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He's Expressing Himself Nicely : Arizona Transfer Mills Still Taunted, but Has Shown He Can Play

February 07, 1991|CHRIS BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUCSON — The heckling began as soon as Arizona forward Chris Mills ran onto the court for a game at Northern Arizona. Fans waved money and displayed open air-express envelopes to taunt him.

A central figure in a recruiting scandal that led to a three-year NCAA probation for Kentucky's basketball program, which was assessed in 1989, Mills can't escape his past despite transferring to Arizona.

His troubles began in April 1988 after employees at an Emery Air Freight warehouse in Los Angeles allegedly discovered $1,000 in cash in an opened envelope that that was addressed to Mills' father, Claud, from former Kentucky assistant coach Dwane Casey.

Perhaps the best City high school basketball player since Crenshaw's John Williams, Chris Mills was a two-time City player of the year at Fairfax, where he averaged 33 points, 13 rebounds and four assists as a senior. He signed a letter of intent to attend Kentucky, ending an intense recruiting battle involving UCLA, Nevada Las Vegas and Syracuse.

Although the NCAA never directly mentioned Mills in its report on Kentucky's infractions, he was ruled ineligible to play at Kentucky after the 1989 season as a result of the sanctions that led to the resignations of Coach Eddie Sutton and Athletic Director Cliff Hagan, and the dismissal of Casey, who reached an out-of-court settlement with Emery and was suspended for five years by the NCAA. The terms of the settlement have not been revealed because of a confidentiality clause.

Claud Mills, who maintains his innocence and has offered to take a lie detector test, said it was a setup, adding: "We don't hold a grudge against anyone, Kentucky, Emery or nobody."

Tired of answering questions about the incident, Chris Mills seemed as if he was reading from a cue card when asked about his troubled past. If Mills guarded opponents the way he guards his feelings, no one would ever score against him.

"That's all behind, and I'm happy I'm just here at Arizona," Mills said. "Well, it's just one of those things that happened at a younger age and it made me grow stronger as a person.

"I'd rather not discuss it anymore."

Claud Mills thinks his son has been hardened by controversy.

"When Chris was at Fairfax, he was an outgoing person and he trusted everybody," the elder Mills said. "He never thought anyone would do anything to him like what happened at Kentucky.

"But it made him grow up. I think it made a better young man out of him because now he understands he can't open up to everyone. A lot of the media really hurt him. They said a lot of things that weren't true about him."

After UCLA decided not to recruit him, Mills transferred to Arizona in June 1989, asking the NCAA to waive its one-year residency requirement for transfers and thereby allow him to play immediately.

Claud Mills maintained that UCLA Coach Jim Harrick wanted Chris Mills, but UCLA Athletic Director Peter Dalis vetoed the idea.

"(UCLA) recruited him heavily after he left Kentucky," Mills' father said. "I know Coach Harrick wanted him, but Peter Dalis had something to do with him. He thought it might not be a great thing coming from Kentucky and going to UCLA. We respect him, if that was his belief. We knew Chris was innocent from the get-go.

"But it doesn't matter if you're innocent or not, as long as you're accused. That hurt him. I think he would have gone to UCLA because most (of the Bruin players) are his friends because he played with those guys.

"But we heard they polled some of the players, and a lot of the guys didn't want him, not because he's not a good player or good person, but because of playing time."

Said Harrick: "I made the decision that I wasn't going to pursue Chris Mills. I didn't want to have any controversy associated with the program that I was trying to build."

After meeting with the Mills family's attorney, Dalis decided against pursuing Mills. "I didn't think it was in Chris' best interest and UCLA's best interest (for him to attend UCLA)," Dalis said.

UCLA forward Don MacLean said the Bruin players never voted on Mills and that he urged Harrick to sign Mills.

In a surprise decision, the NCAA ruled Mills ineligible last season because he had voluntarily transfered to Arizona, even though he was ineligible to play at Kentucky. The NCAA made its recommendation because Mills never appealed his ineligibility at Kentucky.

"I was sort of surprised (by the ruling)," Mills said. "It was disappointing because it was the first time I ever had to sit out. But it helped me a lot because it helped me to learn the system at Arizona, and I did a lot better in the classroom because I was concentrating on studying."

So Mills sat out last season. He could practice, but he couldn't play, and he sat on the bench during games, acting as a cheerleader.

Arizona center Brian Williams, who sat out the 1988-89 season after transferring from Maryland, sympathized with Mills.

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