George McGinnis: The Spirit of the 76ers, 1976

[How about another article on George McGinnis? This one is from the March 1976 issue of SPORT Magazine. McGinnis has now joined the NBA Philadelphia 76ers, and writer Don Kowet tags along and clearly likes the hulking, down-to-earth person that he discovers. Warning: This article has the creepiest ending in the history of pro basketball articles. Yikes!]


In the year of the bicentennial, in the city that spawned the American democracy, billboards all over town boast: “By George, We’ve Got It!” The Philadelphia slogan alludes not to George Washington, who was only first in war and second in peace, but to George McGinnis, who lifted the Philadelphia 76ers from last to first in the Atlantic Division of the National Basketball Association.

By the time the current NBA season draws to an end, not long before the 200th anniversary of the big signing in Philadelphia, the 76ers may well have yielded first place to Boston or Buffalo. But they did hold that exalted position for at least the early months of the season, a revolutionary achievement (considering the 76ers’ recent history of repression) that enabled the 76er telephone operators to answer all calls, “Hello . . . 1976ers’ . . . team of the year,” and that drove ticket sales up by 5,000 a game at the 76ers’ homecourt, the Spectrum, the Philadelphia arena that has cracked open more often than the Liberty Bell. [Note: The Spectrum roof kept blowing off.]

It wouldn’t be fair to give all the credit for the 76ers’ revival to one man. But if the team by some miracle were to win the NBA championship in May, the city’s bicentennial visitors should not be surprised to find that the new symbol of Philadelphia—wearing breaches, waistcoat, and bifocals—is a 6-foot-8, 245-pound tiger: George McGinnis.   

You tell him to go fly a kite.


The 76ers trailed the New York Knicks, 97-96, with less than a minute to play, and as Fred Carter, a Philadelphia guard, shot and missed, George McGinnis and the Knicks’ Spencer Haywood went up for the rebound. Haywood had position; McGinnis had muscle. McGinnis shoved aside the 6-foot-9 Haywood, grabbed the rebound and dropped in the ball. Playing with a sprained right thumb, McGinnis had 30 points and, a few seconds later, the 76ers had a 99-97 victory, their ninth victory in 11 games, and a two-game lead over second-place Boston. 

Afterward, in the 76ers’ locker room, McGinnis stepped out of the shower, his lean body rippling with muscles, and sat down on a stool. He pulled a tube out of his duffel-bag and began rubbing cream onto his hands, diligently, the way gunfighters in the Old West must have oiled their pistols after a shoot-out.

A reporter approached McGinnis and asked him what effect the loss of Billy Cunningham—severely injured during the game—would have on the 76ers’ playoff hopes. “We’ll suck it in, man,” McGinnis snapped, his voice smoking like dry ice. “Pro basketball ain’t no Sunday tea party!”


Half an hour later, George’s black Cadillac with Indiana plates pulled up at a red light. A blue 1968 Ford with dual exhausts drew up next to McGinnis. The driver of the Ford revved his engine, challenging the Cadillac to a contest. He was picking on the wrong man. McGinnis had not yet completed his postgame transformation from mean and menacing adversary to relaxed and even-tempered man. So Lynda, his fiancée, was silently grateful that George was not behind the wheel of his Jaguar XK-140, or his Mercedes, or his Corvette. But most of all, she was thankful that the 76ers had won tonight. Otherwise, the George McGinnis who plays basketball as if it were a demolition-derby might be a bit dangerous on the road. 

Then the light changed. George slipped the gear-lever into neutral and floored the accelerator. Stung by the Caddy’s roar, the custom-Ford rocketed off the mark, pulling up short 100 yards away, when the driver realized he’d been duped. George started laughing, an easy, contagious cackle. 

Moments later, though, he turned serious. “When Billy slipped, fell and cried out in pain, I could feel it like it was my pain,” whispered George McGinnis.  


“Everybody tells me I look so mean on the court,” said George. “I don’t know, man. When I put on a basketball uniform, I am a totally different person, believe me. I can’t relate to Lynda. I can’t relate to anybody.

“And then, after a game,” George said, “I’ll take a shower. I’ll put on my clothes—and then everybody says, ‘I can’t believe how soft you talk, how soft you come on.’

