In his three decades as an NBA executive, Steve Mills has stood on many of the great basketball courts in the world.
He has been to games at old Boston Garden, Chicago’s United Center and the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles. As the current executive president of the Knicks, his home office is Madison Square Garden, often referred to as the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Few courts, however, have the emotional impact for Mills as the one he stood on earlier this month at Hempstead High School. Mills grew up on this court, which 11 years ago was named the Ollie Mills Memorial Basketball court after his father, a longtime Hempstead educator and basketball coach.
Some people need to leave home to make their mark in life. Others, like Ollie Mills, do so by dedicating themselves to the same place for years. Ollie, say those who knew him, was a driving force behind not only his son’s success, but also the success of so many in the Hempstead community.
“My father, he got people to dream,” Mills said as he stood over a painting on the court of a student carrying his books with the words Ollie Mills Gymnasium printed underneath. “He created opportunity for a lot of people.”
Ollie Mills was the first African American to teach at Hempstead High School when the district hired him in 1957, according to Hempstead mayor Don Ryan.
Ollie, who died in 2005 at the age of 74, taught business education at Hempstead for 30 years. He also established himself as one of the most successful basketball coaches in the history of Nassau County.
Ollie Mills, according to Newsday records, is the only coach ever to win Nassau County championship basketball championships for both boys (1973) and girls (1980-83).
In nine seasons as the Hempstead boys coach, he went 135-26. His team’s 1973 Section VIII final win over Roslyn at the Nassau Coliseum drew 10,112, at the time the largest paying crowd to see a high school game on Long Island.
After getting a master’s degree at Adelphi, he returned to coach the girls and went 140-9 in seven years. His tenure included one magical stretch where the Tigers went 92-3, had a 52-game winning streak and won the state championship with a 27-0 record.
“He was like a father to me,” said Lisa Smith, who played on all four county championship teams before playing at the University of Mississippi and St. John’s. “He took me on my first college visit. I’m not sure if I would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for him.”
Smith is far from the only player to feel that way. Ryan was on the first team Mills coached. He later went on to work as a teacher under Mills in the school’s business education department and coached basketball at the Percy Jackson Youth Center in Hempstead.
Mills and his brother Charlie Mills, who had followed Ollie to Hempstead and eventually became the school’s principal, founded the youth center with a few Ping-Pong tables in an old deli and later moved it to a larger venue on Jackson Street. Ollie Mills was the director of the center from 1966-1987, while his brother was the assistant director.
“Ollie Mills was not only a great coach, but he was a great educator and a great man,” Ryan said. “He and his brother were both incredibly dedicated to this community. There are a lot of people who are where they are today because of Ollie. His impact can still be felt here today.”
Al Williams, now a teacher at Hempstead, was a four-year starter for Mills in the late 1960s and went on to play at Niagara University. He said Mills was a constant presence in his life, teaching and coaching him during the school year and employing him in the summer through a program that did maintenance on gas stations.
“They had a bash for us at the end of the summer, and he would make us wear a suit and tie,” Williams said. “He told us, ‘If you look good, you feel good.’ We just didn’t learn about basketball from him. We learned about life.”
The person Ollie Mills had the biggest influence on, however, didn’t play for him in high school.
Steve Mills, who replaced Phil Jackson as president of the Knicks last July, grew up in a two-bedroom house in Roosevelt, around the corner from Julius Erving and down the street from rap stars Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy.
The Mills were a basketball crazy family. When it rained, Steve and his brother Doug would drive their mom nuts by dribbling the ball on the cement front porch. When it wasn’t raining, they could either be found with their father at the Hempstead High School gym or the neighborhood courts in Hempstead and Roosevelt.
A talented point guard, Steve was all set to go to basketball powerhouse Long Island Lutheran. All set, until his father ran into a friend Albee Swartz who was trying to upgrade the basketball program at Friends Academy in Locust Valley.
“My parents were a stickler for education and they made me go to Friends,” Mills said. “At first, I was pretty unhappy about it.
“It was a culture shock. One of things about Long Island, at least when I was growing up, it was a really, really segregated area. Everyone I knew was black. Friends maybe had six or seven black kids at the school.”
Mills got over his shock and thrived in the classroom and on the basketball court. His doing so paved the way for more than 30 kids from the Roosevelt and Hempstead area to come to Friends over the past three decades.
After playing four years for legendary coach Pete Carril at Princeton University, Mills briefly played professional basketball in Ecuador and then took a job at Chemical Bank. Once again, his father ran into a friend and there was a change of plans.
Cecil Watkins, who was a director of community and special programs for the NBA, told Ollie Mills there was a job opening at the league.
“I took Cecil my resume that night,” Mills said with a laugh. “Until that day, I had no idea you could work in sports. I thought you could just play and coach.”
Steve Mills worked for the NBA for 16 years, rising to account executive to senior vice president of player development. That was followed by 10 years at Madison Square Garden Company, where he had a wide-range of responsibilities that included overseeing business and basketball operations for the Knicks and Liberty and the business operations for the Rangers.
Now in his second stint at the Garden after leaving to work for Magic Johnson Enterprises, Mills and Knicks general manager Scott Perry are the first African American president and general manager tandem to work the NBA.
Mills said he gets a thrill every time he walks into the Garden, especially since it was a place he couldn’t afford to go to when he was growing up. Yet, it’s clear he also gets a unique kind of thrill walking into the gymnasium named after his father.
Said Mills: “My dad was an educator and impacted so many people. I know I lived it and I saw it. He really made a difference.”