Until a year or so ago George McGinnis seemed a fixture in his hometown of Indianapolis, a part of the landscape, like the State Capitol or the soaring Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Indianapolis is a basketball town and McGinnis had been a star there for a decade, first in high school, then at nearby Indiana University and finally with the ABA's Indiana Pacers. And when he wasn't thundering down a basketball court, he could generally be found somewhere in the city or its environs. "It may sound square, but I'm basically a country boy," he says. "I don't like big cities. Indianapolis is a clean, friendly place. It's got a small-town atmosphere."
But a lot happened to McGinnis the past year and now he is gone from the Pacers, gone from Indiana to work at his trade with the 76ers in alien Philadelphia, a metropolis nearly three times the size of his beloved Indianapolis in a league much tougher than the ABA. A lot of people believe he will be the NBA's next superstar.
The movement of a player of McGinnis' stature from one league to another is almost guaranteed to cause problems. In McGinnis' case things were made awkward by the fact that the NBA team he really wanted to join was not the 76ers at all, but the New York Knicks. He had said clearly that he did not want to play in Philadelphia, which owned the NBA rights to him. Now, drawing the subtlest of distinctions, he insists, "I didn't say I'd never play in Philadelphia. I just said I didn't care for Philadelphia, just like I don't care for other big cities." And he adds hopefully, "I'm sure Philly has nice people and good restaurants. Who knows? Maybe I'll love the place."
Grudging though that may sound, it is certainly softer than the attitude everybody understood him to have early last summer when his future became the subject of high-powered litigation, and he became the center of an unseemly NBA family feud. By the time he signed a six-year, $3 million-plus contract with the 76ers in mid-July, his defection to the NBA had rocked three pro basketball franchises.
October 27, 1975
McGinnis, 6'8" and 235 pounds, is a superbly muscled man. When he joined the Pacers in 1971, his rough-and-tumble style seemed sometimes brutish. Other players complained that he did not know how strong he was, but Garry Donna, his agent at the time, had a different analysis: "No, George just doesn't know how quick he is." As McGinnis gradually discovered how useful speed could be, and as he picked up a little finesse he began dominating games as few players—and certainly few forwards—ever have. Last year McGinnis not only led the ABA in scoring with a 29.8 average but was fifth in rebounds (14.3), third in assists (6.3), second in steals (2.6) and fourth in accuracy on the three-point shot (.354). He was even more dominant in the playoffs, averaging 32.3 points per game and leading the Pacers, who weren't supposed to go very far in postseason play, to the championship round where they lost to the Kentucky Colonels in five games. He had developed a credible outside shot to go with his inside drives, and he had learned to find the open man when he was double-teamed. At the end of the season he and the New York Nets' Julius Erving were jointly voted the league's MVP.
With McGinnis receiving advance billing as Dave Schultz and Bobby Clarke rolled into one, it is not surprising that the 76ers are starting this year with record season-ticket sales or that excitement among Philadelphia basketball fans is running higher than at any time since the glory days of Wilt Chamberlain. Not one to rain on anybody's ticket sales, Bob Leonard, McGinnis' coach with the Pacers, thinks the enthusiasm will be justified. "I've heard people argue that George will never do in the NBA what he did in the ABA," Leonard says. "I think he will do over there exactly what he did here—tear it up."
There is little reason to doubt Leonard. Appearing in August in an all-star game of the Baker League, Philadelphia's summer playground circuit, an out-of-shape McGinnis had 18 points and 24 rebounds and had 3,000 fans slapping palms over moves that big men are not supposed to make. Next he scored 17 points and was named MVP in the NBA's annual Maurice Stokes benefit in Monticello, N.Y. And the 76ers' preseason schedule was scarcely under way when the NBA reported its first outbreak of "McGinnisitis," which is how Denver Nugget Forward Bobby Jones refers to the bruises that McGinnis can inflict with even the most innocent looking hand check. He was averaging 17.6 points playing only 28.6 minutes per game.
