So, there we were on the first day of training camp. Or, as you've probably heard it nicknamed by now, Black Friday.
The Trail Blazers had just gotten the word that LaMarcus Aldridge would undergo a procedure on his heart to treat Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and would miss at least a week. They were already dealing with the news that Greg Oden had suffered yet another setback in his battle with his surgically-repaired knees. Then came the surprising word that Brandon Roy was going to seek a medical retirement from the NBA.
As we sat there, on the first day
, trying to figure out what all of this meant, and what it would mean to this franchise to have to deal with yet another batch of disappointing news, my eyes drifted to one of the side baskets along the wall. There stood Nate McMillan, arms folded, staring straight ahead at no one in particular. After several moments, he lifted his whistle to his mouth, bit on it for a second, and then let it drop back to his chest.
The members of the media were beginning to surround him, flipping on lights atop TV cameras and starting to extend microphones. After briefly joking that he'd love to come into a training camp and not have to talk about who is missing and discussing injuries, he went to work talking about how his team was positive, optimistic, and ready for training camp.
I then started thinking about all that he's dealt with since being named the head coach of this team back on July 7, 2005. The first few years, which seem so long ago, were much easier. Expectations were low, as they usually are during a building process. He'd never admit that, however. His message was the same then as it is now. The goal is also still the same.
So much has happened since then. There has been a lot of good, including three-straight playoff appearances. But, there is no doubt that the injuries, what-ifs, and unfilled potential have started to define McMillan's reign in Portland. It's a shame, because that part isn't his fault.
The amazing thing, at least in my mind, is that this has been an incredibly enjoyable era of Blazer basketball despite all of the bad luck. It's amazing to me that this team has had the success that it's had, given all that has happened. Maybe that's why we pull for them the way we do, and why we've learned not to take anything for granted (at least I hope we've learned that).
The reason we've been able to connect with this team they way we have in the last few years is that we're able to identify with them. Nothing has come easy. And, it hasn't been fair. But, you'll never hear McMillan say that. With him, it's never about him.
I heard it said recently that when you never make it about yourself, you can lead others to great things. Nate has done that. Even if the great things fall short of what you think they could have been. I had an NBA agent say to me, after yet another player went down last season, "this has to have a happy ending at some point, doesn't it?"
I'd love to say that it's that very thing that drives McMillan. But, I don't think that's the case. I envy him because he's honestly able to put aside all the distractions and simply work his way through a situation without ever allowing his players to feel sorry for themselves.
He's steady, he's consistent, and the absolute rock of this franchise. He has never cracked, and his team has never cracked. Oh, and there has been so much opportunity to completely fall apart and give up.
As I had a national writer tell me the other day, no one could have done what he has done with this team the last three-plus years. I'm not sure focused Blazer fans have any idea how admired McMillan's work is around the rest of the NBA world. That's not a criticism of Portland's fans, that's just the way it is sometimes.
I've got this concern that perhaps McMillan is getting worn down by all the bad news, or that somehow the constant theme of injured players will begin to define him. My worry is insignificant, obviously, and the best treatment for that is usually a simple conversation with Nate. He never seems shaken, or disheartened.
Don't you love those people who somehow make you become the best version of yourself? It's certainly a gift, and it's a quality we find consistently in great leaders. It's the ability adapt, look forward, and carry those around you with you.
He'll be there tomorrow, and the next day, searching for ways to inspire and succeed, never worrying about what's fair and what isn't. That part he doesn't control.
Will the payoff ever come for McMillan? Actually, it already has. Just ask him.