The Long Island record for most points scored in a high school basketball game is 76, set by Long Island Lutheran’s Mike Milligan 41 years ago Monday.
How it happened was no accident. Milligan’s scoring deluge was entirely by design. And here’s the crazy part: The record he broke had been set by a teammate a year earlier.
In those days, Lutheran’s coach, the Rev. Ed Visscher, had a reward system that benefited one senior each year.
Do your best to share the basketball all season, Visscher told his team, and as a thank you, there will be one game in which a senior can go to town.
When LuHi’s Wayne McKoy netted 70 in 1977, setting the Long Island scoring record, Milligan — a junior from Uniondale — did his part feeding McKoy. A year later, it was Milligan’s turn. He set his sights on what seemed impossible: McKoy’s mark.
Perhaps more importantly, his teammates were true to Visscher’s vision.
“I was fortunate enough that my teammates were really great guys and they wanted to see me do it, so they all gave me the ball,” Milligan, 58, said recently from Fullerton, California, in a telephone interview. “They just kept giving me the ball and allowing me to score.”
They did that, and then some.
“Put it this way, Mike put on a show that day,” said teammate Dan Dunne, 57, “but when he was tired, we were there for him.
“If there was an offensive rebound, flip it to Mike so he could score. We would work hard on defense so Mike could get a breather, and when we got a steal, the first thing we all thought was get it to Mike so he could score.”
LuHi easily won that game on March 4, 1978, beating a decidedly inferior Baltimore Lutheran team, 136-59, in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Tournament at Long Island Lutheran’s campus in Old Brookville. Heck, Milligan, now a finance professor at Cal State Fullerton, easily outscored the opponents all by himself.
McKoy, 60, and living in Bayside, recently said he didn’t mind seeing his record last only a year. “I was happy for Mike,” said McKoy, who played four years at St. John’s. “I’m glad to have been in that position that he would want to break my record. I’d like to think my 70 points had something to do with that.”
Milligan’s statistics from that game, as reported in Newsday, are as outlandish as you would expect. He shot 36-for-55 and also had 17 rebounds, seven steals, four blocks and — get this — five assists.
So yes, he did pass some of the time.
The story also noted that Milligan had 34 points at halftime — not quite halfway to McKoy’s record — and according to Dunne, already was “exhausted” from all the shooting. Remember, this was before there was a three-point line.
“I have this memory of halftime, us being in the classroom where we used to meet, and Mike was sitting with his hands on his knees and his head on his hands,” said Dunne, who pitched in with two points in that game. “That’s how exhausted he was. He must have had eight, 10, I don’t know, 12 dunks. It was crazy.”
The emphasis at halftime was helping Milligan seize the day, and his teammates did their part.
“All the players were psyched up about it,” said assistant coach Howie Frankel, 69. “They wanted him to get it.”
Milligan was quoted in the Newsday story saying: “I took my first shot and hit it and kept on shooting. I didn’t play defense. It reached a point where I didn’t even go downcourt. We were on defense and I stayed down at the other end to get my breath.”
Milligan remembers little in terms of specifics from that 1978 game. He recalls a few dunks, one wild missed dunk in which the ball ricocheted across the court, as well as shooting an air ball from the free-throw line.
He doesn’t remember hanging back on defense.
“He wasn’t basket-hanging or cherry-picking — he was just so tired from taking all those shots,” said Dunne, who played four years at Seton Hall and now is the general manager of the Rochester Revolution, an upstate minor-league basketball team.
NOT EVERYONE WAS HAPPY
It was a record-setting performance, for sure. That much is without question. But the story behind the game also raises thorny issues about what the true meaning of a record is when it’s accomplished in such deliberate fashion — right down to feasting on a lesser opponent
The coach of the other team, for one, wasn’t happy to have been party to it.
In the Newsday story, Baltimore Lutheran coach Larry Vedder said: “Considering the circumstances of us coming here, I didn’t like it. I realize we aren’t on a par with Lutheran. We come up here because of the relations of the Lutheran schools. And I don’t want to come 200 miles and put our kids through that.”
When Milligan was read that quote recently, he said he was surprised.
“The kids themselves seemed to be OK with it,” he said. “If I remember correctly, a couple of them asked me for my autograph. Nobody was rubbing their face in it.
“Anybody who knows me knows I wasn’t the kind of guy who was sticking my tongue out and laughing at you, pointing at you, like, ‘Hey, I just dunked on you.’ No one on our team was doing anything like that.”
Milligan, a 6-3 guard, was described by his teammates as an all-around player, not necessarily a scorer. “I don’t remember my previous high before that night,” he said. “I can tell you it was not 30 points or more. “
Frankel said everything about the game was the antithesis to who Milligan was as a person and a teammate. Frankel coached basketball for 45 years, most recently nine years professionally in Denmark. He said Milligan was his favorite player to have coached because of his character.
“He was such a team player, and we wanted to reward him,” said Frankel, now living in Gainesville, Florida.
Others on Long Island also weren’t thrilled.
Frankel said a high-profile high school basketball coach — he wouldn’t say who — reached out to Visscher to take issue with the manner in which Milligan’s record was set.
Frankel said that coach “didn’t understand” Visscher was simply rewarding players by letting them be selfish for a game after being selfless for a season.
Had Milligan gone to school in Uniondale, where he lived, “he would have easily averaged 30, 35 points,” Frankel said.
Lutheran players say Visscher’s program, among the best on Long Island in that era, was always a source of contempt among coaches.
Visscher, they said, didn’t care, which is why he kept doing this annual one-game reward.
“You know Geno Auriemma has that smugness to him because his Connecticut teams always back him up? That was the Rev,” Dunne said, referring to the nickname the players use for Visscher. “I think that’s a perfect comparison. My players are better than your players. My system is better than your system. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter.”
Milligan went to the University of Florida after that season, and so did Visscher as an assistant coach. (Visscher spent two seasons on the Florida staff, going 3-14 as the interim head coach for 17 games in 1979-80. He later coached high school basketball in Florida and professional teams overseas. He died at 66 in 1999.)
WHY THE RECORD HAS LASTED
In Milligan’s eyes, Visscher’s decision to leave Lutheran is the reason his Long Island scoring record has stood all these years. Had Visscher stayed at the basketball powerhouse, Milligan is confident that another lucky senior would have climbed higher on the ladder.
“If Rev had stayed at LuHi, there’s no question that someone like Steve Rivers — Steve was a sophomore when I was a senior — there’s no question he could have broken my record,” Milligan said.
Rivers, who played at the University of Maryland, is a 57-year-old schoolteacher in Brooklyn. When Rivers was told of Milligan’s comments about him being next in line to score 76 or more, he laughed.
“Of course if I was given the opportunity,” Rivers said, “I would have tried.”
Instead, it’s 2019, and no one since has come close. And reality says probably no one will.
“I don’t think anybody is going to get the opportunity to just shoot every time they get the ball,” Rivers said.
He laughed at the thought, then noted that such a practice would produce a social media backlash. “I don’t think that would be smiled upon right about now,’’ he said.
Milligan, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983, played three seasons at Florida before transferring to Tennessee State to finish his college career. That’s where he met his wife, Sherry. They’ve been married for 32 years and have two children, Mike Jr., 23, and Nina, 21.
Mike Jr., an athletic small forward, played high school basketball at Northport on the 2012-13 team that won a Long Island championship. In addition to hitting the baskets that put Northport ahead of Baldwin for good in that Class AA title game, Mike Jr. scored a career-high 33 in a win over Half Hollow Hills East.
Milligan said he joked to Junior after that career-high performance: “Good job, son. You’re about halfway there.”