Remembering Jim McMillian, former Greensboro resident, former Columbia Lion, former LA Laker, Buffalo Brave, and New York Knick: Jim McMillian one of the “Finest People You’ll Ever Meet”!!!

Remembering Jim McMillian, CC ’70: NBA champion, Columbia legend, and father
McMillian was an inaugural member of the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame, inducted in 2006.
(CLICK HERE for outstanding Photo Feature on Jim McMillian)

By Heather Chen / Sports Editor:Columbia Spectator

After his father passed away, Aron McMillian was watching ESPN when, to his surprise, his father’s name came up during the broadcast. The iconic commentating trio of Mark Jackson, Mike Breen, and Jeff Van Gundy were on air when Jim McMillian, CC ’70, was listed on the bottom ticker of the screen. It was moments like these where he began to truly grasp the legacy of his father’s professional playing career, immortalized in the memories of people all over the country.

“Mark Jackson talked about how much of a New York City legend he was,” Aron McMillian said.

Born in North Carolina but raised in New York, McMillian cemented himself in the history books of New York City high school basketball before dominating the Ivy League as a Columbia Lion. After three illustrious varsity seasons in Morningside Heights, he would go on to play under brighter lights in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers, winning a championship and playing a pivotal role in their legendary 33-game winning streak.

But for Aron McMillian, the tales of his father’s days of basketball fame were not something he often heard about when he was growing up.

“My father was very humble,” he said. “He wasn’t the guy who would sit down and tell you about all the stuff he used to do.”

In 2oo6, Jim McMillian was inducted into the inaugural class of the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame, which, according to an interview with Spectator at the time, brought him back to Columbia’s campus for the first time in decades. Aron McMillian’s sister, Emon McMillian, accompanied her father on the trip to Morningside Heights.

While he did not go with his sister on that trip in 2006, it was then that Aron McMillian began to understand the reverence for his father at Columbia—something he would experience for himself when he traveled to Columbia to represent the memory of his father after his passing in 2016.

The journey to Morningside Heights

A recollection of Jim McMillian would not be complete without a chronicle of how he found himself choosing to don the Light Blue uniform in the first place.

“[Columbia] didn’t recruit me,” McMillian told Spectator in a 2001 interview with then-associate sports editor Phil Wallace, CC ’04. “I recruited myself.”

As an All-City and All-American player at Thomas Jefferson High School, McMillian found himself fielding offers from top programs across the country. Locally, he had caught the attention of St. John’s University in Queens, a school he had long envisioned himself playing for as someone raised in New York City.

On the other side of the country, legendary University of California, Los Angeles basketball coach John Wooden was also calling. Wooden, who had just won back-to-back NCAA titles and would go on to win a total of 10 championships for UCLA, was determined to get McMillian to move to the West Coast.

Wooden invited the young prospect to see the glamor of the UCLA campus and bask in the glorious California sunshine, which, surprisingly, drove McMillian away. After touring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s dorm room and watching Sandy Koufax pitch at Dodger Stadium, McMillian did the unthinkable—he turned down Wooden.

The “Wizard of Westwood” was not the only acclaimed coach McMillian would decline over the course of his recruiting process. Dean Smith, one of the winningest coaches in the history of college basketball during his 36-year stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, approached McMillian, hoping to bring him back to the state he had been born in.

While the offer to play in front of his extended family was tempting, McMillian did not even bother making the trip to UNC’s campus. He had asked Smith if there were any other Black athletes on the basketball team, or if there had been any Black athletes in the history of the team. When Smith responded with “no” to both questions, McMillian’s decision was made.

“I said, ‘Coach, I’m not applying there. I don’t know if I can handle that kind of pressure,’” McMillian recounted in a 2006 interview with Spectator.

Instead, the Brooklyn ballplayer shaped his own destiny and found his way into the office of Columbia basketball coach Jack Rohan, CC ’53. Despite the other local options McMillian had, he ultimately chose Columbia for its academic rigor.

Andy Durham, a longtime broadcaster and sportswriter in Greensboro, North Carolina, recalled that he and McMillian had sometimes talked about that decision on Durham’s radio show, which McMillian had appeared on as a guest throughout the years.

“I think the academics meant just as much to him as the athletics did,” Durham said.

That value of education is something Aron McMillian echoed as well.

“He was always a smart guy, big on academics,” Aron McMillian said. “And so Columbia kind of fit the bill for everything.”

On and off the court

In Jim McMillian’s collegiate days, the NCAA did not allow first-years to play on varsity teams, regardless of their talent—a policy that would change only two years after his graduation in 1970. As a member of Columbia’s freshman squad, McMillian rose above the rest, averaging a staggering 24.9 points per game and leading the team in every other statistical category as well.

His domination of the statlines would carry over into his three varsity seasons that followed. In his debut season on the varsity team, Jim McMillian played a major role in the team winning the 1968 Ivy League title, the Lions’ only men’s basketball Ivy League title to date.

He also secured the Frank J. Haggerty award, given to the best New York City metropolitan area player. McMillian still ranks No. 4 on Columbia basketball’s all-time scoring list with 1,758 points, an astonishing feat considering that the Lions ranked above him played varsity basketball all four years, compared to his three.

After being selected 13th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1970 NBA draft—making him the first Black Ivy League player to be drafted in the first round—McMillian found himself moving across the country to the same city he had dodged four years prior. In his second season in the NBA, he made his way into the history books once again as a member of the starting lineup of the Lakers’ squad that went on a legendary 33-game win streak—an NBA record that remains unbroken to this day. It was in that same 1971-72 season that the Lakers would win the NBA championship. McMillian was accompanied in the starting lineup by the star-studded trio of future Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich.

