July 22, 2021
‘Together they’d set us ablaze’: Coco and Kelly Miller’s basketball legacy still burns bright
These are not your run-of-the-Mill twins
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Never count the Minnesota Twins out of a basketball game.
No, not the baseball team that won a World Series in 1991. The “Minnesota Twins,” Kelly and Coco Miller, played practically every sport growing up, from soccer to figure skating to golf. But right around the time, those other Twins won a championship, the Millers were starting to build their legends on the hardwood at Mayo High School in Rochester, Minnesota. The dynamic guards went on to star at Georgia and play 12 seasons each in the WNBA, becoming one of the most consequential sister acts in basketball history.
The twins announced their entry into the sport with a fervor, starting as 3-year-olds with a miniature basketball and a small hoop affixed to a door in their house. “They would go at each other one-on-one,” their father Marv told the Associated Press in 1998. “You would think the house was coming down on you.”
At age five, the twins started shooting on a full-sized hoop, and as they got older, they always brought a ball to their brother’s high school games so they could play afterward. But they never kept score: “We play one-on-one just to play,” Kelly said. “There’s no sibling rivalry.”
By eighth grade, Coco and Kelly were starting for Mayo High School, and they would win two state championships and three national AAU titles in their careers. As seniors in 1997, they led their team to an undefeated season and shared Minnesota Miss Basketball honors. The joint award was not just a heartwarming decision but also a practical one: In their high school careers, Kelly had 2,151 points and 549 assists, nearly identical to Coco’s 2,113 and 603.
“Those two were doing things on the court that we hadn’t seen girls do before,” Les Cookman, who coached the Millers for their last two years of high school, told the Post Bulletin in 2019. “… They set the tone for girls basketball for many years. Statewide, they were a phenomenon.”
The Millers were both top-11 prospects in basketball, and their athleticism and work ethic also helped them become nationally ranked soccer prospects and successful tennis players. They were constantly driven to outwork everyone else, Coco said in 2019, and that along with their soccer background helped the twins develop the elite conditioning that would be a hallmark of their basketball careers.
“We took so much pride in our work ethic,” she said. “… Plus, we hated to lose. Losing felt almost like a death. And we pushed each other. I didn’t ever want Kelly finishing before me in a [conditioning] drill.”
Georgia head coach Andy Landers noticed that drive at an AAU tournament when the twins were just 12 years old. “Some youngsters that age were taller or more talented, but none were more serious, more determined, busier,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “Everyone was moving at 50 miles an hour. They were going 60, maybe 70.”
For Kelly and Coco, who weren’t even comfortable playing on separate teams at camps growing up, splitting up for college was never an option. They picked Georgia in part because, with all five starters graduating in 1997, playing time was available immediately. (Be careful what you wish for: What they didn’t know at the time was that Georgia would open the 1997-98 season with just six scholarship players and the Millers would play all but one minute in their first three college games.)
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Millers had at Georgia. As four-year starters, they led the team to the 1999 Final Four and won one SEC regular-season title and one SEC tournament title. Georgia was ranked as high as No. 2 in the AP poll in their careers and didn’t fall out of the top seven at any point in their final two seasons.
“Separately they’d light a fire under us; together they’d set us ablaze,” teammate Tawana McDonald said in 1999. “With five minutes to play they’d still be playing like it’s the opening tip: diving, sliding and picking up the intensity.”
That wasn’t just a player hyping up her teammates, either: Two years later, none other than legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt said of the Millers, “They could run from Athens[, Georgia, where the university is located,] up here to Knoxville and they wouldn’t even be tired.”
Individually, the Millers rank fourth and fifth in Georgia history in career points—Kelly has 2,177 to Coco’s 2,131—and both rank in the top ten in career starts, field goals made and attempted, and career 3-point shooting percentage. Kelly was a two-time SEC Player of the Year. Both were named All-Americans by various outlets. In 1999, they shared the AAU’s James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, which honors the top amateur athlete across all sports nationwide.
“They’re the kind of players that you can’t let get started,” Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale said in 2000. “If they ignite, it doesn’t matter what you do. I’ve seen them be absolutely unconscious. [Hitting shots] not looking at the basket. Falling away. Falling down.”
Playing together only made the twins more dangerous. “They’re wired up,” Landers said during their freshman season. “One of them can be going for the steal and the other one seems to have a sense about it and takes off the other way. The one who is making the steal doesn’t even have to look for her sister. She can throw the ball over her head, sideways, underhanded or just slap it – it always goes right to the other one.”
In fact, the ball went back and forth between the Millers so often their freshman season that, Landers said, other teams started to notice and shift their defenses accordingly. “At first, it was kind of frustrating,” teammate Pam Irwin admitted. “They play so well together and we were still coming together as a team. We wanted them to let us in on what they had.”
The Millers were also exceptionally close off the court, even for twins, often finishing each other’s sentences and taking every class together. They roomed together throughout college and shared a wardrobe. They even had the same breakfast habits: buttermilk pancakes with strawberry and blueberry syrup at IHOP or Froot Loops cereal. “Without thinking about it, each of them leaves two loops floating in her bowl,” teammate Camille Murphy told Sports Illustrated. “I’m like, Man, how’d they do that?”
Indeed, the Millers seemingly had a knack for posting the same numbers wherever they went. Just like their Froot Loops count and their high school stats, their college stats were remarkably similar. As I always do in this series comparing families’ careers, the better result in each category is shaded below—but sometimes, this felt like splitting hairs.
Kelly played in one more game than Coco and averaged just 0.2 more points per game. Coco’s shooting percentage bested Kelly’s … by 0.4 percentage points. Their blocks per game were identical. (Coco gets the edge here because she had 17 in her career to Kelly’s 15.)
