to Doc’s quick thinking.

When Miller told that story to Thompson, the kid asked the old vet, “How did you know how to do that, Doc?” “How?” Doc replied, “I’m Phil Miller.”

Classic answer.

“We go to games now and it’s just not the same,” Hurley said. “We don’t know what to do. It’s just not the same. Someone will eventually do what Doc did, but no one can replace him.”

“He was one of a kind, no question,” Hansen said. “He was so cut and dry. If he liked you, he would go to the ends of the earth for you. He loved our football players especially, and they loved him.”

So did the countless others who took the time from their holiday festivities to pay one last tribute to Doc. The many different coaches, athletes, referees, just general people he touched over his tremendous life in sports.

Four years ago, Doc had double knee replacement surgery. That’s right, the octogenarian but kid at heart had them both done at the same time. Titanium, of course, the only kind.

As a veteran of five knee surgeries myself, I was intrigued by it all.

“Well, the doctor guaranteed these knees for 50 years, so 50 years from now, I’ll have to get two new ones,” he said to me.

I’ll always remember the classy gent who would shake my hand with authority, then give me a little slap to the back of my neck.

I’ll miss those slaps, just as much as I’ll miss Doc Miller.


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