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Until a year or so ago George McGinnis seemed a fixture in his hometown of Indianapolis, a part of the landscape, like the State Capitol or the soaring Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Indianapolis is a basketball town and McGinnis had been a star there for a decade, first in high school, then at nearby Indiana University and finally with the ABA's Indiana Pacers. And when he wasn't thundering down a basketball court, he could generally be found somewhere in the city or its environs. "It may sound square, but I'm basically a country boy," he says. "I don't like big cities. Indianapolis is a clean, friendly place. It's got a small-town atmosphere."
But a lot happened to McGinnis the past year and now he is gone from the Pacers, gone from Indiana to work at his trade with the 76ers in alien Philadelphia, a metropolis nearly three times the size of his beloved Indianapolis in a league much tougher than the ABA. A lot of people believe he will be the NBA's next superstar.
The movement of a player of McGinnis' stature from one league to another is almost guaranteed to cause problems. In McGinnis' case things were made awkward by the fact that the NBA team he really wanted to join was not the 76ers at all, but the New York Knicks. He had said clearly that he did not want to play in Philadelphia, which owned the NBA rights to him. Now, drawing the subtlest of distinctions, he insists, "I didn't say I'd never play in Philadelphia. I just said I didn't care for Philadelphia, just like I don't care for other big cities." And he adds hopefully, "I'm sure Philly has nice people and good restaurants. Who knows? Maybe I'll love the place."
Grudging though that may sound, it is certainly softer than the attitude everybody understood him to have early last summer when his future became the subject of high-powered litigation, and he became the center of an unseemly NBA family feud. By the time he signed a six-year, $3 million-plus contract with the 76ers in mid-July, his defection to the NBA had rocked three pro basketball franchises.
McGinnis, 6'8" and 235 pounds, is a superbly muscled man. When he joined the Pacers in 1971, his rough-and-tumble style seemed sometimes brutish. Other players complained that he did not know how strong he was, but Garry Donna, his agent at the time, had a different analysis: "No, George just doesn't know how quick he is." As McGinnis gradually discovered how useful speed could be, and as he picked up a little finesse he began dominating games as few players—and certainly few forwards—ever have. Last year McGinnis not only led the ABA in scoring with a 29.8 average but was fifth in rebounds (14.3), third in assists (6.3), second in steals (2.6) and fourth in accuracy on the three-point shot (.354). He was even more dominant in the playoffs, averaging 32.3 points per game and leading the Pacers, who weren't supposed to go very far in postseason play, to the championship round where they lost to the Kentucky Colonels in five games. He had developed a credible outside shot to go with his inside drives, and he had learned to find the open man when he was double-teamed. At the end of the season he and the New York Nets' Julius Erving were jointly voted the league's MVP.
With McGinnis receiving advance billing as Dave Schultz and Bobby Clarke rolled into one, it is not surprising that the 76ers are starting this year with record season-ticket sales or that excitement among Philadelphia basketball fans is running higher than at any time since the glory days of Wilt Chamberlain. Not one to rain on anybody's ticket sales, Bob Leonard, McGinnis' coach with the Pacers, thinks the enthusiasm will be justified. "I've heard people argue that George will never do in the NBA what he did in the ABA," Leonard says. "I think he will do over there exactly what he did here—tear it up."
There is little reason to doubt Leonard. Appearing in August in an all-star game of the Baker League, Philadelphia's summer playground circuit, an out-of-shape McGinnis had 18 points and 24 rebounds and had 3,000 fans slapping palms over moves that big men are not supposed to make. Next he scored 17 points and was named MVP in the NBA's annual Maurice Stokes benefit in Monticello, N.Y. And the 76ers' preseason schedule was scarcely under way when the NBA reported its first outbreak of "McGinnisitis," which is how Denver Nugget Forward Bobby Jones refers to the bruises that McGinnis can inflict with even the most innocent looking hand check. He was averaging 17.6 points playing only 28.6 minutes per game.
Prospects for a beautiful friendship between McGinnis and Philadelphia are not hurt either by the fact that during his extraordinary athletic career (at Indianapolis' Washington High he was prep All-America in football as well as basketball) McGinnis has yet to play on a losing team—which is what the 76ers have been for four years now. It also helps that, for all his fierceness on the court, he is a friendly, candid sort who embraces the philosophy—the country-boy side of him—that "if a family pays $30 for tickets, the least a player can do is sign a few autographs."
Nor can it possibly hurt that McGinnis is, after all, a city boy. A product of the school yards and sidewalks of Indianapolis' racially mixed west side, he frequently could be found hunched over a plate of greens at a ghetto hangout called Sugar's Sugar Bowl or otherwise "mingling with the hip dudes," as he phrases it. " George is an uncomplicated guy, and that's why I love him," says Irwin Weiner, his current agent, yet those were surely complex passions that boiled inside McGinnis a few weeks ago when a state trooper flagged him down on Highway 31 south of Indianapolis. McGinnis had been driving his 1974 Cadillac at 58 mph, exactly three miles over the limit.
"Well, that's speeding, isn't it?" snapped the officer when McGinnis protested. Then the trooper appeared to recognize McGinnis and, abruptly changing his tone, let the basketball player off with a good-natured warning. Driving away, McGinnis fumed, "He saw a black guy in a Cadillac and he decided to hassle him. If he'd given me a ticket, I would've fought it. I would've spent a thousand dollars in lawyers' fees if necessary."