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Peter Carry
February 16, 1970
To his mother Tom McMillen is a little boy, to college coaches he is very big, but everybody pursuing the most sought-after schoolboy since Alcindor agrees: approach him gingerly
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February 16, 1970

If You Want Tom, Easy Does It

To his mother Tom McMillen is a little boy, to college coaches he is very big, but everybody pursuing the most sought-after schoolboy since Alcindor agrees: approach him gingerly

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The view from the large picture window over the kitchen sink in Dr. Jim McMillen's big white house near Mansfield, Pa. is merely ordinary. By country standards, the backyard is neither unusually large nor abundantly gardened. The driveway that loops behind the house shows the scars and buckling of too many deep-frost winters, and the worn wooden basketball backboard is supported by spindly iron posts burnt with rust. Still, although she never cared much for basketball, Margaret McMillen likes the view. For 15 years she stood inside her window cooking dinners and being vaguely amused as her five children chased around the lawn, climbed trees and shot baskets. It was only in the '60s when a series of intense, sometimes overly affable men began to join her in the kitchen that Margaret McMillen realized that something more than the usual children's horseplay was going on out there.

The men were college basketball recruiters, and they came to Mansfield because they thought the McMillens' oldest son Jay had learned to dribble and pass and shoot basketballs so well in the old backyard that he was among the best high school prospects in the country in 1963. They huddled with Jay and his dentist father around the circular kitchen table, listened to Margaret's proud stories of her children's cultural achievements and, as Margaret now recalls, every once in a while found their attentions wandering to the outside where the McMillens' youngest boy Tom (see cover) was playing. A 6-footer, he moved around the basket with almost the skill and polish of Jay. He was in the sixth grade.

In the six years since, Jay has graduated from Maryland, where he was good enough to be drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers at about the time he was beginning to lose one-on-one games to his brother. Tom, a senior at Mansfield High, has grown to 6'11", with all the grace of a forward and the brains to become the doctor he wants to be, and coaches and colleges the country over have almost run amok trying to register him. And that is not a very good thing to do around a McMillen. Pressure any of them just once, talk too much basketball to Margaret, too little academics to Jim, too much of the usual line to Tom, and goodby prospect, and please close the door when you leave. The McMillens are friendly people, but they have ideals, too, and they want to keep them, even if one in their midst is among the most sought-after high-schoolers ever.

Princeton was one of the earlier schools to understand the right approach. It had an administration official who had served formerly as dean of the Harvard Medical School escort Tom around the campus. West Virginia attempted to overwhelm Tom by introducing him to then-President Lyndon Johnson, while Virginia chose seduction, taking Tom and his coach, Rich Miller, to meet a Playmate of the Month. Only Miller was impressed.

But the occasional campus visit is only a small part of college recruiting. The process still relies heavily on letter-writing, telephoning and telegramming and treks to the boy's home. It is here that the recruiters have run head on into the McMillen parents.

"The recruiting has never really stopped," says Margaret. "We became good friends with some of the coaches when they were visiting Jay, and they have continued to come back." In the second half of Tom's sophomore season, when he was already edging up to Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Gola and Maurice Stokes on the way to becoming the state's highest schoolboy scorer, the old friends were joined by many new faces.

Coach Miller, who worried that the attention would distract Tom from his high school games, and the McMillens, who feared the visitors would pull him away from all his other interests, agreed that no one should be permitted to talk to Tom during the basketball season. Visits were carefully limited during the rest of the year. A few coaches have tried, unsuccessfully, to circumvent the rules by telling the McMillens that they just happened to be driving through.

"This is an awfully hard place to be passing through," says Margaret of Mansfield, a town of 3,100 that is isolated in north-central Pennsylvania astride a pair of two-lane highways that pass through places like Trout Run, Button Wood and Blossburg. "But some people think we're silly enough to believe them."

With his parched appearance and dry wit, silliness does not suit Jim McMillen. A former player and his sons' first coach, the dentist knew about recruiting long before either Jay or Tom became involved in it. "I had heard which schools had a reputation for dishonesty, the ones they say are in the underground," he said, sitting in his favorite chair in front of the TV where he watches hours of sports events each weekend. "I knew the ones the NCAA suspended, too. We told Tom not to consider any of them." That scratched off a considerable number of the more than 225 schools that had approached him. Perhaps because Jim looks as honest as American Gothic, the McMillens have received only one shady offer for their son—an illegal junket to this year's Super Bowl in New Orleans. The trip was turned down and the college eliminated from consideration.

"I'm pleased I've had two tall sons," says Jim McMillen, who has traveled all over Pennsylvania to cheer his boys in high school. "It's put more zest in our lives. Life is much less humdrum. I guess the rest of the family has taken it in good stride, but sometimes I feel I might have neglected my other children's interests more than I should have. I always tried to change the subject from basketball at the dinner table, but it was easier to talk about it and we usually did."

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