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Monday, April 22, 2024

McGinnis was the real deal and then some all his career

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I’ll never forget the first time l saw the great George McGinnis in person. My late father and l were seated way up high at Hinkle Fieldhouse and l watched him run out on to the floor in the Indiana High School Basketball tournament as he prepared to lead the George Washington Continentals to the title in 1969.

I was just ten years old but clearly remember asking my father why number forty-five was so much bigger and faster than anyone else on the court?

Three years later my late mother, a devout Pacers fan in the ABA era, would take yours truly to the State Fairgrounds Coliseum regularly and once again l would repeatedly witness the incredible combination of size, strength, and speed that was “Big Mac,” who at this juncture had been immortalized by me with an autographed black and white publicity photo of him on my bedroom door and a rubber red, white, and blue basketball that was free when one filled up at a local gas station in the greater lndianapolis metro area.

There can be no doubt that one of the darkest moments in my younger days was when the greatest basketball player l had ever seen in person jumped to the NBA for a well-deserved raise with the Philadelphia 76ers which made me both angry and sad.  How could my hero who had led the Pacers to multiple championships bolt to the City of Brotherly Love? With no understanding of free agency at my young age l felt it was a cruel twist of fate to say the least, but l continued to follow his brilliant career through the box scores in the newspapers religiously. 

As the years went by l would get to meet my favorite basketball player via my friendship with the late, great Robin Miller and was able to develop that fortunate meeting into a relationship that included lunches with Miller and George where the Guinness Book of World Records for the consumption of spaghetti and meatballs was established. 

We laughed, told stories and relived the greatness that was the American Basketball Association and beyond. 

When the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame literally forgot about George, l wrote a column for this newspaper that pointed out the ridiculous oversight that was ongoing and then began to write the Hall of Fame induction committee regularly in an effort to “refesh” their collective memories about McGinnis’ prowess as a player, with a career that demanded the recognition of the Hall.

When the call that he had finally been recognized came and he had been chosen for induction, we all raised a glass and celebrated in a fashion that was both fitting and appropriate, and he thanked both Miller and l for all the emails that went to the powers that be at the Basketball Hall of Fame. We considered that mission to be a labor of love and George really took pride in our collective commitment and the diligence that went into it all.

The final opportunity to spend time with him came at his residence this past September where we watched golf on television and munched on sour cream coffee cake as he signed a jersey from his storied career for a friend of mine.  We talked about his journey as a player and his tremendously successful transition to the business world where he gave the same commitment to his company as he did the game of basketball. 

When l received word he had gone in to cardiac arrest and was in critical condition, l was both shocked and concerned about the humble and great man l had come to know over the years.

His subsequent death made me reflect on both a life well lived along with the virtually unparalleled basketball career of a man who loved his late wife and took great pride in his business acumen as much as his basketball accomplishments. 

I also thought back to being a skinny young boy who had found his hero long before he would go on to meet him. As l mixed a smile with a tear, l reflected on the great meals and good times with him and our mutual friend Robin Miller, who had covered George as a rather green but enthusiastic nineteen-year-old reporter for the Indianapolis Star during the infancy of his career. 

I could say l’m a better man for knowing George McGinnis but that’s simply an oft-used cliche.

What l can tell you is he was a generous and grateful man who always took time to interact with his fans, never taking the numerous blessings his hard work in life had given him.

I’ll miss his booming laugh and will never forget the kindness he showed me, especially during our last time together in person where he bestowed a personalized ABA basketball to me reading: “To Danny, much love my friend.”  I was moved in a way that was profound and when l thanked him he said “lt’s for all you’ve done for me.”  Quite a moment for the same guy who sat up high in the cheap seats at Hinkle Fieldhouse that day in 1969 watching the greatest basketball player Indiana will ever see. Rest easy big guy.

Danny Bridges who appreciated George McGinnis the person even more than the Hall of Fame basketball player, can be reached at (317) 370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com

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