"I fell in love with the kid," says O'Brien. "He's the nicest, friendliest, most down-to-earth person you'd ever want to meet." What is more, McGinnis actually went home and read the book.
But then, as George McGinnis says, "Being nice to people is the way I was raised." The credit for that goes to Burnie and Willie McGinnis who, at 6'6" and 5'10", also share accountability for their son's size (older sister Bonnie, the family's other child, is 5'10"). George's feeling for the outdoors was kindled when he tagged along as a boy while his father, a carpenter, hunted squirrels and rabbits. "My dad and I were close," George says. "He'd really beat on you if you did something wrong. But when you succeeded at something, he was quick to praise you."
Evidence that there was much to praise is preserved today in an oaken chest McGinnis made in eighth-grade woodshop. Stored in his mother's knotty-pine basement, where action photos of him share wall space with a large picture of Jesus, the chest is stuffed with correspondence from the 350 colleges that offered him scholarships, including a number of letters—sorry, Arizona Western, too bad, Blackburn College—still unopened. Many of the offers were for football. McGinnis was an end at Washington High, a jarring downfield blocker and so formidable on defense that an Indianapolis newspaper nicknamed him "Mount George." It is with a nostalgic sigh that longtime Washington Coach Bob Springer says, " George was the best football player I've had. He was also the best football player I've seen. A lot of big guys won't hit, but George loved it. He would have been a star in the NFL."
But McGinnis leaned toward basketball. As a senior in 1968-69 he averaged 32.5 points, breaking Oscar Robertson's Indianapolis high school season and career records. Steve Downing, later a standout at Indiana University, was on the same team, and the one-two punch powered the school to a 31-0 record and the state championship. Then came the annual two-game series between Indiana and Kentucky high school all-stars. Indiana took the opener in Indianapolis by eight points, McGinnis scoring 23, but the Kentuckian who guarded him said, "He's overrated. I put my hand in his face and he was off every time."
The second game was played in Louisville's Freedom Hall and, when McGinnis was pulled in the closing minutes of a 114-83 Indiana romp, the 17,875 spectators stood and cheered a performance—53 points and 30 rebounds—still talked about in those parts. Savoring it a bit himself, McGinnis says, "I guess the guy forgot to put his hand in my face."
A few days after his son's Louisville triumph, Burnie McGinnis slipped off a scaffold at a construction site and fell eight stories to his death. George stayed on at Indiana only through his sophomore year, topping the Big Ten in scoring with 29.9 points per game and averaging 14.4 rebounds. Then he accepted a $50,000 bonus to join the Pacers. "After my dad died I wanted to get a job and support my mother, but she made me go to college," he says. "When the Pacer offer came, I grabbed it."
In the pros, as in high school and college, George McGinnis seems a larger-than-life figure. He shoots the ball with one huge hand, letting it fly baseball-style, the other hand being superfluous. He cuts and screeches across the court with enough force to burst the seams of his size 14� shoes, going through some two dozen pairs last year alone. Slam-dunking the ball in Denver, he bent the rim so badly that it had to be replaced. Virginia Squire Forward Willie Wise says, " McGinnis is so strong you'd swear he weighs 300 pounds. When he posts inside on you, there's nothing you can do. He's going to the basket."
At Pacer team parties McGinnis developed a talent for impersonations—his specialties included Center Mel Daniels and Coach Leonard. But in his earlier days he could count on hearing some heckler shout: "If you're so good at imitating people, why don't you play ball like Dr. J.?"
Comparisons between McGinnis and Julius Erving are inevitable (they came into the ABA the same year) but no longer do people unfavorably compare the "Baby Bull," as an Indianapolis sports-writer once dubbed McGinnis, to the silky smoothness of Dr. J. "I know McGinnis is stronger than Erving," Willie Wise says. "And he may be quicker, too." Pacer Guard Billy Keller agrees: "Julius has a longer first step to the basket. And maybe he's a little showier. But George is stronger and quicker." And Bob Netolicky says, " George carried us last year. He's the best forward in the game. Absolutely the best."
McGinnis attributes part of last season's surprising success to the fact that the Pacers are an unusually close-knit team—yet here, too, he gets much of the credit. Few stars immerse themselves so good-naturedly into being a team member. Take the business of the cats. McGinnis is afraid of them, having been scratched by one as a child, none of which prevented Bob Netolicky, referring to this as "Superman's weakness," from turning his two pet cats on his terrorized teammate at every opportunity. After dinner at his house one night, Netolicky casually handed McGinnis a shoe box. McGinnis lifted the lid and out jumped a plump toad. "If you were my guest," McGinnis cried, leaping from his chair, "I wouldn't do that to you."