Sonics respond in big way to McMillan

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Thursday, November 30, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – Nate McMillan had slept little in the last 72 hours.

“I hope I don’t fall over out there tonight,” he said.

That wasn’t likely to happen. Not with the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in town. And especially not with this being his first home game as the new head coach of the SuperSonics.

A few minutes before, he had come walking down a hallway in the lower depths of KeyArena. He was dressed in sweatclothes and basketball shoes. Over his left shoulder, he carried a clothing bag.

A group of reporters waited outside his office. “Hey,” he said with a grin, “I come when I want.”

A minute later, the Sonics media relations director indicated that the coach’s door was open.

It was 5:40 p.m. – exactly the time McMillan had said he would meet with the media. He was on time, something a couple of his players hadn’t been for a shootaround that morning.

It wasn’t anything he didn’t expect. “Our staff is going to be tested,” he said.

NBA players do that. They test coaches to see how much they can get away with.

If my guess is correct, not much with the new Sonic coach. Nate McMillan won’t tolerate tardiness or laziness.

“You will come on time,” McMillan said now as he sat in his office.

He seemed completely relaxed, and maybe that was because he was so tired from the hectic pace since he replaced Paul Westphal on Monday. There were numerous interviews, telephone callers wishing him well, an impressive debut victory over Portland on Tuesday night and the adrenaline rush that comes with a new job.

Now he had Shaq and the boys in town. “I know it’s going to be exciting,” he said. “I just want our team to respond.”

Someone mentioned that the walls in his office were still bare. No photos. No memorabilia.

“That’s in case something happens,” he said with a laugh.

Like a quick termination. Not likely. Not the way the team has responded to him.

Sixteen minutes into Thursday’s game, the Sonics led by 20 points.

The difference was 31 by halftime. The Lakers might as well have packed their bags and cleared out.

The final: Sonics 121, Lakers 88.

The Lakers now have something else to think about. It’s not just Phoenix, Sacramento and Portland they have to worry about in the Pacific Division. They have to watch out for these former underachievers up here in the Northwest.

The last time the Sonics played with this much energy, this much passion, this much fury, George Karl was coach. It took a guy named Nate to snap them of their lethargy.

“We won’t be intimidated,” he said before the game.

On this night, the Lakers were cowed.

“If they beat the Lakers,” Bob Burke said, “the ‘interim’ might go off.”

As in “interim’ head coach.

If the fans had their way, McMillan would have been given a long term contract after the game. With two minutes to go, they stood and chanted, “Nate, Nate, Nate.”

The arena hadn’t rocked like this in a long time.

Burke wishes he could have been here. McMillan’s coach at Chowan (N.C.) Junior College in the early 80s, Burke reminisced about his former player earlier in the day.

He laughed when he read a story about McMillan after his promotion from assistant coach. Nate had said his team would play hard and play together.

That sounded very familiar to Burke. It’s the same mantra he preached when McMillan led Chowan to the Final Four in the junior college national tournament in 1984.

There is a third part to Burke’s philosophy. Play hard. Play together. Go to class.

“Nate will teach them,” Burke said.

He has vast knowledge to share. The court smarts were apparent the first time Burke saw McMillan play.

That was in high school during Nate’s senior year. “My first recollection of him: His right hand was all bandaged up in this practice,” said Burke, now in his 21st year at Chowan. “He did everything with his left hand but shoot.”

Handicapped or not, Burke was impressed. After watching McMillan for a few minutes, he walked up to the coach and said, “He’s got a full scholarship.”

Burke learned to appreciate him even more during the next two years. “When it was time for a player to score, Nate got the ball to him,” he said. “The players appreciated that about him.”

That selflessness would manifest itself later at North Carolina State and then in the NBA. When he went to North Carolina State, coach Jim Valvano asked McMillan if he would switch to small forward. “Valvano knew that Nate was his best point guard, but he had Spud Webb and he was somewhat of a celebrity,” Burke recalled. “Nate played point as a senior.”

Burke has kept in touch with McMillan over the years and says he hasn’t changed a bit. “He was inducted into our hall of fame last year,” the coach said, “and one of the things I told 240 people that night is that Nate is Nate. There’s nothing phony about him. He’s adored and respected by (former) teammates and faculty. They are amazed with his celebrity status, but his demeanor reaches out to so many people.”

Burke referred to his program’s trademark: “Chowan Sweat.”

Nate McMillan left a lot of it on the floor back there. Now his Sonics are learning about it.

“He’ll put some pride (back) in the Sonics,” Burke said.

He already has.

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