Thursday, August 21

SSS HOF #5: Nate McMillan

Mac 10

He came to Seattle as unheralded as an autumn rain, a point guard from the other side of the country, plucked from the second round of the 1986 draft by a team fresh off consecutive 51-loss seasons.

That two decades later he would be one of the most, if not the most, beloved players in team history was not just unexpected, it was impossible. What was it about Nate McMillan, a player who never averaged more than 7.5 points in any season, a player who started fewer than 400 games in his dozen-year career, what was it about this man that made him such an essential part of the Seattle Sonic basketball experience?

I’m reminded of a passage from Roger Angell’s “Late Innings,” wherein he tried to explain what made Willie Mays such a joy to behold. “You can take apart a watch, but not a sunset,” Angell finally concluded, leaving the reader to imagine him casting his hands into the hair.

McMillan was no Mays, to be sure, but he was as integral to the Sonics’ success for the 12 years he spent in Seattle as any player in team history. Mac-10 was the ultimate glue guy, the consummate teammate, the type of player any coach in the league would have relished seeing in the locker room before a crucial game.

Twice named to the 2nd-team All-Defensive Team, it was on that end of the court upon which McMillan made his mark in the league. At 6’5”, he could defend either guard – and many small forwards – with ease. To cap off his brilliance as a defender, in 1993-94 McMillan would lead the entire league in steals, averaging three per game.

Even that accomplishment was understated, for a closer look at the top five that season shows just how unbelievable his accomplishment was. The four players who ranked behind Nate that year, starters all, averaged 2,800 minutes apiece.

McMillan played 1,800.

That’s how he was, though, and that’s why we loved him. Other players would have bemoaned their fates after seeing the parade of replacements brought in for him – Sedale Threatt, John Lucas, Avery Johnson, Gary Payton all donned Sonic jerseys during his tenure – but McMillan soldiered on. With the arrival of Payton in 1990, McMillan never again started more than 30 games in a season, and injuries further curtailed his minutes.

But you never heard a peep from him. Like the rest of us, Nate suffered while the Sonics flamed out season after season in the playoffs. Living in Southern California in 1995, I can still painfully recall seeing him with his head in his hands after the Sonics fell to the Lakers in the first round, another 50-win season tossed in the garbage. His angst needed no commentary, his grief at seeing the dying embers of his career smoldering right in front of him needed no explanation.

Living on borrowed time as an NBA player, McMillan had to know time was growing short on his shot at a title. With the Sonics’ ascendance to the promised land in 1996, it should have been his chance to show the rest of the country why Nate McMillan was every bit the defensive player we believed him to be.

Sadly, it was not to be. Waylaid by injuries once again, McMillan watched from the sideline for most of the series. His emotional return to the floor in game four was the impetus behind Seattle’s victory, and I can still hear the standing ovation he received from a delighted KeyArena crowd that night. The Sonics’ failure to capture the title that season was almost secondary, from my viewpoint, to McMillan’s failure to play up to his abilities on the national stage.

At this point, a writer would turn to numbers to aid him in painting the greatness of the one whom he profiles, but going into statistics to explain McMillan’s place in team history is a fruitless task, because his greatness to us belied his numbers. For the same reason Yankee fans loved Phil Rizzutto and Celtic fans loved John Havlicek, Sonic fans loved Nate McMillan, unconditionally and devotedly.

Asking me to explain my affinity for McMillan would be like asking a child why he likes a parade or asking a mountain climber why he likes to stand on a summit. It is a relationship built upon years of successes and failures, upon memories of alley-oops and picked pockets, upon flat-top haircuts, hiked-up socks, and furrowed brows.

Quite simply, I like Nate McMillan because to not like him would never occur to me.


Anonymous said...

Having Nate as their head coach makes it one heckuva lot easier to root for the Trail Blazers this season.

Nate's one of those guys that everybody loves: fans, writers, players, coaches - he's Mr. Sonic.

chunkstyle23 said...

Nice look back, Pete. I can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, if the Schultz ownership had stepped up and paid the man what he was worth back in '05, the team would still be here.

I can't quite put my finger on what it is about Nate either. He shares the same qualities that a lot of NW faves have: humility, diligence, integrity, a quiet excellence. Look at dudes like Edgar Martinez, Ichiro, Steve Largent... not the most physically imposing/gifted athletes, but pretty much carry their teams anyway.

I don't mean to say Seattleites don't also love the flamboyant guys like GP, Griffey, Big Unit... but like sports fans everywhere, we will always cheer the dudes who simply do their job with no fanfare or glamour.

Anonymous said...

Wow, incredible piece! You summed it up perfectly -- I don't know why I loved Nate as much as I did -- but that doesn't matter in the slightest.