Hum­ble road from Louisiana to Mont­bello, and back to Louisiana, helped shape Nuggets’ new­est star

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nick Kos­mider

Two decades be­fore her son be­came the high­est­paid ath­lete in Colorado his­tory, Bet­tye Mill­sap loaded her four boys into the car and put the Rocky Moun­tains in her rearview mir­ror.

She had moved from Louisiana 11 years ear­lier, in the late 1980s, and set­tled in Mont­bello, just out­side the heart of Den­ver. Her se­cond-old­est son, Paul, quickly de­vel­oped an affin­ity for foot­ball and be­came a mid­dle school quar­ter­back.

But Bet­tye needed help. She had to work mul­ti­ple jobs to pro­vide for her sons as a sin­gle mother. She couldn’t also be home all day to keep them out of trou­ble. So the fam­ily left Den­ver and went back to Louisiana, a foot- ball-mad state if ever there were one.

Just not in the iso­lated coun­try town at the end of their road map.

“There was no foot­ball in Downsville, Louisiana,” said Johnny Sim­mons, Paul Mill­sap’s un­cle and one of his coaches at Louisiana Tech. “It was bas­ket­ball. That’s some­thing we did re­li­giously. We just played and played and played.”

Mill­sap was in­tro­duced Thurs­day as per­haps the most high-pro­file free

agent in Nuggets his­tory. With a three-year, $90 mil­lion con­tract in his name, he also is the high­est­paid ath­lete in the state’s pro sports his­tory, in terms of av­er­age an­nual salary.

But the mag­ni­tude of his ar­rival as a four-time NBA all-star and post­sea­son reg­u­lar is be­lied by a hum­ble up­bring­ing cen­tered on the bonds of fam­ily found on faith, hu­mil­ity and sweat eq­uity. They were the val­ues that helped him go from an un­her­alded prospect pick­ing up bas­ket­ball as a sopho­more at Gram­bling Lab High School to a se­cond-round draft pick by the Utah Jazz to one of the most ef­fi­cient front­court play­ers in the NBA, a path on which lit­tle was guar­an­teed.

“Some guys un­der­stand how to play this game and some guys don’t re­ally care — it’s just all about them,” Sim­mons said. “Paul’s just not that way. I don’t know if it’s up­bring­ing. His mom is a won­der­ful lady, hum­ble. He’s al­ways been hum­ble. I guess it’s just his DNA. His DNA makes him who he is.”

Dur­ing Mill­sap’s fresh­man year of high school, his fam­ily crammed into his grand­par­ents’ home in Downsville. Bet­tye knew her sons had en­ergy and ath­leti­cism to burn, but it needed to be chan­neled. She turned to her younger brother, Dean­gelo, who had har­bored pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball dreams of his own.

“Help de­velop my boys,” she asked her younger brother.

“Only if they’ll lis­ten to me,” he replied.

The growth of the Mill­sap boys cen­tered on bas­ket­ball. Johnny and Dean­gelo played in col­lege. They would di­vide teams in the back­yard of the Downsville house dur­ing the first year Paul and his broth­ers moved back home. The only thing more pun­ish­ing than the hu­mid­ity were the el­bows and hip checks and other man­ners of brute force em­ployed in the games.

Paul was older than broth­ers Eli­jah and Abra­ham, but he strug­gled to keep pace with his older brother John and his two un­cles.

“Paul was re­ally a late bloomer,” Johnny Sim­mons said. “It wasn’t some­thing that he re­ally wanted to do. He was a lit­tle lazy and was re­ally un­co­or­di­nated. But he kept grow­ing.”

Dean­gelo kept push­ing. He would gather all four broth­ers and en­ter tour­na­ments against older play­ers, an un­cle and his neph­ews form­ing a five-man team. He would get them up early in the morning and add work­outs late at night. It was a prac­tice that con­tin­ued dur­ing Mill­sap’s three years of col­lege bas­ket­ball at Louisiana Tech.

“We would have prac­tice as a team for how­ever long the NCAA al­lowed us to do, 20 hours per week or what­ever it was,” said Keith Richard, Mill­sap’s col­lege coach. “Yet, Paul and his un­cle, Dean­gelo, and his broth­ers, they’d be in that gym late in the morning or late at night. They’d come in another cou­ple of times out­side of our work­outs. This kind of went on all the time for three years. I tell you that to tell you that he’s had a big-time drive to get bet­ter. It started early on.”

Even as he quickly grew as a player with the help of his un­cle, Mill­sap man­aged to surge un­der the radar, even to those who watched him closely. He re­ceived some at­ten­tion from ma­jor­con­fer­ence schools, but Louisiana Tech was his only choice. It helped that Johnny Sim­mons, who was liv­ing with Mill­sap’s fam­ily at the time in their new home in Gram­bling, had been an as­sis­tant on the Tech staff.

“I wrote him hand­writ­ten let­ters ev­ery day, just like ev­ery other guy I re­cruited,” Sim­mons said. “It was funny to him that he would get these hand­writ­ten let­ters from me, but I said: ‘Look, I’m go­ing to re­cruit you the same way. I’m not go­ing to cheat you on the re­cruit­ing part.’ ”

Richard thought he had a po­ten­tial fresh­man starter in Mill­sap, even if his of­fen­sive game didn’t ex­pand past the prox­im­ity of the rim dur­ing that fresh­man sea­son. But he couldn’t imag­ine how tran­scen­dent his best skill would be.

