Cheryl Miller’s career as a baller may have been cut short, but her story is big
‘Women of Troy’ argues that Miller could have been the Michael Jordan of women’s basketball, but it doesn’t go far enough
A new documentary about Cheryl Miller and her University of Southern California team leaves too many points on the floor.
Women of Troy, which airs March 10 on HBO, is about the best player in women’s basketball history. But the story of how Miller and her USC teammates, Cynthia Cooper and twins Pam and Paula McGee, utterly dominated women’s basketball and created a path for the creation of the WNBA, too often feels like an appetizer instead of the main course. Too many questions either go unanswered or leave the viewer itching for more context.
Director Alison Ellwood, a veteran documentary filmmaker who netted a 2002 Emmy nomination for American High, sets up a fairly simple outline in three acts to show what women’s basketball was like before Miller’s college career, during and after it. (Full disclosure: Ellwood has directed works for ESPN, including Nine for IX and Locked In, and Women of Troy heavily features ESPN analyst Doris Burke.)
Women of Troy is too tidy and triumphant. It tells the broad strokes of Miller’s story as a basketball phenom who grew up beating her brother, NBA star Reggie Miller. Eventually, she scored 105 of 115 points for her team as a high school senior at Riverside Polytechnic in Riverside, California. Ellwood establishes Miller as the woman who could have been the female counterpart to Michael Jordan had she not suffered an ACL injury at 22 and if the WNBA had existed when she left college in 1986.
But I wished Ellwood had pressed deeper and expanded the story when she turns to Miller’s legacy, given how bright Miller’s star burned as a player before it was extinguished and because of the argument she’s making for how much Miller, her style, her bravado and her talent shaped women’s basketball. For example, it’s fairly common now for women’s college teams to scrimmage against male practice squads. Playing against Reggie was part of what made Cheryl the player she was. I wondered whether that experience was part of what set the blueprint for all-male practice squads in women’s basketball, a question that never gets asked or answered.
Miller’s excellence helped make the case for the WNBA before it existed. Since its creation, new gendered challenges have emerged for women in basketball, such as continuing negotiations over pay disparity with the men’s league or the fight for maternity leave. Surely, Miller has thoughts about those issues and it would be valuable to hear from her about them.
The same issue exists in the first half of the film, too. Women of Troy mentions that Cooper, who grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, felt unwelcome at USC because of her race. But the film doesn’t go into any detail to explain how or why or whether the environment there has changed. In similar fashion, we learn that Sonja Hogg, the founding coach of the Louisiana Tech women’s basketball team — USC’s biggest rival — insisted that the team be called the Lady Techsters, even though the school mascot was a bulldog. Hogg was afraid that if the women’s team used Bulldogs in their name, they’d eventually be labeled as “bitches.” That fear of inviting insult went on to color other aspects of the women’s game. Hogg insisted on jerseys with sleeves because she saw them as more ladylike.
Again, I wished Ellwood had probed deeper, especially because both Hogg and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey are such visible sources in the documentary. Mulkey, too, has become notorious for insisting on traditional gender norms for her players, which most notably led to a rift with Brittney Griner. While Candace Parker makes an appearance in the film as one of the heirs of Miller’s greatness, Griner, who seems like an obvious choice, is nowhere to be found. Like Miller, Griner also became known as a woman who could dunk like nobody’s business.
One thing I realized upon watching Women of Troy was just how much Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood mined the stories of Cooper and Miller to create Monica Wright, the character played by Sanaa Lathan, and her teammates at USC. Part of why Love & Basketball endures as a cultural touchstone some 20 years after its release is because the story of Monica’s basketball career is so richly drawn to Miller, from Monica’s attitude and relationships with her teammates to her experiences as a professional player overseas to her eventual success in the WNBA. Women of Troy inadvertently illustrates just how much Monica was a composite of Miller and Cooper, so much so that Prince-Bythewood feels like a ghost haunting the documentary. Prince-Bythewood, a former basketball player herself, considered Miller her hero growing up. Prince-Bythewood and the story of Monica Wright are a huge part of Miller’s cultural legacy, and yet we never hear from Lathan or Prince-Bythewood. The film isn’t mentioned.
And so, Women of Troy is left too tightly enclosed, especially considering the reputation HBO has established for its sports documentaries, which, on the whole, are deeply researched, richly informative, and unafraid of spreading their tentacles beyond the obvious. Women of Troy fills up its one-hour time slot, but there could have been so much more.