At the Top of his Career, McGinnis Remained Down to Earth

Talk to anyone who knows George McGinnis and they’ll tell you the same thing: he’s as nice a guy as you’re ever going to meet. He’s soft-spoken and preternaturally polite, true to his nature and the habits his parents, Burnie and Willie, instilled.

That’s not all that unusual, really. Most great athletes tend to be accommodating in their later years, after the cheering stops and the spotlight dims. I can tell you from personal experience, however, that McGinnis was the same way when he was on top of the basketball world, although I had to stalk him to find out.

McGinnis Hall of Fame Central: Learn More About McGinnis’ Enshrinement »

Some background:

McGinnis was as great a sports figure as the state of Indiana had ever produced in the mid-Seventies. He had been the most physically dominant high school player anyone had seen while leading Washington to an undefeated season and the state championship in 1969. He had excelled at Indiana University in his one varsity season there, in 1970-71, while leading the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding. He had starred on the Pacers’ championship teams in 1972 and ’73, earning Most Valuable Player honors in the finals in ’73, when he led a Game 7 victory over Kentucky in Louisville. And then in 1974-75 he had a season yet to be surpassed by any Pacer while leading a young, rebuilding team to the finals and sharing league MVP honors with Julius Erving.

He was a basketball player ahead of his time, predating the likes of Karl Malone and LeBron James. He was a muscular, agile forward who could grab a rebound and take it the length of the floor for a dunk, or grab an offensive rebound in traffic and score on put-backs. He was a decent perimeter shooter, with that funky one-handed shot. He was a good passer, too, although he wasn’t expected to let go of the ball too often.

How good was he? His stats tell stories that seem almost fictional today.

Early in his second ABA season, on Nov. 28, 1972, he scored a franchise-record 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 also had 16 rebounds and eight steals.

The following season, on Jan. 12, 1974, he grabbed a club-record 37 rebounds in a victory over Carolina in Indianapolis, and, oh by the way, had 52 points as well.

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, but McGinnis – despite playing four nights in a row and having traveled from Indianapolis to New York to Indianapolis to San Diego – finished with 36 points and 14 rebounds in 47 minutes.

A year later, during his MVP season, he had five triple-doubles in the first two rounds of the playoffs, including an outlandish outburst against San Antonio with 51 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists.

Get the picture?

The following season, after he had jumped to Philadelphia in the NBA, a move that few people in Indianapolis begrudged because of the Pacers’ inability to come close to matching the 76ers’ salary offer, I was the sports editor of the Indiana Daily Student. I came up with the idea of a series of feature articles on former IU athletes who were playing or had played professionally, and called them Pro-files. Clever, eh?

I assigned myself a story on McGinnis and arranged to drive to Chicago when the Sixers were playing the Bulls at the old Chicago Stadium, on Feb. 10, 1976. An IDS colleague, John Whisler, went with me to do a story on John Laskowski, who was playing for the Bulls. I found out the hotel where the Sixers were staying, and waited for McGinnis in the lobby on the afternoon of the game. I introduced myself to him as the players headed to the bus for the ride to the stadium, but he didn’t have time to talk then. “Catch me over at the stadium before the game,” he said. Politely.

After arriving at the stadium, I went to the 76ers’ locker room. He was busy with other interviews and conversations, however. “Catch me after the game,” he said. Politely.

I returned to the locker room after the game, in which McGinnis scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead a one-point Sixers victory, but by the time the beat reporters had finished talking with him, the team was ready to leave. “Catch me back at the hotel,” he said. Politely.

Teams flew commercial in those days and stayed overnight in the cities in which they played their road games, rather than flying out after the game as they do now. So, back at the hotel, I found McGinnis holding court in the lounge. I sat nearby, nervously, while he talked with friends – most of whom were cousins who lived in Chicago – and then finally made my final approach.

Leaning sideways while those around him talked among themselves, he answered all the questions a college reporter could conjure up. Politely. I would no doubt cringe today if I read the story I wrote from that conversation, but at the time it felt like a personal victory. I believe I basically confirmed he was a down-to-earth guy who hadn’t let fame go to his head. Not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but at least it was an accurate depiction.

McGinnis admittedly became a little embittered after he was held largely responsible for the Sixers’ loss to Portland in the 1977 NBA Finals, and then was traded to Denver. He suffered a career-altering injury there, when he stepped on Buffalo guard Randy Smith’s foot while heading to the basket for a breakaway layup, and was never the same.

He finished his career with the Pacers, a shell of his former self, and was released in training camp before the 1982-83 season. It took him awhile to get over that, but he did. After a sabbatical in Denver, he returned home and took advantage of various opportunities afforded to him because of the good reputation he had established. Eventually, he built a new career in the business world, one that continues to prosper.

I’ve talked with him many times since his return to Indianapolis, usually for articles, podcasts and the like. Most recently, I went to his luxurious home in the Geist area to help him with his induction speech and to interview him for stories on this website. He hasn’t changed. On my first visit, he and his wife of 40 years, Linda – his childhood sweetheart – served lasagna. I managed to knock over a half-filled glass of water on the dining room table.

“Don’t worry about that, Mark,” he said, politely, getting up to grab a dish cloth. “I’ll get it. That’s why we have this table cloth.”

The point is, neither fame nor fortune has changed the kid who grew up in a $7,000 home in the Haughville neighborhood on Indy’s west side. And now that he’s ready for basketball’s ultimate individual honor, the theme of his story is clear.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.


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