Eye care

Pacers: George McCloud is the most infamous bust in team history – IndyStar

The George McCloud that Pacers fans know is barely a footnote in franchise history.

The No. 7 pick in the 1989 draft was thought to be the next Magic Johnson. He’d come in and play alongside young stars like Chuck Person and Reggie Miller. One day, he’d be a star too. 

The production never materialized. Injuries held him back. Four years later, he was out the door, playing overseas.

By the time he was gone, he was hardly missed. 

In the eye of the public, that’s where this story ends. As the Pacers prepare for their first single-digit draft pick since that day more than 30 years ago, McCloud serves as a cautionary tale that no one is a sure bet and as a reminder of what can go wrong. 

McCloud has always been a quiet man. He let his feelings simmer below the surface, then overflow on the court. Decades of life experiences have taught him a thing or two. He’s different now. Softer. More vulnerable. 

Now, as the 55 year old spends time in his Florida home with his 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, he’s ready to reflect.

“Fans have a right to their own opinion, but their opinion is not the right opinion,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s things they don’t know that players are going through that they don’t consider. A lot of times, we don’t let it be known. We don’t let it get out.”

He’s peeling back the curtain and telling a tale of tragedy and lessons learned. This is the real George McCloud. Here’s what he wants you to know.

‘He was a sore loser’

McCloud was one of nine children born to Vervena and George McCloud Sr. in Daytona Beach, Fla. He pestered his mom into letting him sign up for the YMCA basketball team. It cost $15. His mother had $18 to her name and a house full of mouths to feed. 

She gave him the money. Basketball became his everything.

He was intensely competitive, to a fault. If he lost, he fought. 

“He was a sore loser and I kept telling him he wasn’t going to win every time,” his mother told the Indianapolis Star in July 1989. “But he didn’t understand that. I finally told him he could play, but if he started a fight after he lost, I would whip his butt. He did and I beat him good.”

McCloud was a basketball and football star in high school but basketball had his heart. By his senior year, he earned first-team All-State honors, averaging 21 points. He changed his game halfway through his time at Florida State with the introduction of the 3-point line. During his junior season, he shot 45% from behind the arc. As a senior, he shot 44% from 3-point range and was among the national leaders in 3-point field goals made.

Heading into the 1989 NBA Draft, there was little consensus about whom the Pacers would take. In the week before the draft, longtime executive Donnie Walsh hinted that the team might take Tim Hardaway. In the days leading up to the draft, the Pacers reportedly tried to send their pick to Detroit in return for the No. 10 pick and guard Michael Williams, but the deal fell through. There was a rumor that the Pacers would send their pick to Golden State in return for the Nos. 14 and 16 picks. But come draft night, with Hardaway still available, Walsh chose McCloud.

The decision was questioned by pundits. A draft analysis in the Rocky Mountain News said, “With coveted power players Randy White and Tommy Hammonds still on the board, Indiana reached for a guard with the seventh pick instead … giving the Pacers a chance to maintain their reputation as one of the worst-drafting teams in the league.”

Walsh defended his pick.

“He comes here with great credentials,” Walsh told the media when McCloud was introduced. “People have been talking to me for a long time about a ball-handling guard. Well, I don’t know when the last time a 6-7 or 6-8 (ballhandler) came into the league, but it does remind you of one about 10 years ago.”

Could McCloud be the next Magic?

“With my size and playing point guard, everybody says, ‘We compare you to Magic,’” McCloud said of the then-reigning NBA MVP when he was introduced on June 28, 1989. “I accept that with great dignity because Magic’s such a great player. He is the player I idolize and try to pattern my game after.”

Despite the gargantuan expectations, McCloud says now he didn’t feel pressure during his rookie season. The game was different then. 

“It wasn’t like it is now where guys are young and have to come right in and play,” he said.

He didn’t start a single game during his rookie season. He didn’t score in double-figures until the 22nd game of his career. He got humiliated by Larry Bird.

When McCloud was tasked with guarding the Hall of Famer late in a game against Boston, he got mercilessly roasted.

“Aw hell, they must be getting desperate,” LaSalle Thompson remembers Bird telling McCloud. “They put a rookie on me. Give me the ball every time.” (It’s been rumored that Bird told the Pacers bench, “I know you guys are desperate, but can’t you find someone who at least has a prayer?”)

McCloud came back to the bench laughing.

“Man, listen to what this guy said to me,” Thompson remembers McCloud telling him.

“Hey, that’s Larry Bird,” Thompson said. “He’s a trash talker.”

By the end of the season, McCoud averaged just 2.7 points per game — and he could barely walk.

“We would be crossing the street and I’d be limping,” McCloud said. “Players would be like, ‘Why are you limping?’ I’d say, ‘My ankle is killing me, man.’”

McCloud said when the doctors would do x-rays and MRIs, they’d notice hotspots. They told him it was normal.

