At His Best, George McGinnis Was the Best
Editor's Note: This story was published prior to George McGinnis being elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
Offer nominees for the greatest Pacers player over the past 50 seasons, and the legitimate candidates can be counted on one hand. Without bothering with the thumb.
There's Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, who played 18 seasons at a high level and had historic playoff moments. There's Hall of Famer Roger Brown, a singular talent who had the greatest playoff performance in franchise history in the 1970 finals, and delivered more clutch shots than anyone not named Reggie. There's Hall of Famer Mel Daniels, the only Pacers player to be named a league Most Valuable Player twice and the heart and soul of championship teams. And, there's George McGinnis, the co-MVP of the ABA one season, and MVP of the 1973 finals when the Pacers won their third and most recent championship.
McGinnis has not been accepted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, which is a story of its own, but he stands apart from that group in more desirable ways. He's the only one to have attended high school and college in Indiana. He's the only one to have excelled in both the ABA and NBA, having been named to three ABA All-Star teams and then three NBA All-Star teams after jumping leagues and earning first-team all-league honors in each one as well.
He also fashioned what is unquestionably the greatest single season a Pacers player has ever had, and blew up more box scores with eye-popping stat lines than anyone in franchise history. No matter who one thinks has had the best career of all the Pacers, this much is certain: McGinnis, at his peak, was the best of them all.
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Seems like enough to deserve a bobblehead, right? McGinnis, along with Daniels, will be honored with one on Dec. 10 when the Pacers honor all players from the 1970s at their game against Portland at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Several players from that decade will be in attendance, including some from the championship teams of 1970, '72 and '73. McGinnis was instrumental in winning the last two of those titles, particularly the last one when he led a late Game 7 surge for a team thinned by injuries.
McGinnis has a unique Hoosier tale, one guided by a twist of fate. His father, Bernie, lived in a small town in Alabama, where he and his wife had both picked cotton. Bernie was driving to Chicago to look for a construction job one summer, part of the African-American migration northward, when he stopped in Indianapolis to spend a night with his sister. Her husband had a steady construction job in the city, and suggested Bernie check to see if there was an opening for him. Bernie stayed over an extra night, and landed one.
If not for that, George McGinnis would have grown up in Chicago, or somewhere else – in which case he wouldn't have fallen in love with the state high school tournament and been motivated to become a player, wouldn't have helped lead Washington High School to its perfect season in 1969, wouldn't have attended Indiana University for an All-American season as a sophomore and wouldn't have joined the Pacers.
That single job opening for his father turned out to be a huge break for Indiana's basketball tradition, on all levels. But it's a two-way street.
"It's been a blessing for me, too," McGinnis says.
A win-win circumstance, then. Which is appropriate, because McGinnis has contributed to a lot of wins for Indiana teams.
The game got into his system as a kid, from watching the state tournament on television. Attucks' 1959 championship in particular planted a seed he wanted to nourish. A late bloomer physically, he developed his skills in the city's neighborhood parks in that pre-AAU era. He played at Lockefield Gardens, at Military Park, and even ventured into the suburbs to play at Meadowood Park in Speedway. That one was at the invitation of a Speedway High School star, Tom Gilbert. He wound up becoming a friend of the Gilbert family, going along on family trips to Raccoon Lake. They must have had some boat, to tug a muscular 6-foot-8 water skier.
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McGinnis was so entranced by the state's basketball tradition that he and a few teammates drove to Hinkle Fieldhouse as sophomores to listen to a state tournament game that was playing inside on the radio. Close enough to smell the excitement, they provided their own play-by-play, and dreamed of being inside one day. He made a road trip, too. He and Downing and another teammate, Jim Arnold, drove to Lebanon once just to look at the wooden "Home of Rick Mount" sign that had been erected outside of town in honor of the 1966 Mr. Basketball who had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
McGinnis was voted Mr. Basketball in '69, an obvious choice after a consensus All-American season. Such were his physical gifts, however, that he was every bit as much a pursued recruit for football as basketball. He earned All-America honors in that sport as a combo tight end who caught 22 passes for 418 yards and defensive end who made 77 tackles.
