By Stephen Burnett
When UK men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino left that position in 1997 and Tubby Smith replaced him, many players were uncertain of the team’s future — among them Cameron Mills. But in Mills’s words, the rest of the team and he found they needed to get used to their new coach, and despite the differences in Smith’s and Pitino’s coaching styles, “sell out” to Smith.
After that, Mills said, the Wildcats leaped into their 1998 season. That acceptance led to many comebacks, until the players had stunned even themselves by winning the 1998 NCAA championship.
That same dedication led to Mills’s choosing a non-scholarship walk-on position with the Wildcats, over a scholarship at a Georgia school. It also led him to move beyond basketball to speaking publicly about his Christian faith, years before similar attentions to Denver Broncos football quarterback Tim Tebow, or New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin.
Faith, family and basketball
“[There are] probably about three different reasons I wanted to play at UK,” Mills said. “My dad played there, back in the sixties. That was probably the biggest influence of all of them.”
From 1966 to 1971, Terry Mills, No. 21, played under Coach Adolph Rupp, along with team members like Dan Mizell, Larry Steele and Mike Casey. But Mills said that only in third grade did he realize his father had been a Wildcat — and that in Kentucky, especially, that was a big deal. For a class project, Mills had to assemble a picture collage for a role model, and many other children were focusing on sports and history figures. His mother told him his father was himself a sports figure, and began bringing out old newspaper clippings and magazine pictures.
“I guess I kind of knew it, but it never really mattered much to me,” Mills said with a laugh. “I realized that playing ball at UK is a pretty big deal. … I started cheering for him myself.”
At the same time, Mills’ parents were devout Christians who pointed him toward an even greater role model. As member of First United Methodist Church in Somerset, Mills was influenced by a youth pastor. By the age of 12, Mills was sure he should also be a minister.
After he graduated high school, his goal was to play basketball at UK. At that time, the program was taking off under the guide of Pitino. Many believed a national championship was on the way, and Mills wanted to be a part of that. UK, though, didn’t offer him a scholarship, so he had to decide between the program he loved, or another school.
Thanks in part to his father’s connection with a team equipment manager, Mills was able to join the Wildcats as a walk-on player.
“When I went to Georgia for a couple of visits, they had some walk-ons on the team there,” he said. “They were kind of treated like second-class citizens. I kind of expected that. I thought: well, this is the way I’m going to be treated. … And I was never treated like anything other than a scholarship player.” Mills was still on the team, even if he also kept to the bench. He stayed at Wildcat Lodge, ate with the other players and otherwise got along much like a scholarship player.
During the 1996 season, Pitino put him on the JV and varsity squads. But Mills didn’t play in games leading up to that year’s national championship.
Nevertheless, being a part of the 1996 NCAA championship team was thrilling. “Whether I was a walk-on or not, it was still a very special time to be there,” Mills said. “It was just very real.”
By the following year, Pitino had begun working him into the lineup of active players. That led to Mills’ first significant contribution to the team’s wi on Super Bowl Sunday in Arkansas in 1997.
“I wound up having twelve points off the bench,” Mills said — leading to the team’s first win under Pitino in Arkansas. Mills was especially successful with his attempts at three-point shots, and at one time hit 63 percent of those. “My dad is the one who led to that skill,” Mills added. “He taught me how to shoot. … Add that to Coach Pitino’s coaching, who kind of refined my shot a little bit and added to that.”
Off the bench
Then came the transition from Pitino to Smith, and the new coach’s changes to the team.
At first, Mills explained, it made sense for players to default to their three years of practice under Pitino, while being “fifty percent sold out” to Smith. After all, Pitino’s methods had led to the team winning the 1996 championship, and very nearly the 1997 championship as well. Smith ran many of the same drills, practices and plays as Pitino, but he didn’t want to press for all 40 minutes of a game — he preferred selective pressing, Mills said.
