Top of the Hill


Originally published in SLAM 171

by Mark Hostutler

Much has been made of Barack Obama’s affinity for the sport of basketball.

Whether or not the president’s skills have been sensationalized by the media, one thing is certain: The 6-1 lefty would be wise not to challenge the tallest man to ever occupy a seat on Capitol Hill to a game of one-on-one.

Before his successful forays into politics and business, Tom McMillen was a gentle giant on the hardwood, not to mention a behemoth in the classroom. His exploits on the court almost a half-century ago have secured his spot in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013. McMillen, as well as coaching legends Gene Keady and Rollie Massimino, will be inducted in November.

“It’s a tremendous honor, one that I appreciate very much,” McMillen says. “But all these accolades just mean that I’m getting older. I guess they needed someone with gray hair to balance the picture out.”

The 6-11 McMillen first towered over his opponents on the scholastic level and sparked a manhunt among college coaches, particularly those in the Atlantic Coast Conference, pursuing his commitment.

During Californian Bill Walton’s senior year of high school, it was McMillen who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 1970 under the headline, “The Best High School Player in America.” According to the magazine, McMillen’s “prospectus is attractive because not only can he run, shoot, pass, jump and score, but unlike many another high school hotshot, he can spell his name—and other words, too.”

McMillen, a former Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and Congressman, hails from tiny Mansfield, a remote borough in north-central Pennsylania that hugs the Appalachian Mountains and is mere miles from the New York border. If ever there was a list ranking the unlikeliest places in the country to produce an NBA player, Mansfield, with a population of fewer than 4,000, would be near the top.

Genetics, however, knows no bounds.

The multi-talented center led Mansfield HS to the Pennsylvania Class AA crown as a junior in 1969. A year later, McMillen averaged an extraterrestrial 47.7 points per game, shooting 76 percent from the floor, en route to a total of 3,608 for his scholastic career. He poured in 50 or more points in a contest 17 times, including a career-high 67 points in just 19 minutes of a 151-42 blowout of a local rival.

“If I were playing today, I really think I could’ve scored more,” McMillen says. “The defense collapsed on me the second I touched it. The three-point line now softens the inside and makes teams think twice about doubling down low. I didn’t have that luxury.”

The Tigers won 92 of the 102 games McMillen played in during his four years, but one loss—in the final of the Johnstown (PA) War  Memorial Classic in 1970—stands out in his memory. In that game, he outperformed 6-9 forward Len Elmore, the nation’s third-ranked recruit, in a narrow setback to New York City’s Power Memorial, the top squad in America. McMillen edged his future college teammate in scoring, 40-5, and in rebounding, 20-7.

“I remember that affair quite well because the Pennsylvania refs were protecting their star and wouldn’t let me touch him,” Elmore, a lifelong friend of McMillen’s, says in jest. “Let’s just say I was accustomed to a more physical brand of basketball, so I was in foul trouble from the opening tip.”

“Talk about cultural differences,” McMillen says. “There were 80 kids in my senior class, and most of my teammates worked on a farm and hunted in the morning before school. Meanwhile, Len and those guys were riding the subway to school.”

The game, despite its outcome, only enhanced McMillen’s reputation. “That was a rare case of winning by losing,” he says. “Our whole cow town could fit on one street in New York City, and we held our own. Then came the SI cover, which brought the television networks to my house. It was quite a moment of nobility for Mansfield.”

McMillen—whom Howard Garfinkel of Five-Star Basketball fame said “is the greatest offensive center I’ve ever seen”—originally pledged his services to North Carolina coach Dean Smith. At the last minute, though, his allegiance to the Tar Heels eroded and he enrolled at Maryland, the day before registration for classes closed. (Tom’s older brother Jay McMillen, a 6-7 forward, had earned All-ACC laurels in the mid-’60s at College Park.)

“I literally had my bags packed, but I didn’t know where I was going,” McMillen says. “When I made my decision, [Virginia coach] Bill Gibson was in my kitchen playing cards with my mother, and Dean Smith was in Europe on the phone. Telling Dean that I wasn’t coming was agonizing, since he or one of his assistants had visited Mansfield about 75 times.

“In the end, [Maryland coach] Lefty Driesell was indefatigable. He was down-to-earth but very persistent and refused to accept ‘no’ for an answer.”

McMillen was the first in a long line of prized recruits—John Lucas, Buck Williams, Albert King and Len Bias—Driesell lured to Maryland during his 17 seasons at the helm as he tried to establish “UCLA East.” According to Driesell, geography gave the Terrapins the ultimate edge.

