And now, like a
spectator at a movie catching the first vague scent of smoke, McGill became
aware of a distressing difference between college and professional sports. In
college the coach is, ideally, a teacher; he undertakes to develop the youth as
an athlete and as a man. In professional sports the coach is a strategist, a
disciplinarian, a public relations man and, in the NBA, a freelance traveling
secretary. He is not expected to be a developer of talent. He expects the
talent to be ready for the test. Such a man is McMahon. Under his guidance the
Zephyrs were completely rebuilt. McMahon gave them a coherent offense and an
appreciation of defense. After-practice drills were given to the rookies with
poise, such as Terry Dischinger, Mel Nowell and Don Nelson, and they were able
to work on their faults alone. McGill got such drills, too, but his technical
weaknesses were too great and his discouragement was overwhelming the ability
bashfulness greatly inhibited him, too. "He doesn't talk much," says
Mrs. William Harris, who rented him a third-floor room in the Harris home on
South Michigan Avenue. "I tell him I want him to feel our home is his
home," she says. "He just say 'All right' and go back to his room and
shut the door."
Least of all has
he been able to talk to his coach. "I didn't even know he could talk,"
said McMahon at one point. Nor did McMahon much explore the possibility.
"Around the locker room, in the planes, I don't know—everywhere—he'd talk
with everybody and I kept thinking I just couldn't get to talking with
him," says McGill.
Frank Lane, the
volatile, opinionated general manager of the Zephyrs, did approach McGill, but
such an effusive personality was hardly likely to provide solace for an unhappy
introvert. "I went to breakfast with him three straight mornings and he
didn't even grunt," says Lane.
The first time
McGill walked into the Zephyr dressing room he instinctively took a locker
where he would be virtually alone. During games he sat at the farthest end of
the bench, as if in self-mortification for being considered the poorest man on
the team. When he left the Coliseum he would retreat to his room, shut the
door, read and reread his mail. "I don't feel like myself," he
shattering blow came when he realized that McMahon didn't think he was good
enough even to get into the exhibition games of what had been the worst team in
NBA history. "The only ones we lost were those he played in," says one
Zephyr staff member. The Zephyrs had a complex problem: last year they set a
new NBA record by losing 62 of their 80 games. Attendance fell off steeply and
losses topped $250,000. They had to demonstrate to Chicago fans that they could
win. Zephyr officials felt they could not afford to lose games while McGill
"But the No.
1 draft choice," says McGill with mystification. "You'd think that he
could get into a game for a minute or two." He recalled the teams that the
Zephyrs had played during the exhibition season and how they had used rookies.
" St. Louis, Beaty played. Los Angeles, Ellis played." As he considered
the problem, his eyes remained, as always, downcast. "You get to thinking,
'What's the reason for all this?' " he said. The answer at first seemed
incomprehensible to him and to his longtime friends: that McMahon really didn't
believe he had much in the way of basketball talent. "Then you think,"
McGill went on, " 'Well, maybe he's right.' "
The league season
started and Mc-Gill didn't stir off the bench for three games. "Every game
you have hope," he says. "You sit there in the first quarter and you
think, 'Well, maybe I'll get in during the second quarter.' Then it's the third
quarter and the fourth quarter and suddenly the game is over and you haven't
played." After the Zephyrs lost by one point to the St. Louis Hawks, he
said, "I thought I could really have helped them there."
The next day he
unburdened some of his woes to Dave Trager, the Zephyr president. That night he
got into an NBA game for the first time—at center, not at forward. ("They
couldn't think of anyplace else to play him," said one Zephyr staff
member.) The move was dictated partially by necessity and partially by
opportunity. Walter Bellamy had acquired three fouls in the first 13 minutes of
a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Preserving his usefulness for later in
the game, McMahon benched him temporarily. McMahon shrewdly chose McGill to
replace Bellamy when the Lakers inserted LeRoy Ellis, also a rookie, also very
slender, at the pivot. Thus McGill would not encounter, in his first offensive
sortie, the chastening experience of feeling as if he were playing with a
marble pillar—either Jim Krebs or Rudy LaRusso—behind him.
In the first few
moments McGill missed a shot or two, then sank a sweeping, picturesque hook
shot. ("He try that against Krebs," muttered a fan, "and Krebs will
break his back.") After tipping in a shot, McGill found Krebs back in the
game, and suddenly he looked like a chipmunk scurrying about through a forest
of redwoods. He'd get the ball, look for a hole, find Krebs guarding it and
abruptly pass the ball out. He got six points for his 12 minutes. "I felt
tight," he recalls. "It seemed I was so pressed. My hook—I mean I know
I could make it when I was in college."