McGinnis’ one year at IU left a lasting impression

McGinnis’ one year at IU left a lasting impression

Hoosier forward led Big Ten in scoring and rebounding in 1970-71 before going pro

By Lynn Houser, Herald-Times Sports Writer

December 19, 2006

George McGinnis. H-T file photo
From the Dec. 19, 2006 Bloomington Herald-Times

It was only a single season of Indiana University basketball, but it was a season IU had never seen the likes of before and certainly hasn’t seen since.

It was the 1970-71 season, and it was ruled by a 6-foot-8 mountain of a man, George McGinnis.

At a time when the average college forward was tall and wiry, along came McGinnis. Imagine Atlas in a basketball uniform — 235 pounds of chiseled muscle with a pair of massive hands and the grace of a gazelle. That was McGinnis.

As a football and basketball star coming out of Indianapolis Washington, McGinnis could have played football anywhere in the country, but he chose to play basketball for Lou Watson at Indiana.

“I got letters from every major university in the United States,” McGinnis said from his Indianapolis business office last week. “About half of them were for football. But I really liked Lou Watson, liked him as a man and coach. He was the reason why I went there.”

McGinnis went to IU along with his high school teammate, Steve Downing, who together led Washington to an unbeaten season and state championship in 1969. Because freshmen weren’t eligible to play at the time, McGinnis wasn’t unleashed until his sophomore year.

It didn’t take long for him to make an impact. In his third college game, he exploded for 38 points and 20 rebounds against Kentucky and its legendary coach, Adolph “The Baron” Rupp.

McGinnis would just as soon as forget that game, though. With the score tied and three seconds left in regulation, the teams lined up at midcourt for a jump ball. The tip went to IU’s John Ritter, who heaved a 60-footer into the basket as time expired, setting off an eruption that nearly blew the roof off the old IU fieldhouse (now the indoor track facility).

Unfortunately, just before Ritter pulled the trigger, McGinnis had asked and received a timeout. The basket was waved off and the Hoosiers went on to lose in overtime, 95-93.

“I haven’t lived that one down for 30 years,” McGinnis said. “You wouldn’t believe the people who come up to me and remind me of that. I thought there was no way in hell Ritter was going to make that shot.”

McGinnis owes no apologies for the rest of that season, a year in which he led the Big Ten in scoring (29.9) and rebounding (14.7), only the fifth player in league history to do that. He scored 30 points or more 13 times and had a high of 45.

With McGinnis often being a one-man show, the Hoosiers suffered team chemistry problems down the stretch and finished 17-7. Since only conference champions received NCAA bids in those days, McGinnis never got to play in the postseason.

Shortly after the season, he decided to forego his last two years of eligibility and enter professional basketball. He signed with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA and embarked on a highly successful pro career.

He was a three-time all-star in both the ABA and NBA. He played on two ABA championship teams with the Pacers and one NBA finalist with the Philadelphia 76ers.

McGinnis had his reasons for leaving early.

“I was in pretty dire financial hardship,” he said. “My dad (Bernie) was killed in a construction accident the year before I came to IU. My parents were both from the South, with no education. My mom (Willie) had no health insurance. For me to stay in college two more years would have prolonged her suffering. My signing bonus with the Pacers bought her the house she still lives in today. Beyond all the other stuff I have done, that has given me the greatest satisfaction.”

McGinnis credits his dad for his gifted body.

“People ask me all the time how many weights I lifted,” he said. “I tell them, ‘none.’ The answer is genetics. All mom had to do was say, ‘Wait until your daddy comes home,’ and that would get me to stop messing around.”

Had McGinnis stayed at IU, he would have played his last two years for Bob Knight, the man who succeeded Watson in 1972. McGinnis is frequently asked if a free spirit like him could have played for Knight.

“It would have been difficult,” he said. “I don’t think any kid who played for Coach Knight says it’s easy or enjoyable. It is usually after they leave that they understand the toughness he gave them. Looking back, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to try.”

It pains McGinnis to think what he could have done for Knight’s second team, which went to the 1973 Final Four and had UCLA on the ropes before losing to John Wooden’s Bruins. It was a game that changed dramatically when Steve Downing fouled out on a collision with Bill Walton, who also was in dire foul trouble.

Said McGinnis, “I remember Steve getting those horrible calls and that all UCLA had at forward were Larry Farmer and Jamaal Wilkes, a couple of guys that were 6-4 and 6-6. No way could they have handled me.”

McGinnis, now 56, spends his days managing his company, GM Supply, which deals in auto parts and components. He is involved in many community projects.

“I’m on so many committees I can’t keep track of them.”

McGinnis doesn’t mind giving something back because, as he said, “Life has been good to me.”

GEORGE MCGINNIS

Age: 56

Occupation: Owner, GM Supply, Indianapolis.

IU CAREER (1970-71)

• Fifth Big Ten player in history to lead the league in scoring (29.9) and rebounding (14.7).

• Had 22 double-doubles.

• Scored 20 points or more in 21 of 24 games.

• Scored more than 30 points 13 times.

• Had a high of 45 points (fourth highest in IU history).

• Named to IU’s All-Century Team, 2000.

PRO CAREER

AMERICAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION

Indiana Pacers (1971-75):

• Averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds.

• Played on ABA championship teams, 1972, ’73.

• 3-time ABA All-Star and named league MVP, 1975.

NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION

Philadelphia 76ers (1975-79); Denver Nuggets (1979-80); Indiana Pacers (1980-82):

• Averaged 17.2 points, 9.8 rebounds in seven seasons.

• Three-time All-Star.

• Played in 1977 NBA finals.