SEATTLE — “The moment I really felt a change,” says Terry Mills, as he pours a small lake of syrup on his pancakes, “was during the introductions in that first game against Xavier. I was about to get up as the second forward, and they called out Loy’s name instead. I went, ‘What’s going on?’ And I sat back down. And then they called me out . . . as center.
“That stuck in my mind. Coach Fisher never told me he was going to do that. He just did it. He was saying, ‘You’re my center. I want you to play that way. You’re supposed to be in the paint. You’re supposed to be dominant inside. You’re the center.’ “
He dips a fork into the gooey mountain.
“I’m the center,” he says.
He is, this morning, even more. He is the center of attention, perhaps the linchpin in this NCAA semifinal showdown between Michigan and Illinois that determines who gets to play Monday night for the national championship. Everyone knows Glen Rice will get his shots for the Wolverines, and Rumeal Robinson will direct the offense. Everyone knows Illinois’ Kendall Gill will put on the black gloves and try to steal everything, and Kenny Battle will soar for his requisite points and rebounds.
But Mills, the lanky, sad-faced, 6-foot-10 giant? What will he be? The statue he had too often been in the past, or the suddenly mobile, agile, projectile he has become since this tournament started? His rebounding, shooting, and post-up play are weapons in the arsenal that Michigan was lacking when it lost the first two games to the Illini during the regular season. They might mean the margin of victory tonight. Pressure? Spotlight?
Center of attention.
“This is all so different,” Mills, a junior, says over breakfast. “We’ve got people waiting at the arena for our autographs. That never happened before. There are police escorts when we come home. That never happened before.”
As if on cue, one of the busboys approaches the table with a napkin and a pen.
“Are you Terry Mills?”
He swings his long legs under the table so the man can get closer, signs the napkin and says thanks. How far is this from the whispers and stares of 1986? How far is this from the foreign crowds that used to chant “S-A-T! S-A-T!” whenever he entered the game?
“Just think,” he says, as the fan walks away. “Two years ago I wasn’t even allowed to play with the team. And now I’m in the Final Four.” Prop 48 behind him
Ah, yes. Two years ago. The footprints in the sand that will not wash away. Mills, a high school star in Romulus and one of the most highly recruited players in the nation, was a “Proposition 48 Kid.” So was Rumeal Robinson. The first two to be admitted to Michigan. The only two on the team. Unfair? Well, it is not every student who arrives with the whole campus knowing his test scores and high school grade-point average — and knowing they were, in some way, deficient.
“I missed the cut because of my SAT scores,” says Mills, his narrow eyes revealing no anger, no embarrassment. “The funny thing is, it was basketball
that really cost me. I was scheduled to take the tests four or five different times, but the first time was the McDonald’s Tournament, the next time was the Dapper Dan Classic, the next time was a Michigan all- star game. So I missed them. Had I known what was going to happen, I would have missed a few of those games and taken the test more than once.”
Instead, he took the exam only in March of his senior year; by the time the results came back, it was too late to try again. He scored a 620, he says. With his grades, he needed a 660 to be eligible. Forty points is not a lot of questions. To top it off, “I never knew you were penalized for wrong answers. I guessed on every question I didn’t know, figuring it wouldn’t hurt me. It did.”
Under the Prop 48 rules, with that test score, Mills surrendered his freshman year of eligibility. He could attend Michigan but not play or practice with the team during that first season. That, it turned out, was the easy part. As marginal students on a premier academic campus, he and Robinson caught whispers, mocks, teasings, things they weren’t meant to hear but heard just the same. How did they get in? Can they even read? What classes are they taking — wood shop?
It was unfair, but at 6-feet-10 you get used to stares and rumors. Shielded from the media by then-coach Bill Frieder, Mills’ image only intensified as a reclusive, poorly educated athlete.
In truth, Mills is none of that. He is personable, easy- going and fairly bright. Always taller than his classmates as a child, he has learned to tolerate gawkers and stupid jokes. He is not quick to anger, and — perhaps the true mark of his maturity — not resentful of the early years of his college experience. “The only thing I disagree with about Prop 48 is not letting you practice (designed to give the freshman more time to study). The fact is, you’re going to play basketball anyway, so you wind up in a lot of pick-up games and street ball. You develop bad habits. Whoever heard of post- up play in street ball? You get the rebound, you bring the ball up and you shoot from 20 feet. That’s street ball.” No coincidence
Mills has managed, in two years, to unlearn all that. He also has developed an inside game and become a human tank for Rice’s defenders, a solid flesh screen that frees up Rice for deadeye shooting. “I try to hit the guy in the numbers,” Mills explains. “You want to catch him off-guard the first time, so he says, ‘Ooh, what was that?’ Then the next time, he’ll be hesitant.”
“How do you know when it works?” he is asked.
“When you hear the guy go ‘Ooomph!’ “
With Mills setting screens, playing post-up, turning in the lane for bank shots and hitting his usual assortment of baseline jumpers — to be honest, he still plays as much forward as center — the Wolverines have racked up 92, 91, 92 and 102 points in their four tournament victories. Longtime observers are quick to notice the difference in the big man. And there is no coincidence that it came about immediately after Frieder’s departure for Arizona State.
“With Coach Frieder, it had become very predictable,” Mills says. “I was always taken out at the 11-minute mark, no matter what I did. I was always put back in at the seven-minute mark. If I missed two shots in a row, I was taken out. It got to be like playing by a pattern. I was scared to make a mistake.
“Coach Fisher isn’t like that. He’ll let you play as long as you’re doing well out there. One of the first games under him, I heard the horn and I started to head off the court. I didn’t ask; I just figured it was me being replaced. But Mark (Hughes) said, ‘Nuh-uh, Terry, you’re still in. I’m coming in for Loy.’ That really motivated me. I was playing well, so he left me in.”
He smiles and digs back into the pancakes, as if fueling up for the rites of passage. And why not? Finally, as a junior, it seems he has arrived. No more of the “Why is Terry Mills just standing around out there?” No more of the “When is Terry Mills going to reach his potential?” No more of “Oh, that’s Terry Mills, the Prop 48 kid.”
“You know,” he says, “I thought about taking that SAT test again, just to prove I could do better. But what would that accomplish? Would I wear the score around my neck and say ‘Look. See what I got?’ “
No. Better to prove it on the court. Better to raise that long, tall frame to greater heights, to jumpers and rebounds and defense. And to the net, perhaps, with a pair of scissors, as a stunned national audience cheers for the new kings of college basketball.
Center of attention.
“In the long run,” he says, between bites, “people don’t remember individual things if you don’t win. People remember champions.”
“That’s what I’m going for.”
That, and some more syrup. Life, at the Mills moment, is very sweet indeed.
MILLS KEEPS UP THE STATS How Terry Mills has fared in this season’s NCAA Tournament: DATE RESULT FG FT REB AST PTS
3/17 U-M 92, Xavier (Ohio) 87 8-12 2-2 6 5 18
3/19 U-M 91, South Alabama 82 9-13 6-8 7 5 24
3/23 U-M 92, North Carolina 87 8-11 0-2 6 1 16
3/25 U-M 102, Virginia 65 4-9 0-0 5 2 8
TOTALS U-M 377, FOES 321 .644 .667 6.0 3.3 16.5 CUTLINE The Wolverines’ Terry Mills (left) and Glen Rice wait at the Bellevue, Wash., hotel for the team bus to practice. Terry Mills (right) has made a swift adjustment from forward to center.