He spurned the nation's top programs, turned Columbia into a national power and replaced an NBA legend. But the most amazing thing was that his Lakers won their first 33 games with Jim McMillian in the lineup.
For most, replacing one of the greatest players in NBA history on a day's notice is a daunting task. Columbia basketball great Jim McMillian took it all in stride.
McMillian was at home in his Los Angeles apartment the afternoon of Nov. 4, 1971, when Laker captain Elgin Baylor abruptly ended his 13-year Hall of Fame career just nine games into the 1971-72 season, mentioning in his retirement speech that he felt he was "depriving Jim McMillian of playing time."
"We had a game the next day and nobody said a thing," McMillian recently told the L.A. Times. "Nobody called me. Nobody said, 'OK, Jim, get ready, you're going to be starting.' Nothing. We get there, we get dressed, and in the team meeting finally the coach [Bill Sharman] says, 'Jim, you're going to be starting and you're going to be guarding so-and-so.'
"And I'm thinking to myself, 'Oh, OK. Thank you.'"
The 23-year-old McMillian, in only his second year in the league, coolly stepped into the Laker starting lineup that night alongside three future Hall of Famers -- Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain -- and scored 22 points, with 13 rebounds and five assists, as the Lakers beat the Baltimore Bullets 110-106 at The Forum, snapping a two-game skid.
The rest is history. Literally.
That win would be the first of 33 straight with McMillian starting -- the longest winning streak in major league U.S. professional sports history. The Lakers finished the regular season with 69 wins, an NBA best until the Chicago Bulls won 72 games in 1995-96.
"An amazing trip," McMillian told Jerry Crowe of the L.A. Times. "It was a situation where you walked onto the court, you knew you were going to win, and the other team knew it too."
McMillian and the Lakers capped off one of the greatest seasons in NBA history with a World Championship, defeating the New York Knicks in five games to win their first NBA title since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
The 6-foot-5 forward finished the season as the team's third leading scorer with 18.8 points per game -- behind the deadly backcourt tandem of Goodrich and West who both averaged over 25 points apiece -- and the third leading rebounder with 6.5 rebounds per game -- behind Chamberlain and Happy Hairston.
McMillian would go on to play seven more seasons in the NBA, where he built a reputation for being a steady, cerebral force -- with Jerry West once likening his game to that of fellow Ivy League great Bill Bradley.
"He's probably the easiest player I've ever played with," West told the New York Times in 1973. "He's tremendously intelligent. He plays a lot like Bill Bradley. He's there, he's steady."
For McMillian, the glitz and glamour of NBA life in Hollywood was a long way from the rough East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up.
An All-City and All-American performer at Thomas Jefferson High School, McMillian was "one of the most sought high school basketball players in the East" according to a 1967 New York Times article. Turning down scholarship offers from college basketball royalty UCLA and North Carolina, McMillian settled on Columbia because "it was a strong school academically and it was close to home."
"Sometimes I think, what if I had gone to Carolina, what if I had gone to UCLA and played with those teams," McMillian said. "But being here, the education you get off the campus, because of the general location, being near Harlem ... you really pick up a tremendous education that goes way beyond your years here in college."
After leading the freshman team in almost every statistical category including a 24.9 points per game average, McMillian moved up to the varsity where he teamed up with future Rhodes Scholar Heyward Dotson to lead Columbia through a memorable three-year stretch that saw the Lions capture their first and only Ivy League title in 1967-68 and their only 20-win seasons since the formation of formal Ivy League competition in 1955-56.
Columbia's lone League crown came in McMillian's storybook sophomore season, in which the Lions tied a school record with 23 wins and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before bowing out to Davidson.
That 1967-68 Columbia squad finished the season ranked sixth in the nation and became the first Ivy League team to win the celebrated ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden -- beating West Virginia, Louisville and St. John's on successive days with McMillian scoring 40, 24 and 25, respectively, on his way to tournament MVP honors.
But the legend of Jim McMillian was born on the night of March 5, 1968, when Columbia defeated Princeton in the Ivy playoff game. In front of a packed house of more than 6,000 spectators at St. John's' Alumni Hall, McMillian went off, scoring 37 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a performance he later called "the best game I've ever had."
McMillian would go on to close out his college career as one of the greatest players in Ivy League history. He was three-time All-Ivy and All-American, and also the first three-time recipient of the prestigious Frank J. Haggerty Award, awarded to the most outstanding player in the New York metropolitan area.
Today McMillian, a retired clothes manufacturer, makes his home in Greensboro, N.C. where he spends much of his time with his family, fly-fishing and volunteering at his church. He returned to Morningside Heights last year and was on hand to be inducted into the inaugural class of the Columbia University Athletics Hall of Fame.
His legacy at Columbia will be that of a great basketball player, but more importantly, a better human being. His coach, Jack Rohan, said of McMillian in a 1973 New York Times piece, "I've been associated with Columbia since 1949 as a student and coach and I don't recall anybody who commanded greater respect on campus than Jimmy. We had some great athletes, but he was a superb person."
— Wesley Harris