Mr. Sonic -- Company Man Nate Mcmillan Leads With Little Fanfare But Surprising Intensity

Near Issaquah, in a lushly green area with rolling hills reminiscent of Nate McMillan's old haunts in North Carolina, the house rises like some castle out of a vision he must have had way back when.

After his almost daily 30-minutes-or-less commute, McMillan relishes pulling into his driveway, which envelops you like an embrace. He enjoys the electronic beep that announces every open door, and the sparkling newness of every room. This place is his anchor.

Yet, each time he pulls his four-wheel-drive down this old, familiar road, part of McMillan expects to find everything gone, like the previous evening's cheers.

"I never get too comfortable, because I still think I'm dreaming," McMillan lets on, while touring his grounds. "Every time I walk into this house is like walking into a dream. I don't know how guys can complain when we all live like this."

McMillan is only 31 years old, but he is country wise, well-versed in the impermanence of things.

He is, after all, a company man who several times came close to losing his company. He is a family man who, while growing up, often scrambled to maintain family ties. And he is a basketball player who has had to prove himself every time he stepped onto a court.

Ten years ago, McMillan was chosen by the Seattle SuperSonics in the second round of the NBA draft. He thought then that he might last three seasons, then be tossed like a minnow into the sea of wannabes called the Continental Basketball Association. Now he is so close to the pinnacle, he can taste the gold on the trophy, and he is a man possessed.

The dirty little secret around these parts is that the conservative nature of Nate McMillan had prevented him from flourishing during the NBA postseason, the purview of the boldest and brightest. That has changed this year. Already he has helped depose the Kings and the Rockets with his usual hellbent defense and a surprisingly insistent perimeter offense.

"I think Nate knows this is his best chance at an NBA championship," Sonic Coach George Karl says. "And he's going for it."

Eventually, McMillan always does. Make it daunting. Make it fleeting. That is what stirs him into action.

On his first day at Chowan College (N.C.), he took rapt notice of a dazzling student. McMillan believed her to be out of his league, and it took an entire year for him to muster the wherewithal to ask her out. Now Nate and Michelle McMillan have been married for 10 years, as long as he has been a Sonic, and have two children, Jamelle and Brittany, whom they adore.

The landscape of McMillan's life is dotted with many such triumphs, born out of initial reluctance on his part to engage.

"You have to understand where Nate is from, and how he was raised," says Randy McMillan, Nate's older brother and confidant. "Raleigh is a real low-key type of city. It's just a small-town atmosphere. You were always told not to try to stand out in a crowd, to do your best and let that speak for itself. The way this town is, is the way Nate is."

So putting Raleigh, N.C., behind him was a necessary precursor to McMillan's biggest master stroke yet, one that emerged when it seemed the core of his identity was slipping away.

In the fall of 1995, McMillan was ready to just walk away from basketball. The memory of the Sonics' devastating first-round upset loss to the Lakers was still fresh in his mind, as was a summer of mixups over his foot injury that left him feeling put out by his organization. He felt the whole thing was spinning out of control.

"I felt the players were about to ruin a great game with our attitudes, with the money that was being passed out and the money that was being turned down," McMillan recalls. "The way the game was being played, it wasn't fun anymore. The attitude and approach to it became me, me, me.

"It wasn't like that before. I'm sure Julius Erving knew he was the man, the same way I'm sure Larry Bird knew. But they didn't have to say it, or show it. They just played. Now everyone just wants theirs."

Instead of jumping, McMillan decided to stay and fight. He could not change the game; he knew that. But he could try seizing control of what was closest and dearest to him, his team, the team with which, against countless odds, he has spent his entire NBA career.

First, McMillan allied himself closely with Generation X teammates Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. He decided that he would especially treat Payton, like himself a point guard and thus the nerve center of the team, as a younger brother. From there, McMillan began to assert his influence on nearly every aspect of the team's operation.

McMillan says he did not take action sooner because he feared his intentions would be misinterpreted. He did not want his teammates to think he believed that his long tenure with the organization gave him control. Meanwhile, most of his older teammates were thinking just that, and waiting for McMillan to act.

"Anybody who stays that long with the same team," Hersey Hawkins says, "you know he possesses qualities that are unique because it doesn't happen very often. Definitely more than anyone else on the team, Nate is voicing his opinion, giving his input. We like that. For some reason, most of the time, he's right."

Sam Perkins, a Sonic co-captain along with McMillan and Detlef Schrempf, says, "He's grown to become so important to the organization. The way he's played, and how he's carried himself, everybody who's ever been through here has appreciated him. Throughout the league, people know he's very important to the morale of the team. He's Mr. SuperSonic."

Nobody on the team seems to feel threatened by McMillan's recent assertiveness. Last spring, believing it was time for new leadership, McMillan resigned as team captain but in the fall was re-elected to the post by his teammates. McMillan has a standing offer to join Karl's coaching staff whenever he retires.

"That's how in sync we are," Karl says.

