By John Canzano
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
For years, Donna Millak made $4 an hour at her job, sewing. She battled cancer, lost her oldest son in a terrible car accident, and the company she worked for was sold and moved numerous times, but her sewing machine was always there, especially when she needed it.
“She does what she loves,” her husband, George, said.
Donna, 71, has rich red hair and kind eyes. Since 1972, she’s woke up every weekday morning, and reported for work where she serves as the seamstress who stitches the names and numbers on the Trail Blazers jerseys.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to know anything about me,” she said.
After hearing her story, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t.
You know Millak’s work well. I do, too, even as I just recently met her. And so maybe you’ll watch the Blazers play the Rockets in this Western Conference first-round playoff series and look a little closer.
The jersey business has changed over the years, of course. Millak used to cut out every element by hand. There were stencils for the lettering. She’d have to sew the “PORTLAND” or “BLAZERS” on the front, piecing two layers of lettering together.
“It was labor intensive,” she said, “I handled that uniform a lot of times.”
Players in the 1970s and 1980s would be fitted for the uniforms in person. Millak would get a list of the players’ names and sizes. “Walton’s was huge,” she said. But for a final fitting she used to go to the locker room with the uniforms, and the players would try them on.
“I hated being in the locker room,” she said. “Half the time I was in the shower area. A couple of the guys were so shy, and I was, too, I just kept looking at the floor. This was long before women were anywhere in the locker room.
I remember one of the players in the late 1970s saw me in there and said, ‘What’s she doing in here?'”
Former No. 1 overall draft pick Mychal Thompson heard this and announced, “She’s a married lady, guys. She’s seen everything in here guys, it’s no big deal.”
After that season, the players came to her shop.
Millak remembers that Dave Twardzik would stop by and talk with her every season after he was fitted for his uniform. She remembers forward Kenny Carr watching her work. She removed a former player’s last name from the back of a jersey and began to sew on a new player’s last name. Carr was floored when he realized that the team recycled jerseys.
“The franchise didn’t have the money it has now,” Millak said. “We did that a lot. Carr says to me, ‘I’m superstitious. Please tell me that you’ve never done that with my jersey.’
“I assured him we never had. But little does he know.”
I asked Millak who the most fickle player to fit for a uniform was, and she didn’t hesitate — guard Darnell Valentine, who played for Portland from 1981-86.
“Oh my God, he loved his legs,” she said. “I had to shorten his shorts every year. He’d say, ‘I have beautiful legs. I can’t hide these things.’ So I’d shorten the shorts, and he’d try them on and have to go find a mirror in the back of the shop because I didn’t have one at my station.
“Darnell would parade around the shop in those shorts until we got it right.”
The players eventually stopped coming in for fittings. She knew them less and less. Uniform technology was advancing and the organization began buying from distributors who would send them pre-sized, and also, with the team logo already computer designed, cut, and sewed on the jersey front.
Still, the team turned to Millak for the application of jersey number and for the last names, which she carefully arched across the back.
When the Blazers drafted an Icelandic center named Petur Gudmundsson in the third round in the 1981 draft, it was Millak who slapped her forehead. When he was traded in 1983, it was she who breathed a little easier.
“I could hardly get his last name on the shirt,” she said. “I had to arch it steep.”
You’d think Greg Oden and Brandon Roy were easier. But then, Millak tells you, “Short names are also hard from an artistic standpoint. Roy and Oden were really hard to do because you can’t arch them at all. I had to make a decision to get rid of the arch and just focus on the lettering and number and try to make it look right.”
She sews the uniforms. The players play in them. And over the seasons, Millak felt deeply connected as she watched from home on television or with the occasional ticket to a game.
She always picked favorite players, too. Maurice Lucas, Brian Grant and Kevin Duckworth were among them. Now, it’s Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard.
The only jersey she’s ever made for herself was a Grant jersey she made from scratch, cutting each letter and number by hand and sewing it together. It took a month.
“I haven’t seen Brian in years,” she said. “But I heard he’s re-married. I’m happy that he’s found happiness.”
Life sometimes bounces up and down like the needle on a sewing machine, or a basketball. For every up there is a down. For every low, a predictable high. Millak said she always tried to remember that when things got difficult.
She and George, who have been together for 32 years, and have six children between them. A seventh child, a 19-year old son who was Donna’s oldest, died in a car accident in 1984. A motorcycle changed lanes suddenly causing a driver to slam on her brakes. That driver’s car spun, hit a pickup truck that then was redirected into oncoming traffic. Three people were killed.
“I heard a knock on the door at 4 a.m. and I open the door and there are two police officers standing there,” Donna said. “It was not his time.”
She sewed through the pain because it gave her comfort.
In 2008, Donna was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told her chemotherapy was essential to save her life, but that she wouldn’t lose her hair or get ill from the treatment. Her husband, George, remembers seeing a thinning Lucas in the cancer-treatment center waiting room, and thinking how their lives had crossed again all those years later.
Said Donna: “My hair fell out. I got nauseous. It was a fight.”
Said George: “She was one sick puppy, but my God she made it. I think sewing the jerseys helped her mentally and gave her something to talk about that wasn’t centered around her illness.”
When Duckworth collapsed from heart failure in his hotel room along the Oregon coast in 2008, it was Donna who sewed a black stripe on the jerseys for him with tears in her eyes. After Lucas died after a long battle with bladder cancer in October 2010, Millak was called upon to sew a No. 20 patch on each jersey.
She said: “It’s a lump in your throat kind of thing.”
Donna has made Timbers jerseys over the years, including Clive Charles’ jersey. She’s sewed too many area high school baseball and football uniforms to count.
When other NBA teams traded a player while they were on the road in Portland, they’d show up in front of Millak and ask her to quickly turn a jersey for the new player for that night’s game.
Sometimes, she said, she’d know when the Blazers traded for a player before the public did. Jersey orders don’t lie. The Blazers equipment manager still swings by the shop to pick up the finished product when they’re in a hurry to receive them.
Millak has sewn the Trail Blazers’ jersey lettering and numbers for four decades. Her employer now is Bashor’s Team Athletics on Southeast 14th Avenue, where she works in two different rooms. The Blazers lettering comes computer generated and arrives pre-cut.
Millak can finish a jersey in six minutes if she needs to be that fast.
Think about her as you watch the Blazers chase a first-round playoff victory. Millak’s work has been all around this franchise for decades. She still watches games closely, checking to see if the numbers and letters look correctly placed.
Sometimes, if they’re a little off, she reminds herself to correct it.
The other day the Blazers asked her to turn another set of jerseys. They wanted them for autographs. The job fell to Donna, of course.
“I’m the only one who knows how to sew anymore.”