Late on the night of Nov. 1, 1986, Tom McMillen looked for all the world like a loser. In just three days the voters of Maryland's Fourth District would send either McMillen, the Democrat, or Robert R. Neall, the Republican, to Congress, and the smart money was on Neall. Neall had the endorsements of both the Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, and now McMillen was reading a Sun poll that showed the Republican ahead by nine points. McMillen"s recognition factor was far higher than Neall's, but the impression that McMillen was, as his opponent suggested, a dilettantish carpetbagger had evidently stuck.
"Just a week earlier three polls had me eight points up—what had I done wrong?" McMillen wondered. "More to the point, what can I do now? Run around the neighborhood with my clothes off? Go on TV? Too late for that."
So McMillen did what he always did when his team was down and time was running out. He dug in and started throwing elbows.
"The election was really an analogy for my sports background," says McMillen now. "How many basketball games did I think we had won and saw taken away from us at the last moment? That's what the election seemed to be coming down to.
"That's why on election day I was at the polls at seven in the morning shaking hands. And on election night I stood at a poll in primarily Republican Prince George's County and shook hands until it closed. See, I looked at it like an NBA two-fer, like beating a team in your own division. Not only is that a win for you, but it's a loss for them. Every time I changed a Republican's mind, I was getting a two-fer."
When many observers look at McMillen, they see a guy who started life 50 meters up the track in a 100-meter dash. He has both looks and brains wrapped in a 6'11" package. But that's too simple.
"What people don't realize about me," he says, "is that I've had to fight and scrap for everything I've ever gotten."
As a youth he overcame a serious bone problem in his legs through a strenuous exercise program. At the University of Maryland he became a dominant center because of a feathery jump shot that he perfected with hours of practice. He earned a Rhodes scholarship by pounding the books and campaigning ceaselessly for the honor. He stayed around the NBA for 11 seasons with four teams, the last being the Washington Bullets in 1985-86, because he learned to play defense, pass, rebound and flail away under the basket, like an Ichabod Crane in sneakers. If McMillen is a golden boy, then he's a golden boy with permanent sweat stains on his jersey.
The vote was close all evening. Neall was projected as an early winner on TV, and some of McMillen's West Coast friends called with condolences. An early edition of the Sun also projected Neall as the victor. The Chicago Bulls even called to see if McMillen was available to play now that he wouldn't be assuming elective office.
Finally, in an election that wasn't state-certified until Dec. 2, McMillen was declared the winner by 428 votes. More than 130,000 people went to the polls, so a 428-vote margin is roughly comparable to a one-point victory in sextuple overtime. Nevertheless. 34-year-old Charles Thomas McMillen, all 83 inches of him, was going to Congress.