It might be the biggest understatement in the history of Indiana basketball.
“I think I could have made a difference.”
As a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and six time NBA/ABA All-Star, George McGinnis made a difference in more than a few basketball games.
Before he went on to the professional ranks, McGinnis had what was quite simply the most dominant single season in IU basketball history.
For his sophomore 1970-71 campaign in Bloomington, McGinnis averaged 29.9 points and 14.7 rebounds per contest. He led the Big Ten in both categories. McGinnis also added 2.8 assists per game and helped the Hoosiers to add 10 more wins to their total from the previous season under head coach Lou Watson.
Perhaps more impressive than the numbers themselves is the fact that McGinnis did this in his first (and only) season as a Hoosier. Freshmen sat out in this era of college basketball.
A rarity at the time, McGinnis left IU to play professional basketball after that one season in Bloomington.
Once again, he needed to make a difference. This time, it was in his mother’s life.
McGinnis’ father was tragically killed in a construction accident in the summer between his senior year of high school and freshman season at IU. His father had worked two jobs to support the family and his passing put a lot of stress on his mother.
As McGinnis put it, his family was “very poor, we didn’t have anything,” and an opportunity to make money while continuing to play basketball beckoned in the American Basketball Association.
The Pacers signed McGinnis for about $35,000 per season in 1971.
McGinnis told Pacers.com in 2016 “I thought, Man, if I can make this for 10 or 12 years, I’ll be set,” he thought at the time.
He also received bonuses totaling $15,000, which allowed him to move his mother, Willie, into a new home. They had lived in a $7,000 home in Haughville on the near west side. The new one cost $26,800.
McGinnis said that his mother “still lives in that little house, and she still loves it.”
“Every time I go there it makes me so proud.”
Needless to say, McGinnis didn’t spend a lot of time wondering “what if” about his IU career. Things worked out just fine at the professional level.
The Indianapolis native spent his first four pro seasons in the ABA with the Pacers, his hometown team, winning two championships, making all-league three times and being named MVP in 1974-75, just before the merger with the NBA.
The 6-foot-8 McGinnis spent time with the 76ers and Nuggets before returning to Indiana for his final two seasons.
McGinnis averaged 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds in the ABA, 17.2 and 9.8 in the NBA, and 20.2 and 11.0, overall, along with those combined six All-Star appearances.
But despite all of that professional success, there was one IU game after he left Bloomington that still makes McGinnis stop and think.
“The one thing I do think about, was 1973 when they made it to the Final Four and played UCLA,” McGinnis said.
Playing on that 1973 team was McGinnis’ good friend and former Indianapolis Washington High School teammate Steve Downing. The pair led Washington to a 31-0 mark and the 1969 Indiana state championship as seniors.
Downing was the first IU All-American under Bob Knight and led IU to that Final Four in 1973 while averaging 20.1 points and 10.6 rebounds.
“Steve Downing got a really bad call against the big center, Bill Walton, and I thought, man, I would have loved to have been on that team,” McGinnis said. “I think I could have made a difference.”
That 1972-73 Indiana season would have been McGinnis’ senior year at IU. It is difficult to imagine the impact he would have had on that season, and on that game against UCLA after the amazing college season he produced two years prior.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
McGinnis played in a different era of IU basketball.
There was no Assembly Hall, no Bob Knight, and no candy striped pants. Strange as it may seem, all three of those iconic aspects of IU basketball made their first appearance in Bloomington just months after McGinnis left.
Knight’s first season at IU was the 1971-72 season. That was also the first season that the team played at Assembly Hall, and the first season the team wore the candy-striped warm-up pants.
While Knight introduced a new era of basketball in Bloomington and of course ultimately won three national titles, it turned out that there was at least one piece of the puzzle that was missing in 1973.
George McGinnis was busy making a difference elsewhere then — winning the MVP of the 1973 ABA Finals.
While the Knight – McGinnis duo never happened, a mutual respect emerged.
“You know what, he (Knight) embraced me,” McGinnis said. “He was nice to me. He invited me down to games. He invited me to the Final Four. He was very encouraging and kind.”
While there will always be the question of “what if” when it comes to that 1972-73 IU team and McGinnis, the now 68 year old basketball legend recognizes that in the end, there was plenty of fame and glory to be had for both him and Knight.
“I ended up okay, and he ended up okay too,” McGinnis said.
Indeed they both did.
Knight entered the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1991, and McGinnis joined him there in 2017.
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