inducted February 18, 2006
New York City high schools turn out an abundance of scholastic basketball All-Americans each year. Few choose to attend an Ivy League college and even fewer opt for Columbia.
“Jimmy Mac” did and Columbia will never forget him.
A native North Carolinian, Jim McMillian grew up in Brooklyn, where he was All-City and a high school All-American at Thomas Jefferson High. Newspaper articles had him going to St. John’s or NYU if he stayed local, Providence if he didn’t.
But McMillian fooled them. He chose Columbia, entering in the fall of 1966.
“It was a strong school academically and it was close to home,” McMillian told Mike Scheinkman in a January, 2000 Columbia Spectator interview. “I didn’t even realize how strong the basketball program was.”
After playing on the freshman team his first year at Columbia, McMillian moved up to the varsity in 1967-68 with another celebrated New York City player, Stuyvesant High’s Heyward Dotson. Teaming up with several other talented players, McMillian led the Lions to the winningest season in the school’s history, a 23-5 campaign that included the Ivy League championship (he won the Haggerty Award as the top collegiate player in New York City), the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden (defeating West Virginia, Louisville and St. John’s on successive days) and reaching the second round of the NCAA Championships. McMillian, the Holiday Festival MVP, drew national attention as Columbia finished the season ranked sixth in the nation.
The Lions had lost a December game to Cornell that season, then won 12 straight Ivy League games before dropping the season finale at Princeton. The loss thrust the Columbia and the Tigers into a tie for the Ivy title.
“During the spring [semester], there was lot of unrest on Columbia’s campus,” he recalled, “political demonstrations ... and police confrontations. Also during that time, we were trying to win an Ivy League title. We were tied with Princeton and needed a playoff game.”
The game was scheduled for St. John’s 6000-seat Alumni Hall. Since Columbia’s old University Gym held little more than 1700, some questioned whether there was enough interest on campus, or enough basketball enthusiasts among the student body to justify the use of a 6000-seat arena. p>
The question was readily answered. Columbia students poured into Alumni Hall, occupying most of the seats as the building was filled to capacity. McMillian remembers it well.
“To come out on the court for the start of the game,” he said, “and see how the Columbia community had put aside their differences and was rooting for us to win, was very inspiring.” The Lions beat the Tigers, 92-74, to claim the Ivy League title and NCAA bid.
The success continued the next two years, as Columbia posted 20-4 and 20-5 seasons, narrowly missing Ivy titles each year. Jimmy Mac was All-Ivy and All-American each season.
In leading Columbia to a three-year mark of 63-14, McMillian not only was a three-time All-American and All-Ivy Leaguer, he was All-East each year, the ECAC Sophomore of the Year, and became the first person ever to earn the Haggerty Award in each of his three varsity seasons.
He scored 1758 career points (then a record, now second) and averaged 22.9 points per game (second-best then and now). He is also second in career rebounds (743) and holds the season records for field goals in a season (253) and career (677).
He was drafted in the first round by both the L.A. Lakers of the NBA and N.Y. Nets of the ABA. He chose the Lakers and spent three years there, scoring 3714 points, an average of 15.3 per game.
Although he won an NBA title with the Lakers in 1972, he played no game more memorable than on the night of November 5, 1971.
The day before, with the Los Angeles winning six of its first nine in the young season, Laker and NBA legend Elgin Baylor announced his retirement. McMillian stepped into his starting position at forward and provided a 22-point, 13-rebound performance to lead a win over Baltimore. It was the first of a 33- game win streak, still the longest in pro basketball history and McMillian starred throughout it.
After the Lakers, he played three seasons for the Buffalo Braves, who became the L.A. Clippers, averaging 16.4 per game, two years with the Knicks and completed his career in 1978-79 with Portland. He finished with 8736 points and 3319 rebounds in 631 games, for averages of 13.8 and 5.3 per game. His .832 career free throw percentage (1448-1741) ranks among the NBA’s best.
Following his NBA career, he played in Italy for two years and then returned home to work in a wholesale-retail business. He went on to own his own clothing business, and then to work for a large clothing manufacturing company.
McMillian cherishes his family. Listing his greatest accomplishment since graduation as “being married for 31 years (to the same lady),” he and Alexis live in Greensboro, N.C., where he enjoys gardening, fly fishing and scuba diving. He also, as he told Spectator’s Mike Scheinkman, enjoyed coaching his children in basketball.
The coaching must have been good. Aron McMillian played at both Wake Forest and Old Dominion before settling down at Guilford, where the 6-foot-9 center was co-captain and a second team all-league selection in 2001-02. Jimmy Mac’s daughter, Emon, was a 6-1 center for Wake Forest, captaining the Demon Deacons her senior year.
And “Jimmy Mac” is now a grandfather.