Aspiring To Higher Things

All-America, Rhodes scholar, NBA player, Tom McMillen is emulating Bill Bradley. Next, elective office
April 05, 1982

For a bit more than a decade, Tom McMillen has been a highly regarded basketball player, not so much for what he has done on the court but for what he has done off it. He has been a professional athlete for almost eight years, but it's his potential as a politician that has people excited. In 1970 McMillen played his last year of high school basketball in Mansfield, Pa., and was widely acclaimed as the best prep player in the country, a judgment with which this journal concurred. While not right on the money—there was a redheaded fellow named Walton playing near San Diego—it wasn't a bad pick. McMillen went on to the University of Maryland and with several talented teammates—notably Len Elmore and John Lucas, who are still colleague-opponents of his in the NBA—put Maryland basketball so clearly on the map that Coach Lefty Driesell could announce, probably to his later regret, that College Park, Md. was evolving into Westwood, Calif.

McMillen did very well at Maryland. He averaged more than 20 points a game, played for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, and was a consensus All-America in 1973. He dominated the best European basketball league for a year, and, having been the first draft choice of teams in both the ABA and NBA, he returned to play in the latter. He has played for three teams in his seven NBA seasons, achieving only average fame and fortune but greater respect within the profession than is generally credited by those outside it.

During the same 12-year period he has been the valedictorian of his high school class (of 110) and student speaker of his university class (3,379), a Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholar. He has been a member (the youngest ever) of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, of a U.S. Senate advisory committee on national sports development and of the 1980 presidential campaign staff of Jimmy Carter. He is also involved in a radio paging business and a mobile telephone service and is a marketing consultant for a cable TV firm. Additionally, he is the chairman of the American Cancer Crusade of Maryland, a member of Men for ERA in Georgia, a member of the National Advisory Council of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis and the assistant to the finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

At 29 McMillen is a millionaire. He makes about $250,000 a year, owns town houses in Atlanta and near Annapolis, has a sound portfolio of gas, oil and other real-estate investments and an undistinguished but made-in-America automobile. He dresses, speaks and deports himself in a gentlemanly manner and has a nice girlfriend. He has had prematurely gray hair since he graduated from Maryland ("My two brothers got it faster than I did; you get used to it, just like you get used to being tall"). He is an informative, witty conversationalist, with a knack for getting along easily with strangers.

The progress of a good many of us along the course of life is comparable to paddling a canoe down a narrow, convoluted creek on a misty morning. When we come to swamps of this, sloughs of that, pleasant views, high or rapid places, we are usually surprised because we seldom have a clear view of what is even so far ahead as the next bend. McMillen, on the other hand, may well see the course as a great stairway, and he has been mounting or, more accurately, sprinting up these stairs, as if always aware of where he has been and what is ahead.

There can be few other mortals so well favored by nature and accident as this man. He was endowed with thoughtful, loving, problem-solving, affluent parents (the late Dr. James, a dentist, and Margaret McMillen) and talented, supportive brothers and sisters (two of each). And, most important, he had genes that produced a 6'11" body, sharp elbows and a fine mind. While he has various hopes and plans for life after basketball, in a figurative way, basketball has been at least the pick off which he has made his life move.

Given the 6'11", sharp-elbow genes, it was inevitable that McMillen would be a basketball player. However, he might not have become so good as he has if he hadn't thrown up thousands of jumpers on Mansfield playgrounds; in time this resulted in a feathery jump shot good to about 18 feet. That shot has been what a good box of tools is for a carpenter, or what 15 acres of Granny Smith apple trees are for a fruit farmer: If you take care of it, it will take care of you.

McMillen took his shot and frame to Maryland instead of one of the other 350 schools that pursued him because it was close enough to Mansfield that his father could drive to home games; because his brother Jay had played there; and because he wanted to get in on the ground floor of Driesell's basketball structure instead of into Dean Smith's North Carolina penthouse. He enrolled in pre-med because that is what his father the dentist assumed all his children would do. "My mother was more relaxed or maybe realistic about that than my father was," says Sheila McMillen, an older sister. "She asked him one time what if we didn't want to be doctors. He said we were being raised so that we would never want to be anything else."