He eventually elected to focus solely on basketball in college, but it wasn't as easy a decision as you might think. It, too, was brought about by another quirk of fate. Motivated by a "he's-not-that-great" kind of quote from a Kentucky player after the first game in the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star series in Indianapolis, he put on the greatest performance in the history of the annual series in the rematch the following week in Louisville. He scored 53 points on 20-of-32 shooting, and could have scored more had he shot better than 13-of-22 from the foul line. He also grabbed 30 rebounds, blocked four shots, and passed out three assists.
It still stands as the greatest single-game performance in the history of the series, but it was more than that for McGinnis. He still recalls riding home with his parents after the game, and how proud his normally stoic father was of him that night. Then, just a couple of weeks later, his father was killed when he fell from a scaffolding six floors off the ground while working on a construction site. He considers it more than coincidence that the last game his father saw him play was his best game.
That gave young McGinnis a sense of urgency to support his mother. His father had set a great example by working two jobs (construction during the day, in a factory at night) so that his mother could devote all her energies to raising George and his sister. When he died, mom had to go to work cleaning houses and doing whatever she could to provide for her children. George did what he could, too, taking a construction job of his own, cutting grass and working at a Burger King.
George knew then he would turn basketball into a paying job as quickly as possible, a decision reinforced by the unrest within the basketball program at IU during his sophomore season (1970-71), when he earned third-team All-America honors in his first crack at varsity competition after averaging 30 points and 14.7 rebounds.
The Pacers had won the ABA title in 1970, and finished with the best regular season record in 1971 before losing in the second round of the playoffs to eventual champion Utah. By no reasonable standard should they have been able to draft McGinnis, but the ABA didn't bother with reasonable standards. It was bent on survival, and if any of its teams could sign a great player, everyone was fair game.
The Pacers signed McGinnis for about $35,000 per season. "I thought, Man, if I can make this for 10 or 12 years, I'll be set," he thought at the time. He also received bonuses totaling $15,000, which allowed him to move his mother, Willie, into a new home. They had lived in a $7,000 home in Haughville on the near west side. The new one cost $26,800. She still lives in it with his sister, Bonnie.
"When she got those keys and walked in that house … I had never seen that look on her face before, and I felt so proud," he said. "That solidified my decision."
It speaks well of the veteran Pacers that they accepted the hotshot rookie. Freddie Lewis had seen him first in a high school game, and had gone back to tell his teammates the kid could start for them even then. Daniels and Brown saw him play as well, and were excited to add such a raw talent to a championship-caliber team.
"They accepted me with open arms," McGinnis recalled. "They were great, all of them."
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McGinnis helped the transition by coming in respectful and humble, which was his nature. He wound up starting 46 regular season games as a rookie, and 16 of 20 playoff games. The Pacers won the championship over New York in his rookie season, as he averaged 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds in the three playoff series.
They won it again his next season when he averaged 27.6 points and 12.5 rebounds during the regular season and earned finals MVP honors by leading the Pacers to another championship over Kentucky. His steal at midcourt and breakaway dunk made the difference in a one-point win in Game 5 in Louisville to give the Pacers a 3-2 lead. They failed to wrap up the championship back at the Fairgrounds Coliseum in Game 6, losing by 16 points despite McGinnis' 26 points and 15 rebounds.
McGinnis dragged them across the finish line in an 88-81 Game 7 victory in Louisville, scoring 27 points – 13 in the final eight minutes. He was awarded a car from Sport Magazine for being voted MVP of the series, a Dodge Charger that he gave to a family member.
