BY CONVENTIONAL BASKETBALL STANDARDS, Mark Miller is out of his league. At 39, the backup point guard for the Continental Basketball Association’s Fort Wayne (Ind.) Fury is old enough to play father figure to most of his teammates, and at 5’9″, he’s one of the shortest guys on the court. He has also had five operations in the past decade to repair a ligament in his left knee. So what’s a guy like that doing in a sport like this?
Making history, it turns out. As lead singer of the country music group Sawyer Brown, Miller is the only multimillion-selling recording artist ever to sign a pro sports contract. Last year he played a supporting role in a handful of games, and this month he returns for his second season on the semipro team.
Coinciding with his increased hoop time, his four bandmates cut back their 1997 schedule to 100 concert dates and will do the same next year. Even so, Sawyer Brown’s 14th album, Six Days on the Road, hit Billboard’s country music Top 10 the week of its release earlier this year, and the band was named top vocal group by the Academy of Country Music.
Unlike his career in music, Miller’s journey to jockdom came about strictly by chance. In October 1996, just for kicks, he accompanied a friend to a Fury tryout. (The friend later decided to play for a different CBA team.) “When I got there, I suited up and played,” says Miller, a lifelong basketball fan who had played some college ball at the University of Central Florida. “I had an incredible game. When it was over, the coach and the owner asked if I wanted to sign a contract.”
With the alacrity of Dennis Rodman going after a rebound, Miller jumped at the chance. At the start of training one week later, “there were a few times I was intimidated,” he admits. “I did start to think, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” After one week of twice-daily practices with the team, however, he had impressed fellow players with both his moves and his moxie. “He’s quick, and he handles the ball great,” says Fury owner Jay Fry. Adds point guard Damon Bailey: “A lot of us didn’t know what to expect when he first showed up, but he’s a very smart player.”
With a weekly Fury salary of $500, he’s also smart enough to remember which of his careers pays the bills. During training for the Fury’s current season last month, Miller missed a week to tape a TV special with Wynonna and Bryan White (it airs Dec. 9 and 17 on TNN), and this month a Sawyer Brown Christmas CD arrives in stores.
Lest his devotion to the game cut into family time, though, Miller has brought the sport home. He has an outdoor basketball court at his 40-acre spread in Franklin, Tenn., where he lives with his wife, Lisa, 36, and their two children: daughter Madison, 6, and 3-year-old son Gunnar. There’s also an indoor court on the family’s 1,000-acre cattle farm 20 minutes away. Despite her husband’s round-ball obsession, Lisa says she is glad to see her man “content and happy,” playing the game he loves. As for Miller, “When I’m watching [basketball] on TV, sometimes I won’t even finish. I’ll want to go out and shoot,” he says.
The singer began shooting hoops with his younger brother Frank in Dayton and, later, Apopka, Fla., where they were raised by their mother, Irene, a teacher, and her parents. (The boys’ father, Franklin, died of rheumatic fever while serving in the Air Force during the Korean War when Mark was 14 months old.) Miller played basketball in high school and at Central Florida, but he quit school in 1980 to move to Nashville. Soon after landing a job as a staff writer for country star Charley Pride, he formed Sawyer Brown (named after a street in Nashville) with keyboard player Gregg Hubbard, a high school chum. During the next 15 years, the band would sell more than 15 million records.
Despite basketball’s demands, Miller says he would like to play for a couple more seasons before hanging up his shoes. But if the bum knee gives out before then, or his wind starts to go, no matter. “The dream’s been fulfilled,” says Lisa. “He could die today, and he’d be such a happy man.”
AMY ESKIND in Franklin