At 9:45 yesterday morning, after flying in with the rest of the Washington Bullets from Detroit, Tom McMillen walked up the steps and through the door to his Crofton office looking a bit like a dry cornstalk in need of a good rain. He had played five games in the last seven days, seven in 10 days, eight in 12 days. And, because of injuries to Jeff Ruland, Cliff Robinson and Rick Mahorn, McMillen had been forced to play far more than he was used to, to pay far more than his normal share of the rent: In those eight games he averaged 41 minutes, including 48 against Golden State and 50, with overtime, against Phoenix. And of those eight, the Bullets won five. And in those five, McMillen averaged 23.4 points, including a career high, 37, against the Suns.
For Larry Bird those are common numbers.
For Tom McMillen they are extraordinary.
So extraordinary, that to honor his work over the last seven days, McMillen was named the NBA player of the week.
It is a ghastly phrase, but, in truth, McMillen has been on a roll.
And it hasn't just been a long time coming, it's been forever.
Although he has played in the NBA for 10 seasons, he never averaged even as many as 10 points per game in any one -- a noteworthy, albeit dubious -- achievement. Going into this season his career average was barely over 20 minutes and eight points per game, and after the Bullets' first 38 games those numbers were eroding further; as the fourth big man in a three-man rotation, he played in only 26 games, averaging slightly fewer than 14 minutes and five points. Indeed, even yesterday, when asked how he might sum up the totality of his professional basketball career, McMillen was not swayed by his recent flush of playing time. "I've been a role player," he said, "who's tried to be as professional about it as possible . . . I never had any presumptions I would be a superstar in the pros."
Most of what has been written about him in the last few years concerns his political aspirations -- not if he will run for Congress, but when; he got his nickname, "The Senator," back when he was still an undergrad at Maryland. So it is with some relief and amusement that he finds himself under scrutiny as strictly a basketball player. And it is with some satisfaction, and not without a brief smirk, that he finds his light shining. Meaning no disrespect -- it's just an expression -- but they say every dog has his day. The 37, for example. The last time, in fact the only time, he went over 30 as a pro, was in 1976 when he got 31 as a Knick. The NBA keeps no such esoteric statistic, but how many other players do you think have gotten career highs at 32 years old?
"I've really gotten a kick out of the last 10 days," he said, smiling despite a sore back. "Basketball's really enjoyable when you can go out and get into an equilibrium with the game, get into the pace of it knowing you won't be coming out if you miss a shot, dare to take risks. I'm not surprised at this. I knew if I was to get the minutes on a sustainable basis that I could play and I could score and I could contribute . . . Look, I'm not fast. I'm not quick. I don't jump well, and I don't have a lot of athletic skills. But what I do have are what I consider nondepreciable skills: head fakes; positioning; aggression; a fine jump shot; an understanding and appreciation for playing a team game. These are not skills you lose over time. I'm as good today as I've ever been. I'm smarter as a player. I know what I can do, and I certainly know what I can't do . . .
"I really feel part of winning these last five games. If I wasn't there, the Bullets might not have won. And over a season five games can be enough to put you into the playoffs . . . The dilemma is -- when you come back with a healthy team, what do you do? If you want a three-man rotation -- and I generally believe it's a more effective rotation -- then one of us has to sit."
McMillen described his role on this team as "an either, or . . . "
One among Ruland, Robinson or Mahorn is injured, or McMillen sits. A graph of McMillen's playing time this season would look like the brain waves of a manic depressive. "But at this stage of my career," he said evenly, "If (Gene Shue) wants me to sit for five games, then come in and play 30-35 minutes when someone gets hurt, I'm willing to do that. I was realistic when I joined the Bullets. We may be the only team in the league with just four big men. When we're all healthy, I won't play. But probability-wise, one of them will go down every so often. So I always thought I'd get my minutes when I did play. It'd be very hard for a rookie to do this, sit for long stretches then play big bursts. It'd be a mind game. But I can fill that slot better than most."
So it's a mind game? So what?
McMillen, in case you've forgotten, is a Rhodes scholar.
He is on a one-year contract. He is not sure if he will be back, and he is not sure if this last week's glory will have any influence over that decision. "I read," he said, "where Billy Paultz said that basketball wasn't a bad job because you work seven months a year, you have your summers off, you work a few hours a day, the pay's good, you get to travel to nice cities, you keep in shape, and every once in a while you get your name in the newspapers." McMillen stroked his considerable chin with his long, slender fingers. "There's a lot of truth to that," he said, seemingly not that displeased with the prospect.