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Once there was something sublime about George McGinnis, an almost mythic combination of quickness and strength that made him all but unstoppable on a basketball court. McGinnis' body appeared to be hewn out of stone, and he possessed a first step that was full of thunder. "When I came into the ABA," McGinnis says, "I was like a god. I felt there was no one who was ever going to stop me, that I was going to be a dominant force every time I took the court. That's how supreme I felt and that's how supreme I played."
He had magnificent gifts, but there was also something about McGinnis that seemed too good to be true: "He would make moves that you'd swear were physically impossible," says Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News, who covered McGinnis' first season in Philadelphia. "We would watch him do unbelievable things, then we'd look at each other and say, 'Don't write it down, it never happened.' " As long as people believed in him, McGinnis could do almost anything but, as time went by, people stopped believing in him and began believing in his potential. And that was impossible to live up to.
McGinnis had played on two ABA championship teams for the Indiana Pacers when in effect he traded himself to Philadelphia in 1975. But, more than the titles, it was his potential to inject life into a moribund team that aroused 76er fans. Potential can be a wonderful commodity, and McGinnis had a ton of it. People looked at the 6'8", 235-pound forward as a savior ("Let George Do It" was the 76ers' slogan that first year). And the more people came to expect from him, the more he was reduced by that expectation until something within him seemed to wither and die. "I always got the feeling that George believed no matter what he did, it wouldn't be enough," says Donnie Walsh, who coached McGinnis in Denver, to which he was traded in 1978. "People look at a guy's physical attributes and think his potential is unlimited. It's not fair." In 1980 Walsh shipped McGinnis back to the Pacers, back home again to Indiana.
"I withdrew from the world not because I had enemies, but because I had friends. Not because they did me an ill turn, as is customary, but because they thought me better than I am. It was a lie I could not endure."
A freezing January rain has been falling all morning in Indianapolis, reducing the flow of traffic to a low-gear bump and grind. Inside Market Square Arena the Indiana Pacers are slowly going through Philadelphia 76er plays, the Indiana starters lined up against a dummy team of Sixers composed of some of the Pacers' lesser lights. While Butch Carter assumes the silky insouciance of Maurice Cheeks, George Johnson affects the spectral slouch of Bobby Jones. And for a moment that is not without a measure of poignance, George McGinnis has become Julius Erving!
Assistant Coach George Irvine leads the reserves through the 76er offense and repeatedly addresses McGinnis as "Julius" or "Doc." The role McGinnis has been assigned isn't meant to be demeaning, but there was a time when he and Erving were the best young forwards in the game. For two years they played side by side—though not always together—in Philadelphia. "When the 76ers got Dr. J," says Walsh, "Julius was a high-wire act. George had the body and the quickness, and when he wanted to be, he was the best defensive rebounder in the game. So it seemed reasonable to think that George would become the real star. But it just didn't work out that way."
George McGinnis and Julius Erving are nearly the same age (Erving turned 32 on Feb. 22; McGinnis will be 32 on Aug. 12), but their careers have gone in different directions since they played together. Erving is secure up on his high wire, a perennial All-Pro, while McGinnis struggles for playing time at Indiana; last week he was averaging 4.9 points a game and shooting 49% from the foul line. And he has become more valuable as a make-believe Julius Erving than as the real George McGinnis. "It's strange," says George's wife, Lynda, "how they can erase you from the face of the earth and make it seem as if you never existed."
McGinnis grew up on the dust-bowl playgrounds of Indianapolis, not far from where Oscar Robertson had dazzled more than a decade before. George was the younger of two children of Willie and Burnie McGinnis, a carpenter killed in 1969 when he fell off a scaffold. Most of George's friends were older than he, so he was excluded from the playground games. "They didn't want me," McGinnis recalls. "I supplied the ball but I never got to play."
When he was a senior at Indianapolis Washington, McGinnis was named to one high school All-America football team as an end, then led the Continentals' basketball team to a 31-0 record and the state championship. He was also named Indiana's Mr. Basketball—a great honor in a state that is absolutely mad about high school basketball—and in a game that summer against Kentucky's all-stars, McGinnis had 53 points and 30 rebounds. The University of Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, whose teams won 880 games in his 41 seasons as coach, called McGinnis "one of the greatest high school players I've ever seen."
As a sophomore at Indiana University in 1970-71, McGinnis led the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 29.9 points and 14.4 rebounds a game, then turned pro. He left Indiana just before Bobby Knight replaced Lou Watson as coach, and, though he never played a game for Knight, the two are close. McGinnis, who has often been accused of being selfish and egotistical, frequently speaks to Knight's players in the locker room before games. "Probably my biggest disappointment is that I never played for Bobby," McGinnis says. "I don't know if it would have made me a better player, but I think it would have given me different values."