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Oddly enough, it wasn't Philadelphia's 4-2 wipeout loss to the Washington Bullets in the 1977-78 Eastern Conference finals that sealed McGinnis' fate so much as it was his practice habits. "He was getting by all those years on sheer talent," Williams says. "He was never a hard worker. Given a choice between paying the price and cutting a corner, George would always cut the corner. He was a forceful personality, and he set the tone for that team. If he didn't work hard, the younger players would see it and they wouldn't work hard either."
Cunningham shoulders some of the blame. "It was my first year as a coach...and I hadn't been a great practice player anyway," he says, "so when George would cut corners, I let it slide. If I had it to do over again, I'm sure I'd do things differently."
Meanwhile, McGinnis was accused in the press of sneaking cigarettes in practice. He denied it. At the end of the season when Denver offered Bobby Jones and Ralph Simpson in exchange for McGinnis, the 76ers leaped at the opportunity.
"Doc and George didn't complement each other well," Cunningham insists. "They both tried so hard to play together that at times they hurt the team. They ended up sacrificing a lot of things that made them the great players they were."
McGinnis was unable to separate the business realities of the trade from the element of his relationship with Cunningham. "I was so disgusted and hurt by what had happened," McGinnis recalls, "that I didn't talk to Billy for three years. I was made to feel like a scapegoat. I was depressed for a year. It was like somebody had put a needle in me and let all the air out. It hurt me more than anything in my life, like I was losing part of my body. There were times when I went off by myself and cried."
If it took McGinnis a year to get over being traded to the Nuggets, it took Denver longer to recover from the loss of Jones, a great team player and a defensive standout. The deal was forged by Carl Scheer, the Nuggets' president and general manager, and Larry Brown, who was the coach and Scheer's close friend. "I don't know who was the first to say 'Let's get George,' " Scheer says. "Larry felt we weren't going to go farther in the playoffs without a power player. Events proved it was a very bad trade for us."
Jones, an epileptic, had been plagued by related health problems that were exacerbated by Denver's high altitude, and that sealed the deal. "We knew George's reputation and that it was something of a risk," Scheer admits. "We perceived him to be the strong, unselfish performer he was with the Indiana Pacers, because that's what we wanted him to be. We knew about his problems in Philadelphia, but we thought that if we got him in the right environment we could get him back to what he had been at Indiana." In other words, what McGinnis heard when he arrived in Denver was the sound of one hand clapping. That hand wasn't Larry Brown's.
In 1978 the Nuggets also acquired Charlie Scott, another deal Brown was forced to defend. "They've both been misunderstood," he said. "They haven't had a lot of love."
In McGinnis' case, there was probably some truth in that, but Brown sometimes found it difficult to express his love to George. Early in the Nuggets' training camp that fall, McGinnis balked at one of Brown's layup drills. "Most of the things Larry taught were things I thought I already did anyway," McGinnis says. "It was driving me nuts. Finally I said, I know I can help the ball club, but I want to be treated like a man.' I told him that in front of the entire team and the coaches. I told him if he wanted to trade me he could, and he said, 'Fine.' " Brown tried to have McGinnis traded, but to no avail. "I think Larry had real bad feelings about him after that," Scheer says.
Brown despised McGinnis' practice habits. "It gnawed at me," says Brown, now coach of the New Jersey Nets, "and some of the other guys took it bad. I'd tell George how much we needed him and what he needed to do, and he'd say, 'Perfect, Coach.' Then in practice he'd be last in everything, pulling up for that trashy jumper, forgetting what we talked about. He was so gifted he never had to work. If he ever decided what he could do, he could still be a great player."