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Aspiring To Higher Things
Bil Gilbert
April 05, 1982
All-America, Rhodes scholar, NBA player, Tom McMillen is emulating Bill Bradley. Next, elective office
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April 05, 1982

Aspiring To Higher Things

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

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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."

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