Last week in Houston, with four seconds left in regulation time of a tied Game 4, Karl called an isolation play for Kemp, and instructed his team to run it away from the Houston bench. McMillan insisted the play run on the other side, pointing out that Kemp could employ his stronger right-hand moves. "Nate was right," Karl says. "Shawn's right hand was better than avoiding the distraction of the bench."

Kemp missed the shot, but McMillan's judgment had been sound and the Sonics won in overtime. The previous game, his vision led more directly to his team's success. He had spotted an advantage in a matchup, redirected the focus of the Seattle offense, and the Sonics rode Perkins to a crushing defeat of the two-time defending champions.

How McMillan came to see the game so clearly is somewhat of a mystery. He attended only one basketball camp as a youth and did not even turn out for school teams until the 10th grade at Enloe High School. Life itself became somewhat of a moving target because his mother, Janette, was a single parent trying to feed six little mouths and continually uprooting Nate or leaving him behind because of basketball.

McMillan has never met his father and rarely talked about him. While he was in junior high school, he went shopping with his mother, and they encountered an old friend who informed them that McMillan's father had died. McMillan does not even know if the account is true.

But he always had Randy, who is five years older. Nate constantly followed his older brother to Lion's Park, the public basketball hotbed in Raleigh. One day, the older kids were short a player and the younger McMillan was enlisted. Out of survival, he focused on passing and defending, was allowed to continue playing, and a style of play was born.

Another McMillan confidant, David Hunter, speaks glowingly of how his cousin used to dominate games, in Little League and recreational circuits, with his all-around play. Indeed, McMillan has averaged scoring in double figures only once in his organized career, 13.1 during his second year at Chowan. Still, he has been influential enough on a basketball court to be named MVP of Atlantic Coast Conference champion North Carolina State in 1986, be drafted by an NBA team and stay with that team for 10 years.

Funny how that happened, too.

The 30th overall pickin the 1986 NBA draft, McMillan was like the guy who arrives for a blind date with a spot of gravy on his tie. At Sonic draft headquarters, after cries of "who-ooo-ooo?" came screams of "boo-ooo-ooo!" The team flipped on a video, and there was its latest prize, decked in a North Carolina State uniform, throwing away passes and missing shots.

"Our first mistake with Nate," said Bernie Bickerstaff, then the Sonic coach who now is coach and president of the Denver Nuggets. A few weeks later, McMillan reported to the team's rookie camp. All arms and legs, 6 feet 5 with the wing span of a jetliner - but damaged goods.

His knees wracked by tendinitis, McMillan hobbled around the floor. Bickerstaff once asked McMillan, "You can dunk, can't you?"

Eventually, he proved he could not only dunk, but play the point in the NBA. From there, the years have been jammed with a litany of players with whom the Sonics have tried to replace McMillan. From Danny Young to Sam Vincent to Sedale Threatt to Eddie Johnson to Avery Johnson to Dana Barros and finally to Payton.

McMillan, meanwhile, continued to play with an intensity that bordered on recklessness. The way he sticks his nose into the fray, in a literal and figurative sense, has made him vulnerable to injury.

"They say Nate's the glue of the team," Perkins says. "Well, he should save a little of that glue to hold himself together."

Bickerstaff argues that he played McMillan at the point out of necessity, that his vision always had been of McMillan as the Swiss Army knife off the bench that he has become. No one told McMillan. He was left to wonder what in the world he had done wrong.

The rejection syndrome reached its nadir in the summer of 1990. The Sonics took Payton with the second pick in the NBA draft. Later, if John "Hod Rod" Williams had approved the deal, the Sonics would have sent McMillan and Xavier McDaniel packing to Cleveland.

"It was difficult to know that the Sonics had traded me," McMillan says. "Bob Whitsitt (former team president) can say what he wants, but they traded me. My future was in Hot Rod's hands. It was almost worse that he decided against, because I had to go to training camp and face all these people again. I felt betrayed - big time.

"I've put it behind me. I don't have to like what the people in the organization did to me, or tried to do to me. I look at it as I represent the Seattle SuperSonics. That's all that matters to me. I represent them."

McMillan has thrown his roots down deep. He is the closest to a year-round resident as the Sonics have on their roster. He says he considers Seattle, not Raleigh, his home and, if he had his druthers, he would play the last two years left on his contract, maybe another two after that and retire to a post in the organization.

True to character, McMillan has become an integral part of the community with little fanfare. He would rather speak to church groups or classrooms than to churches and school assemblies. He would also rather do his charity work for smaller, needier organizations and his inner-city camps without notice.

Last Christmas, Nate and Michelle McMillan hosted a private party for disadvantaged families at the Boys and Girls Club of King County in Seattle's Central Area. Rick DuPree, the club's executive director, got a call from McMillan a few days before.

"Michelle and I went out shopping and we couldn't just buy one gift for each person," McMillan told DuPree. "Is that OK?"

Dupree says, "Nate has done stuff a guy just doesn't have to do. He goes out of his way, and that's rare for professional athletes. And he never does things for show."

That would not be right. The company man does not want to stand out. Show off, he believes, and you lose out.

"I don't like the spotlight totally on me," McMillan says. "Just a piece would be fine."