“I think it’s the inner drive in me to excel,” he added. “I really enjoy competition. I enjoy winning. I hate to lose at anything.”

Anything,” Lynda agreed. She is small, pretty, bright. Lynda and George have known each other for 10 years and have been engaged for two. “She beat me at a game of pool one night,” said George. “I got angry.” They were now sitting in the playroom of the house George had bought a few weeks earlier. Mellow soul music wafted out of a stereo. Lynda sipped Chablis, and George’s large hand was wrapped around a can of cold beer. The house is set on an acre of land, lush with weeping willow and jasmine. Ducks waddled down to the brook that bordered the property. 

The house has 14 rooms, but George and Lynda spend most of their time either in the simply furnished playroom (a bridge table, chairs, linoleum covering the floor), or in the “great room” upstairs—a converted garage with cathedral ceilings, wood beams, a wrought-iron chandelier. In the center of the “great room” stands a 500-pound pool table with a goodbye-plaque from the Indiana Pacers. The first thing George did was invite a visitor to shoot a round of pool. 

“Some of the boys are teaching me how to play,” he offered innocently; when the hustle failed, he skillfully pocketed a rack of balls. Then he insisted that the visitor test the enormous rickshaw-like cane rocker he and Lynda had shipped back from Manila, during their trip to the Philippines last summer. Finally, George led a tour through the other rooms, rooms with marble floors and French windows, rooms that evoked visions of ladies in hoop-skirts, curtseying to partners who bowed from the waist.  

George, however, seemed to feel most comfortable in the playroom, surrounded by mementos: a pair of size 14-and-a-half bronzed tennis shoes; a 6-foot-8, yellow toothbrush that had been awarded to him at a recent Dental Health Night. 

He sat there with a can of beer in his hand, asking more questions than he answered, wanting to know as much about the visitor’s life as he was willing to reveal about his own. Yet the overall impression was that George McGinnis was down-home and unpretentious, without a trace of arrogance. 

When asked about criticisms of his defensive play, for instance, George offered no excuses. “Look,” he said. “I am not a great defensive player, and I make no bones about it. In fact, defense is really our basic problem. There’s no one that can stop us from scoring—and there’s no team we can stop from scoring, either.”

George was wearing blue jeans and a blue work shirt. Lynda said he had bought 12 pairs of jeans—and 12 blue shirts, all alike. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, honey, bring me something comfortable to wear.’ I’ll bring him a carbon-copy of the jeans and shirt he’s wearing. He’ll say, ‘Hey, now that’s nice.’”

“If you are a black athlete,” George said, “there’s an image to be upheld if you’re making it. You gotta be cool, right? So, the first thing you do is get a big car and fine clothes. And you really showboat. I did that for a while. Then I realized I enjoy wearing blue jeans, and I hate wearing suits.”

A few weeks earlier, McGinnis said, 76er owner Irv Kosloff (with whom McGinnis shares a passion for horse-breeding) had called and invited him to a very elegant, very exclusive dinner-party. “I said to him, ‘Hey, Kos, I can’t go with you, man. I only have one regular kind of suit, and it’s been on the hanger so long, it’s hanger-shaped.’

“You know what Kosloff did?” George said. “This is the type of guy he is: He went out and got himself a blue-jean suit, just so I wouldn’t be the only one.”

George paused, drinking a second beer, then he said, “I just get so fed up with that ego trip” You gotta look the way people expect you to look. My agent tells me all the time: ‘Hey [his voice became a strange whisper], look at Clyde. man, you gotta get sharp, too.‘ I tell him, ‘Hey, I’m real, I’m everyday. To hell with Clyde!’”

Irwin Weiner is George’s agent. Weiner is also Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s agent. Although McGinnis rejected Weiner’s advice to dress like Frazier, he was impressed last year by Weiner’s arguments that George ought to be playing with Frazier—in New York with the Knicks. “Weiner told me,” George said, “‘Put Clyde in Indiana, and he’s just plain Walt Frazier again.’ And he was right.”