“Do the Millers do things with one mind and body?” SFGATE’s Gary Swan wrote in March 1999, pointing out that one twin had passed the other as Georgia’s leading scorer six different times that season and that each of them hit 1,000 career points in their 57th game. Landers, too, marveled at their similarities, telling reporters in 1998 that the only twins he had ever seen who were more evenly matched were former USC All-Americans Pam and Paula McGee.
Yet there were a few differences in the twins’ games if you knew where to look. In multiple interviews, Landers described Kelly as more “calculating,” someone who read the defense and reacted accordingly, while Coco was more likely to attack head-on. Kelly, at point guard, was the better passer, while Coco played with a little more “flair” on the wing and was the better defender. Their stats back that up—Kelly had 4.9 assists per game to Coco’s 3.0—and also suggest that Kelly was the better pure shooter, as she shot better from behind the arc and from the free-throw line in significantly more attempts than Coco.
Over their four years at Georgia, the Millers developed into first-round picks in the 2001 WNBA Draft. Their court vision improved, so they passed more to other players, and they learned how to keep their emotions in check. But when they were drafted No. 2 (Kelly) and No. 9 (Coco) overall—launching the longest WNBA careers of any Georgia women’s basketball alumnae—they had to grapple with a whole new set of emotions.
On the one hand, they had achieved a goal that seemed impossible earlier in their athletic careers. “Growing up we thought that after college we might be done because there was no professional league in the U.S. at the time,” Kelly said in 2002. “It was a dream of ours to play professionally so we are just having a great time right now.”
But they were also playing few minutes and, more importantly, living separately for the first time. They hadn’t spent a single night away from each other until college and were now playing for teams 400 miles apart, the Charlotte Sting (Kelly) and the Washington Mystics (Coco).
As ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel wrote in 2010, “Being apart was something they learned only to tolerate but never actually ‘like.’ They endured it because they had to.”
While playing separately, they continued to put up similar statistics, beginning as rookies when they each averaged about two points and half an assist in under 10 minutes per game. The following season, Coco won the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award, and Kelly equaled the feat in 2004 to become the first and only sisters to win the award. Here’s how the numbers stack up across their WNBA careers:
Broadly speaking, the data suggest that Kelly was better offensively and Coco was better defensively—but it’s close. Neither were stars, as they averaged fewer than 10 points per game in all but four of their 24 combined seasons. Rather, they knew their roles and played them well, appearing in over 700 career games combined and always threatening to heat up offensively.
Kelly was particularly versatile offensively, as she took nearly 36 percent of her shots from behind the arc and made over 38 percent of them, while also regularly getting to the free-throw line. In 2007, she shot a career-high 47.9 percent from the field and averaged 9.4 points and a career-best 4.6 assists to help the Phoenix Mercury win a WNBA championship—the only title for either twin.
Eerily, the Millers had the exact same rebounding and block rates in their careers; nearly identical defensive ratings; and the same career-high of 23 points, set about a year apart. Coco’s career-high in 2003 came at Kelly’s expense: Coco led the Mystics to a win over Kelly’s Sting in a game in which Kelly went scoreless.
The twins played overseas together whenever they could, though it was hard to find a team that needed two American players who were so similar. They were also offseason training partners, offered personal training to high school players and qualified for the Boston Marathon after the 2010 season.
That 2010 season was a milestone for the Millers, as they teamed up for the first and only time in the WNBA with the Atlanta Dream. (It was also the first time in league history that sisters had played together.) They started only one regular-season game between them and their minutes and points decreased from the previous season, but they didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ve been missing the connection we have on court for the last nine years,” Coco told ESPN that September. “For me, it makes it much more fun.”
“I think being apart made us realize how nice it is to be together,” Kelly added. “This summer, we’ve taken it all in and know how special it is that we get to play together. We definitely appreciate each other more.”
Coco nearly helped carry Atlanta to a WNBA title that season, as she rebounded from playing a near-career-low 7.3 minutes per game in the regular season to start all seven playoff games and average 10.6 points in about 26 minutes per game.
“I’ve always said their confidence must have a coat of armor on it, because you can’t put a dent in it,” Landers said during the WNBA Finals. “Coco playing the way she is now … that’s not because she’s thinking, ‘I’m going to show you something’ after she didn’t play as much during the [regular] season. That’s just her saying, ‘This is who I always am.’ That’s who she was every day at Georgia. So was Kelly.”
In 2012, the twins’ WNBA careers ended on the same day, when Kelly was waived by the New York Liberty and Coco was waived by the Los Angeles Sparks. That isn’t how any player wants to exit, but the synchrony was fitting for the twins’ uniquely close relationship.
The Minnesota Twins will forever be one of the first pairs of sisters to play in the WNBA. And their legacy lives on in other ways, too, from their recognition as Southeastern Conference Legends in 2019 to the dual bobblehead of the Millers that the University of Georgia gave away at a women’s basketball game in 2017.
From starring on the court to qualifying for the Boston Marathon to appearing on a bobblehead, the Miller twins have done nearly everything together. Women’s basketball is indisputably better for it.
Families previously featured in this series include the Hayes, the sisters in the WNBA in 2021, the sisters in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the Hulls, the VanDerveers, the Cavinders, Stephanie Mavunga and Jeanette Pohlen-Mavunga, the McGees, the twins in the West Coast Conference, the Vanderquigs, Erica McCall and DeWanna Bonner, Chennedy Carter and Jia Perkins, the Joneses, the Samuelsons, the Ogwumikes (Part 1 and Part 2), and the Mabreys.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.