Prospects for a beautiful friendship between McGinnis and Philadelphia are not hurt either by the fact that during his extraordinary athletic career (at Indianapolis' Washington High he was prep All-America in football as well as basketball) McGinnis has yet to play on a losing team—which is what the 76ers have been for four years now. It also helps that, for all his fierceness on the court, he is a friendly, candid sort who embraces the philosophy—the country-boy side of him—that "if a family pays $30 for tickets, the least a player can do is sign a few autographs."
Nor can it possibly hurt that McGinnis is, after all, a city boy. A product of the school yards and sidewalks of Indianapolis' racially mixed west side, he frequently could be found hunched over a plate of greens at a ghetto hangout called Sugar's Sugar Bowl or otherwise "mingling with the hip dudes," as he phrases it. "George is an uncomplicated guy, and that's why I love him," says Irwin Weiner, his current agent, yet those were surely complex passions that boiled inside McGinnis a few weeks ago when a state trooper flagged him down on Highway 31 south of Indianapolis. McGinnis had been driving his 1974 Cadillac at 58 mph, exactly three miles over the limit.
"Well, that's speeding, isn't it?" snapped the officer when McGinnis protested. Then the trooper appeared to recognize McGinnis and, abruptly changing his tone, let the basketball player off with a good-natured warning. Driving away, McGinnis fumed, "He saw a black guy in a Cadillac and he decided to hassle him. If he'd given me a ticket, I would've fought it. I would've spent a thousand dollars in lawyers' fees if necessary."
McGinnis' down-home qualities come through in the way he walks (he shambles) and dresses (he is most comfortable wearing jeans). He chews gum—four sticks at once while playing—and talks in a high, nasal voice with at least the hint of a twang. He has been engaged for two years to a personable young woman named Lynda Taylor, whom he knew for 10 years before that. He remains close to his mother, who lives in northwest Indianapolis in a $40,000 ranch-style house purchased with McGinnis' first basketball earnings. "There's always been a lot of love in my family," McGinnis says, unself-consciously. "My mother won't ever have to work if I can help it."
McGinnis' attachment to Indianapolis was plain enough during the late-summer days before he had to leave for the 76er training camp. One day he and Bob Netolicky, the Pacers' veteran 6'9" forward, went water-skiing on a lake north of Indianapolis, the two taking turns hurtling along behind the wake of McGinnis' 19-foot powerboat. The next afternoon he and Lynda drove to a quarter-horse farm near Columbus, Ind. to have a look at a colt he had bought not long before. "Ain't he purty?" McGinnis beamed, patting the animal's hindquarters. "I'm really tickled with him."
As might be expected in basketball-crazy Indiana, McGinnis was fussed over everywhere. Taking leave of the colt, he went with Lynda and a couple of local horsemen to a nearby countrystyle restaurant where a man approached their table. "We'll miss you, Big George," the stranger said. "We've sure enjoyed seeing you play basketball."
"It's hard to be leaving a place where you've lived so long," McGinnis said after the man had walked away. "For me, Indiana is like a big family."
So why did he leave? McGinnis starts by insisting that he went to the 76ers strictly for the money. "I would have stayed if the Pacers had matched the offer," he says. And it is true that his deal with Philadelphia puts him, still only 25, in the same financial league with such other reformed country boys as Pelé, Catfish Hunter and Bobby Orr. But he was attracted by the style and size of the NBA, its big cities and its national TV coverage. "Let's face it, there's a little ham in everybody," he says. "It's human nature to want recognition. The ABA has a lot of great players, but who knows it?"
Which is why, before last season began, McGinnis was thinking New York, and why the Knicks worked a deal with the 76ers that allowed them to take a shot at signing him. The Knicks told McGinnis all about how New York was media and endorsement heaven and Walt Frazier helped out by showing him his favorite haunts. After all, went the reasoning, how could you keep George McGinnis down on the farm after he's seen P.J. Clarke's?
But after much agonizing, McGinnis hightailed it home and signed a new six-year, $2.6 million deal with Indiana. The contract, however, included an option that allowed him to buy his way out after one year. "My head just wasn't quite ready last year," says McGinnis. Says Frazier, "I think George got scared by the tall buildings."
