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“It’s all Greek to us, Jimmy V!”
The Chowan Junior College transfer couldn’t believe it was happening. His dream school wants to offer him a scholarship. And he’ll need to sign fast, before the basketball team heads off to Greece.
A Raleigh native, Nate McMillan adored the NC State basketball program, at a time before anyone around the state had heard of city slicker Jim Valvano. Norm Sloan was the essence of Wolfpack Basketball, and the coach scoured the state capital and places all across the state seeking out the best talent. Guys like Tony “Doc” Warren (pictured, with McMillan and others at The Parthenon, above), who the school newspaper’s sports editor suggested, in 1978, “can do everything with a basketball except squeeze the air out.”
Young Nate tracked the path of Doc, a 6-foot-7 high school local legend, through the junior college ranks and into State, under Sloan’s watch. McMillan shined as a local prep player, too. But with his small, slight stature, unlike Doc, Nate couldn’t attract D-1 offers, especially from no one you know along Tobacco Road. Here’s one example of the type of in-state product the major Carolina schools, in lieu of little Nate, were fawning over.
“I’ll certainly never get over losing him,” Sloan would say to Sports Illustrated, about Pam-Pack phenom Dominque Wilkins spurning him for UGA. Unable to recruit the second-coming of David Thompson while squabbling with his AD over salary, Sloan left his legendary program in 1980 for Florida, where he got to watch a lot more of Wilkins’ flights of fancy in the SEC.
Like Doc Warren, Nate went through the junior college circuit. It was at Chowan where his height sprouted upwards by four inches, became a Junior College All-American, and got the attention of Sloan’s successor.
Scouring the JuCo ranks, Valvano hit the jackpot finding a lightning-quick guard in Anthony “Spud” Webb down in Texas. A bit closer to home, Jimmy V hoped to have success again, with the now 6-foot-5 McMillan.
After years of carefully following Doc’s footsteps, in 1984, Nate was on his way to the Pack, joining an instant legend, in NCAA champion Valvano, and the club in time for fun, frolic and exhibition games versus the Greek National Team in That Other Athens. ACC regular season champs in his first year on campus, back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in both seasons, the latter concluding with an early second-round selection in the 1986 NBA Draft.
Fast forward 36 years from his recruitment to NC State, and Nate had become an accomplished NBA retiree and head coach for the Indiana Pacers. A rising newcomer to McMillan’s roster already has his jersey hanging on the rafters in NC State’s arena after just two years of playing there. It’s a gentleman who knows not only of Nate’s NC State roots, but his deep Raleigh-Durham ones, having been sired by Doc Warren himself.
It’s the summer of 2020 and a sixth-year forward, castoff for cash by the Phoenix Suns, T.J. Warren, Doc’s son, is going bonkers for McMillan and the Pacers.
Imagine: a monstrous 41 points and 21 rebounds by a three-time All-Star, Joel Embiid, starring for a Finals favorite, in a performance that no one will remember. That’s because he got eclipsed by a stunning 53-point performance courtesy of Warren, the third-most points ever scored in a game by a Pacer in their NBA era, as Warren’s Pacers passed the 76ers in the conference standings like a ship in the night.
T.J. vowed to publicly demonstrate that Phoenix had “messed up” by believing “cash considerations” were the height of his value. Yes, Warren had dropped 40 before, in his days with young Devin Booker and the Suns back in 2017. But the entire sporting world was watching the Bubble in 2020, and Warren was giving ample reason to sit up and take notice.
Where did this come from? Who saw this coming? Who’s coaching this guy up?
With Warren (42-25 as a Pacer starter) asserting himself, ahead of names like Oladipo, Turner and Brogdon, as perhaps Indiana’s new #2 star, and shining under McMillan’s direction, the Pacers finished the regular-season with a solid 6-2 finish, earning Warren (31 PPG) the unique All-Bubble 1st-Team honors. When the seeding games concluded, Indiana, not Philly, would be the 4-seed, drawing the Miami heat.
25 days after Warren’s epic game, he lost his Triangle-area, Pack alum coach. Disregarding injuries to Domantas Sabonis and others at critical junctures of the season, the Pacers fired Nate McMillan, shortly after a 4-0 sweep to Miami during a series based entirely in Florida. McMillan would not get to return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as an employed head coach, until tonight, as his Atlanta Hawks are in town (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) for a contest featuring two clubs that played brow-raising games just last night.
Pacers owner Herb Simon was dismayed that, through four years transitioning out of the Paul George era, the team had failed to get OUT of the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Today, with their replacement Nate, Mr. Bjorkgren, in charge, the Pacers (30-35) find themselves at a crossroads with their new coach already. Together, they face the prospect that they will fail to get IN to the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Don’t nobody blame Warren. A navicular stress fracture in his foot, shelving him after just four games in December, made it impossible for him to settle into the new NBA season after a quick turnaround. That’s 61 games and counting. Now dealing with a tear in his toe, league-leading BPG man Myles Turner has missed 18 games and counting.
Concerned about lagging impacts from his January 2019 leg injury carrying into the next stage of his career, Victor Oladipo was shipped just 12 games into this season, only to find his replacement star, Caris LeVert, needing to miss 24 games to treat a mass discovered on his kidney during post-trade physicals. Oddly, LeVert (4-for-12 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 18, 5-for-18 vs. SAC last night; 25.9 PPG, 48.9 FG%, 4.7 APG, 1.7 TOs/game in 8 games between) is about the healthiest specimen the Pacers have going right now.
