As he’s putting Henry Ford Community College basketball players through their paces, Terry Mills can’t help hearing the voice of Doug Collins in his ear.
“I was probably not the easiest guy to coach,” said Mills, the former Piston about to enter his second season as assistant coach at Henry Ford CC in Dearborn. “We’re good friends now, but I can remember a comment he made to me. He said, ‘You’ll understand when you start coaching.’ I remember that. And right now, I know exactly what he’s talking about.”
Mills wasn’t thinking about a career in coaching when he came to the Pistons two years into his NBA career as a free agent in 1992. He was just three years removed from co-starring with future NBA scorer deluxe Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson in leading Michigan to the 1989 NCAA championship and six years removed from winning the 1986 Michigan Mr. Basketball award while carrying Romulus High to the Class A state title.
The Bad Boys were in their final days then. Vinnie Johnson had just retired after spending his final season in San Antonio. John Salley and Rick Mahorn were both playing elsewhere. James Edwards had been traded to the Clippers and then signed by the Lakers.
Isiah Thomas was starting his final season and Dennis Rodman was in his last year as a Piston. Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars were the only Bad Boys holdovers that Mills played with beyond his first season – and Laimbeer pulled the plug just 11 games into the 1993-94 season, Mills’ second. Even Chuck Daly had departed by the time Mills hit town.
“Coming back home was definitely appealing,” said Mills, who was drafted by Milwaukee but traded to Denver before playing in an NBA game, then shipped to New Jersey midway through his rookie season. “I just looked at it as me having an opportunity with the Pistons, having an excellent opportunity to start and play a whole lot.”
Had Mills stayed in New Jersey, ironically, he would have been playing for Daly. But his path to a starting job was blocked by Derrick Coleman, a Detroit Northern High star who’d lost out to Mills in the ’86 Mr. Basketball voting. Coleman had been the No. 1 pick in 1990 while Mills went 16th to the Bucks.
Mills started 46 games in his first year with the Pistons, averaging 14.8 points – third on the team behind Joe D and Isiah – and 5.8 rebounds. The future Hall of Fame guards were the only constants in the starting lineup under Ron Rothstein, though. Up front, he juggled Mills, Orlando Woolridge (47 starts), Laimbeer (41), Rodman (55), Mark Aguirre (15) and Olden Polynice (18).
Rothstein lasted only one year, but the Pistons sunk to 20 wins the next season under Don Chaney, when Mills averaged career bests of 17.3 points and 8.4 rebounds as a full-time starter. After a 28-win season the following year, Chaney was out and Collins was in. The Pistons won 46 and 54 games in Collins’ two full seasons, during which time Mills became one of the forerunners at a position that would come to be known as the “stretch four” – a big man who could step outside to knock down deep shots and open driving lanes.
In the 1996-97 season, 415 of the 702 shots Mills launched came from behind the arc and he made 42.2 percent of them, still the 10th most accurate season figure in Pistons history. He knocked down 13 straight in December of that season to match the NBA record set by Brent Price. Mills is seventh all-time in Pistons 3-point attempts and fifth in makes.
“That’s the way coaches started to use me,” he said. “When I first got with the Pistons, I was mainly an inside player. Not until Doug got there is when I became a floor spacer. Coaches use players to the best of their ability and that’s what helped the team.
“I always tell my players, shooting is something you can work at. Get in the gym, shoot every day and you get better. I tell people all the time about this stat at Michigan: I took one 3-pointer in my career and was oh-for-one. You’ve got to adjust.”
Mills had ample reason to be a Pistons fan growing up, beyond just his proximity to them. John Long, one of their mainstays through the late ’70s and mid-’80s after starring under Dick Vitale at the University of Detroit, is brother to Mills’ mother. To Mills, he was Uncle John.
“I definitely looked up to him,” Mills said. “He taught me a lot about the NBA, college. I remember going to see him play down at U of D, meeting coach Vitale. He came back in the summertime and would get in the gym. I would have the opportunity to play against guys like Phil Hubbard and Greg Kelser – those guys were in their prime – and it was always a treat. You would get guys like Darryl Dawkins, Earl Cureton who would come to the gym and play. It was a great experience for us – those guys would kill us, of course – but it was unbelievable. Those guys made us get better.”
Because of that experience, Mills said he wasn’t awestruck to become teammates with Isiah, Joe D, Laimbeer and Rodman when it came time to sign with the Pistons as a free agent.
“I don’t think it was intimidating for me because I had an opportunity to play against those guys when I was at college,” he said. “I could always go back and play with my Uncle John. I would play against Laimbeer and John Salley. This was when I was in college. I don’t think a lot of people get that opportunity.”
Playing under Collins, and the success the Pistons enjoyed in winning 100 games in his two full seasons, were Mills’ best times in the NBA, he said. As he begins his coaching career, which he hopes leads to becoming a college head coach, Mills counts Collins as one of his biggest influences, along with Pat Riley, for whom he played after signing with the Heat as a free agent in 1997.
“You learn so many things from a lot of coaches,” said Mills, who capped his 10-year career by coming back to the Pistons as a free agent for the 2000-01 season. “It’s all coming back now. Don Chaney, Ron Rothstein – I’m just taking little bits of things those guys have taught me and I’m trying to incorporate them into my own style.”
What Mills can sell to college recruits is the full experience of having been not only an NBA player and a college star who won an NCAA title, but also the knowledge of what goes into being recruited and choosing a college that best matches a player’s needs.
Mills was widely considered one of the top handful of players as a high school senior, when he earned McDonald’s All-American honors. He and Virginia’s J.R. Reid, who chose North Carolina and also went on to the NBA, were neck and neck for the honor of being the nation’s top man in 1986. Bill Frieder, Michigan’s coach while Mills was a phenom rising through the ranks at Romulus, recruited him doggedly for years, but Kentucky’s Eddie Sutton made Mills his highest priority, as well, and nearly steered him away from Ann Arbor.
Mills has discovered, though, that the kids he recruits and coaches today are hazy on those details.
“To them, I’m probably some old guy,” said Mills, now 43. “I played professionally – they probably know that aspect of it. I think last year, for the first time since I’ve been coaching, when March Madness came on and they showed some clips of the Seton Hall and Illinois games (the teams Michigan beat in the 1989 Final Four), a few guys said, ‘Coach, I saw you out there playing.’ I said, ‘I told you guys I played.’ We had a guy from Colorado and I told him I played for the Nuggets in 1990. He said, ‘Coach, I was 3 years old.’
“I tell the guys I recruit that I’ve been through it, that I was heavily recruited. I know how this process works. I know how to recruit guys. It’s fun going out and recruiting them. A lot of them are real confused by the whole thing. I tell them to take their time and make sure they make a good choice.”
And somewhere in there, he probably hears the voice of Doug Collins or Pat Riley, too.