McGinnis was two-for-two in championship quests at that point, but any notion they would come automatically was dashed the following season when the Pacers were eliminated by Utah in a seven-game second-round series. Daniels, Brown and Lewis were shipped off to Memphis after that season, leaving behind a young team built around the 24-year-old McGinnis.
It led to the greatest single season performance in Pacers history.
McGinnis was an athlete ahead of his time. He was listed at 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, but his frame looked like a bronze sculpture, perfectly proportioned. He was nicknamed Baby Bull, which he didn't particularly care for, as well as Big Mac. He never lifted weights, barely worked out in the offseasons other than to play basketball, but had uncommon strength, quickness and agility. He overpowered players around the basket, and beat them off the dribble on the perimeter. He had just one significant weakness: perimeter shooting. He shot jumpers with his massive right hand, not evening putting his left hand on the ball.
Over his first three ABA seasons, he hit just 19 of 104 3-point shots. But even that came together for him in his magical 1974-75 season.
Playing on virtually a brand new team, he averaged 29.8 points, 14.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 5.3 turnovers and 2.6 steals, all team highs. He led the ABA in six categories: points, field goal attempts, two-point field goal attempts, free throws and free throw attempts, and turnovers. He also hit 35 percent of his 3-point attempts, leading the Pacers in that category as well.
He was dominant, in a magnificent and reckless sort of way. He fired up air balls, missed easy shots, threw passes out of bounds, but remained an unstoppable force who led the Pacers on a surprising journey to the ABA finals that season. They started 14-21 while everyone got acquainted, but came together to eliminate San Antonio in six games in the first round of the playoffs and Denver in seven games in the second before falling to a more powerful Kentucky team. He averaged 32.3 points, 15.9 rebounds, 8.2 assists, two steals and 6.2 turnovers in the playoffs, but was limping on a bad ankle by Game 5, when the Colonels clinched the title in Louisville.
He had five triple-doubles in the first two rounds, including two quadruple-doubles of a less desirable variety:
- 42 points, 24 rebounds, nine assists and 10 turnovers in a 113-103 win over San Antonio
- 51 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists in a 110-109 loss to San Antonio
- 32 points, 23 rebounds, 14 assists and 11 turnovers in a 115-100 win over San Antonio
- 33 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists in a 122-118 win over Denver
- 26 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and 12 turnovers on April 30 in a 104-99 loss to Denver
To say the least, the offense ran through him.
"He was outta sight in that series," coach Bob Leonard said. "No question about it, he was a talent. That's as good as you can play. He put the team right on his back."
Even before that season, McGinnis had made entries in the franchise records book that remain today.
On Nov. 28, 1972, in just his second season, he scored 58 points in an overtime win at Dallas. Twenty-one of his points came in the third quarter, and just two in the extra session. He hit 22-of-35 shots, and just as in his 53-point all-star game after his high school career, he could have broken 60 by hitting more free throws. He hit just 14-of-21 in this one. He also had 16 rebounds and eight steals.
The shame of it was that just 1,631 fans got to see it in person.
The next season, on Jan. 12, 1974, he grabbed 37 rebounds in a victory over Carolina at the Coliseum. Oh by the way, he had 52 points, too. Carolina's forward Billy Cunningham, the league MVP that season, and backup forward Dennis Wuycik sat out the game with injuries, but still … it was a professional game. McGinnis didn't score until midway through the first quarter, but had 25 points and 17 rebounds by halftime. Daniels missed the game with an injury and Darnell Hillman's minutes were limited by foul trouble, leaving more points and rebounds for McGinnis, and he took them.
"Like Vesuvius or the San Andreas Fault, McGinnis' time came last night," the Indianapolis Star's game story reported. "He finally exploded and he utterly destroyed the injury-riddled Cougars ..."
That game was the third in three nights for the Pacers. They played the following night as well, in San Diego. They lost that one, 141-130. Despite the fatigue of playing four nights in a row, McGinnis settled for 36 points and 14 rebounds in 47 minutes.
(That game also was notable for perhaps the greatest comeback in franchise history, although it failed. The Pacers trailed by 30 points with 9:39 left in the fourth quarter, but Billy Keller (four) and Brown (two) began raining 3-point shots and got the Pacers within four points with 2:11 left. The rally fell short, but they had scored 36 points in 7 minutes, 48 seconds.)
McGinnis was simply too valuable a commodity for the Pacers to afford following the 1974-75 season, when he shared MVP honors with Julius Erving in balloting by 30 media members from the league's 10 cities. Ownership couldn't afford to pay him market value, so he jumped to Philadelphia in the NBA for a contract that totaled $3 million over six seasons, about three times the salary the Pacers had been paying him.
The degree of his popularity at the time was easily measured by the turnstiles in Indianapolis and Philadelphia. The Pacers drew about 4,000 fewer fans per game the following season, while the 76ers' attendance grew by about 6,000. In Philadelphia, billboards declared, "By George, we've got it!" and "Let George do it."
Philadelphia played an interleague exhibition game against the Pacers at Market Square Arena the following season. McGinnis, according to newspaper accounts, received a standing ovation from 99 percent of the fans, who understood the simple economics of his decision. The Pacers even conducted a pre-game ceremony to present him with a plaque and a red, white and blue ABA ball. In case he got tired of playing with the dirty brown one, he was told.
Then he went out and scored 27 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in a two-point victory for the Sixers.
McGinnis played three seasons in Philadelphia, averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in each one and earning a spot in the All-Star game the first two seasons. He was traded to Denver in August of 1978, the other principal in the deal being Bobby Jones. He averaged 22.6 points and 10.1 rebounds for the Nuggets the following season, and started in the All-Star game, then was traded back to the Pacers during the 1979-80 season for Alex English and a first-round draft pick (which was used to select Carl Nicks, who now works for the Pacers in player development).
He played the final 28 games of 1979-80 season for the Pacers, averaging 13.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. He had scattered big moments, such as 29 points in a game at Philadelphia and 31 at San Antonio, but his body was beginning to rebel. He played in just two of the three playoff games in Philadelphia's three-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs, averaging five points.
He played one more season, averaging just 4.7 points off the bench, and then was released in training camp in 1982. He was offered a press conference and farewell ceremony, but refused to retire. He asked to be put on waivers instead, so he would be available to other teams. Nobody called.
He was just 32, which seems a premature ending to his career by today's standards. But he had played 11 seasons, 842 games in the regular season and 104 in the playoffs – longer than Daniels and Brown, in fact. It was a full career, with a league MVP honor, two championships in the ABA, a Finals appearance in the NBA with Philadelphia and six total All-Star appearances. No unhappy ending could spoil all that.
"It's hard when you've played at a certain level," he said. "You always think you can get back, but you can't.
"But they paid you, right? You played, they paid you. How much do they really owe you? You start to reconcile this and really they owe you nothing. I got over that."
It took awhile, though. McGinnis retreated back to Denver, where he spent a few years hunting, skiing and fishing. He lost himself in the mountains, traveled to Alaska, wore off the disappointment of being cut by the hometown team for which he had starred and the decline of a once-great career.
And then he returned, in 1986 or '87, to resume a renewed life in Indianapolis. He broadcast some games, from high school to the Pacers. He was a spokesperson for the Hoosier Lottery. And in 1992 he founded an industrial distribution business, GM Supply, for which he remains the president.
It's one more thing that sets him apart. The game wore down his body over 11 seasons, but not his spirit or his thirst for succeses.
"I was still young when I got cut, and I had to regroup," he said. "That's what I'm most proud of, more than the basketball. I was able to digest that all, get rid of it.
"I always tell kids, there's nothing better than your good name and reputation. If people perceive you as a good person and you stay out of trouble, it will benefit you once you get done with basketball. People have been very kind and gave me the benefit of the doubt. It's been great."
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