At the end of last season McGinnis decided he was ready for the Knicks, but by then the 76ers, seeing a chance to overtake failing New York in the NBA's Atlantic Division, would not again cede their rights to the vastly improved McGinnis. Thus began, in late May, a six-week chain of events during which McGinnis communed less with nature than with pinky rings and sequoia-sized cigars. One moment the country boy was in U.S. District Court challenging the whole concept of the NBA draft. The next he was withdrawing that suit and signing a $3.1 million deal with the Knicks in open defiance of NBA rules. Amid charges by 76er President Irv Kosloff that the Knicks had committed "piracy," "treason" and worse, newly named NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien nullified the whole deal—which left McGinnis temporarily a man without a team.
But McGinnis' dalliance with the Knicks had effectively cut his psychological umbilical cord with Indiana, and the 76ers moved in on him, waving money. Putting the matter somewhat differently, McGinnis says, "I don't think Philadelphia would have been willing to pay this much if the Knicks hadn't first." His 76er contract was the third multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal he had signed with three different pro teams in barely a year.
The agreement with the 76ers was hammered out late one July evening in the blue-carpeted Manhattan offices of Commissioner O'Brien. O'Brien used to be in politics, of course, where cynicism is said to reign, but he was charmed as he listened to McGinnis—O'Brien swears he saw a tear on the basketball player's cheek—describe the wonders of a mare delivering a foal. Then McGinnis asked the commissioner about his New Frontier days, a subject O'Brien warms to without any coaxing whatever. Next he asked for an autographed copy of O'Brien's book, No Final Victories.
"I fell in love with the kid," says O'Brien. "He's the nicest, friendliest, most down-to-earth person you'd ever want to meet." What is more, McGinnis actually went home and read the book.
But then, as George McGinnis says, "Being nice to people is the way I was raised." The credit for that goes to Burnie and Willie McGinnis who, at 6'6" and 5'10", also share accountability for their son's size (older sister Bonnie, the family's other child, is 5'10"). George's feeling for the outdoors was kindled when he tagged along as a boy while his father, a carpenter, hunted squirrels and rabbits. "My dad and I were close," George says. "He'd really beat on you if you did something wrong. But when you succeeded at something, he was quick to praise you."
Evidence that there was much to praise is preserved today in an oaken chest McGinnis made in eighth-grade woodshop. Stored in his mother's knotty-pine basement, where action photos of him share wall space with a large picture of Jesus, the chest is stuffed with correspondence from the 350 colleges that offered him scholarships, including a number of letters—sorry, Arizona Western, too bad, Blackburn College—still unopened. Many of the offers were for football. McGinnis was an end at Washington High, a jarring downfield blocker and so formidable on defense that an Indianapolis newspaper nicknamed him "Mount George." It is with a nostalgic sigh that longtime Washington Coach Bob Springer says, "George was the best football player I've had. He was also the best football player I've seen. A lot of big guys won't hit, but George loved it. He would have been a star in the NFL."
But McGinnis leaned toward basketball. As a senior in 1968-69 he averaged 32.5 points, breaking Oscar Robertson's Indianapolis high school season and career records. Steve Downing, later a standout at Indiana University, was on the same team, and the one-two punch powered the school to a 31-0 record and the state championship. Then came the annual two-game series between Indiana and Kentucky high school all-stars. Indiana took the opener in Indianapolis by eight points, McGinnis scoring 23, but the Kentuckian who guarded him said, "He's overrated. I put my hand in his face and he was off every time."
The second game was played in Louisville's Freedom Hall and, when McGinnis was pulled in the closing minutes of a 114-83 Indiana romp, the 17,875 spectators stood and cheered a performance—53 points and 30 rebounds—still talked about in those parts. Savoring it a bit himself, McGinnis says, "I guess the guy forgot to put his hand in my face."
A few days after his son's Louisville triumph, Burnie McGinnis slipped off a scaffold at a construction site and fell eight stories to his death. George stayed on at Indiana only through his sophomore year, topping the Big Ten in scoring with 29.9 points per game and averaging 14.4 rebounds. Then he accepted a $50,000 bonus to join the Pacers. "After my dad died I wanted to get a job and support my mother, but she made me go to college," he says. "When the Pacer offer came, I grabbed it."
