Chris Mills Is Center Worthy of Attention : Is Fairfax Star the Best City Player Ever? Some Opposing Coaches Seem to Think So

Times Staff Writer

Fairfax High School center Chris Mills, a player who has the basketball world at his fingertips, is spending some of his free time worrying about precisely that--his fingertips.

"My dad's been telling me I have to shoot better from the perimeter," Mills said with a laugh. "He says I need to work on how the ball rolls off my fingers."

Mills' father attends each Fairfax game and usually can be seen standing on the baseline, video camera in hand, taping his 6-foot 7-inch All-American son. His own finger on the zoom lens, Claude Mills is the official family film critic. The final verdict on Chris' performance, a thumbs up or thumbs down, comes after Dad views the tape.

"He watches every game," Chris Mills said. "I don't know how he can stand it. I mean, he watches a Fairfax game on tape every night.

"I usually just watch the replay the night after a game--I rewind for all the good plays. Then he shows me all the bad plays."

The latter hardly constitutes a feature-length film. Mills, the 1987 City 4-A player of the year last season as a junior, has left his fingerprints on a whole highlight film full of victories in the past 2 1/2 seasons. A three-year starter, last season he led Fairfax to the 4-A title and a 26-1 record, including 12-0 in the Valley League.

Mistakes? That's more like a short subject. Mills is pure matinee material, Tom Cruise in shorts, and most films are of the "All the Right Moves" variety. Mills, rated one of the top high school players in the nation, has signed to attend Kentucky next year.

"We've talked a lot about Chris Mills," said Jeff Davis, an assistant at El Camino Real in Woodland Hills. "(Coach Mike) McNulty and I think he is one of the three best players ever to come out of Los Angeles--he's gotta be right there with John Williams and Marques Johnson."

As evidence, Woodland Hills Taft Coach Jim Woodard, who has been watching City games since the mid-50s, rated Mills' 37-point, 12-rebound performance in Fairfax's 87-76 win over his team, as Triple-X, as in exceptional, explosive, expected.

"I've been watching City basketball for 33 years," Woodard said succinctly. "Mills is the best I've ever seen. He can do it all."

This season, more than ever, Mills has done it all--and he's had to. Three players from last season's team went on to four-year colleges: All-City forward J.D. Green is at Southern Methodist, All-City forward Sean Higgins is at Michigan and point guard Eric McDaniels is at Chaminade of Hawaii.

"I think I've probably gotten a little spoiled," Fairfax Coach Harvey Kitani said. "Last year, it was hard to appreciate his talent because he worked so well with the others, playing a role. But the more I think about it, the more I realize there's no way we'd have had the success we did without Chris out there."

Fairfax, No. 3 in The Times' City rankings, is right back out there among the best this year. Despite having only three returning players with varsity experience, the Lions are 16-4 overall and tied for first in league play at 10-1.

"It would be hard for me to believe that there is any player in this country that's better than Chris Mills," Reseda Cleveland Coach Bob Braswell said. "He will beat you inside, or he'll post you up. He can hit three-point shots, or he'll penetrate and score inside. He'll beat you on the boards. He never gets in foul trouble, but he gets five blocked shots a game.

"Chris Mills is the kind of player that can win a championship all by himself."

On Dec. 15, Mills beat Cleveland with 42 points and 17 rebounds in the league opener at Fairfax. He also played well at the other end of the court, limiting Cleveland's Richard Branham--who was averaging 18.6 points--to eight points as Fairfax won, 78-69.

Mills only rough spot in league play came in last month's 54-50 loss at Cleveland, Fairfax's first league loss in two seasons. Mills was a marked man, targeted by a customized 1-3 zone defense and Cleveland forward Damon Charlot, who trailed him everywhere. Mills, who was also feeling the effects of the flu, finished with a season-low 7 points and 4 rebounds. He made only 3 of 11 shots from the field.

Other teams have tried a similar defense with little success. Despite being double teamed, Mills made 12 of 20 shots, 6 of 8 free throws and was 3 of 4 from three-point range in last month's win over Taft. Throw in three blocked shots and a slam dunk for his team's final points, and you get a good idea why Mills is averaging 31 points and 14.5 rebounds a game.

Yet it is more than natural ability that makes Mills one of the best players in the nation. His work ethic, coaches say, is what sets him apart. Opposing coaches heap praise on Mills, and almost to a man reverentially refer to him by his full name.

"Sure, he's a great player, but the best thing about Chris Mills is that he's a good kid," Davis said. "He just has a great attitude. Other kids with that kind of ability, well, strange things can happen."

Mills has drawn some rather strange, and largely unsuccessful, defensive coverages. Teams have double teamed, fronted and hacked. Mills just makes his moves elsewhere.

"It's hard to find a kid that size that can do it all," Granada Hills Kennedy Coach Yutaka Shimizu said. "Heck, it's hard to find a kid any size that does it all. If Chris Mills could only do one thing, we could probably defense him. But what do you do? You double him inside, and he kills you from outside."

Fairfax has won without Mills' services. Mills was sidelined with a sprained left ankle for the last two games, lopsided wins over Reseda and L.A. Hamilton. He returned to action Thursday in Fairfax's 32-31 win over Kennedy and scored 9 points, all in the first half.

Earlier, the Lions defeated Reseda, 70-50, while Mills was serving a one-game suspension for his involvement in a fight during a win over Hamilton, a neighborhood and league rival.

"He was being pushed around pretty good by a guy underneath," Kitani said. "And they got into a shoving thing. Another kid slapped Chris, so he let him have it. It's the only time I've ever seen him lose his composure. Ever."

Mills says he is often the target of strong-arm tactics, but that a stronger resolve usually keeps him out of trouble. Sometimes, a guy has to do what he has to do.

"I've been hit by my share of cheap shots," Mills said. "There are teams that try to get real physical, or take it right at me to get me out of the game. I ignore it, and just play my game."

His game may soon become similar to that of his father. Claude Mills, all 5-10 of him, was the Arkansas high school player of the year in 1958. His nickname at the time was Dusty.

"All my relatives say that's because you could see a cloud of dust when the ball went through the net," Chris Mills said. "He was a small guard."

Thirty years later, Chris Mills may follow in his father's tracks. Mills long ago started working on his outside shot and ballhandling skills in preparation for next season, when Kentucky Coach Eddie Sutton told Mills he probably will play off-guard or small forward.

"He's really worked hard on the outside shot," Kitani said. "He's one of our two best three-point shooters. Every year he's extended his range another two or three feet."

If Mills continues at his current pace, he could join Stephen Thompson, Marques Johnson, John Williams and Greg Lee as the only players to be twice named the 4-A player of the year. Right now, however, Mills said his only immediate goal is another City title.

"As long as I lead this team to the final, and hopefully beyond, then the rest--the points, rebounds, blocked shots, the assists--don't really matter."

If he does slip in those categories, it's a safe bet his father will be there to offer a few pointers.

"Watching the films is good for Chris," Kitani said, "because he realizes he can never be satisfied. No matter how good you are, if you're satisfied, you'll never get any better. Chris knows that."

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