Jim McMillian, who helped the Los Angeles Lakers to a 33-game winning streak and the 1972 NBA championship as a second-year pro playing with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, has died. He was 68.
He died Monday from complications of heart failure at a hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C., after being in failing health in recent months, according to his sister-in-law Denise Sheridan.
The Lakers made McMillian the 13th overall pick in the first round of the 1970 draft out of Columbia University. He was also drafted in the first round by the New York Nets of the ABA, but chose the Lakers. He averaged 15.3 points during three seasons in Los Angeles.
He was a key member of the Lakers’ first championship team in the city after their move from Minneapolis. He averaged 19.1 points in replacing retired Elgin Baylor at forward, a move that coincided with the start of the team’s 33-game winning streak.
The roster included Chamberlain, West, Gail Goodrich, Happy Hairston, Keith Erickson and Pat Riley. They were coached by Bill Sharman.
Despite his relative youth, McMillian fit in seamlessly with his veteran teammates.
“Jim could run and fill the lanes with the best of them. He had a great 15-foot jump shot,” Erickson said. “Jim was young and eager. He was a perfect complement on our team.”
After one more year in Los Angeles, the Lakers traded the 6-foot-5 forward to the Buffalo Braves for Elmore Smith.
“Jim was an important part of Lakers history, as a key member of our first championship team in Los Angeles in 1972,” said Jeanie Buss, Lakers president and co-owner. “His passing is a sad day for us.”
McMillian also played for the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers during his nine-year NBA career. After leaving the league, he moved to Italy and played two years for a team in Bologna. He returned home to work in a wholesale retail business before founding his own clothing business. He later worked for a clothing manufacturing company.
McMillian attended occasional reunions for the ‘72 team. Sharman’s widow, Joyce, got to know McMillian when she helped produce a film about that championship season.
“To know Jim is to love him. He is a big gentle giant,” said Sharman, who last saw McMillian six months ago in Los Angeles at a dinner. He turned down the organizers’ offer of a ride and told Sharman he wanted her to drive him even though she has a small car.
“His knees were up to the roof of the car,” she recalled. “We laughed the whole way there and the whole way back.”
Born March 11, 1948, in Raeford, N.C., McMillian was raised in Brooklyn, where he starred at Thomas Jefferson High School before going on to Columbia. He led the Lions to a 63-14 record during three seasons and their last NCAA tournament appearance in 1968 as a sophomore, when he averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds during their three-game tournament run.
They lost to Davidson in overtime of the East Regional semifinal before beating St. Bonaventure in the consolation game. McMillian is second on the school’s career scoring list with 22.9 points and still holds the marks for field goals in a season (253) and career (677).
Nicknamed “Jimmy Mac,” McMillian was a three-time All-America and All-Ivy League player.
“Jim was a quiet and powerful leader,” said Jonathan Schiller, chairman of Columbia’s board of trustees and former teammate of McMillian. “Jim was a supportive and close friend to each of his teammates. We know well that Jim was and will always be remembered as one of the most gifted student-athletes to attend Columbia University.”
Erickson recalled McMillian carried a book with him everywhere.
“He was quiet,” he said. “He read a lot, very thoughtful.”
He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Alexis, son Aron, daughters Erica and Emon and seven grandchildren.