It has been nine years since Len Elmore and Tom Mcmillen were the prized targets of college recruiters, five years since they played their last game at the University of Maryland. In the eyes of many, the disappointments that marred those undergraduate days have grown even more telling in pro basketball.
Neither is a star or a starter in the NBA despite being a first-round draft choice. Both have been neatly classified in the "overrated" category and all but forgotten amid glittering athletic marvels of the league.
Instead of points and rebounds, they talk now of team play and hustle and adjustments. The change in vocabulary was necessitated by their slow fade from the public spotlight that dominated their sports life for so many years.
But Elmore and Mcmillen don't appear to be suffering any traumatic withdrawal pains. They have accepted their new athletic status with a class rarely found amond their peers.
Their personal lives are stable and their futures sparkle with potential success and fame. By the time their initial pro contracts end next season, each will have grossed more than $1 million in salary and fringe benefits.
Both have invested wisely.
Nor will they will bitter.
"I suppose Lenny and I will be plagued by the same kind of label until we get out of basketball," said Mcmillen, a backup forward for the Atlanta Hawks. "I'm sure people probably see us as failures if they thought we were going to be big pro stars.
"I never thought I would be. Was I overrated? Probably. I think I have always known my limitations and have accepted them. I'm happy with my pro career; it could have been better but you can say that about anything you do in life."
Elmore, who has spent five seasons trying to win a starting center spot with Indiana, laughs about how "people were calling me a 'franchise' when I left college.
"I never was the kind of player who was going to turn around a team by myself. Anyone who thought that probably thinks I've really messed up. I was upset about my career the first few years here, but now I'm not. I've come to accept it. I know what I can do and what I could do for any team if given the right role."
Nine years ago, their lives were much different. They were to be the conrerstones of Maryland's resurrection under Coach Lefty Driesell: Mcmillen, the intensely recruited, so called best high school prospect since Lew Alcindor; and Elmore, the softspoken graduate of Power Memorial, the same high school that produced the man known now as Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
With them in uniform, many Maryland fans thought the Terps would win national championships.
Elmore and Mcmillen never won an NCAA title. They grabbed an NIT crown, helped register three of the best seasons in Maryland history and left with most of the individual scoring and rebounding records. But they could never find a way to beat David Thompson and North Carolina State, losing to them six times in two years.
The last defeat came in the final of the ACC tournament in 1974. In what many fans still believe was the best played college basketball game in history, the Terrapins forced overtime before falling by 103-100.State went on to win the NCAA tournament by downing UCLA, a team which also beat Maryland by two in the season opener, then taking Marquette.
It was the year before the NCAA tournament began accepting more than on e school from a conference. The players turned down an NIT bid and Elmore and Mcmillen began preparing for pro careers that have known almost as much heartbreak as their college days.
Maryland teammate John Lucas was the first to start calling him "Senator." "He'll be a politician one day," said Lucas about Tom McMillen. "Mark my word."
Lucas probably will be right. McMillen doesn't deny that he would consider a political career after his NBA years end. He's already dabbled in the arena briefly, raising money for Bill Bradley's successful New Jersey senatorial campaign. He has carefully cultivated important and powerful friends in both Maryland and the federal government.
"I haven't given that much thought to it," he said, "but the idea does intrigue me. I want to live in Maryland permanently when i retire. I like the area and its people. Luke always said I'd be president one day. He's an optimist."
Mcmillen reflects the image of a politician more every day. His once dark hair is almost a distinguished salt-and-pepper now, a family trait. He has a flowing mustache, a ready handshake, a quck smile and an engaging personality. He also has been careful not to make enemies or burn important political bridges. The same burning ambition and intelligence that drove him at Maryland, where he was a star athlete, scholar and public figure, still refuse to let him rest.
He has a syndicated five-minute radio sports program, owns a summer basketball camp and has prospects for another. He is chairman of the board and founder of an international sports corporation that aims to develop atheletes and athletic systems in foreign countries. It is such a promising concept that Jim Kehoe, former maryland aehletic director, agreed to be president of the company, which Mcmillen calls Sports Fitness International.