“Tom’s father was sick and had never flown before,” Driesell says. Maryland was within driving distance, about five hours from Mansfield, and the wily coach told Tom that if he went to North Carolina, his father would never be able to see him play.

“Of course, Tom made the right decision. His father died a few years later, but he got to watch him play college basketball.”

When McMillen arrived on campus, it quickly became clear to his new coach that he was dealing with a rare breed of student-athlete who took the former label just as seriously as the latter.

“I always had my new players write down their goals on an index card, and Tom wrote that he wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar and an All-American,” Driesell says. “I tried to convince him to become president of the student body instead, but he didn’t want to hear it. I mean, other than [Princeton’s] Bill Bradley, you never hear of an athlete becoming a Rhodes Scholar.

“But he was determined. I think he only got one B in college, and the professor who gave it to him was a hippie. On road trips, he would bring the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, while his teammates were reading the funny books.”

McMillen, a three-time All-American, averaged 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game during his three years on varsity and escorted the Terrapins to the NIT title as a sophomore and the Elite Eight as a junior.

“Tom was MVP of the [1972] NIT, and winning that tournament was a huge deal,” Driesell says. “Only 25 teams made the NCAA Tournament back then. I remember [Marquette coach] Al McGuire saying one year that he didn’t want to go to the NCAAs. He’d rather go to the NIT.”

McMillen and Elmore formed a one-two punch in the paint that catapulted Maryland as high as No. 2 in the polls.

“Tom was such a sophisticated, mature scorer who could put the ball in the basket in a variety of ways,” says Elmore, a college basketball analyst for ESPN and CBS, and a lawyer who once served as the president of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. “I was more of the rugged defender. We complemented each other well, especially in our high-low offense. I would flash to the elbow [of the foul line] then lob the ball into the post, where Tom would have his man sealed. He ended up with a lot of easy finishes at the rim.”

As a collegian, McMillen competed in the epic and controversial loss to the Soviet Union in the Gold-medal game of the 1972 Olympics in Munich. (With the Russians possessing the ball out of bounds and trailing by a point, the final three seconds were replayed three times.)

“In retrospect, we didn’t even have to play the game,” McMillen says. “They should’ve just flipped a coin. It was a Cold War outcome, and the officials were hell-bent on ending our winning streak [in the Olympics].”

A few days before the historic matchup, Palestinian gunmen had kidnapped and massacred 11 Israeli athletes, an event that reverberated across the globe.

“The terrorism was so shocking, so poignant,” he recalls. “It was a precursor to the world we live in today. I said back then that this was coming to America, and it eventually did. Those Olympics are what originally made me turn an eye to homeland security.”

After graduating as valedictorian from Maryland in 1974 and becoming a Rhodes Scholar, McMillen was drafted first overall by the ABA’s Virginia Squires and ninth by the NBA’s Buffalo Braves. McMillen then spent a year studying at England’s University of Oxford and playing for a professional outfit in Italy before returning to the States and opting for the NBA. During his 11-year career in the League, he suited up for the Braves, Knicks, Hawks and Bullets, averaging a solid 8.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.

Upon his retirement from basketball, McMillen turned to politics and served three consecutive terms (1987-93) in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District.

“It was almost preordained that Tom would have a career in politics,” Elmore says. “We used to call him ‘The Senator’ because he liked to discuss the social landscape, and he always had the largest of ambitions.”

Says McMillen, “Toward the end of my playing career, when I was in Atlanta, I asked [Hawks owner] Ted Turner to trade me to Washington if the opportunity ever arose. Years earlier, I had bought a townhouse in Crofton, MD, when I began to set my sights on running for office. Ted finally did trade me [in 1983], and I’ve been living in the area ever since.”

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, McMillen acquired many small businesses related to homeland security and  consolidated them in one firm, which he recently sold. Now, he is the CEO of Timios National Corporation, a real estate services company in Arlington, VA, as well as a member of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents. He also co-authored Out of Bounds, a book that examines the conflict between sports and ethics, and how greed and hypocrisy reign supreme in the American sports establishment.

McMillen currently remains active in government, as he was appointed chairman of the President’s Foundation on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. At 61, he doesn’t envision retiring, at least not before sharing the court with Obama.

“I’ve played with (US Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan and (Obama’s one-time personal aide) Reggie Love,” McMillen says. “Both played in college and are still pretty good. I’d love to have the chance to play with or against the president.”

Mark Hostutler is a former award-winning journalist at the Delaware County Daily Times and the author of Heads of State: Pennsylvania’s Greatest High School Basketball Players of the Modern Era. He currently teaches English and coaches hoops at Coatesville High School, his alma mater, in suburban Philadelphia. To contact him, e-mail [email protected].