Jim McMillian ’70, who in 1967–68 led Columbia men’s basketball to its only Ivy League championship since the league was formalized in 1956–57 and later won an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers, died on May 16, 2016, in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 68.
Nicknamed “Jimmy Mac” and described by current Athletics Director Peter Pilling as “a Columbia icon,” McMillian led the Lions to a 63–14 record during his three varsity seasons. He was named to the All-Ivy League first team all three seasons and to various All-America teams each year, and was a three-time winner of the Haggerty Award as the best player in the Metropolitan New York area.
Born in Raeford, N.C, but raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., McMillian was an All-City star at Thomas Jefferson H.S. and chose Columbia over such regional basketball powers as St. John’s and Providence. It was at St. John’s that he had perhaps his most memorable performance, a 37-point effort as Columbia defeated Princeton in a one-game playoff for the 1967–68 Ivy League championship.
A solid 6-foot-5 forward, McMillian led the Lions to a 23–5 record that season and a No. 6 national ranking. The Lions swept West Virginia, Louisville and St. John’s to win the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden and McMillian was named MVP in what was then one of the foremost college basketball tournaments in the country.
After Columbia and Princeton both finished with 12–2 Ivy League records, Alumni Hall at St. John’s was chosen as a neutral site for a one-game playoff to decide the Ivy crown. The outcome was never in doubt as the Lions routed the Tigers 92–74 to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The following day, Spectator wrote: “As usual the real story of the game was McMillian’s performance. The 6-5 sophomore forward played brilliantly on both offense and defense and in the process established a new Columbia record for most points in a season by a sophomore. He finished with 575 points in 25 games, shattering the old record of 559 set by Chet Forte [’57].”
In the NCAA tournament, McMillian and the Lions defeated LaSalle before losing a 61–59 overtime heartbreaker to Davidson in the East Regional semifinal. Including a consolation victory over St. Bonaventure, McMillian averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds in the Lions’ tournament run. He led Columbia to 20 victories in each of the next two seasons, although the Lions fell short of the Ivy title both years. He finished his career with 1,758 points, a school record since broken by Buck Jenkins ’93, who played four varsity seasons. McMillian still holds the records for field goals in a season (253) and career (677) and is second all-time in career rebounds (743).
The Lakers made McMillian the 13th overall pick of the 1970 NBA draft. In his second season he stepped into the starting lineup in place of retired Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor and averaged 19.1 points per game to help a Lakers team that featured all-time greats Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West win an NBA-record 33 consecutive games en route to the league championship. He played one more season for the Lakers, then played for the Buffalo Braves, New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers before ending his nine-year NBA career in 1979.
After playing two seasons of pro ball in Bologna, Italy, McMillian returned to the United States to work in a wholesale retail business before founding his own clothing business in North Carolina. He later worked for a clothing manufacturing company.
McMillian is survived by his wife of 43 years, Alexis; son, Aron; daughters, Erica and Emon; and seven grandchildren.
— Alex Sachare ’71
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