Fate, Tragedy Helped Make McGinnis an Indiana Icon

By Mark Montieth

His story begins long before the basketball career that – finally – has landed him in the Naismith Hall of Fame. It begins before he even picked up a basketball. It begins, in fact, before he even arrived in the state that would nurture his greatness.

His fate was set in motion in 1952 when his father, the toughest man he would ever know, decided to bail on the rigged game he had been playing as a sharecropper in Alabama and move his family northward, joining the Great Migration of five million African-Americans who escaped the south between 1915 and 1960 in search of better jobs and better lives.

Burnie McGinnis headed for Chicago, where three of his brothers and a sister lived, to see if he could find work in a factory, steel mill or at a construction site. He stopped along the way in Indianapolis on a Saturday afternoon to visit another sister, Ruby Wallace, and spend the night. Ruby's husband told him the downtown construction company he worked for was hiring, so Burnie stayed over an extra day, dropped in on the company Monday morning and was offered a job on the spot.

Thus, a family's game plan changed. And thus, a state's basketball history was headed for dramatic alterations, not to mention improvement.

Had Burnie McGinnis, a 6-foot-7 hulk who could outwork anyone on a job site, moved to Chicago, who knows what would have happened to his two-year-old son, George. The streets of inner-city Chicago were a world apart from those on the near west side of Indianapolis, and basketball in Illinois wasn't nearly the interdenominational religion it had become in Indiana. George might have wound up playing football, which he certainly was equipped to do. He might have wound up lost to the streets. He might have wound up dead, like a cousin who was killed in a random shooting.

What's certain is that the boy who inherited his father's physical gifts and his mother's gentle demeanor would not have become immersed in Indiana's basketball hysteria. He would not have led Washington High School to an undefeated season and state championship in 1969, almost certainly would not have attended Indiana University and dominated the Big Ten in his only varsity season in 1970-71, and likely would not have helped the Pacers to ABA championships in 1972 and '73 and shared league Most Valuable Player honors in '75 when he led a young, rebuilding team to the league finals.

"My life would have been totally different," says McGinnis, who will be formally inducted into the Hall on Saturday in Springfield, Mass. "I don't know, I might not have even played basketball."

Many lives would be different, really. If nothing else, countless fans would have been denied the opportunity to watch the player who was inspired by and embodies Hoosier Hysteria more than anyone in the state's history. Of all the notable players to have bounced a basketball for Indiana teams, none can match the depth and breadth of McGinnis' in-state resume.

Johnny Wooden led Martinsville High School to a state championship in 1927, led Purdue to a mythical national championship in 1932, and was a star professional in the 1930s, but he played in an era when the pro game was a part-time gig, a hobby to supplement an income rather than a profession.

Billy Keller led Washington to a state championship in 1965, helped lead Purdue to a runner-up spot in the NCAA tournament in 1969 and played on all three of the Pacers' championship teams, but didn't match McGinnis' individual accomplishments.

Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird are among the game's all-time greats, but both played a significant portion of their careers out of state - Robertson collegiately and professionally and Bird professionally.

McGinnis ran the table within the Indiana borders, and did it in a big way. Had he stayed at Indiana University beyond his sophomore season and played out his college career for Bob Knight, he likely would have won an NCAA championship to go with his high school and ABA titles. Knight, who took over at IU shortly after McGinnis decided to leave, always joked with McGinnis that he would have made even more money as a pro if he had stayed, because Knight would have made him play defense.

Even without the star forward, IU reached the Final Four in 1973 in what would have been his senior season, where it lost a close and controversial semifinal game to eventual champion UCLA. With him, it likely would have won it all. McGinnis says his only regret about leaving college early was that he couldn't play in that Final Four. But on the day IU lost to UCLA, he scored 23 points to lead the Pacers to an easy homecourt victory over Denver.

George had become the first member of his family, ancestors included, to attend college, but he clearly had done the right thing by leaving. Even Burnie would have agreed with that. So did IU fans.

McGinnis received his first injection of Hoosier Hysteria in 1956, when he was five years old. His father had recently purchased a used television, a black-and-white Magnavox, about 20 inches. He attached a clothes hanger to bring in better reception and together they watched Crispus Attucks High School's second consecutive state championship. Robertson, the best high school player in state history to that point, and perhaps to this point as well, led an undefeated season that filled the city's black citizens with pride.

McGinnis knew nothing of basketball at the time. His father has played baseball in the South, and cared nothing for Indiana's favorite sport. But McGinnis recalls Burnie leaving the house that Saturday night to join a couple of buddies and walk to Indiana Avenue to participate in the postgame celebration.

