“When we drafted him, nobody knew who he was,” Whitsitt said. “The highlight film we showed (to the fans on draft day) wasn’t much of a highlight film. He was missing layups.”
Whitsitt then negotiated a contract with McMillan and graciously agreed to guarantee $50,000 of the deal, after which McMillan went on the injured list with knee tendinitis. “I kind of had to answer a little bit (to Sonics owner Barry Ackerley, apparently) that this unknown guy was guaranteed $50,000 and he’s got tendinitis and can’t even be on the (active roster),” Whitsitt said.
Of course, McMillan more than justified Whitsitt’s early faith over the years. He went on to play 12 productive NBA seasons, was team captain for a time and eventually had his uniform number retired by the Sonics. He retired after the 1997-98 season and became a Seattle assistant coach.
One of Whitsitt’s favorite McMillan memories came in the 1990-91 season, the year Seattle drafted Gary Payton. A decision was made to make Payton the starter and move McMillan, a three-year starter, to the bench.
“I told him that we were planning to give Gary the ball and let him start,” Whitsitt said. “But out of respect for (Nate) we said, ‘You’re having a great career and if you’d like us to trade you, we will. And he said, ‘No, if I have to be a backup, I will. I want to be here. I want to be a Sonic.’ Any time you went to Nate, it was always about helping the team win. It was not about Nate McMillan.
“He’ll be a great coach,” said Whitsitt, who today is president of the Blazers. “Even though he’s a nice guy, there’s a real toughness about Nate McMillan and a real competitive streak. The guy is as competitive as any of the great players you’ve ever met. … He’s a high character guy.”
“I tried to go back and take a nap, and I couldn’t do it,” McMillan said. “I don’t know if I’m nervous or just excited. But I think this will be going on for several days until I just fall over.
“Hopefully it won’t be on the floor during the game,” he added with a smile.
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