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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Tom McMillen

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Tom McMillan’s story is an unlikely one. He was called the No. 1 high school basketball player in America in 1970 despite living in a town that couldn’t come close to filling an NBA-sized area. It started him on his way toward a lifetime of achievements that reached from basketball courts across the nation to the United States Capitol. Buffalo’s basketball fans had the chance to see him begin his pro basketball odyssey, which lasted more than a decade.

Charles Thomas McMillen was born on May 26, 1952, in Elmira, New York, to Margaret and Dr. Jim McMillen. Tom grew up in Mansfield, a small town in north-central Pennsylvania with a population of about 3,000. Tom’s oldest brother Jay was a star basketball player at Mansfield High School and went on to play at Maryland. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers but never played in the NBA, though he played professionally in Italy. Tom was one of five children. In addition to Jay, the other three McMillen children are John Paul and Sheila, both older than Tom and younger sister Liz. His father was a dentist.

As a 14-year old freshman, he led Mansfield to a 21-2 record and the District-Four championship with a 21.6 points per game average. He was named to the Elmira Star Gazette’s First Team All-Tioga County (Pa.) squad. McMillen continued his improvement during his sophomore year, raising his points per game average to 31. He led his team to a second straight District-Four title with a 22-2 record and made it to the semifinals of the Class B state tournament, before losing to Middletown High School, 65-53.

Following his sophomore season, Tom was named by the UPI to its Little All-State Scholastic Basketball Team. A UPI reporter wrote about McMillen, “Mansfield’s lanky Tom McMillen could be the most sought after player in the country by the time he is a senior, according to coaches who have seen him demolish their teams.” He was also named All-Tioga County for the second consecutive year. McMillen was also selected as an Outstanding Teenager of America in 1969 by the Outstanding Americans Foundation. He was recognized for his excellent academic record and his involvement in band, chorus, student council (he was vice president), various other clubs and basketball. Mansfield head coach Richard Miller said about McMillen, “Tom is a team player and very sacrificing. I wouldn’t trade him for any other high school player in the country. He’s the best example of what a young American boy can do if he works hard.”

McMillen completely dominated high school basketball in 1968-69, scoring 40 points a game and hauling down 27 rebounds. He led Mansfield to a 25-3 record, with losses only to unbeaten out-of-state teams including Elmira Free Academy and Millville, N.J.

McMillen led the Tigers to the Pennsylvania State Class B tournament title by scoring 50 points in a semifinal 89-55 win over Oxford, and then netting 32 points while blocking 17 shots in Mansfield’s 65-43 title game victory over Frazier. Following the season he was named first team All-State by the Associated Press and by the UPI to its Little All-State Scholastic Basketball Team for the second consecutive year. The 6-foot-11 star was named the Number One Basketball Player in Pennsylvania by the Harrisburg Patriot. He was also named a first-team All-American by Scholastic Magazine, Basketball Yearbook and Parade Magazine.

McMillen began his senior year with a bang, scoring a career-high 64 points in Mansfield’s season-opening victory over Canton. The Tigers won their fourth straight District-Four championship with a 24-3 overall record. However, they were upset, 66-63, by Avon Grove in the state tournament. McMillen’s teams finished with a career record of 92-10. Tom set the Pennsylvania school boy record for career points scored with 3,608. He was named All-Tioga County for the fourth straight year, AP and UPI’s All State squads, and to everyone’s All-American teams.

Tom was valedictorian of his senior class and had one of the three highest academic averages in the history of Mansfield High at the time of his graduation. He had more than 250 scholarship offers, and the decision came down to North Carolina (brother Paul was a student there) and Maryland. Initially he had decided on North Carolina, but at the last minute switched to Maryland – with new coach Lefty Driesell. “For personal and family reasons, I have decided to change my original decision to attend the University of North Carolina and instead will be attending Maryland,” he said. “This decision is in no way a reflection upon the University of North Carolina. I have the utmost regard for (UNC) coach Dean Smith, his staff and his program.” It was revealed later that Dr. McMillen was quite ill, and Tom wanted to make it easier for his father to see him play.

McMillen played on Maryland’s freshman team and the Star Gazette reported that “he was popping in points and gaining raves. One coach said he was better than All-American as a freshman.” He averaged 29.3 ppg and pulled down 247 rebounds, leading the frosh squad to an undefeated 16-0 mark. During the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, McMillen practiced with some players of the newly formed Buffalo Braves of the NBA in the Buffalo area. This prompted speculation that McMillen might declare himself as a hardship case, forgo his college career, and turn professional. He likely would have received hundreds of thousands of dollars to play in the pros, as Austin Carr, the top pick of the 1971 NBA draft, signed a five-year deal for $1.5 million. The stories were denied, and McMillen returned to Maryland to join Driesell and the Terps’ varsity squad for the 1971-72 season. Tom joined a squad with fellow sophomores Len Elmore and Jap Trimble and juniors Tom O’Brien, Bob Bodell and Howard White. What’s more, McMillen was on the cover of the team’s media guide … with President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat.

