Born: March 11, 1948
Died: May 16, 2016
Position: Small Forward
Los Angeles Lakers (1970-’73)
Buffalo Braves (1973-’76)
New York Knicks (1976-’78)
Portland Trail Blazers (1978-’79)
“An 18 point forward, he is as unnoticed as the butler in a mystery… It’s also unnerving to play someone who looks as if he’s just playing solitaire on the kitchen table all night. Is it put-on? McMillian shakes his head. ‘I have to keep my composure or I can’t be effective. I can’t play if I’m upset.’”
Selected 13th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970, Ivy League standout Jim McMillian had an inauspicious start as he rode the bench behind Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Also on the team were point guard Gail Goodrich and mammoth center Wilt Chamberlain. With four future hall of famers, Jim’s services weren’t much needed until Jerry West was lost to injury midway through the season.
The 6’5″ McMillian slid into the starting lineup and was a refreshing revelation, especially as the playoffs began and the stout Chicago Bulls awaited in a titanic first round struggle. “I felt all year that once Jimmy got a chance to play, he’d show what a fine basketball player he is.” Well, Gail Goodrich was right. Jimmy showed the world to the tune of 26 points in Game 1, as LA won a nail-biter 100-99 after being down by as much as 17 points. The Bulls were stunned:
Coach Dick Motta of the Bulls observed, “I don’t think we can play any better than we did. It’s a crusher to lose a game when you play very well. I was really surprised at McMillian’s shooting. I didn’t expect that much from him.”
[Lakers head coach] Mullaney said, “As long as they were giving Jimmy those open shots, I wanted him to take them.”
12 of McMillian’s 26 came in the pivotal 4th quarter. In an encore performance, Jimmy torched Chicago for 24 points the very next game as the Lakers took a 2-0 series lead. McMillian’s shooting touch would return back to earth as the series progressed, but L.A. triumphed in 7 games over the Bulls before losing to Milwaukee in the Western Conference Finals. The Bucks would go on to secure that 1971 NBA title.
There was some doubt if L.A. could ever get over the hump especially with the young Bucks standing in their way. Chamberlain was 35, West 33, and Baylor 37 . A mere nine games into the 1971-72 season, Baylor finally retired due to chronic knee pain.
That night McMillian replaced Baylor in the starting lineup and the Lakers immediately began their 33-game winning streak that remains unbeaten in all of professional sports. McMillian dramatically upped his scoring from 8 PPG as a rookie to 19 PPG as the Lakers ran like a well-oiled machine. Chamberlain and underrated power forward Happy Hairston ceaselessly controlled the boards while West, Goodrich and McMillian formed a perimeter scoring and defensive triumvirate rarely seen.
A box score from Philadelphia in December 1971 illustrates the potency. McMillian notched a career-high 41 points. Goodrich scored 28 and West offered up 32. Chamberlain only had 8 points but swatted nine shots and snared 25 rebounds. At season’s end the Lakers were sitting pretty with a then-record 69 victories and demolished the competition on their way to the 1972 championship. They very likely would have cracked the 70-win plateau if McMillian had started those first nine games in which L.A. went 6-3.
The Lakers nearly repeated their championship feat in 1973, but fell short to the Knicks in 5 games. That offseason, in the midst of a contract dispute with Wilt Chamberlain, Lakers management decided to shore up their frontcourt by trading McMillian to Buffalo for center Elmore Smith. Although he’d never again reach the Finals, McMillian still brought a heap of success to the Braves.
Coming off a pitiful 21-win 1973, the 1974 Braves rose from the rubble. Acquiring not only McMillian but forward Gar Heard and eventual Rookie of the Year in point guard Ernie DiGregorio, the Braves also freed up copious playing time for Bob McAdoo with the Elmore Smith trade and guard Randy Smith continued his improvement.
Although only in his fouth year, McMillian by virtue of his cool and collected demeanor was declared a captain on his new squad. For the third straight season, Jim averaged over 18 points while shooting new career highs from the field (49.4%) and the line (85.8%). Buffalo doubled its win total to 42 and surged into the playoffs against the Boston Celtics. McMillian didn’t play terrifically in the rough and tumble series. His percentages and scoring took a dive, but his rebounds spiked to nine a game and he also provided a game-winning tip-in:
“Who did he beat on the tip-in?
‘It was Dave Cowens,’ McMillian said. “He was caught between Gar Heard and myself and he went toward Gar. Boy, I was tired. But I got it.’”
That tied the series at 2-2, but Boston would take the next two games for the series victory. The 1975 Braves suffered the loss of DiGregorio to a knee injury but managed to push the Washington Bullets to 7 games before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs. Returning again to the playoffs in ’76, McMillian and the Braves finally won a series by ousting the 76ers in three games, including a thrilling Game 1 where McMillian poured in six points in the last 1:23 to seal the victory. In the next round though, old nemesis Boston again derailed Buffalo in six games as they had in ’74. Surprisingly, this was the end of Buffalo’s mid-70s success. Over the next year, ownership foolishly dismantled the team and thus began the Clipper mentality that pervaded the franchise for decades.
Having drafted Adrian Dantley in the offseason of 1976, the Braves were armed with a younger and better small forward than McMillian. Instead of keeping Jimmy to backup and mentor Dantley, Buffalo shipped him to the Knicks that summer. (The Braves inexplicably traded Dantley, who won the 1977 won Rookie of the Year, the very next summer). McMillian’s minutes and scoring decreased, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t pull out some spectacular stops every now and again. However, by 1979 McMillian’s NBA career was done after a 23-game stint with Portland that season. Two more seasons in Italy followed before Jimmy finally hung up his professional sneakers for good.
By no means a Hall of Famer, Jim McMillian should be remembered as one of the finest roll players to ever suit up. His teams averaged 50 wins and he never played on one that had less than 40. A deft jump shooter who could always find his way to the right spot for a sweetly stroked J. He never dipped below 46% FG and even hit 53.5% FG one season. Definitely a shooter who could shoot. He was also a rather stoic, calming presence on the court. Given some of the mercurial and difficult personalities that abound on the court, every team could use a cat like Jim McMillian.
Regular Season (631 games)
Playoffs (72 games)