In 1973, the 76ers drafted McGinnis—then a two-year pro with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA—on the second round. In August 1974, the New York Knicks, desperate for a power-forward to replace Dave DeBusschere, got permission from the 76ers to negotiate with McGinnis for a 30-day period. At the time, the 76ers were having problems. Forward Billy Cunningham was still in the ABA, refusing to honor his 76ers’ contract. Guard Freddie Carter was refusing to sign any contract at all. Guard Doug Collins, now a star, was then a neophyte. If New York could sign McGinnis, the Knicks would ship Earl Monroe, a top draft pick, and plenty of cash to Philadelphia, in compensation. But George turned down the Knicks’ offer. 

Then, in October 1974, under the same 30-day agreement, the Knicks tried again—and again had no success. Instead, McGinnis signed a new two-year Pacer contract, with the proviso that for $86,750, he could buy his freedom after one season. 

That season, 1974-75—McGinnis’ fourth with the Pacers—turned out to be his best ever. Not only did he collect more than 1,000 rebounds for the third consecutive year, he led the ABA in scoring (29.8 points per game), was second in steals (2.6 per game), third in assists (6.3 per game), and fourth in accuracy on the three-point shot. He was also the league’s co-MVP, with Julius Erving of the New York Nets. 

Before the 1975-76 season, the Knicks were more anxious than ever to sign McGinnis. But now Philadelphia (improving under coach Gene Shue, with Billy Cunningham back in the fold and a roster full of promising young players) wanted George, too. “When the Knicks came to us a third time, we told them no,” says 76ers general manager Pat Williams. ”We said we wanted McGinnis in Philadelphia.”

Undaunted, the Knicks negotiated with McGinnis anyway—and this time offered him a $500,000 bonus. The Knicks signed McGinnis on May 30, 1975. Knick president Mike Burke promptly called Philadelphia and asked the 76ers what they’d like in return. “For the NBA to take away your franchise!” roared 76ers owner Irv Kosloff. Then Kosloff made a call of his own—to [famous] lawyer Louis Nizer. 

“The league meeting in San Francisco was something,” Pat Williams recalls. “The 17 owners were like a lynch-mob waiting to hang the Knicks. Nizer presented our case brilliantly. At the end, the owners gave him a standing ovation. We should have charged admission.”

In his first major decision, new NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien nullified the Knicks-McGinnis contract. O’Brien took a No. 1 draft choice away from the Knicks. He even ordered New York to pay Philadelphia’s legal fees. McGinnis, at agent Weiner’s urging, decided to settle for the fourth-largest commercial market, instead of the largest. He signed a $3.2 million, six-year contract with the 76ers. 

“Look,” an unrepentant McGinnis said in late December, “every athlete’s dream is to be able to play in New York. New York has more opportunities to offer a basketball player, on and off the court, than any other city in the United States, and that’s just plain fact. And that includes Indianapolis,” he added. “And Philadelphia, too.”


The cain rocker from the Philippines.

The house George now lives in is a far cry from the one he grew up in—a sturdy white-frame, with a concrete porch out front, at 1234 King Street in Indianapolis, Ind. (His mother still lives in Indianapolis, but now in the $40,000 ranch house George bought her a few years back.) 

The first thing you noticed about the McGuinness family, if you were a neighbor, was that they were uncommonly tall. George’s father, Burnie, was 6-foot-7 and his mother, Willie, was 5-foot-10—the same height as his sister, Bonnie, three years older than George. 

The second thing you noticed was that the McGinnises were uncommonly close; George and his Dad were always together on weekends, off hunting or fishing in the countryside. “My Dad and I were buddies, but he’d beat on you if you did something wrong,” George recalled. “But when you succeeded at something, he was quick to praise.”

What George succeeded at best was sports. “George was the best football player I’ve had,” says long-time Washington High coach Bob Springer. “He was also the best football player I’ve seen.”

Michigan State was one of 300 colleges across the country that wanted McGinnis to play football. “I sent a scout out to look him over,” Michigan State’s Duffy Doherty recalls. “’Is McGinnis good enough to play for us?’ I asked the scout. The scout tells me: ‘Right now, he’s good enough to play in the NFL.’”

