After the recent San Francisco confrontation pitting the New York Knicks against the massed might of the rest of the National Basketball Association, young and gifted George McGinnis appeared suddenly to have become a nonresident of at least three major U.S. cities. One thing for sure, he wasn't a New Yorker; NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien had made that clear in throwing out the $3.1 million contract McGinnis had signed with the Knicks. On the other hand, he didn't seem to belong in Indianapolis any longer, either, though that ABA city had been his home for four years. And as for Philadelphia, which owned the NBA draft rights to him, the word was that McGinnis wanted no part of the City of Brotherly Love.
At any rate, McGinnis' reported revulsion toward Philadelphia is what Mike Burke, the natty president of the Knicks, was counting on when he gambled by signing the ABA superstar forward to a six-year contract that insulted every NBA bylaw on the books. "McGinnis has always said he'd never play for Philadelphia anyway," Burke repeated last week as the debris from the explosion he had caused settled around him.
But as it turns out, what Burke believed was not entirely accurate, and thereby may hang the tale of several franchises. What McGinnis actually said, according to McGinnis, was that he didn't like Philadelphia.
"I don't like any big city," says McGinnis. "I don't like New York, either. The only thing I like about New York is Madison Square Garden. It would be silly of me to say I'd never play in Philadelphia. We are going to talk money. If they offer enough, I'll sign."
June 22, 1975
In the first post-confrontation round of talks, McGinnis and his agent, Irwin Weiner, informed Philadelphia that they would appreciate an offer of $600,000 more than New York had agreed upon, spread over the same six-year period. Last Sunday, Pat Williams, the 76ers' general manager, flew to Indianapolis to have lunch with McGinnis, who was getting ready to leave on a 17-day tour of the Philippines. Williams said he did not think money would be a big problem. "We are not looking for a bargain. We will make McGinnis an offer which will make him a wealthy young man and one which we can live with. Our offer won't lose us the deal. What could stop it is if George decides not to leave the ABA. With the Knicks thing, McGinnis cut the umbilical cord with Indiana, and if he did it once he can do it again."
That has been the problem in the past: McGinnis' reluctance to abandon Indiana where, until now, he has been happy and moderately prosperous. He was a high school star in Indianapolis and then an All-America at Indiana University, which he left after his sophomore year to sign with the Pacers, and the hometown ties are still strong. His mother is in Indianapolis; also his girl and his lifelong friends. He has a farm just outside the city.
But before the start of the past season, Weiner persuaded his player to consider making a move—but only to New York, where the big dollars were. In August the Knicks, who desperately need just such a powerful forward, obtained from the 76ers a 30-day period of grace in which to woo McGinnis. At that point, Philadelphia was having problems. Billy Cunningham had not yet returned. Freddie Carter was unsigned and Doug Collins, now a potential star at guard, had not developed to that stage. "We felt we needed a lift," says Williams.
If New York landed McGinnis, Philadelphia would get that lift by receiving from the Knicks in exchange Earl Monroe, a top draft pick and two peach baskets stuffed with money. But the Knicks had no luck with McGinnis. In October, under the same 30-day conditions, they tried again. McGinnis instead signed a new two-year Pacer contract, with the proviso that for $86,750 he could buy his way free after one season.
By the end of the season Philadelphia's player situation had changed dramatically—and so had McGinnis' market value. He had had a superb year with Indiana, sharing the MVP award with Julius Erving. "When the Knicks came to us a third time, we told them no," Williams says. "We want McGinnis in Philadelphia. We aren't going to trade, deal or sell George."
At the moment, McGinnis technically is still the property of the Pacers. He has until Aug. 1 to pay the $86,750 or be obligated to play another season in Indiana. And while the Pacers haven't matched the NBA offers, they have come up with a $2.4 million six-year package.
Pacer Coach Bob Leonard says, "I'll tell you this, if George comes back I'd better not catch that Weiner in my locker room again. Every time we went to New York last season he was there. Every time. Even the players knew what was going on. It was disruptive. But I can't blame George. I was a player. When things are right, you have to make a move. When the legs go, nobody's going to take care of you."
Exactly, says McGinnis, who was back in Indiana last week. He is a big muscular man who pushes his body to its fullest and knows it is only a matter of time before the punishment robs him of the only product he has to sell.
"All I'm seeking is financial security for George McGinnis," he says. "If all things were financially equal I'd never leave Indiana. I'm not a New Yorker or a Philadelphian. But you take the lifespan of an athlete—well, you don't have that much time. The fact is that if you have the bucks, you are O.K. If not, you aren't. I didn't make the rules."
Yet he is concerned that people will see in him another example of money-grubbing. "Look, under the Constitution I have the right to earn as much money as I am capable of," he says. "Let's be realistic. One, I've only two years of college education. Two, I'm black. And, three, I'm not very smart, although I have a lot of common sense. My time is now. I sign a six-year contract and then maybe, just maybe, I might have two or three more years. What happens to George McGinnis then? I don't want to be a stockbroker. I don't want to wear a suit and a tie and work 8 to 5. I don't see why it's so complicated. Here's one pile of money and there's another. One pile is larger. It doesn't take any intelligence to figure that out."
And the larger of the piles appears to be in Philadelphia rather than Indianapolis, even if it is not loaded with all the off-court riches McGinnis was told would be his if he played in New York. "Johnny Bench and O.J. Simpson make as much extra money as anybody," says Williams in defense of other cities. "In any case, the issue is moot. George is going to play here. We told the Knicks that. They had nothing we wanted. The best deal they could have given us would be Walt Frazier, draft choices and cash—and for us it would have been a bad deal. Sure, Frazier could help any team, but he's five or six years older than George. And there's no way he could have the impact of a McGinnis. And besides, if we let McGinnis go to New York our fans would kill us."
The Knicks signed McGinnis on May 30 and when the ink was dry they called Philadelphia and asked the 76ers what they'd like in return.
"For the NBA to take away your bleeping franchise," roared Irving Kosloff, the 76ers owner, and then he put in a call to famed lawyer Louis Nizer.
"It was something out there," says Williams of the league meeting in San Francisco. "The 17 owners were like a lynch mob waiting to hang the Knicks. Nizer presented our case brilliantly. At the end the owners stood and gave him an ovation. We should have charged admission. Then O'Brien called a two-hour recess for lunch, came back, read his decision, picked up the gavel and said, 'Now for the next order of business....' It was beautiful."
O'Brien revoked the Knicks-McGinnis contract, took away a No. 1 draft choice from New York and ordered the club to pay whatever expenses Philadelphia had incurred, including Nizer's fee. There is also the matter of the $500,000 bonus the Knicks gave McGinnis for signing.
Mike Burke stood in the center of his Madison Square Garden office last week and thought of that bonus. "Well, legally he doesn't have to give it back," Burke said. "It's his to keep."
The Knicks' president paused for a moment. "But George McGinnis is a fine young man. He just might feel he didn't earn it and he just might return it."
You know, McGinnis just might.