Walk-on's biggest step into limelight

March 22, 1997|By John Eisenberg

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Why didn't Kentucky offer Cameron Mills a basketball scholarship when he was a high school senior three years ago?

"Couldn't jump, couldn't dribble, couldn't pass, couldn't guard anyone," Wildcats coach Rick Pitino said yesterday.

Other than that, he was terrific.

And yet, three years later, Mills has emerged not only as a scoring weapon, but also as a fitting symbol for a patchwork Kentucky team that has plowed through three rounds of the NCAA tournament to reach the West Regional final against Utah today at the San Jose Arena.

A nonfactor from his first days on campus until as recently as three weeks ago, Mills was force-fit into Pitino's rotation when Derek Anderson and Allen Edwards were injured. He has delivered far more than anyone expected, averaging 14 points and shooting 60 percent in the Wildcats' six postseason games.

After burning St. Joseph's for 19 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the regional semifinals Thursday night, he was surrounded by reporters yesterday at an interview session before practice.

"Are you living your dream?" he was asked.

"Yes, absolutely," he said.

A dream is what this unlikely story is all about.

Mills grew up in Lexington, Ky., utterly immersed in Wildcats mania. His father, Terry, played for legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp from 1969 to '71, and followed the team intently. Mills shot hundreds of baskets every day, always dreaming of playing for the Wildcats.

He developed into a solid high school player, talented enough to attract a full scholarship offer from Georgia and several other mid-major programs.

Kentucky wasn't the least bit interested.

"He came to our summer camp every year and he was a nice player," Pitino said, "but not for this level."

Said Mills: "I couldn't do much else besides shoot."

Disappointed, Mills made plans to sign with Georgia. One day before the signing date, his father drove over to Pitino's office for a talk.

"What about having Cameron walk on [without a scholarship] at Kentucky?" his father said.

Pitino was blunt. "You can't do that to the kid, Terry," he said. "He's good enough to play somewhere, but he won't play here. Give him a chance to play."

And yet, Pitino agreed to let Mills walk on if that was what Mills wanted.

The father drove over to Mills' school, pulled Mills out of class, sat him down and popped the big question: Georgia or Kentucky?

L "That's easy," Mills said. "There's only one school for me."

Giving up the scholarship didn't create a financial burden for Mills' father, now an insurance salesman, because they lived in Kentucky and tuition was minimal.

But joining the Wildcats created a burden on the court for Mills.

"I got sick at the first practice," Mills said, laughing at the memory. "It wasn't that I was nervous. It was just tough for me."

He settled into a role as one of those faceless players at the end of the bench, but playing against some of the best players in the country every day in practice -- pro-caliber players such as Anderson, Tony Delk and Ron Mercer -- has raised his game. Pitino gave him a scholarship before this season.

"He's gotten better," Pitino said, "but still, never in my wildest dreams did I believe that Cameron could do what he is doing now."

No one saw it coming. Mills' role increased after Anderson was lost for the year with torn knee ligaments Jan. 18, but he still was a minor contributor at best, averaging only 3.6 points in Southeastern Conference games.

Since the NCAA tournament started, however, he is the team's leading scorer, averaging 16 points. Remarkably, he has missed only five of 18 three-point attempts.

"He's been giving us a big, big lift off the bench," Mercer said. "And he's putting up big numbers."

His surprising success sums up this Kentucky team. Since winning the national title a year ago with a dominant team composed of superb athletes, the Wildcats have lost four players to the NBA draft and now two more to injuries.

Of the players who will play today, Mercer is the only one who scored in last year's championship win over Syracuse.

"We still have talent this year, but it's green talent," Pitino said.

And yet, the Wildcats are 33-4 and seeded No. 1 in the regional. They are 17-2 since losing Anderson, who was the team's top scorer and best player.

"I'm enormously proud of what they're doing," Pitino said.

Mills is the perfect symbol.

"I would never have had any regrets about coming to Kentucky, even if I'd never gotten to do anything more than play in garbage time," he said. "When you grow up in Kentucky, you grow up wanting to wear a Wildcat uniform. I'm just glad I got the chance coming out of high school. To have this [success] happen now is just fantastic."

He was one of those youths who knew all the stories, all the history, all the great names and great games that have marked Kentucky basketball.

Now, he is part of the story.

He was asked: "Have you thought about the fact that kids across Kentucky suddenly are shooting baskets in their driveways and pretending to be you, just like you pretended to be [former Wildcat] Rex Chapman?"

Mills smiled.

"I guess so," he said. "That's pretty neat, huh?"

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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