LOS ANGELES -- Jim McMillian, who helped the Los Angeles Lakers to a 33-game win streak and the 1972 NBA championship as a second-year pro playing with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, died Monday. He was 68.
McMillian died from complications of heart failure at a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after being in failing health in recent months, according to his sister-in-law, Denise Sheridan.
The Lakers made McMillian the 13th 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 he chose the Lakers.
He averaged 15.3 points per game in three seasons in Los Angeles and 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 win 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 he played one more season 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 later 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 of 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 at a dinner in Los Angeles. 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, North Carolina, McMillian was raised in Brooklyn, where he starred at Thomas Jefferson High School before going to Columbia. He led the Lions to a 63-14 record in three seasons and, as a sophomore, their most recent NCAA Tournament appearance in 1968, when he averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds in the team's three-game tournament run.
Columbia 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 records for field goals in a season (253) and career (677).
Nicknamed "Jimmy Mac," McMillian was a three-time All-American 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 that McMillian carried a book with him everywhere.
"He was quiet," he said. "He read a lot, very thoughtful."
McMillian is survived by his wife of 43 years, Alexis, his son, Aron, his daughters Erica and Emon and seven grandchildren.