McMillen pens resume for a political career

He was a schoolboy basketball phenom, a college star, an Olympian, a Rhodes scholar, a pro for several years, and finally a budding politician.

If it sounds as though Tom McMillen is following the Bill Bradley route from start to finish, well, there certainly are a lot of common denominators. But the 6 ft. 11 in. Atlanta Hawks forward is much too interesting and individualistic a person to be thought of as anyone else's mirror image.

''I admire Bill,'' McMillen said of the former Princeton and New York Knicks star who is now a US senator. ''Obviously there are similarities. But I have my own identity and thoughts. And we're different in some of our philosophies and ways.''

As a schoolboy, McMillen was actually a much bigger celebrity than Bradley had been at the same stage. Tom, in fact, was one of the most sought-after high-schoolers in history up to that time -- a fact attested to by his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated in his senior year.

McMillen went on to stardom at Maryland and a trip to Munich with the 1972 US Olympic team - an experience marred for all involved by the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

''That was a very sobering time,'' he told the Monitor in a recent interview. ''It made you realize the imperfection of the whole thing -- especially at an Olympics as tainted as that one was. The games are idealistic in theory, but not in practice. There were so many problems -- refereeing disputes, drug disputes, all the political activity in the pristine Olympic village, and then the massacre.

''I'm not knocking the Olympic ideal, though. It's a noble attempt, and I don't in any way want to demean it. In a lot of ways it parallels the United Nations. There are many problems, but if we don't try these things, we'll certainly never approach the ideal. Surely it's better than not having it.

''Sports is an international language -- a great medium. The majority of the world's population is under 25, and young people are sports-oriented. The Russians understand this. They're always building facilities in satellite countries and in places like the Persian Gulf. When they give a gym to a thousand East German kids, it's a big propaganda bonanza. We've never seemed to fully understand this.''

The basketball competition in 1972 wound up with that controversial 51-50 victory by the Soviet Union -- the only such game the Americans have ever lost.

''It was a comedy of refereeing errors,'' McMillen recalled. ''They gave the Russians three separate tries to win the game. I went from the elation of victory to the depths of defeat -- just like that. It was probably the highest and lowest I've been in a short span of time in my life.''

Sometimes lost in the bitterness over officiating at that game is the question of how the United States fell from its onetime domination of the sport (it was, after all, a one-point game in any event). McMillen says the answer to that is no secret.

''The world had caught up to us, and we didn't adjust,'' he said.''It was like those stories you hear of generals using World War I tactics in World War II. We were playing a slowdown game against the methodical, plodding Russians.

''Our whole Olympic organization had become a victim of its own bureaucracy at that time. Too many people rose through the ranks just by hanging around long enough, and not enough creative people were being brought in. But I think they've moved to correct a lot of that since then.''

After completing his college career in 1974, McMillen was drafted in the first round by Buffalo of the National Basketball Association, but first he took advantage of his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy, and economics. He also found time to play basketball in Italy, which provided further insights into the sport's international structure with its strange definition of what constitutes a professional.

''It's so ironic,'' he said. ''Our professionals can't play in the Olympics, but in Europe the rules are different. I was making a salary commensurate with those in the NBA, but I was still an ''amateur.'' I even had to have an AAU card to play.

''The whole thing is such a sham. They should just make it open.''

But how? Obviously the big loser in this situation is the United States, while not only Eastern bloc nations, but many in the West, have no interest in such reforms.

''What if the US bowed out?'' he said. ''It's absurd to hand the Russians and others this advantage. If in fact the political overtones are as serious as I outlined, why should we accept such a disadvantage?''

McMillen signed with Buffalo in 1975, was eventually traded to Atlanta, and is now in his seventh NBA campaign. He never has achieved pro stardom, but has developed into a good journeyman performer -- a ''role player,'' as they say -- whose job is to come off the bench, play some tough defense, score a few points, and keep the team's rhythm going.

''I'm not disappointed,'' he said.''I always had a pretty realistic evaluation of my abilities and limitations. In college I could be successful, but I knew in the NBA there were a lot of guys with tremendous all-around ability. I knew my own playing skills were limited, but I knew I could make up by specializing in certain areas.

''I've worked hard to extract the most out of my ability, and I think I've succeeded pretty well. If I can make a contribution as a role player, I'm happy.''

As of now, Tom expects to play the final year of his current contract in 1982 -83, and beyond that, he says, he'll play it by ear.

When he does pack it in, there will obviously be a variety of options for a man of his erudition and experience. He's already done a little broadcasting, and is involved in several business ventures. But the most intriguing possibility, a la Bradley, is the political one.

McMillen has already served as an assistant financial chairman for the Democratic National Committee and expects to become involved in future fund-raising efforts for the party via cable TV. Some people are already urging him to run for Congress in Maryland, where he makes his home - a course he ''doesn't rule out'' sometime in the future. Finally, there's been talk in Maryland that he is being considered as a candidate for lieutenant governer in next fall's election.

If that should come to pass, of course, Tom's basketball career would end even earlier than he now plans. And in any event, one way or another, it's a pretty good guess that he'll find his way into the full-time political arena sooner or later.

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