We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. Columbia is next because you don’t mess around with Jim.
The man behind the best prolonged stretch of basketball in Columbia history receives his own honor in our countdown.
There are individual moments in Jim McMillian’s career one could point to, such as his 37-point effort against Princeton in 1968’s playoff, but nothing single-handedly sums up his career better than his postseason accolades. Since freshmen could not play varsity NCAA basketball, McMillian’s three-year run from 1967-68 through 1969-70 is unequaled in Columbia history and is unlikely to be repeated by anyone going forward. McMillian led Columbia to an incredible 63-14 record in his tenure, including the 1968 Ivy title and 20-4 and 20-5 records the next two years, finishing second in the league. Had the landscape of NCAA basketball looked in the late 1960s as it does today, McMillian likely would have had more than just one postseason opportunity as the Lions were ranked in the top 20 at points in each of his last two season with nothing to show for it. Nonetheless, his career on the court is unparalleled in Lions history.
In 1970, McMillian made his third consecutive All-America team, his third consecutive All-Ivy team, and won his third consecutive Haggerty Award for the best New York City college basketball player. McMillian averaged more than 20 points per game each of his three seasons, including 25.7 points per game as a senior. He currently stands as the second-leading scorer by total points in Columbia history, though Buck Jenkins needed four years and had the help of the three-point line to break his record. McMillian is also second in career rebounds and points per game for the Lions.
Three of McMillian’s teammates, Heyward Dotson, Dave Newmark and Roger Walaszak, were drafted into the NBA, proving the strength of those Lions squads. McMillian himself was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers at the No. 13 spot of the 1970 NBA Draft, two spots ahead of his on-court rival, Princeton’s John Hummer.
Despite the team only making one postseason appearance, the team’s record during his three years as a Lion and his individual statistics clearly point to Jim McMillian being Columbia’s best basketball player ever. He led them to their highest highs in terms of national relevance (assuming you discount the three championships won from 1904-1910), and had the best NBA career of any Lion. His postseason accolades would be stunning for a player in a power conference, much less one from an Ivy school. McMillian led Columbia to three straight 20-win seasons, while Columbia has only had one 20+ win season since his graduation (2013-14).
McMillian’s presence is one of the few lasting positive images of Columbia basketball in their last 50 seasons of play. His individual records and honors stand alone in Columbia history, and the three-year stretch as a team is also unmatched in the years before and since. He is one of the few players that Lions fans can point toward and be proud of how he led the team to brief national prominence.