Their All-Star big man, Sabonis played in that 129-117 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, then missed six games with a sore back as the opportunity for his Pacers to escape the Play-In prospects grew bleak. The 2021 All-Star Skills Challenge winner missed three straight games before that, too, earlier in the month.
Jeremy Lamb had an ACL tear in February 2020 that caused him to sit for 11 months. He missed the first 14 games of this season, and toe and knee ailments have caused him to miss 15 more. Re-signed in the offseason for frontcourt depth, JaKarr Sampson has been in-and-out of the lineup, and he was just beginning to enjoy steady minutes until one of Blake Griffin’s pointy elbows placed him in concussion protocol last week.
Also missing in action just last night was former Hawks season-ender Edmond Sumner, now questionable for tonight due to a bruised knee. Inactive for the past three games, including the anomaly 152-95 win over OKC, Malcolm Brogdon remains questionable with a sore hammy. Rookie center Goga Bitadze is questionable with an ankle sprain, and probably wishes he sat himself the Dellavedova down instead of trying to play through it last night.
All told, that’s well over 200 games missed due to injury for Bjorkgren’s Pacers, and it’s tough for any coach, much less a first-year one, to gain traction with so many moving parts. But Indy can’t help but notice how similarly McMillan has uplifted Atlanta (37-30), this season, while he and former coach Lloyd Pierce juggled lineups to account for closer to 300 missed games.
Further, few shed tears for McMillan overachieving over the course of four seasons, since his club’s valiant efforts to win against the odds could not be duplicated at playoff time. He came close in nearly toppling LeBron’s Cavs during 2018’s first-round, as Oladipo stood tall in Paul George’s former superstar gap. But close only counts in those things on Colts helmets.
At this moment, McMillan is getting paid by the Simons not to be here in the Hoosier State anymore, but only because management – probably watching the Warren scoring bonanza -- rushed an extension (re-worked for this season, team option for 2021-22) in front of him before his fateful and brief postseason voyage could begin. Nate had only been working in this town because his Blazer buddies – PBO Kevin Pritchard, GM Chad Buchanan – that found their way here invited him onto Frank Vogel’s bench following his ouster from Portland.
“Simon says,” in 2007, that Rick Carlisle lacked the tools to elevate a team into championship contention. Then-PBO Larry Bird had Carlisle share his agreement that the team needed a “new voice.” Four years later, well. How’d Jim O’Brien work out for y’all?
Two years removed from a second consecutive Conference Finals trip, Simon had enough of Frank Vogel, having Bird tell the media in 2016 the team needed a “new voice” if they were ever break through and reach the Finals. Four years later, well. Maybe the voice the players needed to hear was LeBron’s, the whole time?
Indiana showed off a fighting spirit yesterday evening at the Fieldhouse, and not in any way directed at the visitors, as Luke Walton’s Sacramento Kings won handily, 104-93. I don’t know how you feel about Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk’s maneuvers since the 2020 Trade Deadline – Dedmon for Snell, Bogi for nothing, Capela for some Sun Chips – but I think my favorite was a call that went something like this:
“Hey, K-Pritch, we’re thinking about adding Coach Nate to our staff, so LP’s bench is getting a bit crowded. How would your Swedish Chef guy like to bring in Greg Foster? He’s got a fiery disposition I think your guys will just love!” Coach Greg, as you might imagine, will not be available for today’s proceedings. On the good side, Goga’s lighter wallet should help his ankle heal quicker.
Schlenk does a good job in sensing the quality of interpersonal connections when building players and staff for his club. Alternatively, after ditching McMillan, the coach whose breakout player’s dad served as a young neighborhood idol, they pursued Bjorkgren, who also spent a couple seasons coaching up Warren and the Suns in Phoenix. As Bleacher Report’s insider article by Jake Fischer alludes today, had Warren appreciated Bjorkgren’s coaching style enough to rehab quickly and help the Pacers win games, he’d have done so by now.
Larry Legend still hovers around the club as an advisor to Pritchard, and it sure looks like they’re already hearing the call for “new voices” again, as it pertains to Bjorkgren and the entire Pacers coaching staff. Simon may do with the front office what he does with his deadmalls and clean house for good, rather than just settle with paying another head coach not to be around. He’s paying over $113 million next year to players in guaranteed cash. As it stands, it’s unclear which ones want to be around, and which will be healthy enough to do so.
Finally able to have a predictable lineup of active players at his disposal, McMillan will want to deploy his Hawks in a similar manner to last night’s resounding 135-103 home win over the Phoenix Suns. Have the starters hang tough as Indy gives the first quarter it’s best shot, rely on the advantage of depth and hustle among the second unit to carry over into the next quarter. Sabonis and the Pacers will do all they can to craft a game narrative that has nothing to do with the sidelines.
By the end of the third quarter, the rest advantage gained by the Hawks’ first unit late last night should allow them to seize control of the contest, giving way for some entertainment in the final frame as the backups continue to hone their budding chemistry at both ends.
It will be fun to track where the Pacers are, in 2024, and what McMillan has accomplished in that time, be it with the Hawks, or as a head coach or assistant somewhere else by then. It is noteworthy to look back upon his playing tenure and coaching career and see, while not championship-successful, just how resilient he has been.
From his hardscrabble days in northeast Raleigh, to his time at NC State, the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, and now Atlanta. Through it all, Nate embodies the adage that applies to the many ups-and-especially-downs that life throws at people. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
Let’s Go Hawks!