Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories revisiting the biggest what-ifs in IU history.
The accident happened shortly after 8 a.m. on July 7, 1969, a tragic mishap that left Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award winner rethinking his upcoming college career.
That morning, Burnie McGinnis had been stripping wooden forms from a concrete structure at the Eli LIlly & Co. complex in Indianapolis when he fell from a scaffold and dropped 60 feet to his death. It was a front-page story in that evening’s Indianapolis News, and not merely because of the shocking nature of the incident. Burnie McGinnis was the father of a famous son, a strapping 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward named George.
Only nine days earlier, the younger McGinnis had pulled on the fabled No. 1 jersey for the Indiana All-Stars and scored 53 points in the clinching game of the Hoosiers’ exhibition sweep of Kentucky. But with his father gone, McGinnis was suddenly the head of his household. He felt obligated to provide for his mother and his sister, and mere weeks before he was due in Bloomington for his first semester at Indiana University, McGinnis wasn’t sure he could make the trip south.
“I didn’t want to see my mother suffer,” McGinnis told The Indianapolis Star in 1987. “There was no big insurance policy on my dad. The money we did get was used getting my father buried in a class way and to pay off some bills. But my mother wasn’t very secure and that was a big problem for me. I figured basketball could wait, that I needed to get a job.”
McGinnis’ mother, Willie, refused to let that happen. She demanded her son attend college on the scholarship he was promised, and McGinnis obeyed her orders. What followed was arguably the greatest single-season performance in program history. After sitting out his freshman year on the varsity squad, per the rules at the time, McGinnis overpowered the Big Ten as a sophomore during the 1970-71 campaign.
He led the league in both scoring (29.9 points) and rebounding (14.7), and his single-season scoring average remains an Indiana record. McGinnis scored 20 or more points in 21 of his 24 games in an IU uniform, including in a school-record 14 straight games, and he also posted at least 30 points in 12 games, setting another Indiana record.
Part of what originally attracted McGinnis to IU was its coaching staff. McGinnis told the Bloomington Herald-Times in 2006 that he admired Indiana head coach Lou Watson as a man and wanted to play for him. It also didn’t hurt that one of Watson’s assistants was Jerry Oliver, who coached McGinnis through his junior year of high school at Indianapolis Washington.
Although McGinnis was incredible, most other things associated with the Hoosiers’ 1970-71 campaign were not. Watson left after the season and McGinnis wasn’t far behind. Rather than stick around to play for new coach Bob Knight, McGinnis felt the urgency of his mother’s financial situation and was ready to finally make some money through the game.
So he took advantage of a new rule that allowed underclassmen to play professionally before their class had graduated and signed with the Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association. The Pacers gave McGinnis a three-year contract worth $50,000 annually. He also received a $45,000 signing bonus and a $20,000 stipend to purchase multiple cars. With that, the all-too-brief George McGinnis era at IU was over.
But what if he stayed and played two years for Knight? It’s a question that McGinnis, himself, has pondered over the years.
“Probably my biggest disappointment is that I never played for Bobby,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1982. “I don’t know if it would have made me a better player, but I think it would have given me different values.”
It also feels like Indiana might have at least one more banner hanging in Assembly Hall. It may not have come during Knight’s first season, but potentially his second — McGinnis’ senior year. That’s when the young head coach guided the Hoosiers to the 1973 Final Four, where they took mighty UCLA down to the wire before falling in somewhat controversial fashion, 70-59.
That Indiana made it as far as it did in ‘73 was an impressive accomplishment. Although Steve Downing was a senior, IU’s other contributors were much younger. John Laskowski and Steve Green were only sophomores, while Quinn Buckner, Jim Crews and Tom Abernethy were all freshmen. Can you imagine what pairing a 22-year-old McGinnis with Downing would’ve done for that team? McGinnis can, particularly because he watched with frustration as Downing, his close friend and former teammate, fouled out after a collision with Bruins star Bill Walton in the Final Four. With Downing on the bench, IU lost its chance at the upset.
“I remember Steve getting those horrible calls and that all UCLA had at forward were Larry Farmer and Jamaal Wilkes, a couple of guys that were 6-4 and 6-6,” McGinnis told the H-T in 2006. “No way could they have handled me.”
He’s probably right. Nevertheless, McGinnis did well for himself, even without an NCAA title to claim. A 2017 inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, McGinnis was a three-time all-star in both the ABA and NBA, and his 20.2 points per game between both leagues stands as the highest career scoring average among former Hoosiers who played professionally in the United States.
With his strength, agility, versatility and size, McGinnis was unguardable at the college level and just as tough in the pros. He was, as the Indianapolis Star called him ahead of his hall of fame induction, LeBron James before LeBron James. No one at Indiana will ever begrudge McGinnis for choosing a paycheck over a couple more seasons in Bloomington. It was, without much question, the right thing for him to do.
But what if he did, in fact, stay at IU?
“(Knight’s) demands and George’s stubbornness would have collided quickly and often,” former H-T sports editor Bob Hammel wrote. “Maybe there would have been a separation. But if not, if things had played out to a two-year conclusion, it’s not only the row of Assembly Hall banners that would be bigger. With the George McGinnis skills augmented by Bob Knight’s offensive discipline and defensive schooling, the McGinnis bank account would have multiplied enormously.”