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Shue and Williams had approached McGinnis to acknowledge the gratitude they owed him for turning the franchise around. And then they told McGinnis that if he didn't want to share the spotlight with another virtuoso, they would go no further in their negotiations with the Nets. "If I hadn't wanted them to do it, they wouldn't have," McGinnis says. "I could have been very selfish and said no, and Julius would never have been in Philadelphia and I would probably still be there."
Neither Williams nor Shue will say now what he would have done had McGinnis said no. "We probably put him in a tough position." Williams admits. "What was he going to say—no?" There is no question that the move shook McGinnis' confidence, although he is the only one who knows how much. "Doc took some of George's thunder away," said Kevin Loughery, then the Nets' coach. "Inside, George had to feel it—no big star likes to be put in the shadow."
McGinnis and Erving were often played off against one another in the Philadelphia papers, but there was never any feud, not even much of a friendly rivalry. "Julius is a friend of mine," McGinnis says now, "and we were great competitors in the ABA. Julius had said that one of the reasons he was glad to be coming into the NBA [with the Nets] was because he was looking forward to playing against me again, and I was proud of that. When the 76ers got him, I thought it was tremendous. It was inevitable that people would say we hated each other, but Julius and I knew it wasn't true and we were above it. We knew, too, that we would be played off against each other." Occasionally the two of them would confer to avoid incipient controversy. "They [the media] would ask George something," says Erving, "then ask me the same thing, like they were trying to get me to contradict George's opinion. The whole thing was crazy."
McGinnis and Erving were only two of the players in the 76ers' bizarre little troupe. Philadelphia's lineup that year also included Doug Collins and Henry Bibby in the backcourt, frontcourt men Caldwell Jones and Harvey Catchings, and some backup players named Lloyd Free, Steve Mix and Darryl Dawkins. "We were absolutely a traveling circus," Williams says. "That team was one of the great shows in the history of sports." Nearly everywhere the Sixers went they played before sellout crowds. "Sometimes on the road the fans would end up cheering for the Sixers instead of the home team," Shue recalls. McGinnis felt his team's popularity was the result of a variety of intangibles. "I think most of white America thought of us as a bunch of bigmouth, cocky, high-priced niggers," he says. "There will never, ever be another team like that."
Early that season the 76ers played before a crowd of 27,383 in the New Orleans Superdome, then an NBA record. Most had come to see Erving, but McGinnis put on a 37-point show in a victory over the Jazz. At dinner later that night, McGinnis was approached by two waitresses who wanted his autograph. Before McGinnis had a chance to sign, one of them bubbled nervously, "You're Dr. J. aren't you?" A chagrined look flashed across his face for a moment; if this sort of thing could happen on a night when he had scored 37, it was clear he was in for a lot more of it. McGinnis regained his composure quickly and began to tease the waitresses, who by that time were properly embarrassed.
There were also adjustments that had to be made on the court. "I knew it would be difficult trying to blend two great players like that," Shue says, "because to be effective both of them needed the ball more than they were going to get it." And there were other Sixers who liked to play with the ball a little bit, too. "We had a 'George' play, a 'Doug' play, a 'Julius' play, a 'Lloyd' play," McGinnis says. "You came down the floor and waited for your play. I certainly didn't try 100% in every game. We were all dogging it in a sense. I could do nothing but watch. When it was my turn, it was four other guys' turn to watch."
For all their individuality, the 76ers were still the best team in the East. After eliminating Boston in seven games and Houston in six in the conference finals, the Sixers faced Portland in a championship series struggle of two extreme opposites. The Trail Blazers were the embodiment of unselfishness and teamwork, with Walton, Lucas, Bob Gross, Lionel Hollins and Dave Twardzik playing for Jack Ramsay the way Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere & Co. had seven years earlier for Red Holzman in New York. As good as the 76ers were, they weren't unflawed. Erving and McGinnis had spent the regular season staying out of each other's way; neither asserted any leadership. When Erving asserted himself in the playoffs, McGinnis stepped meekly aside to accommodate him. "He kept giving and giving to make Julius comfortable," Lynda McGinnis says. "When the time came for them to need him, he didn't have it to give anymore."
They didn't need him much the first two games, which they won at home. But the Blazers took the next three for a 3-2 series lead.
McGinnis played most of the championship series with a severe groin pull, for which he claims to have had cortisone and xylocaine shots that numbed his left leg from hip to knee. He couldn't jump normally and his act didn't come together until the sixth game, in Portland. After averaging just 13.4 points during the 76ers' first 18 playoff games, he finally struck for 28 in Game 6, only to miss a shot at the end that would have tied the score and could have resulted in a seventh game in Philadelphia. "I played poorly the whole series," he says, "but I still don't think I was the reason we lost." Some of his teammates hadn't been so charitable, teasing him for his ineptitude and taunting him in front of the press as the team practiced. McGinnis' free-throw shooting, never exceptional, became an embarrassment, and then the rest of his game fell apart. "Portland gave him the outside shot and he couldn't hit it," Williams says. "Not one. You saw a great player who simply couldn't do it anymore. At that point the coaches were ready to pull the plug."
Shue was the first to try to trade McGinnis, but the Portland series had greatly diminished his market value. When Shue was fired early the next season, he was replaced by Billy Cunningham, a three-time NBA All-Pro and a former teammate and close friend of McGinnis'. Cunningham quickly reassured McGinnis. "As long as I'm here, you're going to be here," Billy said.