He was a reckless kid who jumped off roofs and killed chickens with his BB gun. He was a caring adult who helped friends overcome injuries. He was a giving teammate who never forgot his roots. And he was a great athlete, sure. But, man, what a lousy dancer.
Friends and relatives gathered for George McGinnis last weekend, an invitation-only group of about 250 who provided a formal send-off before McGinnis was laid to rest in Crown Hill Cemetery. There were the standard funereal elements—songs, prayers, Scripture readings and a sermon that nobody considered not long enough. But the most memorable part of the service, as with any other, was the collection of stories that revealed his character and accomplishments.
McGinnis, who died of heart failure on Dec. 14, was so prominent and prized that one tribute isn’t enough. A public celebration will be conducted at 2 p.m. Sunday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, where more stories will be shared about the Washington High School, Indiana University and Indiana Pacers star.
It would require an all-day event to allow time for all the tales McGinnis inspired. He not only stands as one of Indiana’s elite basketball icons, a Naismith Hall of Famer whose career achievements were surpassed only by Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird, he also burrowed his way into hearts because of his approachable nature and generous deeds.
Those qualities were brought out during the service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Dec. 30, an affair that managed to be intimate despite the volume of invitees. It was an uplifting reminder of the binding power of basketball, a common denominator in Indiana like no other.
It also was a sad reminder of the ruthless power of the ticking clock. From leading Washington’s undefeated season and state championship in 1969, when he was an obvious Mr. Basketball selection, through the end of his final season with the ABA Pacers in 1975, McGinnis provided an uninterrupted stream of highlights that remain lodged in the memories of Indiana’s basketball-loving baby boomers.
The guest list was a mirror of McGinnis’ life. It included a small army of relatives from his native Alabama; boyhood friends from his west-side Haughville neighborhood; high school teammates, including all three of the other living starters—Steve Downing, Jim Arnold and Wayne Pack; those with connections to IU athletics; former Pacers players from various eras; former Pacers spouses and front-office workers; business associates; and doctors who cared for him in his later years when he battled relentless back problems.
IU coach Mike Woodson’s presence also was noteworthy. He was a high school underclassman when McGinnis was starring for the Pacers, but the two became close friends over the years. Woodson mailed gear to McGinnis from most of the NBA teams he worked for as an assistant or head coach and paid to have a stretch limousine drive McGinnis to Bloomington for his induction into the Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame in September.
“I enjoyed watching George’s friendship with Mike Woodson,” Downing said during his turn to speak. “He could get George to do things I could never get him to do.”
‘Always there for me’
Regardless, Downing would have to rank as McGinnis’ closest friend. They formed a tandem that still stands as the best big man duo in Indiana’s high school basketball history and were a package deal as college recruits. They played together one season at Indiana as sophomores (freshmen were not eligible then) before McGinnis signed with the Pacers, but they remained linked by choice.
“He was a special guy for me,” said Downing, now the athletics director at Marian University. “He was always there for me. I know how he felt about people.”
Downing gave the example of McGinnis helping him recover from a knee injury one summer. McGinnis, by then a Pacer, took Downing out to Geist Reservoir to assist the rehabilitation process.
“If you ever hurt a knee, you know water therapy is really good,” Downing said. “George pushed me off the end of the boat. I used to tread water until he got tired.”
Downing also mentioned McGinnis’ role in purchasing championship rings for their high school teammates, some of whom had lost the mundane versions awarded by the IHSAA after Washington won the championship in 1969. McGinnis collected everyone’s ring sizes, footed the bill for those unable to afford one, and presented the rings at one of the team’s monthly Thursday lunch gatherings at Workingman’s Friend.
“This was something George wanted to do,” Downing said. “He cared about his teammates.”
