Two-time ABA champion and Indiana Mr. Basketball winner George McGinnis dies at 73

The groundbreaking McGinnis, who captivated ABA and NBA fans with his one-handed jump shot, uncanny athleticism and pioneering spirit, died early Thursday morning.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — George McGinnis spent his teenage years sneaking into Pacers games at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

He finished his Hall of Fame career as one of the most popular, revered and decorated basketball players in Pacers history.

The groundbreaking power forward, who captivated ABA and NBA fans with his one-handed jump shot, uncanny athleticism and pioneering spirit, died early Thursday morning. McGinnis was 73.

In this November 1975 photo, 76ers forward George McGinnis (30) is shown during the first half of a NBA game in Philadelphia. McGinnis, a Hall of Fame forward who was a two-time ABA champion and three-time all-star in the NBA and ABA, died Thursday at age 73. (Photo: Rusty Kennedy/AP, File)

The Indiana Pacers said he died following complications from a cardiac arrest suffered last week at his home. McGinnis also had struggled to walk in recent years after undergoing multiple back surgeries because of a hereditary condition.

McGinnis was the consummate Hoosier, listening to high school games from the Hinkle Fieldhouse parking lot, relying on friendly ushers to introduce him to pro basketball and becoming a goodwill ambassador for his home state’s top sport.

And it all started with one game in the late 1960s.

“It was pro basketball and it was the first time I had seen it,” McGinnis told The Associated Press in 2021. “They had an NBA game on TV once a week or so, but seeing the pro game up close was one of the most outstanding times in my life.”

Basketball turned McGinnis into a celebrity whose career path had him rubbing elbows with some of Indiana’s biggest basketball names — Oscar Robertson, Rick Mount, Larry Bird, Bobby “Slick” Leonard, Bob Knight and dozens of others through the years.

His deep, deliberate speech pattern, warm personality and passion for the sport helped him bond with the fans who watched him go from prep star to unstoppable force in his one and only college season at Indiana before eventually leading the Pacers on two of their three ABA title runs.

“From his all-state high school days to his time as an IU All-American and, of course, to his legendary ABA championship runs with the Pacers, George McGinnis shaped so many of the fondest basketball memories for generations of Hoosiers,” the Simon Family and Pacers Sports & Entertainment said in a statement. “He was the very definition of an Indiana basketball legend, a champion, and Hall of Fame athlete.”

McGinnis was changing the game long before he made it to the pros, though.

After watching Robertson lead Indianapolis Crispus Attucks to Indiana’s first undefeated Indiana state championship in 1956, McGinnis matched him by taking Indianapolis Washington on a 31-0 title run and the third perfect season in Indiana history.

Robertson and McGinnis both refined their games at Indianapolis’ famed Lockefield Dust Bowl.

McGinnis followed that championship by scoring 53 points and grabbing 30 rebounds in the second game of the annual Indiana-Kentucky All-Star Series that summer.

In the first game, McGinnis scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.

“I didn’t think that was too bad but one of the Kentucky players was not very impressed with the game I had or me, so I didn’t want to leave a bad impression on him,” McGinnis said at his Hall of Fame induction in 2017.

He also wound up playing for some of the state’s top coaches, most notably Leonard, who won 573 games in 14 seasons as a head coach, all but three of those years with the Pacers. Leonard also made the winning free throw in 1953 NCAA championship game for the Hoosiers’ second national title.

“He was the best coach I ever played for in last shot, pressure situations,” McGinnis once said. “In the seventh game, he would change the entire offense. It was genius. I think that’s why if you look at the Pacers, they won all three championships in seventh games on the road.”

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But the 6-foot-8, 235-pound McGinnis was ahead of his time in more ways than anyone could imagine in the 1970s.

Following his one breakout college season, McGinnis took advantage of Spencer Haywood’s Supreme Court victory in 1971 that allowed underclassmen to turn pro under a hardship rule just two years after his father, Burnie, was killed from a fall off scaffolding. McGinnis signed with his hometown team, the Pacers.

His used those long strides, a powerful, elegant style and incredible passing ability to make three ABA All-Star teams and three NBA All-Star teams, earn multiple all-ABA and all-NBA selections and win the 1973 ABA playoff MVP in just his second pro season. And after making the ABA’s all-rookie team in 1971-72, he earned all-NBA honors in his first season (1975-76) in the more established league by becoming a central piece of the Philadelphia 76ers rebuilding project.

McGinnis’ best season came in 1974-75 when he won the ABA scoring title (29.8 points per game), finished second in steals (2.6), third in assists (6.3) and fifth in rebounds (14.3). He shared the league’s MVP Award with Hall of Famer Julius Erving, a future teammate in Philly.

For McGinnis, it a warmup to a historic playoff performance that included a 51-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist triple-double and becoming the first player in either league to top 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in a single postseason series. He actually did it twice, in back-to-back series.

And though he didn’t win that third title, McGinnis was the playoff leader in scoring (581 points), rebounding (286) and assists (148).

Those numbers helped fuel McGinnis’ next trailblazing effort — switching leagues on his own terms.

With the ABA struggling financially and the 76ers still holding his contractual rights two years after drafting him in 1973, Leonard once said he advised McGinnis to pursue more money in the NBA. McGinnis wanted to negotiate with a team of his choosing and initially signed a six-year, $2.4 million contract with the New York Knicks.

When NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien voided the deal and punished the Knicks, McGinnis accepted a six-year, $3.2 million contract with the 76ers that included no‐cut, no‐trade and no-option clauses.

“Let George do it,” was the team slogan in McGinnis’ first season in Philly.

He delivered by leading the 76ers to their first playoff appearance since 1970-71 and Philadelphia saw its average home attendance increase by more than 5,000 per game. The next season, with Erving on the team, Philadelphia lost the NBA Finals to Portland in six games after winning the first two.

McGinnis spent three seasons with the 76ers before being traded to Denver. The Nuggets sent him back to the Pacers midway through the 1979-80 season and McGinnis finished his 11-year career with 2 1/2 seasons back home in Indiana.

McGinnis ended his pro career with 17,009 points, 9,233 rebounds and 3,089 assists, was a third-team All-American selection in his only college season and was named 1969 Mr. Basketball USA.

He also is a member of the Indiana’s athletic Hall of Fame and is one of four former Pacers players to have his jersey number retired.

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