Jim McMillian: It’s a New Brave World, 1974

[In the March 27, 1974 issue of The Basketball Weekly, journalist Larry Donald filed this excellent story about swingman Jim McMillian, a.k.a., Jimmy Mac, and the trade that sent him from the sun and surf of Southern California to the pastoral green and urban grit of Upstate New York. That would be the then-NBA small-market outpost of Buffalo. McMillian, who sadly passed away in May 2016 at age 68, was always a class act during his nine NBA seasons. It sure comes through in Donald’s vignette of McMillian during his fourth NBA season.]

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The September morning sun streaked (literal sense) through a window in Jim McMillian’s Los Angeles apartment. It was 7:30, and the phone was ringing. McMillian awoke but chose to let his answering [service] handle the electronic intruder.

He recalled, six months later, an uneasy feeling that morning, like something was about to happen. Ten minutes later, the phone rang and, again, McMillian chose not to answer. Psychic phenomena by now had gripped him, for Jim McMillian knew who was calling . . . and why. 

By eight o’clock, McMillian had moved to his bathroom and again the phone rang. This time, he lifted the receiver to his ear. This was the conversation:

McMillian: “Hello.”

Voice: “Jim, this is Pete Newell speaking. Has Bill [Sharman] been able to reach you?”

McMillian: “No.”

Voice: “Well, I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but you’ve been traded to the Buffalo Braves for Elmore Smith.”

There was, McMillian recalled, a period of silence. It seemed like an eternity, actually it was momentary. The two talked more. Newell pointed out how desperate the Lakers were for a center, since they were convinced Wilt was leaving. He talked about all the young players at Buffalo and how Mac would have a chance for more publicity, how bad the team felt about trading him.

McMillian listened, regaining his composure, said thanks and hung the receiver up. There was a numbness of mind as he looked around his apartment, casing a closet full of summer clothes and rubbing his suddenly chilled arms. A tennis racket sat upright, and he thought about how much he’d come to enjoy that game, year around. 

The tinsel would be left behind in a few hours, left behind for Buffalo, New York and cold and snow and . . . 

Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Buffalo coach who’d suffered mightily through last year, had become convinced the people he had we’re not going to do. Specifically, he concluded Elmore Smith, the 7-foot-1 second-year center, was never going to make the Braves a champion. 

Some changes had to be made. His first desire was McMillian.

“They (the Lakers) didn’t want to get rid of him,” Ramsay said. “They tried every other combination possible to get Elmore away from us, but I told Eddie (Donovan, Braves GM). it was McMillian or nothing.”

Mesmerized with fright over the possibility of losing Wilt Chamberlain to the ABA, the Lakers were dealing from weakness. Looking back, it is doubtful if they would have made the trade again. But, at the moment, they were all too aware that if the season opened that day [veteran reserve] Mel Counts would have been at center. 

From a phone in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Donovan and Newell completed the deal. All that remained was to inform the parties involved. 

“You try to be a realist in this business,” McMillian said from his seat in the Buffalo Aud nearly six months to the day after the trade. “I was somewhat prepared for it. I mean I had read the rumor about the trade in the newspaper, and I knew Elmore was in Los Angeles, so I really wasn’t as shocked as I might have been. 

“Still, it’s an emotional crisis,” he said. “No matter how much they tell you about the trade being good for both of the teams, you still feel a sense of rejection. You have to ask yourself about your abilities.”

Maybe worse was the thought of leaving California’s contemporary lifestyle, of which McMillian had become understandably fond. He was a New York City native, an All-American at Columbia. But, when he came West as a rookie with the Lakers in 1970, he found a home. 

After a rookie year of interning on the bench, he became a starter for the Lakers and, along with Wilt, West, Goodrich, and Hairston, was a part of the championship team, part of the 33-game win streak. He’d grown accustomed to performing his art in the glitter-laden Forum. Life was as good as any man could ask. 

Buffalo, historically, has been a city of losers. Occasionally, the hockey team won a game. A few remember when the Bills were champions of a league since deceased. And the Braves, from their incubator birth three years before, struggled. 

The Braves offered up a slogan, “It’s a new Brave world.” Ramsay and Donovan had brought in nearly all new faces. Bob McAdoo, last year’s Rookie of the Year, would become a center at 6-foot-8. Gar Heard would be the forward, much publicized Ernie D. was the magician necessary at guard. McMillian was the final link. 

McMillian wasted no time getting away from L.A. to Buffalo. He put trauma behind him and got ready to change uniforms and roles. With the Lakers, he was the shooter; with the Braves, he would be a defensive player, give counsel to the unwashed newcomers, and add the element of style. These were his assignments. How has McMillian fared?

“He is the heart of our team,” Donovan said as the Braves scurried along toward all kinds of winning records and, more important, a first-ever playoff appearance. “He gets the team doing what they are supposed to be doing. You hear a lot of people talking about paying the price, he lives it.”

“It was very strange when I first came here,” McMillian said. “In Los Angeles, I played a very passive role, both on and off the court. We had a dominating guy, and my job was to be the fifth man.”

Here he’s become a leader, passing on the little tips that make championship players, the tips he learned firsthand with the Lakers. He’s worked with Ernie D., preaching the bump and run. He’s led by example, putting it up less and working on the other phases of his game. 

“I think this year has really helped me,” he said. “I think I’ve grown tremendously as a player and as a person. As a player today, I’m not ever concerned with statistics. A year ago, I could say that, now I feel it. 

“I am into winning,” he said. “And we’ve got all these young horses. We’ve got to get them going. I’m more concerned with winning.”

Actually, the latest charts don’t indicate McMillian is faring all that poorly. He was averaging 18.5 ppg., shooting 49 percent, taking down about eight rebounds, and generally providing the little necessities of basketball life for the Braves. 

Personally, he’s adjusted to life here to the point he’s going to buy a house and return to school for work on his Master’s degree. He’s going to the playoffs with a chance for another championship ring, an opportunity he may not have had with the Lakers, who are struggling to win a berth. 

“When I first got here, I was pretty sure the minute the season was over I’d pull an O.J. and be on the next flight out,” he said. “But the people have been so nice here, and I think to enjoy a place you’ve got to get into it. This is where I work, so this is where I’m going to live.”

The misting ocean still slaps against the West Coast. It is warm, sunny most of the time, and no one owns a winter coat. 

In Buffalo, it is still cold, frequently snowy, and for rustic beauty—well forget it. Two things though, Buffalo has gasoline (thanks to the formerly ecology-spoiling oil refineries), and the Braves are definitely in the playoffs. 

Buffalo isn’t California. But, like a cigarette smoker who’s kicked the habit, Jim McMillian has learned to live with that fact. 

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