“The trainers were saying all athletes have hotspots, that it’s routine for an athlete from how much of a pounding, wear and tear that we put on our bodies,” he said. “After being told that by the doctor, what could I say as a player? I couldn’t make any excuses. I just had to play through it.”

He went to his personal doctor during the offseason, and was told he’d need reconstructive ankle surgery.

“That was some vindication, because I knew something was wrong with me,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like you have glass in your shoes for no reason.”

His second season in the league was just marginally better. Bone spurs in his ankle caused consistent issues, and would require surgery. He averaged just 4.6 points per game, not starting a single time.

But he had flashes of production — at the season’s midway point, he was shooting 44% from 3-point range (28-of-64). He expected an invite to the league’s 3-point contest. It never came, with Michael Jordan getting the invite instead.

McCloud went home to see his mom. It’d be the last time he saw her.

“God has a plan,” he said. “It was a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t invited.”

‘To lose a parent, I was lost’

Even today, McCloud considers himself a mama’s boy.

He’d talk to his mom every day, sometimes as many as 10 or 15 times. Oftentimes, it was about something as simple as the weather. It’s cold in Indiana, he’d tell her. He needed to go buy a winter coat.

He spent three days with his parents in the house he’d bought them when he signed with the Pacers. He went back to Indiana and scored 10 points against the Knicks on Feb. 13. The next day, he was cutting Chuck Person’s hair when he got the call: His mom had suffered a heart attack and died. She was just 57.

McCloud describes his father as “a proud guy.” He told the story of the time he was 12 years old and visiting his grandmother, George McCloud Sr.’s mother, in the hospital. McCloud watched his grandmother shake in bed. He watched the doctors and nurses try to save her. He watched them tell his father they’d done everything they could, but she was gone.

He watched his father rub her head, close her eyes for one last time and say quietly, “Go home, mama.”

Even in that moment, McCloud never saw his father cry.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, if something was to happen to my mom, that’s how I want it to be. That’s how I want to handle that.’ He was so strong,” McCloud said.

It was against that backdrop that McCloud got off a plane from Indiana in the wake of his mother’s death. He saw his father sobbing.

“I couldn’t believe it,” McCloud said. “‘I’m like, ‘This is a totally different man.’”

McCloud attended his mother’s funeral, desperate for the refuge of basketball. But inside, the hurt was overwhelming. While teammates gave him space off the court, he lashed out at practice.

“I didn’t care about anything, but I loved basketball,” he said. “I loved to compete. I was mean. I fought guys. I had a fight with Greg Dreiling, Detlef Schrempf, Reggie Miller. I was angry at the world, not knowing what triggered it.”

After the season, he returned home. In the three months since his mother had died, unbeknownst to McCloud, his father had been swallowed by depression. The man who had at one time been outgoing with a big personality wanted to be left alone.

On June 2, 1991, McCloud was sitting at home when he heard a crack. It was storming, so he thought it might be lightning. But his sister yelled out, “George, dad just shot himself!”

McCloud rushed to his father’s side. There was nothing he could do.

In less than four months, he’d lost his mother and his father. Emotions swirled. Sadness. Anger. Pain. 

“I didn’t know how he was struggling,” McCloud said of his father. “My mom and dad were married for 24 years and really close. My dad didn’t want to live without my mom. He didn’t understand that we were struggling as well. When I got home, he would always tell my sister and brother, ‘Don’t bother George. Let George concentrate on basketball.’ I could have been there for him. I could have brought him to Indiana with me, you know? But…”

His voice trails off, his silence speaking volumes. It was another what-if that permeated his life.

In November, after a promising training camp, McCloud tore a ligament in his thumb that required surgery and forced him to miss the first 24 games of the regular season. When he returned to the court, he was grappling with his own body and his emotions. His anger spilled out in ways he couldn’t understand.

“I would fight anybody. If I couldn’t win, I wanted to fight,” McCloud said. “If I couldn’t play, I wanted to fight,” he said. “I didn’t know the reason. I wasn’t thinking, ‘You need to talk to somebody.’ I didn’t have anybody come and say, ‘Is everything all right?’ That was something that was never offered or suggested. You just dealt with your   situation.”

As the season went on, his play gradually improved. He finished the season having played 51 games, starting five and averaging 6.6 points. Yet even in the season’s waning moments, he suffered embarrassment — prior to Game 3 of the Pacers playoff series against Boston in 1992, McCloud sprained his ankle while getting up awkwardly from a phone call.

His next season in Indiana would be his last, albeit his most productive one. He averaged 7.2 points in 78 games, including 21 starts.

Looking back, McCloud is adamant that he had as much talent as anyone on roster during his time with the Pacers.

“I always knew I could play. If you ask the players — Vern (Fleming), Chuck, Reggie — they knew I could play because they practiced against me every day,” he said. “I just wasn’t getting an opportunity because at that time, me and the coach didn’t see eye to eye. I was mad at the world at that time, losing my mom and my dad. There were other things that were out of my control.”

