Oh, What Might Have Been

George McGinnis, a transcendent star in his day, is now playing out the string in Indiana
March 01, 1982

Once there was something sublime about George McGinnis, an almost mythic combination of quickness and strength that made him all but unstoppable on a basketball court. McGinnis' body appeared to be hewn out of stone, and he possessed a first step that was full of thunder. "When I came into the ABA," McGinnis says, "I was like a god. I felt there was no one who was ever going to stop me, that I was going to be a dominant force every time I took the court. That's how supreme I felt and that's how supreme I played."

He had magnificent gifts, but there was also something about McGinnis that seemed too good to be true: "He would make moves that you'd swear were physically impossible," says Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News, who covered McGinnis' first season in Philadelphia. "We would watch him do unbelievable things, then we'd look at each other and say, 'Don't write it down, it never happened.' " As long as people believed in him, McGinnis could do almost anything but, as time went by, people stopped believing in him and began believing in his potential. And that was impossible to live up to.

McGinnis had played on two ABA championship teams for the Indiana Pacers when in effect he traded himself to Philadelphia in 1975. But, more than the titles, it was his potential to inject life into a moribund team that aroused 76er fans. Potential can be a wonderful commodity, and McGinnis had a ton of it. People looked at the 6'8", 235-pound forward as a savior ("Let George Do It" was the 76ers' slogan that first year). And the more people came to expect from him, the more he was reduced by that expectation until something within him seemed to wither and die. "I always got the feeling that George believed no matter what he did, it wouldn't be enough," says Donnie Walsh, who coached McGinnis in Denver, to which he was traded in 1978. "People look at a guy's physical attributes and think his potential is unlimited. It's not fair." In 1980 Walsh shipped McGinnis back to the Pacers, back home again to Indiana.

"I withdrew from the world not because I had enemies, but because I had friends. Not because they did me an ill turn, as is customary, but because they thought me better than I am. It was a lie I could not endure."
—Albert Camus

A freezing January rain has been falling all morning in Indianapolis, reducing the flow of traffic to a low-gear bump and grind. Inside Market Square Arena the Indiana Pacers are slowly going through Philadelphia 76er plays, the Indiana starters lined up against a dummy team of Sixers composed of some of the Pacers' lesser lights. While Butch Carter assumes the silky insouciance of Maurice Cheeks, George Johnson affects the spectral slouch of Bobby Jones. And for a moment that is not without a measure of poignance, George McGinnis has become Julius Erving!

Assistant Coach George Irvine leads the reserves through the 76er offense and repeatedly addresses McGinnis as "Julius" or "Doc." The role McGinnis has been assigned isn't meant to be demeaning, but there was a time when he and Erving were the best young forwards in the game. For two years they played side by side—though not always together—in Philadelphia. "When the 76ers got Dr. J," says Walsh, "Julius was a high-wire act. George had the body and the quickness, and when he wanted to be, he was the best defensive rebounder in the game. So it seemed reasonable to think that George would become the real star. But it just didn't work out that way."

George McGinnis and Julius Erving are nearly the same age (Erving turned 32 on Feb. 22; McGinnis will be 32 on Aug. 12), but their careers have gone in different directions since they played together. Erving is secure up on his high wire, a perennial All-Pro, while McGinnis struggles for playing time at Indiana; last week he was averaging 4.9 points a game and shooting 49% from the foul line. And he has become more valuable as a make-believe Julius Erving than as the real George McGinnis. "It's strange," says George's wife, Lynda, "how they can erase you from the face of the earth and make it seem as if you never existed."

McGinnis grew up on the dust-bowl playgrounds of Indianapolis, not far from where Oscar Robertson had dazzled more than a decade before. George was the younger of two children of Willie and Burnie McGinnis, a carpenter killed in 1969 when he fell off a scaffold. Most of George's friends were older than he, so he was excluded from the playground games. "They didn't want me," McGinnis recalls. "I supplied the ball but I never got to play."

When he was a senior at Indianapolis Washington, McGinnis was named to one high school All-America football team as an end, then led the Continentals' basketball team to a 31-0 record and the state championship. He was also named Indiana's Mr. Basketball—a great honor in a state that is absolutely mad about high school basketball—and in a game that summer against Kentucky's all-stars, McGinnis had 53 points and 30 rebounds. The University of Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, whose teams won 880 games in his 41 seasons as coach, called McGinnis "one of the greatest high school players I've ever seen."

As a sophomore at Indiana University in 1970-71, McGinnis led the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 29.9 points and 14.4 rebounds a game, then turned pro. He left Indiana just before Bobby Knight replaced Lou Watson as coach, and, though he never played a game for Knight, the two are close. McGinnis, who has often been accused of being selfish and egotistical, frequently speaks to Knight's players in the locker room before games. "Probably my biggest disappointment is that I never played for Bobby," McGinnis says. "I don't know if it would have made me a better player, but I think it would have given me different values."

McGinnis became a pro in 1971-72 on a veteran Pacer team that, under Coach Slick Leonard, didn't believe in working hard until the playoffs. That approach worked so well that the Pacers won ABA championships in McGinnis' first two seasons.

McGinnis fit in perfectly because he despised practice. In his rookie season he averaged 16.9 points and 9.1 rebounds. And then for the next three seasons he averaged 27.7 points a game and 13.9 rebounds. "He's so strong you'd swear he weighed 300 pounds," former ABA star Willie Wise once said, "and he may be quicker than Julius Erving. When you play against him, it's a meeting of the body rather than a game of the mind. The only way to stop him is to take a gun and shoot yourself and hope he feels sorry for you."

McGinnis' lightning first step and his thundering rushes to the hoop offset the fact that he was never a great jumper. "In high school and college I could jump over guys [because he was bigger]. Then in the pros, I began to hesitate...I think all players have a real fear of having their shots blocked." The result was a sort of one-hand push or shotput move that made purists cringe. Playing next to the supersmooth Erving for two years didn't help. "His shot was considered artistry," McGinnis says, "and mine was considered showboating."

In 1975, he was signed by the NBA's New York Knicks, who were eager to have a gate attraction to compete with Erving, then playing on Long Island for the New York Nets. However, Philadelphia held the NBA draft rights to McGinnis. And the 76ers wanted him, badly. Philadelphia forced the Knicks to relinquish their claim, and in mid-July, 1975 the 76ers signed McGinnis to a six-year, $3 million-plus contract. As the first of the ABA superstars to jump to the NBA and flourish there, he gave credibility to the newer league and helped bring about a merger in the summer of 1976.

Had it not been for the money, McGinnis would never have left Indiana, where he had been making about $250,000 a year. When he went to Philadelphia the 76ers were no bargain. During the 1972-73 season they had gone 9-73; they improved to 25-57 the next year and then under new Coach Gene Shue, they had won 34 games in 1974-75. "When I came it was considered almost sinful in Philadelphia to talk about the 76ers," McGinnis says. "Everybody was so disgusted with the team."

Nobody was more disgusted than Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams, who brought McGinnis to the Sixers. "George was the turnaround factor in pro basketball in this town," Williams says. "Julius put up the walls and a roof, but it was George who built the foundation."

McGinnis averaged 23 points and 12.6 rebounds his first season as the 76ers won 46 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1970-71. Attendance jumped more than 5,000 a game, to an average of almost 12,500. "We gave the city some hope," McGinnis says. "We made them proud of something they had been ashamed of." Shue says, "I don't know how many games that first year he just took over and won by doing something great on his own."

"We had vintage George McGinnis at that point," Williams says. "Our fans were crazy about him from Day 1, and they never left him. If Pete Rose or Mike Schmidt go bad for a while, the fans get on them right away. But never George. Even through all the faltering during the playoffs there was never a boo."

Of all the things that went wrong in Philadelphia, nothing has haunted McGinnis more than his collapse in the playoffs. Indeed, his postseason woes seemed to presage his later failures. In his first postseason in Philadelphia, McGinnis was inconsistent, scoring 34 points in one game, then fouling out of the next after scoring just 15 points as Buffalo beat Philly in a mini-series. "All those years in Indiana he had carried the Pacers," Williams says. "We envisioned him doing that in the playoffs for us, but it didn't happen." His performance against Buffalo seemed so out of character that no one—least of all McGinnis—knew his self-confidence was about to unravel. "And the next year it got worse and worse," says Williams.

The 1976-77 NBA season was probably the most chaotic and fascinating year in the history of the sport. The merger of the ABA and the NBA had occurred the preceding summer, bringing players like Erving, San Antonio's George Gervin and David Thompson of Denver into NBA arenas. Dave Cowens walked off the job in Boston, Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas were walking off with the fans' hearts in Portland, and on Oct. 20 the incomparable Dr. J was sold to the 76ers for $3 million. When the deal was announced, almost everyone was shocked, but not McGinnis.

Shue and Williams had approached McGinnis to acknowledge the gratitude they owed him for turning the franchise around. And then they told McGinnis that if he didn't want to share the spotlight with another virtuoso, they would go no further in their negotiations with the Nets. "If I hadn't wanted them to do it, they wouldn't have," McGinnis says. "I could have been very selfish and said no, and Julius would never have been in Philadelphia and I would probably still be there."

Neither Williams nor Shue will say now what he would have done had McGinnis said no. "We probably put him in a tough position." Williams admits. "What was he going to say—no?" There is no question that the move shook McGinnis' confidence, although he is the only one who knows how much. "Doc took some of George's thunder away," said Kevin Loughery, then the Nets' coach. "Inside, George had to feel it—no big star likes to be put in the shadow."

McGinnis and Erving were often played off against one another in the Philadelphia papers, but there was never any feud, not even much of a friendly rivalry. "Julius is a friend of mine," McGinnis says now, "and we were great competitors in the ABA. Julius had said that one of the reasons he was glad to be coming into the NBA [with the Nets] was because he was looking forward to playing against me again, and I was proud of that. When the 76ers got him, I thought it was tremendous. It was inevitable that people would say we hated each other, but Julius and I knew it wasn't true and we were above it. We knew, too, that we would be played off against each other." Occasionally the two of them would confer to avoid incipient controversy. "They [the media] would ask George something," says Erving, "then ask me the same thing, like they were trying to get me to contradict George's opinion. The whole thing was crazy."

McGinnis and Erving were only two of the players in the 76ers' bizarre little troupe. Philadelphia's lineup that year also included Doug Collins and Henry Bibby in the backcourt, frontcourt men Caldwell Jones and Harvey Catchings, and some backup players named Lloyd Free, Steve Mix and Darryl Dawkins. "We were absolutely a traveling circus," Williams says. "That team was one of the great shows in the history of sports." Nearly everywhere the Sixers went they played before sellout crowds. "Sometimes on the road the fans would end up cheering for the Sixers instead of the home team," Shue recalls. McGinnis felt his team's popularity was the result of a variety of intangibles. "I think most of white America thought of us as a bunch of bigmouth, cocky, high-priced niggers," he says. "There will never, ever be another team like that."

Early that season the 76ers played before a crowd of 27,383 in the New Orleans Superdome, then an NBA record. Most had come to see Erving, but McGinnis put on a 37-point show in a victory over the Jazz. At dinner later that night, McGinnis was approached by two waitresses who wanted his autograph. Before McGinnis had a chance to sign, one of them bubbled nervously, "You're Dr. J. aren't you?" A chagrined look flashed across his face for a moment; if this sort of thing could happen on a night when he had scored 37, it was clear he was in for a lot more of it. McGinnis regained his composure quickly and began to tease the waitresses, who by that time were properly embarrassed.

There were also adjustments that had to be made on the court. "I knew it would be difficult trying to blend two great players like that," Shue says, "because to be effective both of them needed the ball more than they were going to get it." And there were other Sixers who liked to play with the ball a little bit, too. "We had a 'George' play, a 'Doug' play, a 'Julius' play, a 'Lloyd' play," McGinnis says. "You came down the floor and waited for your play. I certainly didn't try 100% in every game. We were all dogging it in a sense. I could do nothing but watch. When it was my turn, it was four other guys' turn to watch."

For all their individuality, the 76ers were still the best team in the East. After eliminating Boston in seven games and Houston in six in the conference finals, the Sixers faced Portland in a championship series struggle of two extreme opposites. The Trail Blazers were the embodiment of unselfishness and teamwork, with Walton, Lucas, Bob Gross, Lionel Hollins and Dave Twardzik playing for Jack Ramsay the way Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere & Co. had seven years earlier for Red Holzman in New York. As good as the 76ers were, they weren't unflawed. Erving and McGinnis had spent the regular season staying out of each other's way; neither asserted any leadership. When Erving asserted himself in the playoffs, McGinnis stepped meekly aside to accommodate him. "He kept giving and giving to make Julius comfortable," Lynda McGinnis says. "When the time came for them to need him, he didn't have it to give anymore."

They didn't need him much the first two games, which they won at home. But the Blazers took the next three for a 3-2 series lead.

McGinnis played most of the championship series with a severe groin pull, for which he claims to have had cortisone and xylocaine shots that numbed his left leg from hip to knee. He couldn't jump normally and his act didn't come together until the sixth game, in Portland. After averaging just 13.4 points during the 76ers' first 18 playoff games, he finally struck for 28 in Game 6, only to miss a shot at the end that would have tied the score and could have resulted in a seventh game in Philadelphia. "I played poorly the whole series," he says, "but I still don't think I was the reason we lost." Some of his teammates hadn't been so charitable, teasing him for his ineptitude and taunting him in front of the press as the team practiced. McGinnis' free-throw shooting, never exceptional, became an embarrassment, and then the rest of his game fell apart. "Portland gave him the outside shot and he couldn't hit it," Williams says. "Not one. You saw a great player who simply couldn't do it anymore. At that point the coaches were ready to pull the plug."

