DENVER – Paul Millsap was welcomed back to his old neighborhood with a reception that included a drum line and cheering children.
It was a contrast to how the newest Denver Nuggets player left town years ago as a kid – his mom struggling to make ends meet.
That wasn’t lost on the four-time All-Star forward as he was introduced at a recreation center Thursday after signing a three-year deal worth $90 million. He spent nearly a dozen years in a suburb of Denver before returning to Louisiana for high school and college.
“My history had a lot to play into (signing with Denver), actually,” said Millsap , who was touched by the band that greeted him, along with the throng of children. “It felt like it was unfinished business here, being here years ago and leaving under the circumstances we left. To help this community out, this organization out, that played a big factor.”
Searching for a fresh start, Millsap’s mother moved the family to Denver when he was just a toddler. But it was a struggle. His mom, Bettye, said she used to make $12 last for two days’ worth of meals for her four sons.
In 1999, the Millsap family returned to Louisiana, where she had relatives to lend a hand.
“When I came to Denver in 1988, I was crying all the way in shame and had my head down,” Bettye Millsap said. “When I came back this time, I cried tears of joy and I could hold my head up.”
The 32-year-old Millsap gives the youthful Nuggets a proven veteran to pair with budding star Nikola Jokic. Millsap averaged a career-high 18.1 points last season with 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
“I’m looking for (Jokic) to make my job a little easier,” Millsap cracked. “And vice versa. I want to make his job easier. I want to help the younger guys around me become better players.”
For landing the highly coveted free agent, give an assist to Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. Marshall’s sales pitch helped sway Millsap’s decision.
“Brandon was able to look Paul in the eyes and talk about what this city means to him, not just as a player but as a guy who lives here full time, and talk about what it’s like to win in Denver,” Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said. “I certainly had goosebumps.”
It definitely got Millsap’s attention.
“The way (Marshall) explained the fans, the way he explained the city, it made me think, ‘I want to be part of it,’” Millsap said. “We’re looking, not to take the Denver Broncos fans – they’re the Broncos, let’s be honest – but for them to be with us, too. To take a ride with us, just like we were with them.”
Denver (40-42) improved by seven games this year but still missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Millsap’s presence helps the Nuggets remain in the playoff conversation even in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
“I’m excited about that challenge. We don’t run from that,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s going to help us tremendously.”
That’s partly because Millsap brings a defensive-minded mentality to the court. That and an unselfish style of play, which complements such young players as Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.
“We feel in Nikola and Paul, we have the most talented, most unselfish, best playmaking front-court in the NBA,” Malone said.
As a kid in Denver, Millsap developed into quite a quarterback and thought his future might lie on the field, not the court.
He blossomed into a basketball player when he returned to Louisiana, where he became a standout at Louisiana Tech. Millsap was a second-round draft pick by Utah in 2006. He spent his first seven seasons with the Jazz, before signing with the Hawks in 2013.
After years of striking out on landing big-name free agents, the Nuggets finally got one – with roots to the community, too. It means a lot to him to return to his old neighborhood, to his former city.
“You don’t want to leave something on a bad note and never return to it,” Millsap said. “To return in the situation we’re in now as opposed to where we were, it’s unbelievable. Hopefully, I can get out and help this community. Because without them, where would I be?”
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