Sports » Feature | Oct. 7
Earlier this month, the New York Knicks announced that Steve Mills ’81 will replace Glen Grunwald as the team’s president and general manager. During Grunwald’s two-year tenure, the Knicks attained their two highest winning percentages since 2001 and ended a postseason victory drought of 13 seasons. Mills will pick up where he left off, hoping to send the team past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
At Princeton, Mills majored in sociology and won two Ivy League Championships under the legendary Pete Carril before logging one season of professional basketball in Ecuador. From there, he spent 16 years working his way up the NBA’s executive ranks and was later named Madison Square Garden’s president and COO in 2003. Mills left the position in 2009 to join Magic Johnson Enterprises, where he worked until being called back to the Knicks.
An active supporter of Princeton’s athletic community, Mills credits the professional success he has enjoyed to the preparation with which his alma mater provided him on and off the court.
“When you’re fortunate enough to be at a place where you can attack athletics with a tremendous amount of vigor, but at the same time be in a very stimulating academic environment — that’s a unique opportunity,” he said.
One particularly strong source of knowledge for Mills was his head coach, 13-time Ivy League Champion Pete Carril. Mills believes that the same lessons Carril used to make his players successful teammates have translated to their professional lives years later.
“[Coach Carril] taught us how to be disciplined,” he said. “He told us how to be honest and about looking at our deficiencies and trying to improve them.”
Outside Jadwin Gym, Mills sought counsel from Princeton faculty members — most notably professor Marvin Bressler of the sociology department. Bressler took a particular interest in mentoring the basketball team and the rest of Princeton’s athletes, striving to facilitate their academic and social transitions to college life.
When Mills decided he wanted to return the favor by teaching a class of his own at Princeton, it was Bressler he called to discuss his options. Hoping to relay the wisdom he had gained from his career to younger students and athletes as Bressler had once done for him, he taught a freshman seminar titled, “Dilemmas in Intercollegiate and Professional Athletics.”
But educating Princeton freshmen – including current senior forward Will Barrett and senior guard Jimmy Sherburn of the men’s basketball team – is only one of the ways Mills has worked to remain involved with Princeton athletics. A current member of the Princeton Varsity Club’s board, Mills served on the search committee that hired head basketball coach Mitch Henderson in 2011. He frequently attends men’s and women’s basketball practices and plans on-campus visits to meet recruits.
Grateful for the positive influences of Carril and Bressel, Mills desires to help young athletes succeed beyond the scope of their sport. This same perspective will guide his approach to leading professional players as the GM of the Knicks, where he hopes his impact will transcend the game of basketball.
“[The Knicks] understand that part of what I want to do is make sure that they’re successful people in addition to being great basketball players,” he said. “Virtually all the guys on the team have come in to sit down with me and talk about … what we need to do to be successful as a team and try to win a championship. But it’s also important for me to have conversations about what kind of support they need to be successful when they’re out in the real world, away from the Knicks.”
Mills describes himself as a “players’ guy” and feels he can relate to the backgrounds of his athletes. One particular place he wants to make a difference is with 28-year-old shooting guard J.R. Smith, who has received five separate NBA suspensions since 2006. Mills says even before he accepted the new job, Smith had begun seeking advice with Mills for improving his off-the-court issues.
When questioned about Smith’s conspicuous absence from his otherwise active Twitter page, Mills dismissed the superstar’s notorious social media troubles as the reason.
“Oh no, I just haven’t gotten around to following J.R.,” he said with a laugh. “J.R. and I have a great relationship, and I’ll have to go and make sure I follow him as soon as we hang up.”
Just as he has to Princeton athletics and the principles they have instilled in him, Mills remained true to his promise — he was following @TheRealJRSmith within an hour of his interview with the ‘Prince.’