Over the course of the late John Thompson Jr.’s legendary coaching career at Georgetown University, it’s no stretch to say he touched the lives of hundreds of young men from across the nation, leaving a lasting impact on his players both on and off the court.
In the early 1990s, one of those players was a young standout at Raleigh-Egypt High named Kevin Millen. Nowadays, it’s common to see Millen’s 6’7” lanky frame and easy smile on Beale Street, where he works to keep the entertainment district looking its best.
But 30 years ago, Millen was a multi-positional freak on the court whose talent eventually landed him at Georgetown under Thompson’s tutelage. And while Millen’s hopes of a pro career never manifested, he still carries with him the life lessons that Thompson imparted.
“First of all, let me say that Coach Thompson had a masters degree in philosophy,” Millen said. “So coach was a person that knew and studied the mind and knew how to get the best out of a child’s mind. From 18 to 22 you’re still basically a child.
“What made me a better person was Coach Thompson got us in class and made sure we were doing what we’re supposed to do,” said Millen, now 47. “Because it’s easy to fall off track if you don’t have that person who’s like ‘You got to go to class, you got to stay on top of it.’”
Millen said he first popped up on Thompson’s radar when Craig Esherick, one of Thompson’s assistants, spotted him at the Dave Krider All-American Basketball Camp in Cinncinati.
“At Dave Krider, I rocked the camp,” said Millen, who remembers averaging 24 points, 12 rebounds, six blocks and five assists in his senior year at Raleigh-Egypt. “I was great when I was young. I was a really great basketball player. Some of the best were at this camp, and my attitude and athletic ability allowed me to do well. And Coach Thompson heard about me after that one camp.”
Millen was coveted by Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and of course by then-Coach Larry Finch at Memphis State. But Thompson came to watch Millen play at Raleigh-Egypt and lured him to Washington D.C.
“I knew I could play basketball, but I was shady on the education,” Millen recalled. “But once I got to Georgetown, I had to kick in on education and upgrade my basketball.”
It was there that Thompson helped Millen develop into a more rounded person both on and off the court. Not only was he exposed to the nation’s capital, he got to travel to Israel with the team.
“Coach Thompson got us in a place where we could talk to different (types of) people,” Millen said. “You got foreign teachers, you got white people, you got black people . . .
“And you got to be able to talk coherently to these people so they understand where you’re coming from,” he added. “Because they will look at you as you ain’t nothing but a basketball player. You’ve got to allow them the opportunity to know you, and once they know you and that you’re trying to succeed, you will succeed.”
That was just one of many life lessons that stuck with Millen.
“Coach Thompson said that anybody that wanted to graduate from Georgetown graduated,” Millen remembered. “That meant that you had to want to go to class. You had to want to go to practice. That’s just how it was.”
At Georgetown, Millen averaged 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds, while playing with future NBA players including Alonzo Mourning, Othella Harrington, Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams and even “The Answer” Allen Iverson. Despite his talent, Millen’s NBA dreams never manifested, and after earning a degree in finance, he returned home to Memphis.
“Coach gave me the chance to coach some incoming freshmen and I kind of took to that,” Millen said. “But I didn’t have any money to stay in Washington D.C., so I came on back to Memphis. I was young and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”
Millen said some around him felt Thompson didn’t help him in his quest to make the NBA. But he quickly corrects them.
“I didn’t make the league and a lot of people say, ‘Coach Thompson messed you over.’ No. NO,” Millen said emphatically. “Coach Thompson educated me. He got me where I know when it’s time to push the gas, push the gas. When it’s time to pump the brakes, I know to pump the brakes.
“Coach Thompson taught me a lot.”