By Neil Beldock
Sometimes, the numbers just don’t tell the entire story. Such is the case when considering the career of Maurice Lucas. His numbers were certainly solid numbers as he averaged 14.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game over a 14 year career in both the ABA and NBA, but it was the intangibles he brought to the court which truly set him apart from many others.
Most specifically, the intangible Lucas brought was toughness, a toughness matched by few, if any. And with the toughness came a natural ability to lead.
Said Portland Trail Blazer teammate Dave Twardzik: “As an opponent he was really nasty. You couldn’t run by him through the lane without getting wacked in the ribs or the head. He’d tag you and then stare you down like ‘what are you gonna do about it’.”
Twardzik continued: “When I became his teammate I questioned how that was going to work out. What I found out was that he was the best teammate because of that stuff. If someone did something dirty to you he’d say ‘Bring him over here and we’ll straighten him out’. Luke was the perfect compliment to Bill (Walton). He had his back, and everyone else’s too”.
And this from former player Alex English about playing against Lucas: “Mo was a smart brute. He’d hit you when the referee wasn’t looking but he wasn’t looking to hurt you. He just wanted you to know that he was there”.
Lucas was more than just tough. He was a smart and talented basketball player. Said his coach with the Portland Trail Blazers, Jack Ramsey: “Luke was the best big forward in the league during his first go-round in Portland. He had an excellent low post game with a tantalizing pump fake that got defenders in the air. He could step out to 17 feet and knock down jumpers. He was also a skilled passer”.
Said Bill Cartwright, who played with Lucas with the Knicks: “There’s nobody can contest him inside. Anybody tries, they’re going to be in a whole lot of trouble”.
After leading Marquette University to the NCAA Championship game in 1974 (Marquette would lose to David Thompson-led North Carolina State, with Lucas scoring 21 points and grabbing 13 rebounds), Lucas was drafted by both the Chicago Bulls of the NBA and Spirits of St. Louis of the ABA. Lucas would sign with the Spirits of the ABA.
Lucas, who stood 6 feet 9 and weighed 215 pounds, was a tough, smart and talented player who’s abilities would not take long to shine through. Said former coach Rod Thorn: “Maurice was a very professional, hardworking player. He was unselfish and he passed the ball. I loved the guy”.
It was during his rookie year playing for the Spirits of the ABA when and where his toughness as a player would be cemented forever, earning him the nickname “The Enforcer”.
Explains the legendary Bob Costas who was the voice of the Spirits of St. Louis when Lucas played for them: “One night the Spirits were playing Kentucky and Lucas was trading elbows with Artis Gilmore. At 7 foot 2 and 240 pounds Gilmore just towered over Maurice. Lucas’s only chance was to beat Gilmore to a spot on the floor and then try to hold off Artis. All of a sudden Artis just got sick of Lucas bodying him. Gilmore took a swipe at Lucas and missed. Lucas put up his fists but was backpedaling like any sane man would when confronted by Gilmore. It started at the foul line, and Lucas was backing up toward the corner. It was obvious that Lucas didn’t want to fight. Finally he was trapped in the corner. He didn’t know what else to do, so he planted his feet and threw this tremendous punch and it caught Artis square on the jaw. Artis hit the deck. Lucas was going crazy. Now he really wanted a piece of Artis. Guys were holding Lucas back and Artis was still down”.
It would be a rare occurrence from that point forward for anyone to try to stand up to Maurice Lucas.
Said former coach Bob MacKinnon: “After punching Gilmore, Lucas was ready to take on everyone else in the league and no one wanted any part of Maurice Lucas”.
Lucas played 2 years in the ABA with the Spirits and the Kentucky Colonels before the ABA and NBA merged after the 1975-76 season.
During his 2-year career in the ABA Lucas averaged a double-double, scoring 15.2 points per game and grabbing 10.8 rebounds per game. And just for good measure, he averaged 3.1 assists per game as well from the power-forward & center positions. When the leagues merged both the Spirits and Colonels were not selected to join the NBA.
The NBA held a Dispersal Draft for the ABA players on teams not chosen to enter the NBA. In the ABA Dispersal Draft, Lucas was taken by the Portland Trail Blazers.
It would not take Lucas long to make his mark in the NBA.
Teaming with Bill Walton, and leading the Trail Blazers in scoring (20.2 points), offensive rebounds, field goals, free throws and minutes played, the Trail Blazers not only made the playoffs for the first time in team history, but beat the powerful Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers to win the NBA Championship.
And it was during the championship series against the 76ers when Lucas’s toughness and leadership would shine brightest and turn the tide of the series in favor of the Trail Blazers.
The 76ers were regarded as the best team in the league with an all-star roster housing players such as Julius Erving, Doug Collins, George McGinnis, World B. Free,Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins. Few expected the Trail Blazers to be competitive with the 76ers.
It seemed as if Philadelphia was well on their way to the NBA Championship after winning Game 1 and being comfortably ahead late in Game 2. Then things would change.
Late in the game, a game which the 76ers would win 107-89, the Trail Blazers Bob Gross at 6 feet 6 got entangled with the 6 foot 11, 250 pound Darryl Dawkins who was considered amongst the biggest and strongest players in the NBA.
While battling for a rebound, Dawkins threw Gross to the ground like a rag-doll. Upon rising to his feet, Gross had a few choice words for Dawkins. Dawkins responded by throwing and connecting with a solid left jab to the head of Gross.
Lucas immediately came to the rescue of Gross by punching Dawkins in the back of the head.
In what is not only one of the most memorable scenes from NBA Finals, by probably the scariest ever, the behemoth Dawkins and Lucas squared off, fists raised at center court.
Players, coaches and even fans stormed the court in what seemed to be a riotous scene, spiraling out of control quickly. Brent Musburger, who was announcing the game is heard saying in a most frightened tone, “Somebody do something!!”.
Although a few wild punches were thrown by Dawkins at Lucas and visa-versa, order was restored without any physical ramifications or injuries. Both Dawkins and Lucas were ejected from the game.
But by standing up for his teammate and challenging Dawkins, Lucas galvanized the Trail Blazers who would go on from that point to shock the world by winning the next 4 games sweeping their way to the NBA Championship.
There is no question that the leadership Lucas displayed in standing up for his teammate, and the toughness which he displayed in challenging the bigger Dawkins, was the focal point in altering the direction and tenor of the series in favor of the Trail Blazers.
Said Lucas in describing the way he played the game, which illuminates both his toughness and leadership qualities: “I played very hard and very physical, but I also thought I played pretty smart because I studied my opponents rabidly so I knew their tendencies and things I could take away from them on defense”.
Bill Walton thought so highly of Lucas that when his son was born on March 28, 1980, Walton named him Luke in honor of his former teammate. (Luke Walton is now the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.)
In 1997, at the ABA’s 30 year anniversary celebration, Lucas was named as a member of the All-Time ABA team with Hall-of-Fame players Julius Erving, Dan Issel, George Gervin, Rick Barry and Connie Hawkins.
In 2005 the Trail Blazers hired Lucas as an assistant coach. And once again his leadership skills would be in full bloom. Said Greg Odom about meeting Lucas as a rookie on the Trail Blazers: “Coach Luke was a mentor, beside basketball. He was the first person to take me under his wing when I got here (Portland). He invited me over for dinners when I had no family in town. He was like my father figure”.
Maurice Lucas was born on February 18 1952. He was raised and honed his skills in the rough and tumble Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On October 31, 2010, after a long battle with cancer, Lucas passed away at the age of 58.
Maurice Lucas was a great player, a tough player, and a leader. Sometimes, the numbers just don’t tell the entire story.