For a while, Smith’s style had seemed to hurt the team. UK lost its first game of the season against Arizona in the Maui Classic, then home games against Florida and Ole Miss. Some questioned if the season would be a rebuilding year for UK, but the players instead opted to be devoted completely to Smith and to do things his way.
Their games began to improve. Mills was also being asked to play even more often. He became certain UK would regain its high ranking, and make it far into the tournament. At that point, though, no one could have forecast UK was destined for another national championship.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to win those six games of the NCAA tournament,” he said. “To be that [winner], you essentially have to play pretty perfect basketball for six games, and have the ball bounce your way some. You’re going to run into a game where you just don’t have it.” Great talent matters, but seeming luck must also favor the title winner, he said.
Mills’s own fortune came near the end of UK’s game against Duke in Florida. Duke’s score was 79, with the Cats at 77. With 2:20 on the clock, Wayne Turner pushed in to attempt a two-point shot. It failed, and a Duke player swatted the ball backward. Outside the circle, Mills snatched it and leaped for a three-point shot.
When the ball swished through for a UK lead, the crowd went wild. That was the end of the Cats’ nearly 20-point comeback, sending them to the Final Four.
“I just remember the ball bouncing to me, and I did what I guess any of my teammates would have gone,” Mills said. “I didn’t even realize the gravity of the moment, I don’t think, until after the game, even. … I wish I could remember more details! My recollection of that shot has come more from watching video of the shot over the years than anything else.”
That same disbelief recurred eight days later in San Antonio, in the final tournament game against Utah — which was also Mills’ last game as a University of Kentucky Wildcat.
“I was standing next to Scott Padgett,” Mills said. “Everything [was] kind of surreal. … Eventually everyone has this calm where they just stop and reflect on what’s just happened. … I looked to Scott and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Did we just win the national championship?’”
Cameron Mills Ministries
Mills had done what few college basketball players had done: gone to three NCAA Final Fours, and helped win a tournament. But after all the excitement, he knew what he wanted to do.
Already Mills had been involved with the on-campus Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and spoken at youth rallies, Sunday school classes and church services during summers. He began to realize he could do this work full-time. His basketball career only improved his chances.
In 1998, he set up a new nonprofit organization: Cameron Mills Ministries. His first speech with that group was in June that year at an Owensboro church. His topics were his own testimony — the Christian’s term for personal life story, leading from sin to salvation — Jesus Christ, obedience, Christian worship and living a life set apart in faith.
The worship message, in particular, came during a very trying time for Mills: his divorce in 2003. That made him take a break from ministry and rethink his life. “The worship message more specifically talks about worshiping God when life stinks,” he said.
At a time like that, giving God absolute devotion — selling out to his lead completely — is vital, he said. “Because of Christ, you know, I’m going to Heaven when I die. Even when life stinks, there’s joy and satisfaction.”
Except for that year he took off from ministry to spend in Texas in a Christian program, Mills has stayed in Lexington. Work with a home health-care company helps pay the bills and allows him to do church events on the side, meaning he has no set speaker’s fees. Most of his speaking is in Kentucky, but he’s also spoken at FCA events. Mills speaks at events for Upward Basketball, a Christian children’s sports league, and this summer he plants to return to a basketball camp in Maryland, where he’s spoken before. It’s a very small operation, Mills said, mainly with him and a personal assistant. Yet he loves the work, helping to change lives.
“I believe there’s a life-changing event when someone, you know, accepts Christ and gets saved,” he said. “Any time that happens — and I am even remotely involved, whether I’ve been praying for somebody or I actually spoke in a service where someone decided to accept Christ — that alone is what keeps me going. … God used you to help change somebody’s life.”
That outlook likely draws comparisons between Mills and Tebow, who is famous to some and infamous to others for his recognition of God during games or interviews. Some may believe that God doesn’t care about sports games, but in Mills’s view, God is not so small to oversee only one life realm at a time.
“This was our job,” Mills said. “And you’re a person, and if your faith permeates you, you’re going to bring it into everything you do.”
Photo from Cameron Mills Ministries Facebook page