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George McGinnis, who helped return Sixers to relevancy, dies at 73

Former Sixer George McGinnis died Thursday at the age of 73 from complications resulting from cardiac arrest.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

George McGinnis is an often-forgotten figure in Sixers history, the guy who gave them traction after they had bottomed out at 9-73 in 1972-73, still the worst full-season record in NBA history.

Trust the Process? Back then it was “Let George Do It.” That was the slogan plastered on billboards all over town at the time.

And he did.

That should be remembered now, with the Hall of Famer’s death Thursday at the age of 73, from complications resulting from cardiac arrest. He was here just three seasons (1975-76 through ‘77-78), and departed in a trade with Denver that netted the Sixers no less a player than Bobby Jones.

McGinnis was long gone by the time Julius Erving and Moses Malone led the Sixers to the ‘82-83 championship, and has been relegated to footnote status with the passage of time and the emergence of such other marquee names as Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson and Joel Embiid.

Yet McGinnis, a sculpted power forward at 6-8 and 235 pounds, was a pivotal figure in team history himself. He brought the Sixers back to prominence after they had swan-dived into the abyss. He made the rest of the league take them seriously after they had become a laughingstock. And that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Former Sixers general manager Pat Williams told Sports Illustrated in 1982 that McGinnis was “the turnaround factor in pro basketball in this town” and added, “Julius put up the walls and a roof, but it was George who built the foundation.”

Williams reiterated that point in We Owed You One, a 1983 book he co-authored with Bill Lyon, the late Inquirer columnist. He wrote that the day McGinnis came to town “was the day pro basketball arrived in this city as a big-time sport.”

McGinnis averaged over 21 points and 11 rebounds while making two All-Star teams and leading the Sixers to three playoff appearances in his time with the team. And he was well aware of his impact here.

“I think people who understood the game knew what I did for the 76ers,” he told NBA.com in 2011. “I got them from out of the playoffs into the playoffs and helped make us a championship contender.”

Born in Alabama, he grew up in Indiana, starring at Indianapolis’ Washington High School, then at Indiana University and finally with the ABA’s Pacers. He was the co-MVP (with Erving) in 1975, the year he led the league in scoring, and twice propelled his team to championships. He also made three All-Star teams in four seasons.

The Sixers had shrewdly spent a draft pick on him in 1973, after what would have been his senior year at IU, and thus retained his rights two years later, when he was a free agent. The Knicks signed him to a contract, but that was voided by the NBA, enabling him to join Philadelphia.

It was a heady time. The Sixers made the playoffs for the first time in five years and the needle was headed up, up, up.

But McGinnis’ mesh with Dr. J, who arrived in 1976, wasn’t great, and Big George repeatedly came up small in the postseason. In 1978, Williams began shopping him, finally hammering out the deal with Denver that netted Jones, an integral part of the Sixers’ success in the years that followed.

McGinnis made the last of his six All-Star teams in 1978-79, but was out of the league by 1982. He was just months short of his 32nd birthday.

“Being the type of sensitive person I am,” he told SI in ‘82, “if I don’t feel good vibes from the people I’m playing for, I don’t shoot well, I don’t pass well, I don’t do nothing well. If I’d had the inner strength, there’s no telling what I would have done. … It hasn’t been easy for me.”

That story was entitled, “Oh, What Might Have Been.” But in Philadelphia, McGinnis should be remembered for what was – how he made the Sixers relevant again, and set the stage for what was to come.

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