Thompson, who played with the Pacers for eight seasons from 1988-1995, said he didn’t know McCloud is labeled a bust. From his recollection, he was stuck behind two stars and played for a coach in Dick Versace that didn’t give much playing time to rookies.

“I remember him as a confrontational guy, but I didn’t think he got in an overly large amount of fights,” he said. “He was a ‘not back down’ type of guy. He had some hardness to him, and you want that in a player.”

Thompson knew about McCloud’s parents, but said McCloud never talked about it. 

“I never thought he had an attitude because of it,” Thompson said. “I’m sure that could be overwhelming, but he was always a good guy as far as I could tell. He was a guy you were glad to have on your side.”

In 1993, Person said McCloud “came into a tough situation as a point guard, and he wasn’t ready for it. He didn’t play much and lost his confidence.”

Former Pacers coach Bob Hill said in 1993 that McCloud “got booed every time I put him in.”

When fans criticized the Pacers’ draft choice in 1993 — Scott Haskin — former IndyStar columnist Bill Benner said this:

“Seriously, folks, save your stamp of disapproval for when it really counts … like the next time George McCloud — remember him, the next Magic Johnson, or so he was declared the night of the 1989 draft? — lets fly with an airball or sprains an ankle while talking on the telephone.”

McCloud didn’t let the outside noise bother him, but he certainly noticed.

“When you see somebody in the stands and they’re booing you, I used to always think, ‘I wish you could come to training camp and have your body go through trauma where you can’t pick your damn leg up and get out of a car or a bed,’” he said. “That’d break 90% of the fans that boo.”

McCloud was a free agent in the spring of 1993. He played in Italy for a season, before signing with the Dallas Mavericks and playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 18.9 points in 1995-96 and finishing second in the Most Improved Player voting. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News on March 10, 1996, he reflected on the path his career had taken.

“I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to harp on what I’m doing now. What I came into the league to do, I’m now doing … No one ever really said, ‘This man has been through a lot with his personal problems and his injuries. So it doesn’t make a difference what anybody says now.”

Walsh told IndyStar last week that he “never felt bad about taking George.”

“He was a tough guy,” the longtime executive said. “At a certain point, you have an established team. Reggie Miller is going to shoot the ball, Rik Smits is going to play center. Dale Davis is going to be the power forward. Now that’s what this kid has got to fit into. I thought he could be the point guard and he couldn’t (on our team) so he started coming off the bench after that. But that still makes you a good team and I thought George did play good in some games, really well. But they’re thinking, ‘Well, he got picked 7th so he should be an All-Star.” 

All told, McClou spent 13 seasons in the NBA before retiring at 34. He spent several years in NBA front offices before stepping away from the game to spend more time with his kids.

“I never got a chance to take my kids to school when I was playing,” he said. “I never got a chance to go to recitals or plays. I feel kind of bad that I wasn’t looking at that when I was younger. Being there financially is one thing, but being there individually is totally different. Kids appreciate that part of it.”

As he reflects upon his time with Indiana, it’s easy for him to wonder what could have been. If injuries hadn’t gotten in the way. If he had reached out for help.

“There was no such thing as mental health,” he said. “With the resources you have now, I would have had somebody to talk to. I would have been able to not feel like I was soft. In today’s game, if guys need a break they take a break. We didn’t have any breaks. You couldn’t just leave the team for personal reasons. That didn’t exist when I came in.”

As he aged, his perspective shifted. While still dealing with the grief of losing his parents, he tried to lend a helping hand to his teammates. 

“From that point on, I always tried to be there for people who were dealing with anything,” he said. “People think that as professional athletes, we don’t deal with adversity as regular people. We’re no different.”

McCloud saw Brett Favre play on Monday Night Football the day after his father died in 2003. He noticed when Isaiah Thomas’ sister died in a car accident in 2016. He saw when, in April 2020, Karl-Anthony Towns’ mother died from COVID complications. 

“I shed tears for guys that have to deal with things like that. We’re people,” he said.

To lose a parent, I was lost.”

He’s still reactionary at heart. Growing up, his dad taught him that, “If somebody hits you, you hit him back, and you hit them for hitting you.” Now, when someone cuts him off in traffic, he still has an urge to “break his jaw.” But the voices of his kids in the backseat cause him to pause. 

“Life has taught me not to react. I really want to punch you in your face, because that’s still in me,” he said. “But I flip it. I roll my window down and say, ‘I’m just trying to get where I’m trying to get.’ Let’s deal with this like men and agree to disagree.”

He knows that his time with the Pacers will never be considered a success. It will always come with a tinge of disappointment. But he carries the lessons he learned, even in the darkest days, with him today. He hopes others take a different path.

If someone else finds themselves where he stood 30 years ago, trying to handle the pain that feels suffocating, what would he tell them?

“Reach out to somebody,” he said. “Reach out to me. Talk about it. Don’t just let it build up. You can just explode. There’s only so much you can take.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.