McMillen led the Terps to a 27-5 record and a No. 14 national ranking by the Associated Press as a sophomore. They lost the ACC championship game to North Carolina, 73-64, missing out on an NCAA tournament berth. McMillen had 18 points and eight rebounds in defeat. However, Maryland ran through the NIT tournament with four straight victories by an average of almost 16 points per game and won the title. McMillen averaged 22.8 points and 11 rebounds in the tournament and was selected the MVP. For the season Tom was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 20.8 ppg and pulling down 9.6 rebounds. He was the Terps’ leading scorer in 23 of the team’s 32 games and had a season high of 33 against Canisius. His 667 points broke Gene Shue’s school record for most points scored in a single season.

Tom was picked to be part of the USA 1972 Olympic team that would be competing in Munich, Germany, along with Tom Henderson, Dwight Jones, Doug Collins, Tom Burleson, Mike Bantom and Bobby Jones, among others. The USA squad raced through the preliminaries with little difficulty, and defeated Italy, 68-38, in the semifinals, setting up a gold medal contest with the Soviet Union. Both teams entered the game with 8-0 records. The US had won 63 consecutive Olympic basketball games.

Then came one of the most controversial finishes in basketball history. Collins sank two three throws with three seconds remaining to give the USA a 50-49 lead. The Soviets were given three different chances by the officials to inbound the ball. The first two times the Russians failed to score, and the USA thought it had won the gold medal. But the officials insisted again that the clock was not reset correctly, and the USSR received yet another chance. This time Alexander Belov scored following a long pass, and the Soviets celebrated the unlikely yet tainted victory and gold medal. The Americans refused to accept the silver medal. “In retrospect, we didn’t even have to play the game,” McMillen said to author Mark Houstutler. “They should’ve just flipped a coin. It was a Cold War outcome, and the officials were hell-bent on ending our winning streak.” McMillan scored 61 points for the USA in the nine games, sixth on the team.

Maryland had a highly successful 1972-73 basketball season, finishing with a 23-7 record and a No. 8 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. Sophomore guard John Lucas was a welcome addition to the squad. The Terrapins lost in the ACC tournament championship game by two points to North Carolina State, but qualified for the NCAA tournament because the Wolfpack was on probation. That was the Terps’ third loss of the season against N.C. State, a troubling trend that would be their Achilles heel through the McMillen era. The Terps defeated Syracuse in the NCAA tournament but were defeated, 103-89, by Providence in the Eastern Regional Final. Providence was led by Marvin Barnes and Ernie DiGregorio. McMillen again led the squad in scoring for the season, increasing his per game average to 21.2 points and in rebounding to 9.8.

Tom returned for his senior season looking to win an ACC championship and gain the Final Four. However, it was not to be, despite another excellent season for Maryland basketball. The Terps finished with a No. 4 national ranking by the Associated Press and a 23-5 overall record. Maryland lost to North Carolina State and David Thompson, 103-100 in overtime, in the ACC tournament championship game. Analyst Billy Packer once said it was the greatest game in college basketball history.

That loss ended the college basketball career of McMillen. Tom had 22 points in his last college game. Of Maryland’s five losses, three were against national champion N.C. State. The Wolfpack featured superstar David Thompson, and turned out to be an insurmountable hurdle. McMillen finished the season as the team’s second-leading scorer behind John Lucas with a 19.4 ppg average and he averaged 10 rebounds per contest.

Tom left Maryland as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,807 points. He also held Maryland career records for best scoring average, most field goals, most free throws, best field goal percentage and most games played. McMillen was a three-time All-American, three-time Academic All-American and three time All-ACC. He also earned a Rhodes scholarship. Tom graduated from Maryland with a degree in chemistry with a 3.8 grade-point average.

The NBA Draft was held on May 28, 1974, in New York City and McMillan was the ninth overall selection in the first round and was selected by the Buffalo Braves. Tom was also selected in the first round of the ABA draft by the Virginia Squires. After much contemplation, McMillan decided to pursue his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford and sat out the 1974-75 basketball season. His course of studies at Oxford was politics, philosophy and economics. He played basketball in the Italian Basketball League for Virtus Sinudyne while studying abroad. He averaged 32 points per game in Italy.