But George was even better at basketball than at football. In 1968, as a senior at Washington High—playing with Steve Downing, who later starred at Indiana and was drafted by the Celtics—McGinnis averaged 32.5 points per game to break Oscar Robertson’s Indianapolis high-school record, powering his school to a 31-0 record and a state championship. 

But even then, there was a split in George’s personality. The placid, even-tempered kid who had been taught “to be nice to everybody” turned into a demon on a basketball court. In Indianapolis, they still remember the time McGinnis, in the summer following his senior year of high school, played in the “World Series of Basketball”—a two-game, home-and-home all-star series that pitted Indiana kids against kids from Kentucky. George’s matchup in the first game was 6-foot-8, 240-pound Joe Voskuhl, who later played for the University of Tulsa. Despite the fact that McGinnis scored 23 points, leading his team to victory, Voskuhl downgraded McGinnis’ ability. “There is no way McGinnis will ever be as good as Oscar,” said Voskuhl. “I put my hand in his face, and he was off every time.”

George was enraged. In the second game, played in Louisville’s Freedom Hall, he was again matched up against Voskuhl. In his first seven minutes, George grabbed 21 rebounds, one more than the entire Kentucky team. He finished with a record 53 points. And George taunted Voskuhl throughout the game, yelling: “Ain’t no good, am I? Huh? Huh?”

A few days later, tragedy struck. George’s father, a 42-year-old carpenter, fell off a construction scaffold and plunged eight stories to his death. “I was at work, at a summer job,” George quietly recalled. “My sister called me. She told me my father fell. I didn’t feel like going to college anymore.”

But by the end of the summer, his mother had convinced him to attend Indiana University. As a sophomore, in his one varsity season, Georgia led the Big 10 in scoring, with 29.9 points a game. The 20-year-old signed with the Indiana Pacers at the end of that sophomore year, in 1971, for a $50,000 bonus. Over the next four seasons, he and Doctor J.—Julius Erving—became the ABA’s two brightest stars. 

And then this season, McGinnis switched to the NBA, and his impact was immediate. The first time Laker coach Bill Sharman saw McGinnis, he was stunned. “M’God,” said Sharman, “he’s a 6-foot-8, 245-pound Earl Monroe!”

“George McGinnis,” says teammate Billy Cunningham, “is simply the finest power-forward I have ever seen. You don’t expect a man his size to be able to run and handle the ball like he does.”

“He’s awfully tough,” says the Celtics’ Paul Silas, generally acknowledged to be the best defensive forward in the NBA. “He has a quick first step that’s hard to stay with. He controls his body well. And he’s so strong.”

“There are shooters, and there are scorers,” Philadelphia coach Gene Shue adds. “George is a scorer. There’s never been a man so big that was better.”


George finished the third beer in his playroom and said, “Basically, my game is: Get the ball and go around them. Create something, and, if I have a shot, take it. If not, hit the open man. Nobody wants to jump in front of me. Nobody wants to take the charging foul.

“But I don’t want people to think I’m only a physical player. I don’t want anyone saying, ‘Look at him—he’s an animal.’”

It was getting late now, and there were noises in George’s big new house that neither he nor Lynda nor the visitor had noticed a bottle of wine and a few beers ago. But George and Lynda both were obviously a little wary about living in the 14-room house in the somewhat isolated suburb. 

Lynda started telling a story about one of the 76ers’ wives who had been baby-sitting for a neighbor recently and was sitting in the neighbor’s living room when she got a telephone call. A man’s voice whispered, “I just killed the first one.” She immediately called the police, who said they’d try to trace the call if the man phoned back. Within minutes, there was a second call. This time the stranger whispered, “I’ve just killed the second one.” Moments later, the police telephoned. “We traced the call,” the cop said. “It came from your upstairs phone: GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!” The babysitter ran from the house screaming. When the police got there, they found that the two children upstairs had been killed. 

For a moment, after Lynda finished, no one said a word, every sound now seeming more ominous down in George’s playroom. Then McGinnis, all 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, stood up. He shuffled over to his fiancée, presumably to reassure her.

“Lynda, baby, hold my hand,” said George McGinnis, “’cause I am scared!”

Big, tough George McGinnis.

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