This is the seventh in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
Let me know if this sounds familiar. A young twenty-five-year-old player in his prime has been having success starring for his hometown basketball team, but he clearly wants out of the small market on to a bigger stage. Pretty much every team in the NBA wants a crack at him, but the New York Knicks think that they are in prime position to land the possible franchise-making free agent (a free agent who talks about himself in the third person) before getting their hopes dashed at the last minute and seeing him sign with a rival team.
That is what happened twenty-five years ago when George McGinnis was set to make his way to the New York Knicks and the NBA Commissioner said, “No!”
The six foot, eight inch, 235 pound McGinnis (just let it sink in for a moment that that is almost exactly Lebron James’ measurements and then note that McGinnis was a dominant power forward in 1975) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana and was a star high school player for Washington High School in Indianapolis (he was named Mr. Basketball) before attending Indiana University. In his lone season for Indiana, he became the first sophomore to lead the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding. He received first team All-American and All-Big Ten Honors in 1971. After playing one season for Indiana, McGinnis made the leap to the American Basketball Association in 1971 (the same year another fellow by the name of Julius Erving also entered the league) playing for the Indiana Pacers.
The powerful power forward was the star player for Pacers teams that won the 1972 and 1973 ABA Championships. In the latter season, McGinnis was named ABA Finals MVP. Looking back, we now know that the ABA was nearing the end of its rope and would soon merge with the National Basketball Association, but that was not evident at the time. What was clear was that NBA teams felt that they at least had a chance at wooing ABA stars away from the younger league, so after McGinnis’ Finals MVP performance, the Philadelphia 76ers spent a second round pick on McGinnis.
After the 1973-74 ABA season, where McGinnis made his first first team All-ABA team and came in second in the ABA in both scoring and rebounding per game, McGinnis and his agent decided that they were ready for the NBA, but only if he could play for the New York Knicks. The Sixers were in pretty rough shape, personnel-wise, following the 1973-74 NBA season, as they finished with the worst record in the NBA and their first-round draft choice, Doug Collins, did not seem all that great. So the Sixers agreed to a deal where the Knicks would have 30 days to woo McGinnis to sign with the Knicks, and if they succeeded, the Knicks would deal Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, a high draft pick plus a lot of money.
However, despite having Walt Frazier personally take McGinnis out on the town (can you imagine what that must have been like?), at the end of the negotiating period McGinnis instead returned to Indiana, signing a massive (for its time) six-year/$2.4 million deal with the Pacers. Frazier remarked at the time, “I think George got scared by the tall buildings.” Part of McGinnis’ deal, however, allowed him to buy his way out of the contract after the first year, if he felt he was ready to leave. Well, after one more season in the ABA, McGinnis was ready for the Knicks – the only problem was that the Sixers were also ready for him.
Two big changes occurred in the 1974-75 professional basketball season. In the ABA, McGinnis improved his game and led the league in scoring and ended up winning the ABA MVP (sharing the honor with Julius Erving). Meanwhile, in the NBA, Billy Cunningham, the star forward for the Sixers, returned from a two-year stint in the ABA to rejoin the Sixers, plus Doug Collins exploded in his second season as he became a clear rising young star in the league. So when McGinnis put his hat into the ring again for the NBA, while he and the Knicks felt that it was going to be the same as last season, the Sixers felt quite differently about the situation. If McGinnis were to play in the NBA in 1975-76, they knew that it would be for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Knicks, meanwhile, felt that nothing had changed from the previous season, and despite the Sixers’ warnings to the contrary, they signed McGinnis to a six-year/$3.1 million dollar deal soon after the conclusion of the 1974-75 NBA season. They then called the Sixers and asked what they wanted for McGinnis. The Sixers owner, Irving Kosloff, responded, “for the NBA to take your [expletive deleted] franchise away!” The Sixers then hired famed attorney Louis Nizer and took their case to the new NBA Commissioner, Larry O’Brien, who ruled at the owners meeting in the summer of 1975 that the Knicks contract with McGinnis was invalid. He also took away the Knicks’ 1976 first round draft pick as punishment (and made them pay the Sixers’ legal fees).
McGinnis was in an odd situation. He had already cut ties with the Pacers by signing with the Knicks (although he technically could still return to Indiana) but he had also said a number of things about Philadelphia when he signed with the Knicks (stuff like “I don’t want to play in Philadelphia,” which he later said was misconstrued, since he didn’t want to play in New York either, he just wanted the most money).
McGinnis’ comments at the time are actually pretty refreshing in their candor, even if he, like Lebron James in 2010 during “The Decision,” had the odd tendancy to speak about himself in the third person…
All I’m seeking is financial security for George McGinnis. If all things were financially equal I’d never leave Indiana. I’m not a New Yorker or a Philadelphian. But you take the lifespan of an athlete—well, you don’t have that much time. The fact is that if you have the bucks, you are O.K. If not, you aren’t. I didn’t make the rules.
Look, under the Constitution I have the right to earn as much money as I am capable of. Let’s be realistic. One, I’ve only two years of college education. Two, I’m black. And, three, I’m not very smart, although I have a lot of common sense. My time is now. I sign a six-year contract and then maybe, just maybe, I might have two or three more years. What happens to George McGinnis then? I don’t want to be a stockbroker. I don’t want to wear a suit and a tie and work 8 to 5. I don’t see why it’s so complicated. Here’s one pile of money and there’s another. One pile is larger. It doesn’t take any intelligence to figure that out.
What is also interesting at the time is seeing the discussions even back then about how being in New York would not help McGinnis sign bigger endorsement deals necessarily, something we heard a lot about this past free agency period with regards to Lebron. The Sixers’ GM Pat Williams argued, “Johnny Bench and O.J. Simpson make as much extra money as anybody [without playing in New York City]!”
Eventually, McGinnis would sign a six-year/$3 million contract with the Sixers. The next season, the Sixers would pair McGinnis and Collins with another star player, Julius Erving, McGinnis’ rival from the ABA. This array of star players never quite did gel together (which I bet is what lots of bitter Cavaliers and Raptors fans hope happens for the Miami Heat over the next few years) and McGinnis was dealt after the 1978-79 season to the Denver Nuggets (he disappointed there, as well, and was soon dealt to the Indiana Pacers for a twenty-six-year-old Alex English, one of the more lopsided trades you’ll ever see). McGinnis was out of the league by the end of the 1981-82 season, finished as a pro by the age of 31 (as he predicted back in 1975, his knees had problems holding up over the years).
The Knicks ended up trading for Spencer Haywood later in the 1975 offseason to fill their power forward needs. That did not go terribly, but nor did it work out the way they intended (Monroe, meanwhile, would spend the rest of his career as a Knick).
Thanks to reader Gerald for suggesting I feature the story of George McGinnis here! And thanks to Pat Putnam and Jerry Kirshenbaum for their great work on this story as it was happening back in 1975 (and for the great quotes used above).
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!