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Tom McMillen, Man of 1,000 Elbows, Jostles for Congress

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Jeff Ruland wants to see Tom McMillen in Congress. He’s behind him 100 percent. His motives, however, are suspect. “One of the happiest days of my life was two years ago when Tom was traded to us,” says Ruland, the big, bruising center for the National Basketball Association’s Washington Bullets. “I figured, ‘Great, I’ll never have to play against him again.’ ” Not that the 6’11”, 235-pound McMillen is a dirty player, mind you. He’s just liberal when it comes to throwing his elbows. And he’s an activist on the question of pushing and shoving. “I’m annoying,” admits Tommy Mac, now in his 11th year as a professional irritant. “I’m aware a lot of guys don’t like to play against me.”

Or with him. No sooner had Ruland finished congratulating himself on being rid of McMillen as an opponent than he realized he’d be snacking on elbows in practice. It was a discouraging thought, but now, marvelous to relate, Ruland is smiling again. McMillen, 33, in his final year with the Bullets, is putting a full-court press on voters in Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District. Ruland is so delighted he even contributed $1,000 to Tommy’s campaign chest. “He’ll make a fine congressman,” Ruland insists.

McMillen isn’t the first jock to try to take his game to Capitol Hill. He has been preceded by Sen. Bill Bradley, Democrat of New Jersey, once of the NBA’s New York Knicks, and New York Congressman Jack Kemp, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, lately of the Republican right. But McMillen is probably the first active athlete ever to run for Congress. Make that hyperactive athlete. When the Bullets are at home, the silver-haired bachelor manages his own electronic paging systems business, barely a beep away from his Crofton, Md. town house—whenever he isn’t campaigning. On the road, he works the phones and sets up his fund raisers. On planes, while his teammates sack out, he reads. “He’s always got his face in his briefcase,” reports Ruland. “I see this as an endurance contest,” says McMillen.

For McMillen, self-described as “a baby-boomer Democrat—socially progressive and economically responsible,” winning his district will require all of his staying power. The district, a demographic crazy quilt of blue-collar and yuppie, suburban and rural voters, has gone Republican in the last seven elections. Now seven-term Congress-woman Marjorie Holt is retiring, and GOP candidate Bobby Neall has every expectation of taking her place. “I love my chances against McMiilen,” says Neall, minority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates. “He’s trading on his status as a celebrity and a sports figure. Meanwhile, I’m trading on my reputation as a good legislator.” McMiilen, on the other hand, doesn’t feel handicapped by the fact that he hasn’t held office before. “There’s a sense of independence among individuals who haven’t had legislative experience,” he says. “I’m trying to upgrade the level of the campaign and talk about issues.” Moreover, he hasn’t wasted his time as a ballplayer. “I have a lot of friends,” he says. “I’ve made it a point really to cultivate people.” Among those cultivated have been past and present NBA stars like Earl Monroe, Albert King, Mitch Kupchak and James Worthy, all of whom have contributed to the McMiilen campaign fund. So have team owners Ted Turner of the Atlanta Hawks, Herb Kohl of the Milwaukee Bucks and Herb Simon of the Indiana Pacers. Even old acquaintance Howard Cosell has kicked in $1,000.

Politics are no sudden passion for McMillen, no detour on the road to the Lite beer ads. His teammates were calling him “Senator” as early as his freshman year at the University of Maryland. Even then he had the look of a future campaigner. His old coach, Lefty Driesell, is still amazed at how McMillen would be introduced to alumni, then years later “remember not only their names but their children’s names.” Touted by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as “the best high school player in America” in 1970, McMillen was recruited by more than 300 schools. He was wooed and won for Maryland by, among others, U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, who sold him on the benefits of being close to the Washington political scene. And it was Tydings who later turned McMillen from pre-med to pre-pol, introducing him to such Washington luminaries as Chief Justice Earl Warren and various senators. “It was heady stuff to an 18-year-old from Mansfield, Pa.,” says McMillen.

As a student of politics as well as basketball, McMillen follows in the earthbound footsteps of Bill Bradley. Both men, possessed of determination and driving intelligence, are Rhodes scholars. Both are demonic workers. And neither has the incandescent physical talents of, say, Julius Erving. “Tom just had this intense desire,” recalls Rich Miller, his high school coach. “He set certain goals and did nothing except strive to reach them. He didn’t date much—not because he didn’t like girls, but because it took time away from the goals he set.”

After four years at Maryland and another shuttling between Oxford and an Italian pro-basketball team, McMillen joined the NBA’s Buffalo Braves. There he found himself a confirmed victim of what has come to be known as “White Man’s Disease.” Its symptoms: the congenital inability to jump, combined with the appearance of running in sand. “What’s worse,” says McMillen, “is that I was weak. And I am a Rhodes scholar. Everyone wanted to make mashed potatoes of me.”

So McMillen did what he does best—he compensated. He lifted weights and he studied the opposition. “He became a very cerebral player,” says Bernie Bickerstaff, coach of the Seattle Super Sonics. “Tom frustrates opponents by finding their favorite spot on the floor. Then he denies them that spot.” But it’s not just McMillen’s strategy that causes frustration; his tactics are infuriating as well. “He pushes, he pulls, he leans and he uses his elbows,” laughs Butch Beard, a former teammate with the New York Knicks. In other words, he does what’s expedient—a valuable trait in a politician. “And he never lets up,” says Beard. “I can remember a time in practice when he knocked out three guys: Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo and Lonnie Shelton. Knocked them out!”

Now McMillen is looking for a KO over 5’7″ Bobby Neall. To that end, he finds himself attending a roast in suburban Silver Spring, outside Washington. If it is literally true that Americans want to look up to their leaders, McMillen is a natural; he dominates the room. Minicams are drawn to him. “Useful,” he says of his height. “It doesn’t take as long to work a crowd because everyone can see you in the distance.” For some reason the emcee has chosen to introduce Tommy Mac with the parrot joke. A guy buys a female parrot. When he gets it home, he is shocked to find that all it will say is, “Awk! I’m hot to trot.” A priest comes over and suggests he take the bird down to the parish, where there is a pious male parrot, a parrot that does nothing but pray. Maybe she will learn from him. “So the guy takes his female parrot down there and puts it in the cage with the male parrot,” says the emcee.” ‘Awk,’ she says, ‘I’m hot to trot!’ ‘Praise the Lord,’ says the male parrot. ‘My prayers have been answered.’ ”

“And now,” says the emcee, “Tom McMillen, our next Congressman and the answer to our prayers in the Fourth District.”

Somewhere out there, alone and unobserved, a good Episcopalian boy named Jeff Ruland is quietly saying, “Amen.”