The next morning, the sound of dribbling basketballs filled the neighborhood.

"Damn these kids! It's 8 in the morning!" George's mother, Willie, complained. "Hey, where are you going?"

Too late. George was rushing out the door, answering the siren call of basketball.

"We shot all day," he recalled. "Kids who had never picked up a basketball were playing basketball. We had goals on telephone poles, on garages … they were everywhere. We'd dribble down the alley and play, and then go to another kid's house and play some more. It was great. Just great."

That was only the start of it.

Three years later, Attucks won the state championship again. George, better able to understand all the fuss by this point, took another shot of adrenaline. Six years after that, when he was an eighth grader, the high school in his school district, Washington, won the state title. That provided an even greater jolt.

Keller and Ralph Taylor, both of whom went on to play at Purdue, led the 1965 championship. George swelled with pride like never before, because he felt like he knew them. He had seen them around the neighborhood, especially Taylor, who was the first kid he had ever seen carry his books to school in a backpack. He wasn't as familiar with Keller, who was voted Mr. Basketball by The Indianapolis Star that year, but knew him well enough.

"Billy Keller was the kind of guy who was always helpful," McGinnis recalled. "If you wanted to work on your shot or whatever, he was always there for you."

By then, it was over. McGinnis was hooked on basketball - Indiana's version of it, anyway.

Some of the scenes from his impressionable years would make for classic movie scenes. As a sophomore, he and teammates Steve Downing and Jim Arnold went to one of the semifinal games of the state tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse, at McGinnis' urging. They didn't have tickets to get inside the building, so they sat in the car – a '59 Chevy that belonged to McGinnis' dad – and listened to the games on the radio in the parking lot.

With the crowd noise leaking through the red brick walls of the fieldhouse, they imagined themselves in the game. They took turns handling play-by-play, assigning themselves starring roles.

Downing: "There's Downing, taking the ball to the basket for a layup!"

McGinnis: "But McGinnis blocks it!"

"We were all dogging each other throughout the game," Arnold recalled.

As promising a player as he was becoming, and as bright as his future appeared to be, McGinnis remained humble, according to his teammates. The same was true for his teammates, according to McGinnis. They took no opponents lightly, and admired the best players. McGinnis was as capable of becoming awestruck as anyone.

When the Feb. 14, 1966 issue of Sports Illustrated with Lebanon's Rick Mount gracing the cover was published during McGinnis' freshman year in high school, another lightning strike occurred. He inhaled the article about the sharpshooting guard just a half-hour drive's north of Indianapolis. That summer, after Mount had taken his turn as Mr. Basketball, McGinnis and Arnold rode up to Lebanon with an older schoolmate – they don't recall who with certainty, but it might have been Washington's three-sport star athlete Larry Highbaugh, who was two years older – to look at the elaborate sign placed by the road leading into town: "Lebanon. Home of Rick Mount, Mr. Basketball 1966."

"It seemed like it was a long way up there," McGinnis said. "We took the exit and went back three times to see it again. It was so impressive. We were enthralled with that stuff."

McGinnis' respect for Indiana's basketball legends ran so deep that when he joined the Pacers in 1971, one year after Mount, he was nervous in his presence.

"He was like a God to me," McGinnis said.

That's getting ahead of ourselves, though. Before he could get to the Pacers, McGinnis had to deal with the full spectrum of glory and despair, which shaped the man he became.

He led Washington to the championship in 1969, when the Continentals became the second team in state history – after the '56 Attucks team – to finish undefeated. McGinnis, by now grown to 6-foot-7, same as his father, set a state record by scoring 148 points over the final four games of the tournament, including 35 in the championship game. His combination of raw strength and uncanny agility was far superior to anyone he would ever face in high school. The player who came closest likely was his teammate, Downing, who was 6-9.

The championship was celebrated with a roaring bonfire at Washington's football field, deep into the night. The next day, Sunday, the players gathered with their first-year coach Bill Green one last time. They had made history, winning all 31 games to match Attucks' perfect record, and had achieved their wildest childhood dreams, so they met for a victory dinner – at White Castle.

"At that time, that was like a steak," Downing said.

McGinnis was an obvious choice for Mr. Basketball, and led one of the best teams in the history of the annual Indiana-Kentucky all-star series. He scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the first game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, an eight-point Indiana victory, but one of Kentucky's players, Joe Voskuhl, wasn't impressed.

