DENVER — The Montbello Rec Center was alive with the kind of spirit only hometown pride can produce. There had to be 100 kids, giggling and clapping and dancing, all with ants in their pants. A drum line banged out a thumping beat, providing the soundtrack.
This stage was set for the star of the day. Take it away, Bettye Millsap.
“When I came here,” she told me Thursday, “I had my boys and $1,000 to my name.”
When does $90 million mean just a little bit more? When you’ve traveled a road like Bettye Millsap did.
It was almost 30 years ago that Bettye moved her clan from Louisiana to Colorado. She brought three boys, including 2-year-old Paul, who on Thursday signed the most lucrative annual contract in Colorado sports history and was introduced to the community where he spent 12 years as a kid, first as a football quarterback and later as a basketball big man. In Louisiana, Bettye left a situation I can’t wrap my head around, so I’ll let her tell it. She is, after all, the reason any of this ever happened in the first place.
“I was in a very abusive situation with my ex. It was a difficult time in my life, in our life,” Bettye Millsap told me as her son signed autographs in a corner of a gussied-up gymnasium. “I knew the only way to give my children a better life was to move to a new city to get a fresh start.”
That city was Denver. That son is now a rich man, Paul Millsap. That mom is one proud woman.
“When I came to Denver in 1988 I cried all the way in shame, with my head down,” she said, doing her best to hold back another round of waterworks. “When I came back this time I cried tears of joy.”
The future of the Nuggets seemed secondary on Thursday. We’ve got two or three months to figure out how Millsap, an 11-year NBA veteran with four All-Star appearances to his name, fits alongside intriguing young talents like Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez at Pepsi Center.
(Spoiler alert: Millsap’s savvy two-way game is the best addition since Chauncey Billups returned to Denver and led the Nuggets to the conference finals in 2009. Sense a homecoming theme?)
But I wish you could have seen how a herd of 9- and 10-year-olds attached to a millionaire they can legitimately call one of their own. Wherever Big Paul went, they followed like shadows. They chanted his name and his team (“Den-ver! Nug-gets!”) as if Moses had opened the gymnasium doors with a wooden staff to deliver them to the promised land.
“The drive here brought back so many memories, especially of my mother,” said Paul Millsap, whose three-year contract with the Nuggets calls for over $28 million in the first year alone.
The woman in the front row took my breath away. Her story also supports my theory it’s foolish to criticize LaVar Ball for wanting the most for his boys. At least Lonzo’s dad is present. Thanks to a fierce determination and a God-fearing heart, Bettye Millsap raised four boys — the youngest of whom, Abraham, was born in Denver. The others — Paul, John and Elijah — made their first memories in the Montbello neighborhood, all while she sometimes worked three jobs to make ends meet. How’d she do it?
“God,” she said. “We made a commitment that every decision we made was based in God. After the divorce the main thing became my boys. Get them to be productive. Get them to be better people.”
The Nuggets aren’t instant title contenders because the 32-year-old Millsap found his way back to God’s country. Let’s be real about the current landscape in the Western Conference; it’s not like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard forgot how to dribble, pass and shoot since the NBA Finals. But in convincing Millsap that his career would be best served in Colorado, the Nuggets’ front office kicked down the door that’s slammed shut on the franchise too often. A Denver team not named the Broncos scored an All-Star-caliber free agent at a position of need, and Millsap, a 6-foot-8 forward, returns to the Front Range with the reputation as an outstanding teammate and community-minded individual to boot.
“It’s not just that we got the ‘yes,’” president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said. “It’s that we got the right ‘yes.’”
I joked with Connelly that he unlocked the secret code to luring free agents to the Nuggets: Just go find guys who spent their childhood in Colorado.
“You know of any more?” he said.
And why was Paul Millsap drawn back to Colorado?
“I felt like there was unfinished business here,” he said.
No one deserves it more than Mom.
“Without her there’s no telling where I would be.”
Paul Klee January 28, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette