Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame/Billy Keller
For Keller and McGinnis, Memories of Winning State Never Faded
The tournament seeped into their DNA early, a shimmering light and joyful noise that at once seemed an unreachable mirage and close enough to touch. It beckoned them forward, inspiring the first steps of a journey that became their profession.
Bill Keller and George McGinnis had parallel basketball careers in many respects. They led their Washington High School teams to the state championship in their respective senior seasons. They were voted Mr. Basketball, symbolic of being the best player in the state, and the passing years would confirm that opinion. They had standout college careers at Purdue and Indiana respectively, earning individual national recognition, and then joined forces on Pacers teams that won ABA championships.
They're also in lockstep in the opinion that winning the state high school tournament was a highlight never to be exceeded. Keller did it in 1965, leading the Continentals to a 29-2 record. McGinnis did it in 1969, leading one of the greatest high school teams in the state's history to a 31-0 record. Now that sufficient time has passed to bring their basketball careers into perspective, the light and noise have not dimmed.
Keller and McGinnis will headline the next Hickory Night celebration at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday when the Pacers play Sacramento and Washington's championship teams are honored. Several of their teammates will be on hand as well, players who were essential to the championships, many of whom had distinguished careers of their own.
Keller was joined in the starting lineup by Ralph Taylor, who also played at Purdue; Marvin Winkler, who played 20 games for the Pacers in the 1971-72 season; Trester Award winner Eddie Bopp; and Bill Rogers, who went on to play for Vincennes University. McGinnis' teammates included Steve Downing, who became an All-American center at IU and a first-round draft pick of the Celtics in '73; Wayne Pack, who played 21 games for the Pacers in the 1974-75 season; Louie Day, who attended IU on a football scholarship, and Jim Arnold, who also played collegiately.
Keller will fly up from his winter home in Florida and McGinnis will drive in from his home in Indianapolis, but they would go to just about any length to relive the memories with their teammates.
"There was nothing like it," McGinnis said. "There was an innocence to it. It was something I grew up with that was ingrained in all of us. It was something we dreamed about, being able to play on TV one day. That was the biggest thing in the world at that time."
Keller would agree. For both, the high school championship represented the culmination of a childhood dream.
Keller grew up watching the tournament on television, and then, around fifth grade, began attending it with his father back when the finals were a one-day event that filled Butler's fieldhouse.
"He dangled that carrot in front of me, and it was something I wanted to be involved in," Keller said. "I dreamed about it. I'd often go out and play by myself, and I'd put myself at the free throw line with a chance to win the state tournament. And whether you made the shot or missed, you'd laugh about it. You'd do that over and over.
"There wasn't a day that went by as a kid that I didn't put myself in the state finals. Especially at the free throw line. I had put myself in a situation to play in the state finals and maybe win the state finals with a free throw."
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As a sophomore and junior, Keller was one of the varsity letter winners from city schools entrusted with working the final four games as an usher. One of the duties was to hold the ropes after the game to keep fans from running onto the court and join the celebration. That required sitting on the edge of the court halfway through the final quarter, to be in position when the game ended. From there, his dream played out in front of him in living color, just a few yards away.
He watched Muncie Central and its future Mr. Basketball, Rick Jones, win in 1963, then watched Lafayette Jeff and its future Mr. Basketball, Denny Brady, win in '64. From those experiences, along with the childhood fantasies he had conjured in his solitary hours with a ball and basket, it all felt familiar when he got his chance to play in the game '65.
"The first time I went to the line in the state finals, I had been there many, many times – in my mind," he said. "I wasn't really nervous going to the free throw line, because I had been there."
Keller led all scorers with 25 points in the championship game, but the singular moment that remains clearest in his mind today is, of all things, a missed foul shot. He had hit all 31 of his free throws during the tournament, beginning with the sectional, and had a chance to extend the streak when he was fouled with 11 seconds remaining. Washington's victory was assured, his teammates had vacated their places along the foul lane to defend Fort Wayne North's basket, and celebrations were breaking out all around him. Distracted by all the commotion, he missed the first foul shot, breaking his streak. He hit the second to finish 32-of-33 from the foul line for the tournament.
"I wasn't focused and I missed it," he said. "When you ask me today what memory comes to mind, that's the first thing. That's a memory that lingers. It could have been 33 out of 33."
Keller went on to play at Purdue, where he was a three-year starter and point guard for the 1969 team that reached the championship game of the NCAA tournament. The Boilermakers, in fact, defeated North Carolina in a semifinal game of the Final Four on the same Saturday that McGinnis and the rest of the Continentals won the state championship. Keller also was the inaugural winner of the Frances Pomeroy Naismith award, given to the nation's best player 6-foot or shorter.
Keller then played seven seasons for the Pacers, becoming one of four players to be part of all three championship teams, in 1970, '72 and '73. McGinnis joined the team for the 1971-72 season after earning third-team All-American honors as a sophomore at IU. He was a starter by the end of his rookie season, and a star the following season, when he was voted the '73 ABA finals MVP after starring in the Game 7 victory over Kentucky in Louisville. He would go on to be voted co-MVP of the ABA with Julius Erving in 1975 and become a three-time NBA All-Star.
Like Keller, however, nothing surpassed the thrill of his high school championship. His Washington team was one for the ages, an undefeated team that dominated nearly every game it played. Only one opponent came within single-digits of the Continentals during the regular season. Shortridge did it twice, but lost by 22 points in the championship game of the city tournament.
Also like Keller, McGinnis was primed for his first championship by all he saw and heard while growing up in Indianapolis. His first impression came from being five years old and watching the Oscar Robertson-led Attucks team win the title in 1956 with his father.
"That was burned in my memory," he said.
Attucks' overachieving 1959 championship team excited him even more, because he was old enough to understand better, and the feeling never left him. When he was a freshman at Washington, he rode up with a few sophomores with driver's licenses just to marvel at the "Home of Rick Mount" sign near the exit to Lebanon. The next two years, in a scene fit for "Hoosiers," he and teammates Steve Downing and Jim Arnold sat in a car outside the fieldhouse during final four games and listened to them on the radio, imagining themselves playing in the game and helping with the broadcaster's call of the game. When the action heated up, they could hear the muffled noise seeping through the fieldhouse bricks, an invitation to their future.
"It was so cool," McGinnis recalled, "listening to that game and hearing that roar."
Washington was favored by many to win the title McGinnis' junior year. Downing had grown from a 5-10 freshman to a 6-9 junior, and was finding his legs. McGinnis, even as an underclassman, was the best player in the state. The Continentals, though, lost by 12 points in the championship game of the Regional to city rival Shortridge, which advanced to the final game before losing to Gary Roosevelt.
Bill Green took over as head coach for McGinnis' senior season, replacing Jerry Oliver, who left to take an assistant coaching position at IU – and begin working to lure McGinnis and Downing there. Green was famous for his matchup zone defense, but he was a savvy motivator, too, according to McGinnis.
"At the beginning of the season he said, 'Look, guys, we're going to win them all. And I want you to think about this. Every game we win, Friday night and Saturday night, I'm taking you to White Castle and you're getting 10 hamburgers apiece."
Green kept his promise. At the time, for a bunch of high school kids from blue collar families, it was a highlight never to be forgotten.
Green also saw something in a kid who had been cut three times by Oliver. Wayne Pack excelled on the local playgrounds, but Oliver considered him too undisciplined. Green, though, kept him. Pack was so excited about getting his first pair of Converse All-Stars that he took them home, put them on his dresser and stayed up all night staring at them.
He was more excited to become an integral part of Washington's team. He became a starter shortly after the season began, and scored 13 points in the championship game victory.
"Wayne Pack was, by far, the most interesting story on our team," McGinnis said. "I tell kids all the time, take advantage of playing basketball, don't let basketball take advantage of you."
Pack did that, becoming the first member of his family to go to college. He played at Tennessee Tech, sat out a year after his college career ended, then caught on with the Pacers for 21 games. He was the fourth guard among four, but had a couple of double-figure games when he got playing time in blowouts. He was nicknamed Six-Pack, and given jersey No. 6 to go with it.
If not for his persistence and Green's faith in him, he likely would have wound up working in a factory or joining the military. College simply wasn't an option given his parents' blue-collar salaries without a scholarship of some sort. After Pack's playing career ended, armed with a college degree and local status as a former Pacers player, he began a path toward a career as an executive in Human Resources.
As McGinnis likes to point out, for many years Pack was the only person in the history of Indiana high school basketball who never lost a game and won a state championship. His one and only season had been perfect.
The two Washington championship teams were just four years apart and most of the players lived within walking distance of the school, so there's some crossover between the two groups. Taylor from the '65 team, for example, lived just down the street from McGinnis, who remembers watching him walking home after school with a backpack full of books.
Combined, these two teams account not only for two Mr. Basketballs and two popular Pacers, but for two other players with brief Pacer careers, a future first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, a future Pacers' assistant coach (Oliver), and the coach with more state tournament championships than any in the state's history (Green, who won five more at Marion).
All of them would agree, nothing they went on to do in life surpassed those state titles at Butler. That's true even for Keller, who won three with the Pacers, and nearly another with Purdue.
"The high school state championship was the most memorable for me, because it was the first," he said. "It was the one you dreamed about, the one you worked towards. My work for the high school championships started when I was in the fourth grade.
"It was the first, and it was my youth."
McGinnis would agree.
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