"I think he's overrated – I really do," Voskuhl told Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Russ Brown. "Oh, he's good, but he is overrated. They said he could shoot from 20 feet out with tremendous accuracy. Well, I put my hand in his face and he was off every time."

Voskuhl went on to say he had played in pickup games with Robertson the previous summer "and there's no way in the world McGinnis will ever be as good as he is."

McGinnis took umbrage and took revenge, scoring 53 points and grabbing 30 rebounds in a runaway victory in the following weekend's rematch in Louisville. He hit 20-of-32 shots and left more points unclaimed by missing nine free throws. He was so active in the game that he split open his right shoe late in the first half, and sat out about five minutes of game time while a replacement was found. After it ended, it took him 30 minutes to work his way through all the well-wishers, one of whom was Voskuhl.

Later that night, McGinnis met with his parents, who had driven to the game, before they returned home. Burnie worked two jobs, as a construction laborer and factory worker, and often missed George's games. He really hadn't been aware of how good his son had become until he saw the state championship game and all-star performances. After the onslaught in Louisville, he couldn't conceal his fatherly pride, and George never forgot their conversation that night.

"Man, I knew you were good, but I didn't think you were that good," Burnie said.

That would be the last time George's father saw him play. Nine days later, 43-year-old Burnie McGinnis was killed in a construction accident early on a Monday morning. The scaffolding on which he was standing while beginning work at the Eli Lilly building collapsed. He fell straight to the ground, more than 60 feet, and died 90 minutes later at General Hospital.

Burnie had set a stoic example for his son, working those two jobs for the Baker Forms Company and at the Link-Belt factory to provide for his wife and two children. He was occasionally cranky around the house and often cut loose on weekends in neighborhood bars, but was always ready to resume work on Monday morning. George had seen firsthand how hard he labored when he was hired as an hourly summer employee before his sophomore and junior years of high school, and understood why he wasn't always cheerful at home. His father barely spoke to him on the job, simply telling him to be quiet and go to work.

It's often written and said that McGinnis acquired his chiseled physique without lifting weights, but that's only true in the literal sense. He never worked out with barbells, true, but those two summers as a carpenter's helper, toting heavy construction materials at job sites such as the construction of the Lafayette Square shopping mall, were as grueling as anything a personal trainer would have put him through. He inherited a great frame from his father, but he helped fill it out during those summers.

Burnie – nicknamed Slim - made about $100 per week on the construction job, and nearly as much in the factory. He was able to buy a house for his family for $7,000, along with all the necessities his family needed. Nothing more, though. George's appetite alone would have strained any family budget, and Burnie always made the necessary sacrifices. George recalls times when there wasn't enough meat in the refrigerator for four people, so Burnie carefully cut it into three portions to give to his wife and two children and made an onion sandwich for himself.

"He worked his ass off," McGinnis recalled. "And he was married to it for the rest of his life. He gave me an understanding – do you want to do this for the rest of your life, or do you want to do something else?

"He was a real man. I just hate that I wasn't able to spend more time with him and do something for him."

McGinnis says he became a man the day his father died. That also was the day his college career was put on notice. He and Downing had announced their plan to attend IU together before the all-star series with Kentucky, but McGinnis realized on that awful day when the doctor at the hospital told him his father had died that he was going to turn professional as soon as possible. His mother had received just a third-grade education in Alabama, and was ill-equipped to become a breadwinner. The $2,000 settlement they received after the accident didn't last long, so she began domestic work and took a job cleaning used appliances that were to be up for resale to support her children.

Highly motivated, McGinnis led the Big Ten in scoring (30) and rebounding (14.7) in his first and only varsity season at IU, becoming the first sophomore in conference history to do so. He then signed with the Pacers as quickly as possible after the season ended, for a $30,000 salary and $15,000 bonus. He dedicated his bonus money and part of his salary toward a new home for his mother, and retired her. Now 90, she lives in it still today.

McGinnis lives in a beautiful, spacious home with a deck overlooking a woods in the Geist area, with his wife of 41 years, Linda. At 67, his basketball career is finally complete with his Hall of Fame selection. He has helped build a successful business, GM Supply, from which he will soon retire, and has maintained close ties to two groups of teammates with whom he shared championships, from high school and the Pacers.

Best of all, he can take pride in having provided for his family in a manner that would have made his father proud. He shudders to think how different his life would be if Burnie McGinnis hadn't stopped in Indianapolis on his way to Chicago that fateful weekend in the early Fifties.

Indiana basketball fans can shudder right along with him.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.