On June 2, 1975, McMillen signed a multi-year contract with the Buffalo Braves. Buffalo owner Paul Snyder said he began negotiations with McMillen following his freshman year in 1971, trying to convince him to be a hardship case and leave college early. “It’s probably been the longest negotiations in sports,” Snyder said. The Braves owner was born and raised in Mansfield and had wanted McMillen badly for his franchise. Braves coach Jack Ramsey said, “McMillen gives us size, the most we have up front, and that’s where he will help us. I recognize he is slender, but he has great intensity and that’s better than bulk.” McMillen joined a Braves team fresh off two consecutive playoff appearances and with a solid nucleus of players including Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillian, Jack Marin, Gar Heard, Ernie DiGregorio and Randy Smith.

Ramsey brought McMillen along slowly, in part because of the forward’s heel injury. He did not play for the first seven games of the season, finally making his debut on November 11 in a 105-90 loss in Memorial Auditorium against the Washington Bullets. McMillan played 18 minutes while scoring 4 points and securing 4 rebounds. He had his first double-figure scoring game 10 days later when he contributed 13 points in a 104-94 loss to Detroit. His best game of the season came on December 17 when he poured in 18 points in an 88-85 victory over Houston. Tom had earned himself more playing time when an operation for a broken nose sidelined him again.

While he was out, the Braves traded Gar Heard for John Shumate to add more muscle to its forecourt. Shumate quicky established himself as the top power forward, leaving McMillen as a reserve upon his return. Tom finished his first season with Buffalo playing in 50 games while averaging 14.2 minutes and 4.7 points per game. He appeared in only one playoff game as the Braves defeated Philadelphia, 2 games to 1, and then did not play at all in the Braves’ 4-2 series loss to Boston.

At the conclusion of the season McMillen said about his lack of playing time, “Sure, I’m disappointed to be sitting around and not playing, but that’s the way it goes. I had things wrong with me that slowed me down.” Braves coach Ramsey said, “Tom just started too far behind when the season started to be much help to us. He had those injuries, and he just wasn’t ready when we needed him.”

His second season with Buffalo lasted until December 9, when he was involved in the biggest and most ill-advised trade in Braves history. He was included in the deal that sent superstar Bob McAdoo to the New York Knicks in exchange for $3 million and center John Gianelli. McMillen had appeared in 20 games, averaging 5.8 points and 13.5 minutes, and his addition to the already one-sided deal angered Braves’ fans. McMillen turned out to not be a good fit with the Braves as they needed more of a defensive big man. They had plenty of offensive weapons and thus never used McMillen to his strength. Following the trade the Braves franchise started a precipitous decline that ultimately led to their move to San Diego. And McMillen’s career got a reprieve.

McMillen finished the season with the Knicks, improving his scoring average to 9.4 points while averaging 21.8 minutes in 56 games. New York ended the season with a 40-42 record and out of the playoffs. Early in the 1977-78 season McMillen was traded again. This time the Knicks dealt him to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for a second-round 1978 draft pick.

Tom found his niche with Atlanta as a valuable reserve off the bench. He spent the next six seasons with the Hawks. His numbers were very consistent, playing between 17 and 25 minutes on average each game while scoring between 7 and 10 points. Those Hawks teams, coached by Hubie Brown and Kevin Loughery, made five playoff appearances but only got past the first round once – and they were eliminated that one season in the next series. The Hawks lost to the Washington Bullets in a tough seven-game game series and McMillen had his career playoff high with 19 points in Atlanta’s Game Five 107-103 win. But the Hawks lost Game Seven, 100-94, and the series.

Following the conclusion of the 1982-83 season McMillen was on the move one final time. He was traded by the Hawks along with a 1984 second-round draft pick to the Washington Bullets for Randy Wittman. He played three seasons with mediocre Bullets teams. Each season they made the playoffs and were eliminated in the first round. McMillen found himself in a back-up role. In his final three seasons he averaged 9.2, 8.9 and 5.8 points per game while averaging less than 20 minutes per contest.

McMillen then called it a career. Overall he played in 729 games for four different teams and averaged 8.1 points in 20.3 minutes per game over the course of 11 seasons. He retired to pursue a career in politics.

Tom was elected to the United States Congress in Maryland’s fourth district in November 1986. The Democrat served from 1987-1993. He was defeated in the 1992 election following a redistricting to fellow incumbent Wayne Gilchrist in a close election. During his time in Congress, he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a way through international channels to have the 1972 Olympic team receive its due with a duplicate gold medal.

McMillen was appointed to the Board of Regents of Maryland’s University System in 2007 and served until June 30, 2015. On March 11, 2011 he was appointed as chairman of the inaugural Board of Directors of the President’s Foundation on Sports, Physical Fitness, and Nutrition. In September 2015, he was selected to lead the Division 1-A Athletic Directors Association. Today he remains President and Chief Executive Officer of the renamed organization, Lead1 Association. He also is the author of the book, Out of Bounds.

McMillen is married to Dr. Judith Niemyer, and they reside in Fauquier County, Virginia.

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