Mark Montieth: Remembering the basketball prowess and sunny kindness of George McGinnis

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SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 08: Inductee George McGinnis speaks during the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on September 8, 2017, at Symphony Hall in Springfield, MA. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

George McGinnis accomplished plenty in his basketball career, more in fact than anyone within the state’s boundaries. But let’s focus on what anyone who met him will remember most.

His demeanor.

It’s a cliché to say someone who just passed away, as McGinnis did early Thursday at age 73, was a good person. But he went beyond that. He was nice to a fault. Nice despite all that had gone wrong for him in his later years. So nice, in fact, that people took advantage of him.

The basketball career that landed him in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and, most recently, the Indiana University Athletic Hall of Fame, was special. Veteran fans of Hoosier basketball already know the highlights.

High school All-American in both football and basketball. Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1969 after leading Washington High School to an undefeated season and state championship. Scored 53 points and grabbed 30 rebounds in the second game of the all-star series with Kentucky after a Kentucky player had called him overrated following the first game.

Averaged 30 points and 14.7 rebounds in his only season at Indiana University two years later. Signed with the Pacers after his sophomore season, became a starter on their championship team in 1972, and was voted Most Valuable Player of the ABA finals when they won again in ’73. Was voted co-MVP of the entire league in 1975 when he led a young, reconstructed team to the finals.

Still holds the Pacers’ single-game scoring record with 58 in an overtime game at Dallas. Still holds the Pacers’ single-game rebounding record with 37 at Carolina. Scored 52 in that one as well. Jumped to the NBA when Philadelphia offered a contract with three times the salary he had received from the Pacers. First-team all-NBA in 1976, second-team in ’77, an all-star both seasons.

Under coach Bill Green, left, Washington High School’s 1969 team went undefeated and won the state championship. George McGinnis, center, and Steve Downing were its biggest stars. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana High School Athletic Association)

Traded to Denver in the summer of 1978 after his career floundered in Philly, he revitalized it by becoming a starter on the Western Conference all-star team the following season. Suffered an Achilles injury later that season, was never the same again, and finished his career with the Pacers.

McGinnis had the third-best professional career for an Indiana high school alum, behind only Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson. Those three are on their own tier. Whomever you consider fourth on the list would reside several notches below. McGinnis, however, was the only one of the three to play within the state boundaries at all levels—from Washington High to IU to the Pacers—and followed up by living here full time after his playing career.

You couldn’t find a more popular alumnus of Hoosier Hysteria, one more unanimously admired for his accommodating and gentle persona. For proof you only needed to spend a few hours with him and bear witness to the routine stream of phone calls and text messages.

McGinnis’ ultimate legacy, therefore, is his life away from basketball. There was the rebound from the disappointing end to his playing career into a successful business career, which he considered to be his greatest accomplishment, then the perseverance displayed amid tremendous physical and emotional challenges. He never offered complaints, and to the very end maintained the same upbeat persona he had first displayed to the public as a high school phenom.

I had several extended conversations with McGinnis over the past few years for the primary purpose of gathering information for a book project. We usually talked in his home and went to lunch afterward. In those moments, I saw firsthand his brave face and generous spirit, the qualities his friends most remember him for.

The 1971-72 Indiana Pacers. Front row: Bob Netolicky, Marvin Winkler, Freddie Lewis, Billy Keller, Mel Daniels. Back row: assistant coach Bobby Joe Hooper, Rick Mount, trainer David Craig, George McGinnis, Don Sidle, Roger Brown, Darnell Hillman, Wayne
Chapman, coach Bob Leonard. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana Pacers)

My last extended conversation with George came on Aug. 29. Sitting outside a restaurant, where he preferred to sit because it was easier to maneuver his walker, I asked how he managed to keep such a positive outlook given all his physical challenges.

“It is what it is, man,” he said. “You just have to deal with it. I’ll tell you what, there’s nothing more important than your health. No amount of money.

“I’m in a way the victim of circumstances,” he added.

He was. In a big way. He was referring to the back condition he inherited from his father, Burnie, a construction worker who died on July 7, 1969, after falling off a fourth-floor scaffolding while working at an addition to an Eli Lilly facility downtown. Burnie was just 43 years old, but George has distinct memories of him lying on the floor inside their home on King Street because of back pain for a few years before that.

George and his older sister, Bonnie, also suffered from back problems as they got older. Both underwent major surgeries in which titanium discs were inserted in the spinal column to enable them to stand up straight. It worked for Bonnie but ultimately failed for George, who constantly developed infections. The discs finally had to be removed. That meant a return to being slumped over and in need of a walker, but he was pain-free.