In the pros, as in high school and college, George McGinnis seems a larger-than-life figure. He shoots the ball with one huge hand, letting it fly baseball-style, the other hand being superfluous. He cuts and screeches across the court with enough force to burst the seams of his size 14½ shoes, going through some two dozen pairs last year alone. Slam-dunking the ball in Denver, he bent the rim so badly that it had to be replaced. Virginia Squire Forward Willie Wise says, "McGinnis is so strong you'd swear he weighs 300 pounds. When he posts inside on you, there's nothing you can do. He's going to the basket."
At Pacer team parties McGinnis developed a talent for impersonations—his specialties included Center Mel Daniels and Coach Leonard. But in his earlier days he could count on hearing some heckler shout: "If you're so good at imitating people, why don't you play ball like Dr. J.?"
Comparisons between McGinnis and Julius Erving are inevitable (they came into the ABA the same year) but no longer do people unfavorably compare the "Baby Bull," as an Indianapolis sports-writer once dubbed McGinnis, to the silky smoothness of Dr. J. "I know McGinnis is stronger than Erving," Willie Wise says. "And he may be quicker, too." Pacer Guard Billy Keller agrees: "Julius has a longer first step to the basket. And maybe he's a little showier. But George is stronger and quicker." And Bob Netolicky says, "George carried us last year. He's the best forward in the game. Absolutely the best."
McGinnis attributes part of last season's surprising success to the fact that the Pacers are an unusually close-knit team—yet here, too, he gets much of the credit. Few stars immerse themselves so good-naturedly into being a team member. Take the business of the cats. McGinnis is afraid of them, having been scratched by one as a child, none of which prevented Bob Netolicky, referring to this as "Superman's weakness," from turning his two pet cats on his terrorized teammate at every opportunity. After dinner at his house one night, Netolicky casually handed McGinnis a shoe box. McGinnis lifted the lid and out jumped a plump toad. "If you were my guest," McGinnis cried, leaping from his chair, "I wouldn't do that to you."
There was also the curious ritual in which McGinnis always seemed to be wrestling in the Pacer locker room with rookie Forward Billy Knight, the slender Knight never failing to "defeat" his brawnier—by nearly 40 pounds—teammate. "I guess George never had a younger brother and I'm like a substitute," says Knight. "That's why he lets me win." McGinnis says, "If Billy was on another team, I'd have him too scared to even speak to me."
During last spring's semifinal playoffs, the Pacers were flying to Denver for the fifth game and McGinnis got to musing about the ABA and Indiana and all the games he had played in towns like Hampton Roads, Va. and Greensboro, N.C. "Do you realize I've been to Memphis a million times and I've never been to San Francisco?" he said. Soon he was saying, "The NBA is a tougher league. If I spend the rest of my career in the ABA, I can be perfectly happy. But the NBA would be a challenge." He gazed out the window, then added, "By the time I retire, I want to have drained every talent in my body."
When, months later, McGinnis signed with Philadelphia, Indianapolis Star Columnist Bob Collins wrote acidly, "George, I have to believe you were playing games with us." A different sentiment was voiced by the Pacers' Billy Keller, another homegrown Indianapolis boy. "I can't blame George for moving on," he said. "Any of us would have done the same thing."
There are moments when McGinnis, reluctant to go to Philadelphia in the first place, seems tentative about being there now. "I hope 76er fans don't expect too much from me," he will say. In the next breath, though, he is eager for the season to begin: "I'm really excited about being with the 76ers. I think we're going to have a good season."
And there are other encouraging signs. McGinnis' first idea was to rent a house in Philadelphia, as though he might at any moment find he had made a mistake and want to flee. But he has warmed to his new surroundings and he is now negotiating to buy a house. And on the outskirts of the city of Brotherly Love are billboards reading, BY GEORGE, WE'VE GOT IT!
The pleasures of a star: a Jaguar XK-140, a quarter horse colt named Jaws and the cool end of a water-skiing run.