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Cunningham, Williams reflect on how George McGinnis ‘put [the Sixers] on the map’

Billy Cunningham played with and coached the late George McGinnis. The two had a falling out after McGinnis was traded, but were able to make amends before his passing.

Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

By the summer of 1978, the Sixers faced a difficult choice: George McGinnis or Julius Erving? They were going to have to keep one of their star forwards, and part with the other. But which one?

Both had excelled in the old ABA, and both arrived in Philadelphia to great fanfare — McGinnis in 1975, Erving one year later. McGinnis “put us on the map,” as former Sixers general manager Pat Williams told me Thursday night, while Erving, in soaring himself, took everyone’s hopes and dreams — whether those of fans, teammates or bean counters — to an entirely different level.

But it had become clear that the two of them couldn’t coexist on the court — that while they got along fine, their playing styles were incompatible. One of the future Hall of Famers would have to go.

McGinnis was the choice — because he had been outplayed by Portland’s Maurice Lucas in the 1977 Finals and Washington’s Elvin Hayes in the ‘78 Eastern Conference Finals and because, well, he wasn’t Dr. J.

The Sixers agreed to send McGinnis to Denver for Bobby Jones, himself a future Hall of Famer. And it fell to the Sixers’ coach, Billy Cunningham, to inform McGinnis that his services were no longer required in Philadelphia.

Cunningham, reached at his Florida home Thursday night, doesn’t recall the setting in which he delivered the news, only that he felt that he needed to be the one to do so.

“I was involved with this trade, and it was not only my decision; there were others in the organization,” he said. “But I felt it was my responsibility, and not let somebody else do this.”

He acknowledged that such conversations are never easy, in the same way that it’s never easy to cut some training-camp hopeful. In both instances, the coach is the bearer of bad news, the one crushing dreams and altering lives.

Adding to Cunningham’s unease was the fact that he and McGinnis were close. They had played against one another in the ABA, and as Sixers teammates early in the ‘75-76 season had at times carpooled to home games, since they were neighbors. Then Cunningham blew out his knee 20 games into that season, ending his playing career. And early in the ‘77-78 season he was hired to replace Gene Shue on the bench.

So now his relationship with McGinnis was different, as indeed it had to be. Now he had to tell him he was being sent on his way.

McGinnis didn’t take it well. Cunningham once told me that the two of them didn’t speak for a decade. McGinnis would say in interviews it was more like three years. Whatever the case, the rapprochement eventually came.

“He reached out to me, I think,” the 80-year-old Cunningham said. “I think he was the one that made the first move, and I appreciated it a great deal.”

Especially now, with news of McGinnis’ death Thursday at the age of 73, from complications resulting from cardiac arrest. There was no unfinished business between the two of them. There were no festering wounds.

“You hear so many stories,” Cunningham said, “where people that do lose someone that they cared deeply about, and never got a chance to tell them that they loved them, and it stayed with them forever. This was a case that that was water under the bridge.”

Cunningham said he learned of McGinnis’ passing Thursday afternoon from no less a figure than Michael Jordan. Cunningham was having lunch with Larry Brown — another former Sixers coach — at Jordan’s golf course in Hobe Sound, Fla., when MJ (like the two of them, a North Carolina alum) delivered the news.

Cunningham immediately thought about some other former players of his who died of heart-related issues — Moses Malone, Caldwell Jones, Mark McNamara and Darryl Dawkins. And he thought about mortality in general.

“It just takes the wind out of you,” he said, “and (you) just realize how short a period of time we are here. Just enjoy every moment and all the people that you come in contact with.”

And make no mistake — everybody seemed to enjoy McGinnis.

“George was just a good guy,” Cunningham said. “I’m trying to think of who he didn’t get along with.”

Williams likewise recalled him as a “people person — very outgoing, very friendly.”

The Sixers spent a second-round pick on McGinnis in 1973, even though he was starring for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers at the time. He would have been eligible for that NBA draft, had he spent four years at Indiana University, and the thinking was that the Sixers would retain his rights if and when he became a free agent. Lo and behold, that was the case in the summer of ‘75.

Only one problem.

“The Evil Empire struck,” Williams said.

Meaning the Knicks, who somehow signed McGinnis to a contract. Williams, now 83, has no idea what their thinking might have been, but does note that this poaching attempt occurred as the league was changing commissioners, from Walter Kennedy to Larry O’Brien.

Williams also recalled that O’Brien moved quickly to void the deal and penalize the Knicks. McGinnis would be a Sixer after all.

“That created just tremendous buzz — tremendous interest, tremendous enthusiasm,” Williams said.

McGinnis, a sculpted 6-8 and 235 pounds, played well from the jump, making the All-Star team his first season in Philadelphia and delivering the team to the playoffs for the first time in five years. But at the beginning of the ‘76-77 season, the Sixers found themselves in a position to acquire Erving from the Nets.

Williams has often told the story about selling Sixers owner Fitz Dixon on the idea by calling Dr. J “the Babe Ruth of Basketball.” He said Thursday that he made sure to keep McGinnis in the loop as well, specifically by approaching him in Madison Square Garden before a preseason game against the Knicks.

“I probably put him in a bad position,” Williams said. “I said, ‘We have a chance to get Julius Erving, and I wanted to get your OK on it.’”

No way could McGinnis say no to that, and he did not.

That would lead to the aforementioned awkwardness. While McGinnis averaged 21.6 points and 11.5 rebounds in his three seasons with the Sixers — numbers that are in line with those for his 11-year pro career — his mesh with Erving was far from ideal. That led to the Sixers cutting the cord, and led to hard feelings between McGinnis and Cunningham.

“I didn’t like the way it ended,” McGinnis told NBA.com in 2011. “I was bitter. I was young and immature and that’s when you say and do stupid things. I didn’t think I deserved to be traded. I felt like I was used.”

Cunningham emphasized Thursday that the deal with Denver “had nothing to do with the person. It was just a matter of who are we going to pick, Julius Erving or George McGinnis?”

After a solid first season with the Nuggets, McGinnis’ play began to sag. He was traded back to Indiana midway through the ‘79-80 season (for no less a player than Alex English), and was done playing by ‘82. The following season Erving, with no small assist from Malone, led the Sixers to a championship.

Now McGinnis is gone — “too soon,” Cunningham said.

But not so soon that fences weren’t mended and amends made. Cunningham takes solace in that. He treasures the relationship he had with McGinnis, while at the same time understanding basketball’s business aspects. Big George or Doc? It’s an easy call, in retrospect. But in the moment it weighed heavily on some of those most affected by the decision. Only time could lessen that burden. And, finally, it did.

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