In a city of a million plus landlocked basketball fans, where long-time Tucson residents can readily recite the career and statistics of luminaries like Elliott, Kerr, Stoudamire (Damon and Salim), Reeves, Bibby, Simon, Terry, and even names like Walton and Gardner, there is one name who is rarely, if ever, regaled.
The lack of nostalgia offers little clue. Chris Mills was arguably the best prep player in the country and the best player for every college team he starred for, spanning two of the most successful basketball programs of the past 30 years.
The college awards and accolades along with a long and successful pro career round out the Mills resume.
Maybe it’s the ensuing controversies or the lack of postseason team success, but few can quite nail down why Chris Mills isn’t routinely mentioned as one of the handful of best basketball players in school history.
Arizona entered the 1992-93 season armed with legitimate hopes of winning the school’s first national championship and with Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, Chris Mills and Reggie Geary coming of the best bench, arguably, to this day, the best collection of perimeter talent in school history.
This would be the season that the best player the past three seasons would break through to, at least, the Final Four.
Yet, this team is discussed for one reason. Perhaps, intentionally or, in partial jest as the wounds from the first round exit to Santa Clara are still too fresh.
When long time Los Angeles-area high school coaches are asked to identify the best players to come through the city, more often than not, Chris Mills will be one of the first names mentioned.
All the accolades are there: multiple LA player of the year awards, a California Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All American selection, to name a few.
Many observers will also tell you in the long and storied history of Fairfax High School basketball that Mills, along with fellow recruit Sean Higgins, spearheaded the two best teams in school history.
“Chris was an interesting guy,” said longtime Fairfax Head Coach Harvey Kitani. “He was driven in basketball. He could score from all levels with ease and he got better all the time because of the training he embraced and his dad pushed him through.
“He also wasn’t really the guy who was into telling you how good he was. He was a unique guy, in that regard. He just played ball here, took care of school and then left. ”
Fairfax does claim two California state championships. Yet neither was won during the Mills era. To this day, it’s difficult to grasp how this super team did not win a state title.
In the big picture these shortcomings didn’t mean much, as Mills was about to take his front page act to a much larger arena.
Arriving at Kentucky amid much fanfare, Mills averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds per game as a freshman and looked every bit the part of the next Kentucky great.
However, due to the exchange of $10,000 from the Kentucky coaching staff to Chris Mills’ father, the younger Mills was eventually ruled ineligible and made to transfer.
In this what-if sports world era we live in, there isn’t much second guessing from Kentucky fans about Chris Mills. He was there. Starred. Got in trouble. Then disappeared.
The prior high school recruiting relationship between the Mills family and Lute Olson made the transfer to Arizona an easy decision.
The Sean Elliott era had just ended and many were quick to proclaim Mills the successor to Tucson’s Finest.
Mills was always one of the cool kids. Seemingly oblivious to some of the controversy following him, it didn’t take long before he was king of the campus, driving a fancy car, and, by in-large being the guy that others wanted to be around.
Just like at Kentucky, Mills excelled from day one as his near double-double averages suggest.
He also arrived at Arizona during a transition period.
Arizona was rightfully known as Point Guard U for much of the Olson era, but the late 1980’s and early 90’s was the “Tucson Skyline” era, where Arizona emphasized post play.
Big men Sean Rooks and Brian Williams were very good players, but these teams lacked the required foot speed to keep up with some of the better perimeters teams in the country.
Despite the athleticism drawback, it was a still a surprise when Mills’ sophomore and junior seasons ended in the Sweet 16 and the first round.
After the 1991-92 season Olson initiated the transition to a more up-tempo attack and the wing skills Mills had already demonstrated appeared the perfect fit for a team with a dynamic sophomore point guard in Damon Stoudamire and lethal junior scoring guard in Khalid Reeves.
Mills saved his best for his senior season. The 1992-93 regular season played out as planned with Mills leading the Wildcats to a 23-4 regular season record, including a 17-1 showing in conference.
Where a Cal freshman point guard named Jason Kidd seized most of the headlines, few were surprised when Mills was named the conference player of the year.
There was little secret as to how he was successful. Equipped with a strong body, an ability to finish around the hoop, a strong face up game and an always improving mid to long range jumper, Mills was virtually un-guardable at the college level.
Similar to his time at Fairfax, Mills was able to excel at all three offensive levels on the court.
He didn't own some of the flash that others did, but his game had no weaknesses. While Mills certainly rubbed some people the wrong way off the court, he was far from a selfish player.
Mills’s senior season was also marked by supreme efficiency. The 21 points and 7 rebounds per game averages were there, but, just as notable, the lack of subpar games.
“That was the other thing about Chris even back in high school; he was very consistent,” Kitani said. “He wasn’t necessarily going to dunk from the free throw line, but there was no doubt the impact he was going to have on the game. And, for a coach, that’s very reassuring.”
Unfortunately, fans don’t remember much of the senior season dominance; they remember the Santa Clara game.
In the unfortunate case that one can recall the details of this game, they remember a game marked by two streaks. (Arizona went on a 25-0 run and then didn’t score a field goal for 15 minutes.) They remember the Mills 19 foul-trouble plagued points, and the ascension of Santa Clara guard Steve Nash into the the basketball world spotlight.
More so than anything, this game is remembered as being, perhaps the most crushing loss in school history.
Mills had little time to mourn as his services were in high demand from NBA teams.
During the lead-up, and into his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was alleged and found out to be likely true that one of Mills’ grades was changed and forged. However, Mills was uncooperative and nothing major resulted from the academic impropriety.
He would register double digit scoring averages in 6 of his 10 NBA seasons.
Mills’ teams didn’t necessarily post memorable records or win big playoff series, but for a decade he was one of the University of Arizona’s best NBA representatives.
Where time and professional success traditionally exaggerate past glories while glossing over past indiscretions and misdeeds, this never happened with Mills. Quite the opposite, to the point where the Mills’ UA era seemingly doesn’t exist.
For a player who is easily one of the 10 best players in school history, Mills’ name is rarely mentioned.
Whether it was the eligibility issues, the crushing losses, the lack of on court sizzle or something else, your guess is as good as any as to why the Mills legacy hasn’t carved out a larger swath of territory in the core of Arizona basketball fandom.