How A Sonic Became Super -- Big Brother's Guidance Helped Mcmillan Reach The Top Of Athletic World

Nate McMillan needed to get a grip on the world. Like most teenaged boys he was all naked ambition looking for direction.

He didn't know how good a basketball player he was. He didn't know how far his game could take him. He needed a nudge, needed a model.

"I realized early on what I wanted me and him to accomplish as a family and as brothers," Randy McMillan, Nate's older brother, was saying yesterday. "I was trying to be a fatherlike figure, because our father wasn't around.

"I think I picked up, at an early age, that I needed to be that sort of father-figure to him. Something just made me realize it was something I had to do. I tried to mentally and verbally communicate to him the things that me and him had to do to make our family better."

Nate McMillan listened. He followed his brother, through the neighborhoods of Raleigh, N.C. He was his brother's shadow. And he was his brother's pride.

"I was tough on him. Real tough," Randy said. "I didn't tolerate any nonsense from Nate. I didn't mean to be as hard on him as I was, but he seemed always willing to listen."

Even though he was only four years older than Nate, Randy intuitively knew his brother was special. There was a quiet, smoldering talent inside Nate that his brother recognized before anyone else.

A good player himself, a starter at UNC-Wilmington, Randy devoted as much time to his brother's life and game as he did to his own. The results are as obvious as a winning streak. Nate McMillan has played 10 seasons in the NBA, all in Seattle. The only other Sonic to play 10 years in Seattle was Fred Brown.

He has become a Northwest landmark. The ferries, the Space Needle, Lake Washington, Nate McMillan.

Last night, at the Sonics' annual season-ticket holders dinner, McMillan was surprised, in the style of "This Is Your Life," with visits from his brother; his mother, Jeanette Tyson; and high-school coach Preston McClain. He was honored for his dependable decade in the Sonics' backcourt.

"The only way I can explain Nate's personality now is that he has a strong inner feeling that he can get things done," Randy said. "He just needed a father, or a coach, or a brother to push him to get those things done.

"To be honest with you, I saw that Nate was special back in elementary school. I saw a talent there that needed to be groomed and needed to be developed. It was a mannerism type thing. It was visual. You could see it. There was a maturity. He was able to do things at his age that most kids his age were unable to do. He just needed someone to help him."

Randy had confidence in his brother before Nate did. Nate didn't play ball seriously until his junior year of high school.

"I don't know if I want to use the word fear, but maybe that's the word I should use," Randy said. "He had a fear of being rejected away from something. It was like he knew what he could do, but he was afraid that somebody else didn't feel as highly about him as he felt about himself.

"My feeling is, if Nate had not made the team in his junior year, Nate would have never gone out for another basketball team because of the fear of being rejected. But the thing I was sort of leaning on was having Nate see that I had done it, so he could do it.

"I just told him to give it a try. I told him he had the ability. I knew he did. . . . I guaranteed him that he'd make the team. I mean, this guy could flat-out play, but it took a lot of prodding over a long period of time to get him to go out for the team."

Nate needed to know there was someone else who felt the same way about him that he did. Randy was that person.

Now, 16 years later, Randy, 36, who runs his own business in Raleigh, knows how far his younger brother has traveled. He knows how hard his brother has worked.

He taught his brother a kind of dignity that has kept Nate together for a decade in the turbulence of the NBA. He watches his brother with a father's chest-swelling emotion.

"In his first year, I saw him on TV, competing against Magic Johnson and I'm saying, `I knew this could happen,' " he said. "For him to be directing a team against the absolute best player in basketball, I was going, `Yeah! I knew you could do it.'

"Everything, with what Nate's done, has been so fascinating, so exciting. I've just thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it."

There is an urgency in Randy's voice. This week is important to him.

He still believes there are things that haven't been said between the brothers. Maybe for the first time, this week in Seattle, two brothers from Raleigh will talk openly about their love for each other.

"Even to this day, I don't understand Nate's thought processes," Randy said. "He's never sat down and explained to me his feelings about me. Like what was Nate thinking about at the times when I would be on his back? To this day, I'm trying to figure that out.

"That's the one thing I want to know about our relationship. What in me helped make him click? What made him listen?"

Want to comment or pass on an idea? You can contact Steve Kelley by voice mail at 464-2176.