Mcmillen finished his Rhodes scholarship by going three extra summers (while playing pro basketball in the winter), a method on previous Rhodes candidate had employed. Now he wants to begin studying for a master's degree in business administration at Columbia. In his spare time, he serves as national sports chairman for St. Jude's Hospital.
He has invested conservatively-mostly in real estate, gas and oil wells-and he drives a used Mercury Cougar. Why?"Because cars are a poor investment and also it's American made. I think that is important to this nation's economy."
There is little doubt that he eventually will be millionaire, probably a lawyer and possibly a future major office-holder. He admits he could quit basketball now and not really miss it. But he keeps playing-and enjoying it.
"A lot of people ask me why I still play," he said. "They don't see how sports and the rest of what I like to do are compatible.
"But sports has been great to me. I can walk away from it when my contract expires and I won't feel I have wasted my time. I've used the freedom sports have given me to pursue other things, like the Rhodes. I've benefited from that.
"Maybe if I played for years to gain financial security, I would be wasting my time. But you have to look at your abilities and ask if you are using them to the fullest.
This pride of participation serves to replace much of the individual glory that once characterized his sports career. He is no longer a star, but that development does not seem to bother him-at least not outwardly.
I've tried to be part of a team," he said. "I've done the best I could to help the team succeed. I take pride in the fact that I've only played on one losing team in my entire basketball career, starting from high school, and that was with the Knicks.
"From Day 1 in college, I always have been planning for the day I stopped playing. That's why I wanted the Rhodes and why I'm into business. I want to put my education to use."
But while he stays in the NBA, Mcmillen applies himself with the same diligence and thoroughness as he has to any task. He never wants to think he has devoted himself less than fully to a project, whether it's studying for a routine test or trying to stop Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from scoring.
He lifts weights and runs in the off-season, practices hard and hustles during games. He rarely complains about lack of playing time or his role on the Hawks, which has changed from that of a starter to a reserve behind Dan Roundfield, an offseason free agent acquisition.
There have been some memorable highlights during his stops with Buffalo, New York and Atlanta. He scored 21 points in his debut with the Knicks, when he was treated to a standing ovation, and he averaged 12 points and eight rebounds in 31 games as a starter last season. This year, he made 46 foul shots in a row, nearing the league record, before missing.
But his career statistics, 8.0 scoring average and 5.1 rebounding mark, are those of a journeyman player. McMillen calls himself "a good, solid player who has always hustled and tried hard.
"I never had any illusions about my talents in this league. I've tried to improve each year and I think I have. I'm not a great shot blocker so I have to take a lot of charges. I'm not a great leaper and I'm not that quick so I have to make sure my man doesn't get the ball.
"I do have some ability. Otherwise, how the hell could I hold Jabbar scoreless one night? I've always played better as a starter but I accept my role on this team. We are winning and I am contributing. That's what is important."
McMillen plays about 15-20 minutes a game. He still has his fine outside jump shot; he works hard for position and he isn't afraid of contact. Opponents complain about his elbows and knees, a testimony to his increased dependence on strength rather than finesse.
When next season, his fifth as a pro, ends, he most likely will walk away from basketball for good. "I'll miss it," he said, "but it will give me financial security to do some other things with the rest of my life.
"I think I have the Background and credentials now to do a lot of things. I can thank basketball for that. This has been a good interval in my life."
When he was a senior at Maryland, Len Elmore posed for a poster with Tom McMillen. McMillen, dressed in a white suit, was astride a horse. Elmore, in a leather jacket, was on a motorcycle.
"That picture tells a lot about Tom and me," said Elmore. "Tom was always more comfortable around older people. I think I identified more with my peers. I was a man of the people."
He still is. After five seasons at Indiana, he is the ranking veteran on the team and, he feels, "the one player our fans connect with the last few years. They know me and they sympathize with me and respect me."
These have not been the happiest years for Elmore. He and Indiana Coach Boby Leonard clashed from the very start of his rookie season and, because of injuries and that personality conflict, he has started during just one short-lived stretch of his tenure as a Pacer. Otherwise, he has warmed the bench, wondering if things would have gone differently for him on another team.
