In one of the best moves — some cynics might even say the only good move — of general manager Don DeJardin's tenure, he secured the rights to ABA superstar George McGinnis with the fourth pick in the second round of the 1973 draft.
McGinnis was the perfect guy to take the team to the next level, not only in the standings but at the bank. He was a power player with quickness and flash. He could pass, he could shoot, he could rebound and he had charisma.
So, on July 10, 1975, the Sixers signed McGinnis to a 6-year, $3million-plus contract and the rebuilding of the franchise began.
The signing, however, came at a price. There was the contract itself, but there were the legal battles and a health scare for owner Irv Kosloff.
In 1974, the Sixers were told, through his agent Irwin Weiner, that McGinnis was ready to jump to the NBA but wanted to play for the New York Knicks. The Indiana Pacers, McGinnis' ABA team, knew that the desire to play in New York was not McGinnis', but Weiner's. McGinnis was Indiana-born-and-raised and was not a fan of the big city. So, the Sixers, by owning the rights, gave the Knicks permission to work out a contract with McGinnis, but had a 30-day window to do so.
At that time, Billy Cunningham had not yet returned from the ABA, Doug Collins was starting to show why the Sixers made him the top pick in the 1973 draft, and Steve Mix was about to become the mayor of Mixville. They needed more talent to field a competitive team.
The rumor was that the Knicks would part with Philly native Earl Monroe and draft picks as compensation. But the Knicks failed to secure a deal, so McGinnis went home to Indiana.
McGinnis said at the time that he wasn't ready to make the move to New York City. Walt Frazier, the Knicks' All-NBA guard, agreed. "I think George got scared by all the tall buildings."
When reminded earlier this week of Frazier's remarks, McGinnis laughed and said that that was about right.
He re-signed with the Pacers, agreeing to $2.6 million over 6years but had a clause in the contract that he could buy out of the next year for $86,750.
McGinnis' 1974-75 ABA season was incredible. He led the league in scoring, was fifth in rebounds, third in assists, second in steals and had the fourth best three-point percentage and led the Pacers to a surprise appearance in the championship round, where they lost to Kentucky.
McGinnis was named league co-MVP with Julius Erving and his stock skyrocketed.
Weiner and McGinnis were challenging the legality of the NBA draft in U.S. District Court. But on May 30, 1975, they withdrew their suit and signed a $3.1million, 6-year deal with the Knicks. The Sixers and Kosloff were incensed. The Knicks had no right to sign McGinnis. And the arrogance in which Knicks owner Mike Burke dismissed the act appalled Kosloff.
According to the June 23, 1975, edition of Sports Illustrated, Burke signed McGinnis and called the Sixers to see what they would want in compensation.
The usually calm Kosloff, shot back, "For the NBA to take away your bleeping franchise."
The Sixers owner wasted no time in hiring famed lawyer Louis Nizer to fight the signing.
NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien called a meeting of the NBA Board of Governors to take place in San Francisco.
"It was something out there,"Sixers GM Pat Williams told Sports Illustrated at the time. "The 17 owners were like a lynch mob waiting to hang the Knicks. Nizer presented our case brilliantly. At the end, the owners stood and gave him a standing ovation. We should have charged admission.
"Then O'Brien called a 2-hour recess for lunch, came back, read his decision, picked up the gavel and said, 'Now for the next order of business...' It was beautiful."While Williams paints a "beautiful"picture, Kosloff was not in a very good mood.Before Nizer put on his presentation, Kosloff addressed his fellow owners. By the sheer tone of his address, the original of which was provided to the Daily News, it was obvious Kosloff was gut-wrenched over the Knicks' act.
"I address you," Kosloff said, "in one of the darkest hours in professional sports. In an era of players jumping leagues, playing out options and suing teams and leagues, never has there been such an action taken by one club against another member of its association. The act of the New York Knickerbockers in signing George McGinnis to a contract was in open violation of the draft which they have participated in and benefited from. My initial reaction when I learned of this outrageous deed was to call it an act of piracy. Having reflected upon it, I now see it more as treason. No amount of time that passed or that may pass, can quiet the rage within me and the entire organization."
Kosloff went on to say that the Sixers were actively negotiating "as recently as April 28, 1975," with Weiner and McGinnis and that the league should sanction the Knicks for their actions.
O'Brien agreed. He revoked the Knicks-McGinnis contract, took away a first-round pick and ordered the Knicks to pay whatever expenses the 76ers had incurred.
Right after the meeting, Kosloff became ill and was hospitalized for at least 3 weeks in a San Francisco hospital with a bleeding ulcer. After some blood transfusions and rest, he returned home.
McGinnis made his owner feel a lot better. Opening night, Oct. 25, 1975, against the Los Angeles Lakers was a sellout, and a win. The franchise had received an infusion and was on the way to a recovery. The Sixers finished 46-36 and didn't have another losing season until 1987-88.
There was one thing Burke was correct about: McGinnis' character. When Burke signed McGinnis to the now-voided contract, he gave McGinnis a $500,000 signing bonus, which McGinnis did not have to return.
"George McGinnis is a fine young man,"Burke told SI. "He just might feel that he didn't earn it and he just might return it."McGinnis, reached by phone this week in his hometown of Indianapolis, confirmed that he did, indeed, return the money.
"It really wasn't mine to keep," he said. "And the Sixers matched the Knicks' offer, so that was fine."
McGinnis' dad, Burnie, fell off scaffolding to his death at a contruction site just before the end of George's senior year at Indianapolis' Washington High School, so his goal all along was to make enough money to take care of his mom, Willie, and to set himself up for the rest of his life.
Simple as that.
"Let's be realistic,"he told SI. "One, I've only 2 years of college education [at Indiana University before jumping to the ABA]. 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 6-year contract and then maybe I might have 2 or 3 more years [left after that]. 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 intelligence to figure that out."Simple man, simple priorities.
"I grew up as a person in Philadelphia," McGinnis said. "I loved it there."
As for Kosloff, McGinnis became very fond of the owner and the two men co-owned a quarterhorse.
"We moved to Villanova so that we could be closer to the Kosloffs," McGinnis said. "The Kosloffs were great people, his wife Libby and son Ted."
McGinnis and his wife Lynda often joined the Kosloffs, sometimes weekly, at Hymies Deli in Merion.
"I liked the cabbage soup," McGinnis said.
Simple man, simple tastes.