Sheila became a novelist, the other brother, Paul, a trade association executive; and the youngest child, Liz, a journalism student at the University of Pennsylvania. Only Jay became a physician. "I still think medicine is the most noble profession," Tom says, "but I thought I was better suited to making contributions in a more general way."

One reason he strayed from medicine was the recruiting for Maryland of a U.S. Senator at the time, Joseph Tydings. Tydings, the stepson of former U.S. Senator Millard Tydings, had been a Terrapin lacrosse and football player and has retained an interest in securing athletes for the Washington-area school and promising Democrats for the party. "I pointed out that at Maryland Tom would be able to observe the national political process at firsthand," says Tydings, who served six years in the Senate, "and be able to make the kind of contacts that he could not at, say, North Carolina."

McMillen went to Maryland with no partisan feelings or party affiliation. "I didn't really have much of a social conscience," McMillen says. "I can remember sitting in my dorm room when a Vietnam demonstration broke out on campus. I had to close the window because the tear gas interfered with studying. The issues weren't important to me. But what Senator Tydings said did interest me, and as much as anybody else he started me eventually thinking about public service."

Tydings wasn't the only one who sized up McMillen as a good political prospect. He was appointed as a teen-ager to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports during the Nixon Administration. And Martha Mitchell, Attorney General John Mitchell's wife, called and suggested that he work for Nixon's reelection in the summer of 1972. "I told Martha that not only were the Olympics something I had always wanted to do," says McMillen, "but that I thought that I had a patriotic duty to go."

The Olympics, says McMillen, were something of a basketball interlude, but the last three seconds of the final game, which the Soviet Union won 51-50 after time had apparently run out with the U.S. the victor, was the most emotional moment he has experienced in his life. He was the man on the inbounds pass which led to the Soviet victory. "I was never so high as I was when we thought we had won and never so low when they told us we had lost."

By then McMillen was a Democrat, at least in his sympathies. "The Democrats appealed to my sense of justice and humanity," he says. "In social issues and even foreign policy, the Democratic philosophy is based on a desire to improve things for disadvantaged people. The underlying Republican philosophy is concerned with how to retain their status and affluence and to protect themselves against other classes and races."

Almost as soon as he arrived at Maryland, McMillen began scouting out how to get to Oxford one day as a Rhodes scholar. He lined up patrons, and called, approached or wrote to a hundred or so Rhodes scholars, including Princeton All-America Bill Bradley, then with the New York Knicks and now a U.S. Senator from New Jersey, and Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who had been an All-America halfback at the University of Colorado. "I am not somebody who goes hunting without a gun," Tom McMillen says, clinically.

He bagged the Rhodes, and at Oxford read Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Bradley's subject—among his interests being the causes and conduct of World War II and its historical heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. However, it was apparently easier for McMillen to get into Oxford than it was for him to deal with the change in disciplines. "In high school and at Maryland I was, more or less, a grind," he says. "I had a retentive memory and I took in whatever information was given. Then I regurgitated it when I was asked. At Oxford, they not only expected me to take in information but also to speculate about it, analyze it and create something from it. I was in a daze for a few months, but it was one of the most important experiences of my life. I learned how to think and to enjoy it."

McMillen also continued playing basketball, signing with Virtus Sinudyne of Bologna to play in an Italian league. To do so, he made two all-night commutes each week between Oxford and wherever the team was performing, sometimes as far as Tel Aviv and Leningrad. "I studied and slept in the car from the airport to the game site, and I'd crash on Saturdays in an apartment in Italy," he says. "I never missed any of my lectures or tutorials and didn't miss much of the social experience of being at Oxford."

While McMillen was thus engaged in 1975, Donald Dell, his lawyer and agent, informed him that the NBA and ABA were about to merge, and that when they did, McMillen's market value would decline sharply. Dell strongly suggested that he sign a contract (both Virginia of the ABA and Buffalo of the NBA had made him a first-round pick) and show up to play the next fall. McMillen agreed and proposed to his Oxford advisers that he complete the second and final year of his work there during the next three summers. They said he would have to choose between being a full-time resident Rhodes scholar or a pro forward. The negotiations were deadlocked until McMillen discovered that, because of the press of the diamond and empire-building business, Cecil Rhodes, the program's founder, had completed his education as a part-time student. The Oxfords capitulated.