Shue was the first to try to trade McGinnis, but the Portland series had greatly diminished his market value. When Shue was fired early the next season, he was replaced by Billy Cunningham, a three-time NBA All-Pro and a former teammate and close friend of McGinnis'. Cunningham quickly reassured McGinnis. "As long as I'm here, you're going to be here," Billy said.

Oddly enough, it wasn't Philadelphia's 4-2 wipeout loss to the Washington Bullets in the 1977-78 Eastern Conference finals that sealed McGinnis' fate so much as it was his practice habits. "He was getting by all those years on sheer talent," Williams says. "He was never a hard worker. Given a choice between paying the price and cutting a corner, George would always cut the corner. He was a forceful personality, and he set the tone for that team. If he didn't work hard, the younger players would see it and they wouldn't work hard either."

Cunningham shoulders some of the blame. "It was my first year as a coach...and I hadn't been a great practice player anyway," he says, "so when George would cut corners, I let it slide. If I had it to do over again, I'm sure I'd do things differently."

Meanwhile, McGinnis was accused in the press of sneaking cigarettes in practice. He denied it. At the end of the season when Denver offered Bobby Jones and Ralph Simpson in exchange for McGinnis, the 76ers leaped at the opportunity.

"Doc and George didn't complement each other well," Cunningham insists. "They both tried so hard to play together that at times they hurt the team. They ended up sacrificing a lot of things that made them the great players they were."

McGinnis was unable to separate the business realities of the trade from the element of his relationship with Cunningham. "I was so disgusted and hurt by what had happened," McGinnis recalls, "that I didn't talk to Billy for three years. I was made to feel like a scapegoat. I was depressed for a year. It was like somebody had put a needle in me and let all the air out. It hurt me more than anything in my life, like I was losing part of my body. There were times when I went off by myself and cried."

If it took McGinnis a year to get over being traded to the Nuggets, it took Denver longer to recover from the loss of Jones, a great team player and a defensive standout. The deal was forged by Carl Scheer, the Nuggets' president and general manager, and Larry Brown, who was the coach and Scheer's close friend. "I don't know who was the first to say 'Let's get George,' " Scheer says. "Larry felt we weren't going to go farther in the playoffs without a power player. Events proved it was a very bad trade for us."

Jones, an epileptic, had been plagued by related health problems that were exacerbated by Denver's high altitude, and that sealed the deal. "We knew George's reputation and that it was something of a risk," Scheer admits. "We perceived him to be the strong, unselfish performer he was with the Indiana Pacers, because that's what we wanted him to be. We knew about his problems in Philadelphia, but we thought that if we got him in the right environment we could get him back to what he had been at Indiana." In other words, what McGinnis heard when he arrived in Denver was the sound of one hand clapping. That hand wasn't Larry Brown's.

In 1978 the Nuggets also acquired Charlie Scott, another deal Brown was forced to defend. "They've both been misunderstood," he said. "They haven't had a lot of love."

In McGinnis' case, there was probably some truth in that, but Brown sometimes found it difficult to express his love to George. Early in the Nuggets' training camp that fall, McGinnis balked at one of Brown's layup drills. "Most of the things Larry taught were things I thought I already did anyway," McGinnis says. "It was driving me nuts. Finally I said, I know I can help the ball club, but I want to be treated like a man.' I told him that in front of the entire team and the coaches. I told him if he wanted to trade me he could, and he said, 'Fine.' " Brown tried to have McGinnis traded, but to no avail. "I think Larry had real bad feelings about him after that," Scheer says.

Brown despised McGinnis' practice habits. "It gnawed at me," says Brown, now coach of the New Jersey Nets, "and some of the other guys took it bad. I'd tell George how much we needed him and what he needed to do, and he'd say, 'Perfect, Coach.' Then in practice he'd be last in everything, pulling up for that trashy jumper, forgetting what we talked about. He was so gifted he never had to work. If he ever decided what he could do, he could still be a great player."

Just as the presence of Erving had confused McGinnis and hastened his decline in Philadelphia, there was now David Thompson to share the ball with in Denver; and not only Thompson, but Scott and Center Dan Issel, too. "George wasn't the greatest guy to play with," Thompson says, "but he wasn't really selfish. When you're a great player you want to do a little too much. I think George got caught up in that.

"He thought immediately that he was the man, and that restricted both our games. George had a more dominant personality, so he was the guy they would go to. I had to change my game more than anybody else, but it seemed like that wasn't appreciated."

