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Just as the presence of Erving had confused McGinnis and hastened his decline in Philadelphia, there was now David Thompson to share the ball with in Denver; and not only Thompson, but Scott and Center Dan Issel, too. "George wasn't the greatest guy to play with," Thompson says, "but he wasn't really selfish. When you're a great player you want to do a little too much. I think George got caught up in that.
"He thought immediately that he was the man, and that restricted both our games. George had a more dominant personality, so he was the guy they would go to. I had to change my game more than anybody else, but it seemed like that wasn't appreciated."
McGinnis averaged 22.6 points and 11.4 rebounds his first season in Denver, but it wasn't a particularly congenial year for the Nuggets. Scheer refused to trade Issel, which Brown had demanded. Brown, in a state of near emotional collapse, resigned midway through the season and was replaced by his assistant, Walsh. Scheer often held players accountable for losses, which he did the night he stormed into the locker room after a close defeat and, in front of the whole team, screamed at Anthony Roberts that he was responsible for losing the game. "I don't think George liked the way they treated the players in Denver," Thompson says. "A lot of guys don't."
McGinnis tore ligaments in his left ankle near the end of that first Denver season and missed the playoffs. The leg was put in a cast, and the cast wasn't removed until late summer. He reported to camp in September at 260 pounds, 25 over his playing weight. The Nuggets lost their first seven games, and Scheer kept reminding McGinnis that he was supposed to carry the team. "George lost his confidence after that," Walsh says. "He wasn't the same. When everyone looked to George as the man here, he was sensational. But after it got confusing to him, he seemed to lose his edge.
"George always kept the game in its proper perspective, and I'm not sure that's a good thing for a great player. They have to have such enormous egos to do what they do that they think the game, and their part in it, is the most important thing in the world. George used to think that in 10 years we'd all be the answer to a trivia question. Well, that's not a bad attitude for most people, but an athlete has to believe what he's doing is important. You have to be a little boy to play this game well, and George's problem has always been that he's a man. Maybe too much of one for his own good. You can only tell someone as sensitive as George that it's his fault for so long before he begins to believe it."
Fifty-six games into his second season, McGinnis was peddled to Indiana for Forward Alex English and a first-round draft choice. "I felt I had let the organization and myself down," McGinnis says. "I felt I deserved to be traded."
Maurice Lucas has a theory about how McGinnis was destroyed as a player. Lucas, who had guarded McGinnis in the fateful Philadelphia-Portland series, which catapulted Lucas into prominence as the NBA's premier power forward, is now playing for the Knicks, his fifth pro team. "George wouldn't hurt a fly," Lucas told The Village Voice recently, "but he got moved around the league a lot and then it began to crop up that George maybe wasn't as good as he was made out to be.... If you're the coach or the general manager, and you bring in a guy who's supposed to help the team, and you pay him money and the team still loses, someone's got to take the fall.... So if you get George McGinnis and you still lose, it's easy to say, well, McGinnis is the problem, he doesn't fit in with the team. And if you're George McGinnis and you've heard this a bunch of times, you might believe it."
McGinnis no longer knows what to believe, only that he can no longer believe in himself. And yet a few voices say George McGinnis can still play. Brown, who gave up on him, believes he can. Shue, who gave up on him, too, believes. "I don't think he's lost any of his skills," says Shue, who's now coaching the Washington Bullets for the second time. "He's still an excellent rebounder. The only thing George needs is to get with a team that says, 'Here's the ball, George. Go do it.' "
It's obvious that the Pacers don't believe in McGinnis—not this McGinnis—and earlier this season they tried to persuade him to retire. McGinnis says he thought about retiring for a while, then decided that he didn't want to go out with his head down, not at close to $500,000 a season. "I still feel I can make a contribution," he says, "but it's tough for me to have a normal game now. They expect so much." Pacer Coach Jack McKinney concedes he may have given up on McGinnis too quickly when he got off to a poor start this season. "He doesn't have that ability that used to make him so awesome," McKinney says. "Some of the things he could do when he got his 30 points a night aren't there anymore, but he compensates in some pretty nice ways. I didn't give him enough encouragement. A good player doesn't go sour at once without a loss of confidence."
For the time being, McGinnis has resigned himself to playing out his string with the Pacers, hoping for a trade. "Being the type of sensitive person I am," he says, "if I don't feel good vibes from the people I'm playing for, I don't shoot well, I don't pass well, I don't do nothing well. If I'd had the inner strength, there's no telling what I would have done.... It hasn't been easy for me."