McMillen signed with the Buffalo Braves in 1975 and was forced to adjust once again. He got into only 50 of the Braves' 82 games and averaged only 4.7 points. He was dealt to the Knicks midway through the following season and found himself sitting on the bench next to Bradley, who was in his last season.

McMillen's most productive NBA season was 1977-78 for the Atlanta Hawks, who had traded a second-round draft choice for him. He averaged 9.9 points a game as a sometime starter on Hubie Brown's blood-and-guts Hawks.

"Hubie and [present Hawks coach] Kevin Loughery are different types," McMillen says. "Hubie would analyze and refine the game. Kevin looks at certain factors in a game and draws conclusions. Both are successful, but Hubie played by rote and Kevin by ear."

When McMillen came to the NBA he knew he was going to have to improve his game to have a rewarding career. "I never was quick and wasn't a very good jumper," he says. "Besides having the white man's disease [inability to levitate], I have terrible feet. They've always given me trouble.

"There wasn't much I could do about that, but I could do something about being weak-which I was-and about my defense. I lifted weights. I watched people play defense, thought about it, practiced it. And I kept working on my shot, as I always have."

The Hawks are in the Valley of the Sun on a gray winter day when a raw wind blowing down from the Mogollon Rim makes Phoenix look and feel like Harris-burg, Pa. with sooty cactus. The team and the place have both seen better days. Two of the bigger Hawks are down and out because of injuries. The biggest one-of such a size that he is called Tree-is hobbling on recently surgically scarred wheels. Phoenix is the second stop on a six-game Western trip, and the Hawks have come to the Valley with a seven-game losing streak.

Under the best of circumstances, the Hawks are only a respectable team. Their specialty is defense. They lead the NBA in this category, which has kept them in contention for a playoff berth this season despite manifold injuries. And it's defense that they're working on in a Phoenix gym at midday. While Tree Rollins nurses his limbs on the sidelines, five Hawks run Phoenix plays and the other five play defense. The patterns are complex, 10 men responding quickly to five basic plays, each of which have three or four variations.

McMillen is conspicuous, the tallest Hawk still firmly on his feet, and the only white one, a grayish piece of chalk in a bundle of charcoal sticks. But he isn't conspicuous because he's a Rhodes scholar or Phi Beta Kappa, behaving more intelligently than others. He is struggling with the free-form choreography, panting and sweating, perhaps a little busier than some who are more agile then he is.

"Tom still has his shot, but he's probably more important to us because of his versatility and defense," says Hawk Assistant Coach Mike Fratello. "He's great at keeping the ball away from people. He had one of the best defensive games I've ever seen in the playoffs, against Washington's Elvin Hayes [in 1979]. Everybody in the NBA has talent, but some of those have come and gone. Defense is something you learn by working at it."

Fred Carter is a Hawk assistant coach still young enough to play a few minutes at a time. Therefore, he is the coach who goes one on one with the troops for instructional purposes. "They warned me that Tommy Mac was dangerous," says Carter, who was known as Mad Dog when he played for the Bullets, 76ers and Bucks. "They were right. I think he's knocked six people out of practices this year. We call him Slaprock. He's not a thug out to hurt people; it's just his game—leaning, pushing. I don't think there has ever been a man with sharper elbows, even with the pads he wears."

After an evening spent mostly with and on Slaprock, Alvan Adams, who averages 15 points a game for the Suns, has only 11 points. He is sprawled on a locker-room bench. "Tom is always working on you," he says. "I had a shot in the second half. I thought I was open by 15 feet, and all of a sudden he got there, those elbows going. Tough ballplayer."

Adams is gracious, but McMillen has had a mediocre night, with only four points and five rebounds as the Hawks lost 94-90. To make matters worse, early in the game he came down the wrong way on one of his bad feet. He limped moderately until the third quarter and more noticeably thereafter, after falling hard on his left knee. He didn't come out, because there is no one to replace him, and on the trainer's table the knee is stiff, swollen and painful. McMillen grimaces as a local physician probes at and twists it. "No boogying tonight, Tom," the medic says jovially. "In fact, a week or so off might be a good thing. Go home and have them take a look."

