SPORTS Bill Benner
Big George is a hero on and off the hardwood
It just occurred to me that 30 years ago this month—hey, who put the brick on my life’s accelerator?— I was a journalism pup preparing for my initial run with the big dogs.
I had been tapped to be The Indianapolis Star’s beat writer covering the Indiana
Pacers, who then resided in the late, great American Basketball Association.
It was heady stuff for several reasons.
The Pacers were a huge ongoing story, just one season removed from the last of their three ABA titles. They were moving into their downtown home, Market Square Arena. They were coached by Bob “Slick” Leonard, whom I had idolized since his 1953 national championship days with Branch McCracken’s Hurryin’ Hoosiers.
And they were led by George McGinnis.
Even in basketball-crazy Indiana, we’d never seen anyone quite like McGinnis. He had bulk, strength, agility and quickness. It was as if God had said, “Hmmm … I think I’ll take a little extra time making this one.” By the time he was a sophomore at Washington High School, McGinnis was 6-foot-6-inches, 220 pounds, and a man among boys. By his senior year, he had added a couple of inches and about 15 pounds. Playing alongside Steve Downing, McGinnis helped the Continentals go unbeaten and win the state championship. McGinnis, of course, was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, and he backed it up with the greatest individual performance in Indiana-Kentucky All-Star Game history: 53 points and 31 rebounds.
From there it was on to Indiana University (with Downing), where McGinnis became an all-American as a sophomore, leading the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding. He then declared “hardship”— and it really was, because his father had died in a construction accident—and turned professional, joining his hometown team.
It was a perfect fit. George quickly blossomed into an ABA all-star. By the 1974-1975 season, Roger Brown was in the twilight of his career and Mel Daniels and Freddie Lewis had been traded away. The Pacers were, that season, clearly McGinnis’ team. He averaged 29.8 points, 14.6 rebounds and six assists in the regular season and increased those numbers in the playoffs. He and rookie Billy Knight led the Pacers to the finals, where they lost to Kentucky.
McGinnis was co-MVP (with Julius Erving) that year and I didn’t think covering basketball could be any more fun. Big Mac put on a super-size show virtually every night.
Today, his retired jersey—No. 30—hangs from the Conseco Fieldhouse rafters, a reminder of the player he once was.
But now he has recognition of the man, and community leader, he has since become. And, in the long haul, that’s more important. This coming week, at the Circle City Classic, McGinnis will receive the Major Taylor Award.
“This one,” he says, “makes me feel really special.”
Presented by Indiana Black Expo and the Classic, the Major Taylor Award recognizes an African-American athlete, coach, athletic administrator or official who has made significant local and national contributions to youth while encouraging excellence in future generations.
McGinnis has done all the above. He has built a successful business, GM Supply, on the city’s east side. He has given his name, and his time, to countless charitable endeavors, such as the March of Dimes, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and Meals on Wheels.
He also has worked to advance sports in his hometown, serving as co-chairman for NCAA Men’s Final Fours in 1997 and 2000; he will do so again in 2006. He also was a co-chairman for the city’s successful 2010 Men’s Final Four bid.
He is humbled to receive the Major Taylor Award, named for the turn-of-the-century Indianapolis cyclist who wouldn’t allow bigotry to prevent him from becoming the best in the world. He is even more humbled to join a list of recipients that includes Dr. LeRoy Walker, Eddie Robinson, Clarence “Big-House’’ Gaines, Anita DeFrantz, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and last year’s dual recipients, Muhammad Ali and the late Rev. Charles Williams, founder of the Circle City Classic and longtime president of Indiana Black Expo.
“Just seeing those names underscores what this award means,” he says, “as well as what the Circle City Classic has meant to the city of Indianapolis.”
McGinnis has meant a lot to the city, as well, perhaps more for the life he lives and the example he sets now than for all those basketball exploits.
And that’s saying something.
Benner, a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star, is now vice president of communications for the notfor-profit Indiana Sports Corp. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.com or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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