The Day After — Nate McMillan Bows Out

By Glenn Nelson
Seattle Times Staff Reporter

BELLEVUE – It was even better than he’d expected, as comfortable as the slippers Nate McMillan wore while channel surfing like his home was a video Waikiki. No remorse. Only a remote control, a soft leather sofa and time on his hands.

McMillan had waited 12 years for this particular morning. To awaken and not have to scurry to treatment and, depending how the treatment went, to practice. Then from practice to more treatment to physical therapy to the accupuncturist. And then squirm the rest of the day on the couch at home with bags of ice on his knees or his back or whatever injury du jour.

Pain was a constant companion throughout the NBA career McMillan retired from Tuesday night. It arrived as predictably as the morning paper yesterday, but for the first time in more than a decade, it didn’t need to be managed. McMillan took particular glee in rounding up the pharmacy he’d accumulated over the years and dumping the little pills into the garbage.

All the ibuprofen – gone. The heavy-duty anti-inflammatories and homeopathic pain-killers – all gone. Bottles and bottles of them.

“That was all medication I was taking just to play,” McMillan said yesterday. “After a while, that wasn’t even me out there playing. I was drugged up on the court. I was high sometimes, I’d taken so much medication.”

The medication was dispensed in weekly supply by Sonic trainer Frank Furtado. McMillan learned various excuses – he’d lost them or left them in his hotel room – to get more. Then, out of guilt and embarrassment and misguided pride, he’d take double the recommended dose.

And the pain would be bearable enough to play, but it invariably would return, raging more than ever. And then the fretting would begin. McMillan would think of the athletes who paid consequences later in life for the way they abused their bodies, just to please management and fans and ego.

But now McMillan spells relief a different way.

It’s called retirement.

McMillan attacked it Tuesday night as if he had numbers on the break. He logged 13 minutes and then sat the final 9:17 of the Sonics’ 110-95 loss to the Lakers in silent disappointment. When the final buzzer sounded, McMillan booked as if late for an appointment.

Yesterday found him in even less of a sentimental mood. No tears or regrets or post-retirement depression. Only the familiar morning-after stiffness, which he gladly trades for his liberation.

“I’m ready,” McMillan said. “I’m more ready because of all the injuries. It was embarrassing to me to be hurt as many times as I was hurt. To sit on the sidelines as much as I did. It got to the point where I’d rather not be playing. Retiring was better than sitting in a suit and playing part-time basketball.”

It’s a shame, but the pain and embarrassment mask for McMillan a career of accomplishment. He is part of a vanishing breed in professional sports, an athlete who spent an entire, lengthy career with a single team. And it is a team for which he ranks among the all-time top 10 in 10 categories, including the career leader in assists and steals.

McMillan, who will be 34 Aug. 3, never made an NBA All-Star team, but he twice was all-defense and led the league in steals in the 1993-94 season. During his tenure, the Sonics went to three conference finals and once to the NBA championship round. McMillan’s playing style epitomized that for which the Sonics have become known – selfless but effort-filled, defensive-minded and full tilt.

But ask McMillan for specifics, and he is hard-pressed to recall many. He was Earvin Johnson’s most frustrating rival, the one who most reminded the Magic man of himself. He tied Ernie DiGregorio’s NBA rookie record for assists in a game with 25 against the Clippers but doesn’t remember much about the game.

“I remember I ran the way I wanted to,” McMillan said. “We just ran and ran and ran, like we were back on the playground. All I remember is that it was hot and we were running. But who I was making the passes to and who was hitting, no, I don’t remember that.”

Many athletes can cite statistics from various games in their career. McMillan is one of those who is only as good as his last game. And when the next game comes, the last one is forgotten.

In retrospect, McMillan mostly sees promise unfulfilled.

“I was a role player who could’ve started for most teams, who had an all-around game, who people thought couldn’t shoot but could,” McMillan said. “I could always shoot, but I never had the mentality to score. I really enjoyed setting other people up. Player with older brothers made me that way. It was the only way they allowed me to play.

“To this day, people still haven’t seen what I can do. I felt I had ways of dominating games. If I just had good knees like Shawn Kemp, or a Hersey Hawkins kind of body that never gets hurt. With my mind and my heart and my ability . . . well, people have never really seen me. Whenever I did get into a good rhythm, I’d get hurt.

“Whenever I look back, I just feel I could’ve done better.”

McMillan simply lost his most critical game of one-on-one, the one with Mother Nature. Tendinitis was a constant nemesis after he shot up three inches between his junior and senior years at Enloe High School in Raleigh, N.C. He used to soak his knees in hot water before playing even pickup basketball.

After being taken with the 30th pick in the 1986 NBA draft, McMillan reported to a Sonic summer camp so wracked by tendinitis, then-Coach Bernie Bickerstaff asked his hobbled rookie, “You can dunk, can’t you?”

In a panic, McMillan called his North Carolina State sweetheart, Michelle, who’s now his wife.

“They’re not going to let me play in the NBA,” he said. “I’m coming home. They’re cutting me.”

McMillan still was waiting for the ax to fall 12 years later. The scalpel, well, that’s a different story. During the past four years, which should have been the prime of his career, McMillan has had two surgeries on his left ankle, two severe groin pulls, a major lower-back injury and major surgery on his right knee.

That’s not even mentioning the numerous injuries McMillan was too embarrassed to report. He sprained an ankle late in the regular season and decided to treat it himself. McMillan did so with a portable electro-stimulation machine he’d kept so long that Furtado had replaced it.

Compared with many athletes, McMillan was particularly candid about his mounting injuries. He often felt pressure to play, though it was never overt nor even altogether intentional. He did his best to defray expectations.

“I wanted to tell everyone the truth,” McMillan said. “I told everyone exactly how much pain I was going through. I don’t know how much of that was trying to take pressure off myself, but I wanted everyone – the public, coaching staff, management, my teammates – to know exactly what they were getting.”

No one ever got as much as they wanted. McMillan’s availability dwindled, from 80 games in 1994-95 to 55 the next season, then 37 and 18 this past season.

“I missed so many games,” he said, “a lot of people thought I was already retired.”

The most devastating injury was to his back during the 1996 playoffs. It forced him to miss three games in the NBA Finals and left him convinced the Sonics would’ve dethroned the Chicago Bulls and won an NBA title if he’d remained healthy.

Almost as much as the injuries, the Sonics’ postseason tightrope acts wore on McMillan. The Sonics lost to or struggled against their last six first-round opponents. They failed to advance past the second round in four of the past five years despite winning at least 55 games in each of those seasons.

“I’m sitting here, and I’m glad I’m not being stressed out about some game,” McMillan said. “The pressure of the games, the expectations from everybody, even though they were not just on me, that was a lot. It’s a lot of pressure. If you’re doing well, great. But if you’re not playing well or you’re injured, people don’t want to hear that. They just want you to win.

“Facing the embarrassment of losing in the first round again was too much. Whenever we got out of that first round, it was like a relief. We said, `Whew, now we can go back to playing real basketball again.’ All of that has taken its toll on me. I don’t want to go through that anymore.”

Nor does he have to. Now the urgency is getting to his son Jamelle’s Little League games or simply watching daughter Brittany grow. McMillan plans to take up golf. One day, sooner or later, he’s going to cause a stir at some pickup basketball game – just because.

“I look forward to it,” McMillan said. “It’s something I always loved. Now no one can tell me I can’t do it.”

On the first night of freedom, his family all asleep in their Street of Dreams home, McMillan sat on his leather sofa, clicking through channels on his rear-projection television. He happened across a replay of his last game and watched until the wee hours. McMillan decided the Sonics had given everything they could against the Lakers that night.

“I’m happy about that,” he said.

Yesterday morning, Michelle McMillan woke her husband out of a short but sound sleep. She playfully told him it was time to get up and look for a new job. McMillan wondered momentarily if he should be scared.

It occurred to him that people would forget his face. He’d have to wait in lines again and pick up his tab at restaurants. He’d be just another person.

The idea appealed to Nate McMillan, actually. So he got out of bed, took his children to school and started living the rest of his life.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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