Three days later McMillen treats the knee with a light workout and then some stretching at a political brunch in La Jolla and plays that night in San Diego. He gets 19 points and eight rebounds—and delivers a good Slaprock performance—as the Hawks break the losing streak and then start another in the opposite direction, winning four straight on the road, including a four-overtime game at Seattle and one in Portland in which the Hawks overcome a 17-point halftime deficit to win 109-97. McMillen averages almost 17 points a game and says it may be the best stretch of basketball in his life, but he can't explain why. "Maybe I'd been drifting, not working," he says. "The knee got my attention. I don't know, but it feels good—the game. The knee is still sore."

Loughery has been in the league 20 years. He once went into a playoff series recovering from four broken ribs and a punctured lung, wearing a steel jacket. He played some with the protector but took it off because it restricted his movement. "It's a cliché," says Loughery, who became Atlanta's coach this season, "but Tom is a pro. Not everyone who signs a contract and plays is."

In January 1980 McMillen suffered his first and only incapacitating injury in a thousand or so games of basketball—a tear of medial collateral ligaments in his right knee. Two weeks after being operated on, he went to New Hampshire for rehabilitation, meanwhile attempting to persuade the citizens to vote for Jimmy Carter.

"We all like celebrities," says Gene Eidenberg, the Democratic National Committee director and former Carter White House staffer, "but they are mostly adornments. They put in an appearance for the cameras, help draw a crowd and raise money. Tom is different. He's very good out in front but he doesn't have to be there. He'll stay on the phone, sit on committees, write letters, I suppose sweep out the place. He'll wear you out, he's got so much energy. Tom knows it's there, and does the scut work."

Tydings, who was defeated in 1970 and is now a Washington attorney, is McMillen's closest political confidant. He's upbeat on McMillen but recognizes the pitfalls of politics, especially in a savvy state like Maryland.

"There is an obvious problem for celebrities who try to cash in quickly on the name they have made someplace else," Tydings says. "Local people who have worked up through the ranks treat them as carpetbaggers. That's not a problem for Tom. A professional in one of the counties is going to remember Tom was the fellow who came to his crab-and-beer fund raiser, gave a speech, drew a crowd, paid his 25 bucks and has sent him a Christmas card every year since."

"There is nothing about a sports background that creates any intrinsic political handicaps, and there are some advantages," McMillen says. "Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp, Mo Udall may have been elected in part because they had been athletes, but they are respected on Capitol Hill for the quality of their work, not because of what they did in sports. Bill was always a good team person," McMillen says of his 1976-77 Knick teammate. "He conducted himself well in hierarchies, and politics is hierarchical. In the Senate, he does what he did as a player: respects his colleagues."

Because of the similarity of their backgrounds and careers, comparisons between Bradley and McMillen are all but inevitable. They are more or less a match in intelligence and diligence toward homework. Bradley was somewhat more celebrated as an athlete. McMillen is a better public speaker, is thought to project a warmer public image, perhaps to have better political instincts and to be more knowledgeable about the media. The question is whether he'll be as lucky as Bradley in an electoral way.

Though there is no dispute about Bradley's proving to be an effective Senator, his election from New Jersey in 1978 was blessed by good fortune. He received the Democratic nomination in a six-man primary. Republican incumbent Clifford Case was upset by Jeffrey Bell in the Republican primary, and Bradley was able to defeat a divided party and relatively unknown candidate in the general election.

McMillen will have no such easy time of it in Maryland. Though their recent political history has been turbulent, to put it politely, Maryland Democrats are at the moment in good shape. McMillen is in the position of a baseball phenom in the minors who has no place to play because of the excellence of veterans on the big team.

"I have told Tom," Tydings says, "that it isn't a good idea to beat good people—even," and there is a pause for emphasis, "when you can. There are never enough of them, and it creates hostility in the party. Tom understands that and, should he decide to run, it is a matter of waiting for the right opportunity. In this case that is no hardship because he has so many other things going. As a very practical consideration, he has another year to go on a lucrative basketball contract."

