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Essay: The Curse of Potential

“As long as people believed in him, McGinnis could do almost anything but, as time went by, people stopped believing in him and began believing in his potential. And that was impossible to live up to.”

In 1975, a 24-year-old ABA superstar named George McGinnis averaged 30 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists a game; he’d go on to share league MVP honors with Julius Erving. McGinnis wasn’t the best player in professional basketball, but you only needed one hand to count the few who were better.

The next three years of his career were spent in the NBA, on some moderately successful, and aesthetically pleasing, Philadelphia teams. His second season as a 76er, with Dr. J aboard as a teammate, McGinnis made his only NBA finals appearance, staking a two game lead on Bill Walton’s Trailblazers before crumbling in six. That season, statistically, McGinnis was just as integral a piece to one of the league’s most talented teams as Erving. The two both averaged around 20 points a game (with McGinnis taking a couple more shots) and four assists, but McGinnis was the better rebounder, grabbing 11.5 a night to Erving’s 8.5. Both players were 26-years-old.

The season before the Finals loss, things were set up for George to be Philadelphia basketball. It was his team, like Kareem had the Lakers, Cowens had the Celtics, and Walt Frazier had New York. As detailed in a superb SI profile, it was right around this time that McGinnis looked to be a lock for the Hall of Fame. He carved defenders up with ease and made opposing game plans useless. But after Dr. J came aboard, skepticism began to creep in between McGinnis’ ears. Erving went on to become the face of Philadelphia, and after a disappointing Eastern Conference loss to Washington one year later, McGinnis was shipped to Denver. His career would never recover.

A lot of people have myriad opinions as to why McGinnis fell from the sky. They range from lazy work habits and smoking cigarettes during games to Blazer great Maurice Lucas saying, “George wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he got moved around the league a lot and then it began to crop up that George maybe wasn’t as good as he was made out to be…if you’re George McGinnis and you’ve heard this a bunch of times, you might believe it.”

What McGinnis really suffered from, though, was the mental dilemma of expectation.  Too much weight on one man’s shoulders, too much burden.  1976 was his year to change the Sixers’ culture. Their general manager, Pat Williams, thought McGinnis would carry his team just as he had done for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers.  Instead, he had a poor playoff performance resulting in a first round exit.  The result, just five years later, at the age of 31, was a man who psyched himself out of basketball. Here’s an excerpt from Sports Illustrated:

It’s obvious that the Pacers don’t believe in McGinnis—not this McGinnis—and earlier this season they tried to persuade him to retire. McGinnis says he thought about retiring for a while, then decided that he didn’t want to go out with his head down, not at close to $500,000 a season. “I still feel I can make a contribution,” he says, “but it’s tough for me to have a normal game now. They expect so much.” Pacer Coach Jack McKinney concedes he may have given up on McGinnis too quickly when he got off to a poor start this season. “He doesn’t have that ability that used to make him so awesome,” McKinney says. “Some of the things he could do when he got his 30 points a night aren’t there anymore, but he compensates in some pretty nice ways. I didn’t give him enough encouragement. A good player doesn’t go sour at once without a loss of confidence.”

To say he didn’t pan out in a Sebastian Telfair kind of way would be both unfair and untrue, but George was supposed to be one of the greats; his highlights were supposed to be sealed in a vault somewhere; his name was supposed to be regularly dropped on national telecasts where color commentators would laugh and admonish their play-by-play partners for casually comparing George McGinnis to the players of modern day. But, alas, he never accomplished what he was born to do. His skills were left on the table and his abilities were squandered—like a 1970′s version of Shawn Kemp.

When discussing the league’s all-time great physical marvels, seldom does McGinnis’ name get picked from the hat. For a three year period he was as awesome a player as basketball has ever had, with a rare talent to effortlessly dominate the court. If Kobe is Michael, Durant is McAdoo with a higher ceiling, and Lebron is an Erving/Magic hybrid, then Blake Griffin would be George McGinnis. Griffin has already created more highlights than the average career can hold.  He’s double-teamed on a regular basis—there are, maybe, five players in the league who can guard him one on one—and tends to shred opposing front lines nightly. (He gets to the free throw line more often than everybody but LeBron and Dwight Howard.) Only 21, Griffin has quite the future ahead of him. Or so one should expect. Another player currently shoveling cement into a brilliant foundation is Kevin Love. Love has 51 double doubles right now, the highest pre-All-Star break total in league history. At the age of 22, he’s far and away the league’s premier rebounder. What these two share, along with youth, amazing consistency, and eye popping talent, are great expectations. The morning after Kevin Love’s double-double streak breaks, someone somewhere will ask what’s wrong with him. Should Love tally back to back seven rebound performances? Consider him washed up. For the rest of his 20s, if Love doesn’t lead the league in rebounding it’ll be the height of disappointment.  The same can be said about Kevin Durant (and his scoring), Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose (for their unparalleled floor leadership), and a number of other young superstars ready to grab the flame. To predict one, or all, of them to someday be inducted into Springfield isn’t completely insane. Based on the remarkable consistency they’re displaying so far, it’s entirely possible. Then again, that’s what they said about Mr. McGinnis.


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