McMillian would play seven more seasons in the NBA on three other teams, even serving a stint in his college town as a member of the New York Knicks. By the time he concluded his career on basketball’s greatest stage, McMillian had played 631 games in the NBA.

But when speaking to people who interacted with McMillian personally, it is not only those milestones or stats they recall—they also remember his character and kindness.

Jonathan Schiller, CC ’68, described McMillian as “a quiet and strong leader” for the team. Schiller, a former chair of the Columbia board of trustees, played alongside McMillian during their historic 1968 Ivy championship run. “He had an easy smile and an openness and curiosity that was contagious and a pleasure to be around,” Schiller said.

While he would describe him as a “people person,” Aron McMillian also said that his father was mellow. He recalled that when his mother first met his father, who was a Laker at the time, he “wasn’t the guy to go out… and party.” Instead, Jim McMillian preferred to stay at home, reading or listening to jazz.

While he was not loud or boisterous, he “could talk to a wall.” When a documentary was made about the Lakers’ 33-game winning streak, Aron McMillian said that his father was one of the main people featured in the film because of his willingness to talk. “He was very open with people,” he said, reminiscing on his father’s way with words and people. “He had a gift.”

When Durham first reached out to Jim McMillian to invite him onto his radio show, he was not sure what to expect. The people he reached out to for guest appearances were from all sorts of walks of life at different levels and places in their careers. Sometimes, people acted as if they were doing Durham a favor.

Others would restrict their appearances to phone calls. But according to Durham, Jim McMillian was far from any of those people—instead, he was receptive to the invitation.

“He’d drive to the station,” Durham said. “[He’d] make a point, come in and sit down with us in that small radio station, sit there and do the broadcasts, no problem.”

Once, after coming back from a reunion event with the 1972 Lakers team, McMillian brought back a commemorative poster for Durham as a gift. “That was something really special,” Durham said. “Jim just did stuff for people, and he didn’t think twice about it.”

That same sort of generosity carried over to other people as well. In 2001, Wallace, then a first-year at Columbia, looked through a list of possible article ideas to pursue for Spectator and zeroed in on the idea of profiling McMillian. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles as a Lakers fan, Wallace was excited. Still, no one in the office knew how to get in touch with the former Columbia Lion.

After looking through some websites online, he came up with a phone number under the name of “James McMillian” for someone who lived in North Carolina—the state other Spectator staffers thought McMillian might have moved to. While he was not sure whether the number would work, Wallace dialed it one night while at the Spectator office.

McMillian picked up, caught “totally off guard.” Wallace told him that he was writing an article about him. They ended up speaking for almost two hours on the phone, discussing “his time at Columbia, his life, and his basketball career.” Over the course of the call, McMillian opened up, telling stories about his days with the Lakers or his decision to choose Columbia. Wallace never heard from McMillian again, but that interview remains one of his favorites to this day, 23 years later.

For Durham, McMillian was a repeat guest on his talk show. He could still envision the car McMillian drove and the way he would come into the radio station. Outside of their conversations about McMillian’s NBA days, Durham said he would talk about his family, especially his children.

After McMillian finished his professional basketball career, he turned his focus to raising his family. “He worked, but it was never something that kept him from us,” Aron McMillian said. “That was very important to him.”

While both his children would go on to play Division I basketball in college, a point of pride for Jim McMillian, their success in the sport was not a result of him pushing them to follow his footsteps. Instead, he wanted Aron and Emon to discover a love for the sport on their own. Aron recalled that he did not begin to play the sport seriously until middle school.

“We wanted to do it,” Aron McMillian said. “And so we pushed ourselves and that made us better players.” That value of self-motivation and drive, instilled by his father’s influence, is something Aron carries to this day.

The two were both recruited to Wake Forest University, but Aron would transfer to Old Dominion University and eventually Guilford College. Once his children picked up the sport, Jim McMillian became supportive in other ways. As a parent, he was the type that would stay for practices and show up for games. Aron recalled that sometimes his father would even come out to practices at Wake Forest. On away games, there were times he would ride on the team bus.

“You just appreciate it now, growing older, that he was always present,” Aron McMillian said. “He was a role model.”

Aron himself is now a father to fraternal twins. His son is an avid soccer player, currently playing at the academy level and practicing a couple of days a week , while competing in weekend tournaments. While Aron himself was “not a big soccer player,” he tries to be there for his son too, staying to watch at practices, following the lead of his father. He has also worked on sharpening his knowledge of the sport to better support his son.

It is in these little ways that his father’s influences have carried into the present day. At Columbia, Jim McMillian is remembered as one of the greatest Ivy League basketball players of all time. The NBA history books will inevitably mention the way he stepped up to fill the sudden absence of Lakers captain Elgin Baylor in November 1971. But above all, Aron thinks that his father would want to be remembered not only as a great basketball player, but also as a great teammate, father, husband, and friend.

In 1973, just a few years after Jim McMillian’s graduation from Columbia, his former coach, Jack Rohan, was asked about him in an interview with the New York Times.

“When I first met Jimmy, I was impressed with him as an individual,” Rohan told journalist Sam Goldaper. “As I got to know him better, I felt he was a great ballplayer but, more than that, a better human being.”

“I have 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,” Rohan added. “We had some great athletes, but he was a superb person.”

Sports Editor Heather Chen can be contacted at Follow her on X @heatherweixi. Follow Spectator Sports on Twitter @CUSpecSports.