It’s a com­mon re­frain from peo­ple who coached Mill­sap or watched him play dur­ing the neo­phyte stages of his ca­reer. He just kept sky­ing for the ball, surg­ing to­ward it as it bounced off the rim like he had mag­nets for hands.

“When you first see him, you think he’s an un­der­sized four or five or what­ever,” said Mike Theus, Mill­sap’s AAU coach. “But when you get the stat sheet at the end of the game, it was un­be­liev­able what his stats were. He just out­worked ev­ery­body.”

Af­ter be­ing pushed around on the dirt court in Downsville, Mill­sap learned to shove back. Richard fondly re­mem­bers a prac­tice two weeks into Mill­sap’s fresh­man sea­son at Louisiana Tech. The coach was ad­dress­ing each player in front of the team about what their role could be, en­cour­ag­ing them to set goals for the up­com­ing sea­son.

“We’d say, ‘Paul, you look like you may be able to re­bound it,’ ” Richard said. “‘You’ve re­bounded it ev­ery day. You ought to set a goal to be the lead­ing fresh­man re­bounder in the WAC.’ ”

Mill­sap didn’t just be­come the lead­ing fresh­man re­bounder in the Western Ath­letic Conference. He be­came the lead­ing re­bounder in the coun­try, re­gard­less of class. He re­peated the feat as a sopho­more, then again as a ju­nior. He was the first player in NCAA his­tory to lead the coun­try in re­bound­ing in three con­sec­u­tive sea­sons, fin­ish­ing with a ca­reer av­er­age of 12.8 per game.

“It didn’t mat­ter whether we were play­ing some­one in the WAC, play­ing a non-divi­sion I game or play­ing Ken­tucky in a money game; it didn’t mat­ter who we played,” Richard said. “There were go­ing to be dou­ble fig­ures in re­bound­ing on that stat sheet.”

The elite abil­ity to at­tack the glass gave Mill­sap an edge and helped him be­come se­lected in the 2006 draft. But it wasn’t go­ing to be enough to make his mark in the NBA, es­pe­cially not at 6foot-8. So Mill­sap kept work­ing to ex­pand his game. Richard had watched him go from a player who would score mostly on put­backs and layups as a fresh­man to one who had de­vel­oped a post-up game. By his ju­nior sea­son, Mill­sap was con­sis­tently knock­ing down jump shots from 15 feet.

It’s been the same story in the NBA. It didn’t take long for Mill­sap to im­press long­time Jazz coach Jerry Sloan with his work ethic. Sloan had been around long enough to spot fake hus­tle that could pro­duce in­flated col­lege num­bers. That wasn’t Mill­sap. Each time the Jazz would con­vene af­ter the sum­mer, his power for­ward had added or im­proved another skill, ul­ti­mately rais­ing his game to an all-star level.

“The one thing about Paul is that he’s just such a smart player,” Sim­mons said. “You take that com­pet­i­tive drive he’s got with his bas­ket­ball knowl­edge and his con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment of his skill set and you have a great al­laround player. He can do a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing. He’s such a com­peti­tor, man. He’s a guy who doesn’t un­der­stand days off. He’s al­ways work­ing on his game.”

The quiet work ethic upon which Mill­sap has built an im­pres­sive 11-sea­son ca­reer was mod­eled af­ter Bet­tye. She kept punch­ing the clock and put faith in the men around her sons — her broth­ers, their coaches, their teach­ers — to guide them in the right di­rec­tion. All four of her sons have played pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball at some level.

“I re­ally don’t want to get started (talk­ing about my mom) be­cause there’s so much of her in­spi­ra­tion in my life,” Mill­sap said Thurs­day at his in­tro­duc­tory news conference with the Nuggets. “What she’s done to put me and my broth­ers in sit­u­a­tions to suc­ceed, I can’t speak about it. I don’t want to speak about it now be­cause of the fact all of these cam­eras are on me and I might cry.”

But away from the lights and podium, he said: “She’s meant ev­ery­thing to me. She’s in­spired me, my broth­ers to reach high and strive for great­ness. She’s al­ways had our backs, al­ways been there for us. She’s sac­ri­ficed most of her life to get us to where we wanted to go. With­out her, I wouldn’t be here.”

Not bad for a sin­gle mother. Bet­tye Mill­sap will spend plenty of time in Colorado once again. Chances are she will have a bet­ter view of the Rocky Moun­tains.

“Some guys un­der­stand how to play this game and some guys don’t re­ally care — it’s just all about them. Paul’s just not that way. I don’t know if it’s up­bring­ing. His mom is a won­der­ful lady, hum­ble. He’s al­ways been hum­ble. I guess it’s just his DNA. His DNA makes him who he is.” Johnny Sim­mons, Paul Mill­sap’s un­cle and one of his coaches at Louisiana Tech

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Paul Mill­sap poses last week at the Mont­bello Re­cre­ation Cen­ter, only 2 miles from the Den­ver neigh­bor­hood where he once lived.

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

The Nuggets an­nounced the sign­ing of all-star Paul Mill­sap at the Mont­bello Re­cre­ation Cen­ter last week. He has a three-year deal for $90 mil­lion.

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Nuggets mas­cot Rocky wel­comes Mill­sap to Den­ver last week. Mill­sap lived more than 10 years in the Mile High City be­fore mov­ing back to Louisiana with his fam­ily.

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