Sixers greats honor longtime team employee

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Dedicating the Sixers locker room to Jeff Millman longtime Sixers and Warriors equipment man after 50 years of service honored by former players coaches and team personnel. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)

IMAGINE YOU are on a park bench and this guy sits next to you and begins to talk. He tells you he was there that night in Hershey when Wilt scored 100, tells you he even had the 100-point ball in his possession before he wrapped it in a bunch of towels and stuffed it in The Dipper's gym bag.

You nod and smile a patronizing smile. And then he starts to tell you about that time on the White House lawn, when he was again in charge of the ball, this one signed by every member of the 1983 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers, how he was just doing his job when President Reagan came out, took the ball from him, clowned around and shook his hand.

You nod again and smile. Yeah, right, you think. Wilt's 100-point game was like, what, 100 years ago? And Reagan, didn't he follow Lincoln, or Kennedy, or one of those historic guys?

And then he starts prattling on about getting fish sandwiches after Friday practices with Doug Collins, when he was a rookie barely past his teens, playing in a big city far, far away from home. He talks about cracking wise with Charles Barkley, sharing beers with Shaq and Gretzky, and maybe by then you have inched a little bit toward the bench's edge, planning a quick getaway if he brings up Red Auerbach or some other mythic character like that.

But here's the thing: It's all true. Jeff Millman has led that Forrest Gump-like existence, ever since he used a connection at age 10 to land a ballboy job with the Philadelphia Warriors.

"I've known him since we were kids," John Nash, the former Sixers general manager, said last night. "And I was so jealous of him back then because he had that job."

For 56 years, Millman, 67, remained an employee of whatever professional basketball franchise existed in this town, moving from ballboy to equipment manager, even dabbling in promotions for a spell. He even worked through the early stages of his Stage 4 prostate cancer, worked as it spread first to his lungs and then to his liver, stepping down only this summer when the disease forced him into a wheelchair.

Like many in his situation, he now measures his days simply as good, and bad.

Yesterday was a good one.

In a ceremony beyond bittersweet, the equipment room that was, by all measures, his anyway was named for Jeff Millman before the Sixers' season opener against the Miami Heat. Neat as that was, the ceremony was dwarfed figuratively and literally by those in attendance. Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Bobby Jones, Doug Collins, Darryl Dawkins and Clint Richardson. Allen Iverson. Pat Croce. Sonny Hill. Fran Dunphy and Jay Wright. And the man credited with pulling it all together, Billy Cunningham.

"Bridging the gap," Erving proclaimed as he and Iverson bent down on either side of Millman for one of an endless slew of photos taken before the game.

"It's overwhelming," Millman said, his voice slight and hoarse from his daily struggle. "My mind's spinning. I appreciate it so much. I'm just trying to keep from not crying."

The players were there to help. With the same kind of fraternal humor that, for Millman, made working for a professional team so addictive.

"I don't need any stuff anymore," Iverson, who officially retired earlier in the day, teased Millman.

"I got here in '84," Barkley said. "He was already here for almost 30 years. How many people keep a job that long? I remember telling Rudy Tomjanovich after he's been with the Rockets for, like, 40 years that it's really hard not to piss someone off over 40 years. Really hard. I mean, how many people haven't gotten fired?"

Later, in a message aired on the video screen above the court during a first-quarter timeout, Cunningham emphasized the points, totaling the number of owners, coaches, general managers and superstars who spanned Millman's career. Millman not only worked for Harold Katz, it was the tight-fisted owner who insisted Millman be included in the White House trip.

"I don't know if you could have gotten all these people from different eras and places into this room unless it was for someone like Jeff," Collins said during a pre-dedication party. "Someone would always have a reason not to be here. This was a reason to be here. And that speaks volumes."

So did the volume of people itself - players, management, coaches college and pro. Millman held it together pretty well, considering, at least until that timeout came and Cunningham appeared on the big screen and the eras of greatness and great memories surrounded him afterward. "I tried," he said.

"We all know Jeff primarily as young men coming out of college," Collins said. "And him being such a bright light for us even then. I came to a team that was 9-73. He was here for that and he was here for Wilt and he was here with Billy and he was here for the championships.

"He's transcended everything."

 


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