Pack, who also was briefly a teammate of McGinnis’ with the Pacers in the 1974-1975 season, recalled McGinnis stopping by his house not long after McGinnis had signed his rookie contract. He was driving what Pack described as an egg-yolk yellow Cadillac El Dorado with off-white interior. They went cruising down West 10th Street with the radio blaring as onlookers gaped wide-eyed. “Nobody in Haughville owned a car like that,” Pack said.
That was McGinnis’ second splurge, however. First, he applied his $15,000 signing bonus toward the purchase of a house for his mother on the north side, where she lived until she died in 2019, and told her she would never have to work again.
It was probably a good thing McGinnis didn’t invest in dance lessons, though. Pack said he came over one day wanting to learn how to move to the current hits. It didn’t go well.
“Oh, my God,” Pack said. “What I could never understand is how a guy so light on his feet on a basketball court or on the football field could not put one foot in front of the other.”
Although often listed as a native of Indianapolis, McGinnis was born in Harpersville, Alabama, where he lived the first two years of his life before his father, Burnie, stumbled into a construction job here after visiting his sister. Many of his relatives, descendants of his great-grandparents, who were slaves, still live in Alabama.
Theoangelo Perkins, the mayor of Harpersville, said McGinnis was a rambunctious child who jumped off roofs for entertainment. He also recalled McGinnis being given a BB gun as a gift and then proceeding to kill all the neighbor’s chickens.
‘Do this for me, Mac’
The adult McGinnis, however, was known for his gentle, even child-like, nature.
Former Pacers trainer David Craig remembered a time in San Diego when the Pacers had a day off. He and Pacers guard Don Buse rented a sailboat and happened to discover some kelp along their journey. They decided to take about 30 feet of it and drape it from the toilet bowl in McGinnis’ hotel room, across the floor, and out to the balcony. When McGinnis entered the room that evening, he ran down the hallway screaming, believing some green underwater creature was emerging from the sewer lines.
Craig also remembered McGinnis being so afraid to receive a flu shot during training camp that he ran down another hallway. Craig had to send Darnell Hillman to bring him back and convince him to do it.
Hillman provided his own scare when he gave McGinnis a ride from the airport after returning from a road trip. Hillman drove fast cars and motorcycles during his playing days, a Pontiac Trans Am on this occasion. McGinnis asked to see what the car could do while they were heading north on Interstate 465, so Hillman revved it up to 110 mph. He took the 10th Street exit at 90 mph, at which point a screaming McGinnis was grabbing both the dashboard and Hillman’s shifting arm.
When Hillman dropped off McGinnis, he got out of the car and said, “I will never ride with you again in your automobile!”
“And to this day, he has never ridden with me,” Hillman said.
Except in golf carts. Hillman worked in the Pacers’ front office for 20 years, as a quasi-alumni director who organized appearances for former players. When McGinnis’ back problems made it difficult for him to walk, and therefore less inclined to meet the public, Hillman struck a deal that reflected the strength of their relationship.
“He started having problems with his physical appearance, and he was very self-conscious about it,” Hillman said. “I told George, ‘Do this for me, Mac. I’ll get you in early, I’ll get you in quietly and secretly, and I’ll get you out quickly.’
“They allowed me to pick George McGinnis up at his vehicle and put him in a golf cart and drive him all around [the Fieldhouse]. Nobody else in the building got to drive a golf cart on all those different levels.”
Physical challenges such as the hereditary back condition that left McGinnis bent over and requiring a walker to get around in his final years are humbling. But he possessed that quality even at the peak of his power and fame with the Pacers, with whom he won two championships.
“He accomplished so much in his life in athletics, but he never would talk about it,” Downing said. “He would always pass it on. He would say, ‘Well, Roger [Brown] really carried the team,’ or, ‘Mel [Daniels] did this.’ That was the type of guy he was.”
And a primary reason two services will be needed to honor him.•
Montieth, an Indianapolis native, is a longtime newspaper reporter and freelance writer. He is the author of three books: “Passion Play: Coach Gene Keady and the Purdue Boilermakers,” “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” and “Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball,” with former Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher.