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McGinnis' down-home qualities come through in the way he walks (he shambles) and dresses (he is most comfortable wearing jeans). He chews gum—four sticks at once while playing—and talks in a high, nasal voice with at least the hint of a twang. He has been engaged for two years to a personable young woman named Lynda Taylor, whom he knew for 10 years before that. He remains close to his mother, who lives in northwest Indianapolis in a $40,000 ranch-style house purchased with McGinnis' first basketball earnings. "There's always been a lot of love in my family," McGinnis says, unself-consciously. "My mother won't ever have to work if I can help it."
McGinnis' attachment to Indianapolis was plain enough during the late-summer days before he had to leave for the 76er training camp. One day he and Bob Netolicky, the Pacers' veteran 6'9" forward, went water-skiing on a lake north of Indianapolis, the two taking turns hurtling along behind the wake of McGinnis' 19-foot powerboat. The next afternoon he and Lynda drove to a quarter-horse farm near Columbus, Ind. to have a look at a colt he had bought not long before. "Ain't he purty?" McGinnis beamed, patting the animal's hindquarters. "I'm really tickled with him."
As might be expected in basketball-crazy Indiana, McGinnis was fussed over everywhere. Taking leave of the colt, he went with Lynda and a couple of local horsemen to a nearby countrystyle restaurant where a man approached their table. "We'll miss you, Big George," the stranger said. "We've sure enjoyed seeing you play basketball."
So why did he leave? McGinnis starts by insisting that he went to the 76ers strictly for the money. "I would have stayed if the Pacers had matched the offer," he says. And it is true that his deal with Philadelphia puts him, still only 25, in the same financial league with such other reformed country boys as Pel�, Catfish Hunter and Bobby Orr. But he was attracted by the style and size of the NBA, its big cities and its national TV coverage. "Let's face it, there's a little ham in everybody," he says. "It's human nature to want recognition. The ABA has a lot of great players, but who knows it?"
Which is why, before last season began, McGinnis was thinking New York, and why the Knicks worked a deal with the 76ers that allowed them to take a shot at signing him. The Knicks told McGinnis all about how New York was media and endorsement heaven and Walt Frazier helped out by showing him his favorite haunts. After all, went the reasoning, how could you keep George McGinnis down on the farm after he's seen P.J. Clarke's?
But after much agonizing, McGinnis hightailed it home and signed a new six-year, $2.6 million deal with Indiana. The contract, however, included an option that allowed him to buy his way out after one year. "My head just wasn't quite ready last year," says McGinnis. Says Frazier, "I think George got scared by the tall buildings."
At the end of last season McGinnis decided he was ready for the Knicks, but by then the 76ers, seeing a chance to overtake failing New York in the NBA's Atlantic Division, would not again cede their rights to the vastly improved McGinnis. Thus began, in late May, a six-week chain of events during which McGinnis communed less with nature than with pinky rings and sequoia-sized cigars. One moment the country boy was in U.S. District Court challenging the whole concept of the NBA draft. The next he was withdrawing that suit and signing a $3.1 million deal with the Knicks in open defiance of NBA rules. Amid charges by 76er President Irv Kosloff that the Knicks had committed "piracy," "treason" and worse, newly named NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien nullified the whole deal—which left McGinnis temporarily a man without a team.
But McGinnis' dalliance with the Knicks had effectively cut his psychological umbilical cord with Indiana, and the 76ers moved in on him, waving money. Putting the matter somewhat differently, McGinnis says, "I don't think Philadelphia would have been willing to pay this much if the Knicks hadn't first." His 76er contract was the third multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal he had signed with three different pro teams in barely a year.
The agreement with the 76ers was hammered out late one July evening in the blue-carpeted Manhattan offices of Commissioner O'Brien. O'Brien used to be in politics, of course, where cynicism is said to reign, but he was charmed as he listened to McGinnis—O'Brien swears he saw a tear on the basketball player's cheek—describe the wonders of a mare delivering a foal. Then McGinnis asked the commissioner about his New Frontier days, a subject O'Brien warms to without any coaxing whatever. Next he asked for an autographed copy of O'Brien's book, No Final Victories.