Yet it is not part of Elmore's nature to be bitter, at least not for any prolonged period of time. He is a gentle, warm, friendly man who would rather smile and laugh than argue. He finds it far easier to think out his predicament, rationalize what has happened to him and then stop complaining.
"I had made up my mind to quit after my contract runs out next year," he said, "but maybe I'd like one more season just to prove something to myself. I realize I'd have to take a pay cut but it would be worth it.
"I know I am damaged merchandise. My knees (both scarred by surgery) are unknown factors and I've been a sub so long that no one knows what I can do. But I feel I know my strengths. I still like to think I am one of the better defensive players and rebounders in the league.
"I never was the kind of player who would dominate. But you can use me to complement people around me. I've never been asked here to start for a full season, play 30 minutes a game and see what I could do. Slick (Leonard) just doesn't think I can be a starting center in this league."
Indiana outbid Washington for Elmore's services by offering a contract with double the value. He will receive deferred payments for the next eight years, which he admits eases some of the anguish over his reduced playing time.
Yet it is ironic that the contract also may have been responsible in part for his lackluster career. Leonard, also the team's general manager, had no hand in negotiating it, and Elmore feels his coach "has never felt I was one of his players. He always says he can rely on everyone but one guy.
"He has changed my entire playing style. I was in the low post at Maryland but here, I've always worked at the high post and been a passer. Now it's got to a point where I have no confidence when i go low."
Elmore thought things would work out differently three years ago when Leonard started him for the entire season and he responded with a 14.6 average and almost eight rebounds a game.But he hurt his knee in the ensuing training camp, missed all but six contests of the 1967-77 season and since has stayed in the background.
Now he has to be satisfied with 14-minute appearances and a more defined role. His pleasure comes, he says, "from team gains, not personal ones. If I can score six points and have two rebounds and the team wins, I can be happy. I've had to swallow a lot of pride along the way, but the fact that I'm prepared to do more than basketball with my life has helped.
"I knew my limitations before I gor here. If people were going to defined my success by the number of points I would score, I never was destined to be a star."
Elmore approaches basketball with the same laid-back manner that he uses to deal with everything else in life. Despite his wealth, he has splurged on only two items since graduation: an expensive car and a quality stereo system. Both are now five years old.
Except for a full beard and a slimmer waist, he has not changed from his days at Maryland.He is content to spend his time reading, listening to music and relaxing. Stability is his goal; he still has the same apartment and telephone number in Indianapolis as he had when he was a rookie, a rarity in the transient world of pro basketball.
Yet his healthy income has left him with a guilt complex. He feels things have come so easy for him that he owes a debt to society, which he wants to pay back through what he calls "my public service obligation" after he retires from basketball.
"I'm not looking to make a whole lot of money when I quit," he said. "I have it in my head that I was blessed and lucky enough to be in pro basketball, but I haven't made the quest for it as much as maybe (former Maryland teammate) Mo Howard might have.
"So I'd like to go out and sacrifice and work and put out more in a public service job than I have in basketball. This is still a sport, you don't deal with day-to-day living. This could be my way of reconciling myself with the real world after being in a fantasyland for so long."
To ease his conscience, he may get a law degree, return to the inner city and become involved in tenant-land-lord affairs. Or he may become a high school teacher, probably in English. "Right now," he said, "It's important for me to do some good."
That is why he also likes to visit schools in the Indianapolis area. He feels he has a message to deliver about education and pro basketball that the young adults he encounters should hear.
"I don't speak at places like Lions Clubs," he said, "because they don't care what you say; they aren't listening. But the kids, I tell them about the connection between sports and education and I think they listen.
"They have to understand that they should use sports to further their education, but they souldn't base their lives on becoming a pro. Not many players do, but Anyone who applies himself can get a degree."
Elmore finally got his degree last summer, in part, he says with a smile, "to prevent Lefty from saying that all of his players have a degree but one, and he's a millionaire. Now I have a degree, although I've never been a millionaire.
"I've invested pretty well but I'm not worried about being rich. My advisers get mad at me sometimes because they don't think I put enough away, but I feel I should help my parents and my family as best I can.
"Money is nice, but you have to be able to live with yourself. That's more important."