There had been talk recently about McMillen's possible candidacy to run against Republican Representative Marjorie Holt for her seat from Anne Arundel County this fall.

"It is no secret that I want to become more involved in public affairs," McMillen says. "But I haven't talked to anyone about any specific office. Maybe I'm better suited to working behind the scenes, say by helping with a Jay Rockefeller or Gary Hart presidential campaign. I also have a lot of entrepreneurial interests I want to develop. Some of them interface with public service, and that may be my role. I am definitely committed to trying to make a contribution in public service. But how and when I make a contribution is still an open question.

"I intend to be playing in the NBA for Atlanta next year. People have written that I have asked to be traded to the Bullets so I can spend more time in Maryland. It's untrue. If a change like that were made it would be because of sport, not politics. While I'm with the NBA I'll do what I have been doing when I'm not playing or working on the game: talking to people, collecting information, thinking about options, getting ready for when I'm finished with basketball."

McMillen sometimes calls these activities "networking." As he practices it, networking requires the constitution of a moose, the energy level of a shrew and no more fear of flying than a bat has.

A typical political foray might include a trip to Annapolis to chat with members of the Maryland legislature; a string of two or three speeches on behalf of his alma mater, in which he would warn against what he calls the "brain drain," the evil consequences of Maryland graduates moving elsewhere; and a visit to the farm home of Louis Goldstein, the state comptroller and a grand old (41-year) pro of Maryland politics. On an off-day he might travel, as he did, to New York to appear at a Democratic Party function commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In spare moments, always and everywhere, in airports, hotel rooms and other people's offices, he telephones friends, family, fellow Rhodes scholars, business, political or media people in Chicago, Phoenix, San Diego, Denver or wherever the Hawks are flying.

McMillen has talked to civic and industrial leaders about building a recreational center in inner-city Atlanta with facilities similar to those found in suburban clubs and health spas.

"When I was a kid in Mansfield and I would break into the gym to play basketball," he says, "I thought I was a criminal, which I suppose technically I was, but everybody probably knew about it and thought it was all right. If a ghetto kid did the same thing he would be treated as a vandal and a delinquent. Our system depends on expanding opportunities, not excluding people from them. Economic progress and social justice aren't opposing goals. They are dependent on each other."

Descriptions of Tom McMillen tend to be a catalogue of his exceptional accomplishments, methods of self-improvement and high ambitions. They tend to present McMillen as a cross between a 6'11" computer and a priggish Boy Scout. There is a down side: McMillen has certain language weaknesses. They are probably caused by hanging around too many public servants, political technicians and entrepreneurs. And listening to Alexander Haig.

"If you don't stop using access and network as verbs, or if you ever use interface again in any form, I will not vote for you for dog catcher, particularly not for dog catcher."

"I guess that is pretty bad. I've got to work on things like that," says McMillen.

Telephone message from Tom McMillen: "I'm networking. If you need to interface, access me at this number."

There is a political-type frolic in San Diego, attended by sometime Carter, Johnson and Kennedy supporters. After two or three hours, bubbles of stale conversation hang like a layer of methane over a ripe swamp. An out-of-practice, naturally slothful and insufficiently public-spirited citizen splits early. So, surprisingly, does McMillen, who has been the celebration's centerpiece.

"That was great," he says on the way back to his hotel and, presumably, a telephone. "People like that make me realize how much I have to learn. It was a living history seminar, but, you know, I have a headache. I never get a headache talking to Tree Rollins."

"That's a good line."

"I don't mean to put down Tree."

"I didn't think you did."

That may be it. Tom McMillen is really very easy to understand. What he is is a splendid, living model of the attitudes, virtues and visions of truth, justice and the white American way. The urge to root for him as he charges up the Big Stairs is almost irresistible. Way to go, Slaprock. But take care of your feet!

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAHawk Owner Ted Turner needs an assist to see eye to eye with the 6'11" McMillen. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAtlanta Mayor Andrew Young advises McMillen on the value of pressing the flesh. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhen the issue is shooting, McMillen is a left-winger. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAMcMillen wasn't as good a player as Bradley, but he'd like to be as lucky in his public life. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAMessage from Mac: "I'm networking. If you need to interface, access me at this number."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)