McGinnis averaged 22.6 points and 11.4 rebounds his first season in Denver, but it wasn't a particularly congenial year for the Nuggets. Scheer refused to trade Issel, which Brown had demanded. Brown, in a state of near emotional collapse, resigned midway through the season and was replaced by his assistant, Walsh. Scheer often held players accountable for losses, which he did the night he stormed into the locker room after a close defeat and, in front of the whole team, screamed at Anthony Roberts that he was responsible for losing the game. "I don't think George liked the way they treated the players in Denver," Thompson says. "A lot of guys don't."

McGinnis tore ligaments in his left ankle near the end of that first Denver season and missed the playoffs. The leg was put in a cast, and the cast wasn't removed until late summer. He reported to camp in September at 260 pounds, 25 over his playing weight. The Nuggets lost their first seven games, and Scheer kept reminding McGinnis that he was supposed to carry the team. "George lost his confidence after that," Walsh says. "He wasn't the same. When everyone looked to George as the man here, he was sensational. But after it got confusing to him, he seemed to lose his edge.

"George always kept the game in its proper perspective, and I'm not sure that's a good thing for a great player. They have to have such enormous egos to do what they do that they think the game, and their part in it, is the most important thing in the world. George used to think that in 10 years we'd all be the answer to a trivia question. Well, that's not a bad attitude for most people, but an athlete has to believe what he's doing is important. You have to be a little boy to play this game well, and George's problem has always been that he's a man. Maybe too much of one for his own good. You can only tell someone as sensitive as George that it's his fault for so long before he begins to believe it."

Fifty-six games into his second season, McGinnis was peddled to Indiana for Forward Alex English and a first-round draft choice. "I felt I had let the organization and myself down," McGinnis says. "I felt I deserved to be traded."

Maurice Lucas has a theory about how McGinnis was destroyed as a player. Lucas, who had guarded McGinnis in the fateful Philadelphia-Portland series, which catapulted Lucas into prominence as the NBA's premier power forward, is now playing for the Knicks, his fifth pro team. "George wouldn't hurt a fly," Lucas told The Village Voice recently, "but he got moved around the league a lot and then it began to crop up that George maybe wasn't as good as he was made out to be.... If you're the coach or the general manager, and you bring in a guy who's supposed to help the team, and you pay him money and the team still loses, someone's got to take the fall.... So if you get George McGinnis and you still lose, it's easy to say, well, McGinnis is the problem, he doesn't fit in with the team. And if you're George McGinnis and you've heard this a bunch of times, you might believe it."

McGinnis no longer knows what to believe, only that he can no longer believe in himself. And yet a few voices say George McGinnis can still play. Brown, who gave up on him, believes he can. Shue, who gave up on him, too, believes. "I don't think he's lost any of his skills," says Shue, who's now coaching the Washington Bullets for the second time. "He's still an excellent rebounder. The only thing George needs is to get with a team that says, 'Here's the ball, George. Go do it.' "

It's obvious that the Pacers don't believe in McGinnis—not this McGinnis—and earlier this season they tried to persuade him to retire. McGinnis says he thought about retiring for a while, then decided that he didn't want to go out with his head down, not at close to $500,000 a season. "I still feel I can make a contribution," he says, "but it's tough for me to have a normal game now. They expect so much." Pacer Coach Jack McKinney concedes he may have given up on McGinnis too quickly when he got off to a poor start this season. "He doesn't have that ability that used to make him so awesome," McKinney says. "Some of the things he could do when he got his 30 points a night aren't there anymore, but he compensates in some pretty nice ways. I didn't give him enough encouragement. A good player doesn't go sour at once without a loss of confidence."

For the time being, McGinnis has resigned himself to playing out his string with the Pacers, hoping for a trade. "Being the type of sensitive person I am," he says, "if I don't feel good vibes from the people I'm playing for, I don't shoot well, I don't pass well, I don't do nothing well. If I'd had the inner strength, there's no telling what I would have done.... It hasn't been easy for me."

One thing is certain: McGinnis has given up trying to do it alone, and there aren't a lot of people waiting to help. "He may have given up," Thompson says. "He may be content with his position. They can break you if they want to. Maybe they broke George."

PHOTOMcGinnis is back home again in Indiana, but he's sitting a great deal more than playing. PHOTOMcGinnis is up in the air about his future in basketball. PHOTOAt least George can control the game when he plays Intellivision with his son Tony, 13. PHOTOWife Lynda thinks George was too selfless in Philly. PHOTOMcGinnis says any friction between him and Erving was a fiction born of media hype.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)