“I don’t look OK, but I feel better,” he said.

It was a sad sight for those who remembered McGinnis as a player. The marvelous physical specimen who seemed carved from granite but possessing the speed and agility of a jaguar had been reduced to ambling around on a walker. But he accepted it as his inherited fate, something that came with his unique athletic traits. He was even able to laugh about it.

“You should see all the McGinnises who walk like me,” he said, smiling. “There’s at least 10 of us. One guy in Ohio, he’s almost down to the ground. He’s got a little cane, and he walks around almost down to the ground. But he walks around with a smile. He says, ‘Hey, boy, what’s going on? Give me a hundred dollars, boy! I heard you’re giving away hundred-dollar bills down here.’ I say, ‘Joe, you better get on out of here.’”

George should have turned away more people. He once told me he had loaned out between $75,000 and $100,000 to friends, relatives and former teammates who never paid him back. He was aggravated by that, but not bitter. He also was known to offer cash to people who didn’t ask, if he felt they needed some.

“I’m just glad I was in a position to help,” he said.

George McGinnis with his parents, Willie and Burnie McGinnis, just before the 1969 All-Star game. He’s holding the ball that commemorated his record-breaking Marion County season scoring total. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame)

He was in that position because of his 11-year playing career and subsequent business career. He had moved to Denver after being cut by the Pacers in training camp in 1982 to decompress. He hunted, fished and snow-skied throughout the West and into Alaska. Finally, his wife, Lynda, convinced him to return to Indianapolis, where both had spent their childhoods. He dabbled in broadcasting and other short-term ventures while reconnecting with former high school and Pacer teammates until she convinced him to start a business.

GM Supply Co. Inc., opened in 1992, remains a going concern. That, along with wise investments, kept him in position to be charitable. And kept him a target for needy acquaintances. On another one of my visits, someone with a loose family connection called to ask him to co-sign a loan. He expressed doubts but said he would think about it.

McGinnis’ greatest wealth, however, was in the volume of friends he accumulated. Living in Indianapolis, where he had been a genuine sports celebrity and had established a clean reputation, he lacked for nothing but better health. He had roamed far and wide during his playing career but kept his roots intact. Nurtured them, too. He met monthly with his high school teammates for lunch at Workingman’s Friend.

“I used to kid him,” said Steve Downing, his teammate in high school and college and best friend. “I’d say, ‘George, I know you’re going to go away from here someday and forget all about us here back home.’ But he never did.”

He never forgot to maintain perspective, either. He lost plenty in his later years. Lynda died in March of 2019 and his mother, Willie, passed the following October. And it was no small thing to him when his dog, Louis, the chihuahua and yorkie mix Lynda had acquired 13 years earlier without his knowing about it, died the following year. He was left alone in his massive house, struggling to maintain mobility, but was always well looked after by friends and neighbors.

“I’ve got no complaints,” he said. “Little poor kid from the west side … . I’ve had a good life. Blessed, to tell you the truth.”

__________

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.

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10 thoughts on “Mark Montieth: Remembering the basketball prowess and sunny kindness of George McGinnis

  1. Great story Mark about a great man. I have fond memories of my interactions with him going back to my high school days working at the Diary Queen and George coming through the drive through for ice cream. He was a superstar then and treated me kindly. He will be missed!

  2. Summer 1964…Speedway Park pick up basketball games. I played at Ben Davis and we played pick up games against Washington and Speedway guys. The Washington crew brought an 8th grader that had feet so big….they called him “Feet”. George McGinnis was a load as an 8th grader! RIP “Feet”

  3. Anyone that saw him play will never forget his astounding combination of physique, athleticism and competitive spirit. A great Indiana basketball player for the ages.

  4. What a great article about a great man. He was a legend when I grew up. My Dad would tell me, you have got to see this young man play. He is a stud!! Rest In Peace George…

  5. I had the opportunity to play basketball against George several times in high school (BRHS vs Washington). He was a man amongst boys, and always had upmost respect for the game, his teammates and opponents. RIP

  6. I filled his prescriptions at Peoples Drug in the 80’s ! He was So-o nice,
    smiling,appreciative and I will always remember our conversations! 😃
    RIP George

  7. I got to see him play HS basketball and football at Washington. He was “co-athlete” of the year in Indianapolis with a schoolmate of mine, Dan Lintner.
    George was just part of the fabric of Indianapolis. i never knew him but I’m really glad that Mark Montieth did this piece.

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