New Hall of Famer George McGinnis touched off a 76ers renaissance

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Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Rebecca Lobo shares a light moment with George McGinnis.

There aren’t any 76ers among the four Basketball Hall of Famers who on Friday night at the Springfield (Mass.) Symphony Hall will present George McGinnis for induction into their exclusive club.

His three Philadelphia seasons, after all, produced no NBA titles and, in part because he would soon be overlapped and overshadowed by Julius Erving, few enduring memories.

It’s easy now to forget that McGinnis’ arrival here in 1975 was a crucial moment in 76ers history, transforming a stagnant franchise on and off the court and generating an enthusiasm that at least until this summer of great expectations the Sixers could not muster again.

It’s easy now to forget the then-unimaginable contract (six years, $3 million) owner Irv Kosloff gave him; the “Let George Do It” billboards that, like fan expectations, rose all around the city; the Philadelphia basketball-record crowd of 18,029 that filled the Spectrum for his debut and showered him with a 55-second ovation during introductions.

His Hall induction comes at an interesting moment in Sixers history, with preseason excitement over the team hitting a level not seen since McGinnis came here from Indiana 42 summers ago.

“I loved Philadelphia,” McGinnis said Thursday. “It’s a place me and my wife grew up in. …. Philly made us grow up. It was the first time we were on our own.”

News of his arrival on July 10, 1975, instantly re-energized a team and a fan base for whom there was no process to trust. Over the previous three seasons, Philadelphia’s combined win-loss record had been 68-178, its average home crowd 5,921.

The aging Sixers’ best player (Billy Cunningham) was hobbled by persistent knee problems. Their prized young star (Doug Collins) needed complements. Their fans needed a reason to believe.

The 6-foot-8, 235-pound McGinnis gave them one. He’d averaged 29.8 points and 14.3 rebounds for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers the previous season. At 24, his lethal combination of power and quickness overmatched most defenders.

“At that age, and with his abilities, he had unlimited potential,” recalled Cunningham, who would retire a year later.

But despite three productive seasons, that potential would never be fully realized in Philadelphia.

The 76ers drafted McGinnis in the second round in 1973, but he signed instead with Indiana. In 1975 when the Knicks tried to sign him, Philadelphia balked. An extended legal battle ended only when the Sixers agreed to compensate New York for the $500,000 bonus it had paid McGinnis.

McGinnis, who initially refused to come to Philadelphia, gave a strange performance at his welcoming news conference, one that would foretell the enigmatic behavior to come.

“That’s an awful lot of money to pay for a man to just shoot a basketball,” McGinnis said of his deal. The odd comment didn’t reassure the cash-strapped Kosloff and within a year he sold the team to Fitz Dixon for $5 million.

At the time, McGinnis’ guaranteed deal was believed to be the largest ever paid to a Philadelphia athlete. Flabbergasted local columnists termed it “insane,” “absurd,” and “ridiculous.”

“It was a lot of money,” said Pat Williams, the 76ers general manager then, “but we figured that we either could keep building toward mediocrity or we could shoot for the top.”

Later at the same news conference, McGinnis had people scratching their heads when he spoke about the impact his father’s premature death had on him at age 12.

“I think that made me more mature,” he said. “Not that I want anyone to die, especially from your family. Not that I hate death so much. It’s how people die.”

Regardless, coming just two months after the Flyers won their second consecutive Stanley Cup, his signing enhanced a growing renaissance in Philadelphia sports.

“The city was really hyped up when we brought George here,” said Williams. “The 76ers fans felt like they finally had something to get excited about.”

McGinnis didn’t disappoint on the court. He averaged 23 points, 12.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists as the 76ers improved to 46-36 and made the first of 12 consecutive playoff appearances.

“We had a pretty special team,” McGinnis recalled. “We set forward a motion in Philly that hadn’t been seen there in a long time — winning basketball.”

But they were eliminated in the first round of 1975-76 playoffs, beaten in a best-of-three series by Jack Ramsay’s Buffalo Braves. So after Dixon bought the team and several ABA teams were getting folded into the NBA, Williams convinced the new owner he needed to sign another available superstar: Erving.

Billed a super team, the 1976-77 Sixers  —  with McGinnis compiling almost identical statistics  —  advanced to the NBA Finals. There they were upset again by a Ramsay-coached club, this time the Portland Trail Blazers.

Coach Gene Shue never got his star-studded team to mesh. The enormous disappointment led to the Sixers’ ill-conceived “We Owe You One” ad campaign. Finally, when the ’77-’78 Sixers were upset in a six-game Eastern Conference finals by Washington, it was clear something had to change.

The Sixers needed a defensive stopper. Denver coach Larry Brown wanted McGinnis. So in August 1978, Philadelphia sent McGinnis and a No. 1 pick to the Nuggets for Bobby Jones, Ralph Simpson, and a No. 1 pick.

Jones, of course, would become a key piece of the 76ers’ 1983 championship team. McGinnis, meanwhile, would drive Brown crazy.

“One day at practice, George decided he needed a break. So he went to the sideline and lit a cigarette,” Williams recalled. “Larry told [GM] Carl Sheer to get him out of here. So he gets traded back to Indiana for Alex English, who became a Hall of Famer.”

By 1982, McGinnis’ promising career was over. He’d played in Philly, Indianapolis, and Denver and never got a championship.

“I don’t think we enjoyed a city more than living in Philadelphia those three years,” he said.