MILLSAP’S NBA CAREER SHAPED BY JOURNEY
Humble road from Louisiana to Montbello, and back to Louisiana, helped shape Nuggets’ newest star
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
Paul Millsap poses last week at the Montbello Recreation Center, only 2 miles from the Denver neighborhood where he once lived.
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.
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.