Original Old School: Cool Hand Luke

The world lost a great basketball player and an even greater man when Maurice Lucas passed away yesterday. Best known for his time on the Portland Trail Blazers, Lucas earned the reputation over the years as an enforcer; but he was so much more than that. To remember his outstanding career, here is an interview that originally ran in SLAM 44. –Ed.


by Alan Paul

I was intrigued and enthralled with Maurice Lucas long before I knew much of anything about pro basketball. He and I both grew up in Pittsburgh, and an old buddy of mine once had the misfortune of having his face meet Lucas’s elbow on the floor of the Taylor Allderdice High gym. Luke may not have yet been at his NBA size of 6-9, 225, but he still had over a foot and probably 85 pounds on Dave. My pal learned the hard way what countless opponents of Schenley High, Marquette, the ABA’s St. Louis Spirits and five NBA teams would come to know: Don’t mess with Mo Lucas.

Luke-who today is a successful Portland businessman- really made his mark in the ABA, and when the ABA-NBA merger brought Lucas to Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers in ’76, Luke’s game continued to improve even while his fearlessness remained intact. His bold play was exemplified by a moment late in game two of the ’77 NBA Finals. The 76ers, led by Dr. J, George McGinnis and Bobby Jones, were running roughshod over the upstart Blazers. Then Philly center Darryl Dawkins took a swing at the Blazers’ Bobby Gross. Running to his teammate’s defense, Lucas floored Dawkins and in the process turned the series around. Philly would win the game, but it was the last time they’d see the right side of the scoreboard for the season; the Blazers won four straight to take the title.

“Luke changed the tenor of that series entirely when he went after Dawkins,” recalls announcer Bob Costas. “Everyone was scared of [Dawkins], but Luke got right in his face, and it completely altered the momentum.”

Lucas may have been ferocious, but he also had ample skills. Though the championship Blazers are remembered as Walton’s team, Luke was actually the leading scorer, at 20.2 ppg, to his more acclaimed teammate’s 18.6. He also averaged 11.4 boards and almost three assists, and played excellent D. Lucas’s presence also freed Walton to be himself. The year prior to Lucas’s arrival, the Blazers went 37-45 and finished last in the Pacific Division. With him, they went 49-33 and won a title.

“Walton played a finesse game and Luke had his back,” recalls Costas. “He also had a really good mid-range jumper and could do a lot of things on the court. Also, apart from the brawling, Luke had a very useful kind of basketball toughness. He just stuck his nose in every single play. He was in the middle of things busting his ass on every single play and that’s why Walton loved him so much.”

Costas ain’t lying. “Playing with Luke was great,” Walton recalls. “I even named my son after him [current Arizona Wildcat Luke Walton].”

SLAM: When did you first embrace the role of being an enforcer?

LUCAS: When I got to the pros. My aggressive style didn’t fare well in college because I found myself in foul trouble, but once I got into the pros and the guys were bigger and stronger and the referees allowed you to play more, I really accepted that role.

SLAM: Do you think being an enforcer caused people to overlook your actual skills?

LUCAS: I think so, but that’s okay, because it’s just two different aspects of the same thing. It’s like being in show business; once you’re recognized, you’re recognized, regardless of what it’s for [laughs].

SLAM: Bill Walton really thrived once you got to Portland and freed him up to do his subtler thing. Did you guys sit down and pick roles, or did it just happen naturally?

LUCAS: We kind of distinguished that early. I knew Bill wasn’t a real physical player, and I basically was. So I did all the grunt work and allowed him to do his thing.

SLAM: Even amongst hardcore hoop fans, very few would guess that you and not Bill were actually the leading scorer on the Blazers’ championship team. Does that bother you?

LUCAS: No, not really. It was just one of those things, and I knew the deal. Bill was always the Great White Hope, and there wasn’t any question about it. He didn’t seek that out, and it wasn’t even racism; it was business. And we both understood that, so there was no problem.

SLAM: In the ’77 Finals, things were looking pretty bleak for you guys. Then you took down Darryl Dawkins and everything seemed to change.

LUCAS: I think what it did was loosen up the referees. They had already written the chips on the series. Philly had the best team on paper and we were Cinderella just barely getting in and happy to be there. They were just supposed to beat us to death, but that particular incident really changed things-it really just knocked the fear out of everyone.

SLAM: It seemed that people were scared of Dawkins back then, until you banged the mystery right out of him.

LUCAS: Exactly. People were really frightened of him. The guy weighed 300 pounds and was 6-11 and was a physical brute and people hadn’t seen that type of player in the League. He was only a year or two out of high school and was really a manchild.

SLAM: So did you make a decision that something had to be done?

LUCAS: No. It was just one of those deals. He took a swing at Bobby [Gross] and I actually thought he hit Bobby and we wasn’t going to let that just slide. If we did that, they would have run us off in four straight. You cannot let your teammates be hit. Afterwards, he talked about how he was going to get me-and us-back and so in the third game, as a psychological ploy, I went over and shook his hand and took the edge off him and he just did not know how to respond to that.

SLAM: So is it necessary to use your head as well as your body to be a great enforcer?

LUCAS: I think so. The first thing you need to figure out is who you are, so you can figure out who somebody else is. I was blessed with the ability to know myself. Then I’d try to find out other guys’ weaknesses and take advantage of them.

SLAM: Did anybody ever scare you?

LUCAS: Not that I would ever admit [laughs]. There were certain guys on my no-hit list, but I won’t tell you who.

SLAM: Not to this day?

LUCAS: Not to this day.

SLAM: Twenty years later, Luke?

LUCAS: Thirty years later [laughs]! There were certain guys that you know are going to battle, so as opposed to really trying to fight, you just play and everyone has mutual respect. Basically, you cancel each other out. And, yeah, there were certain guys that you knew before the game started, it was going to be a long night.

SLAM: And were there other guys you just knew could taken care of for the whole night with just one good forearm?

LUCAS: Yep, there sure were. A lot more of them than the no-hit guys.

SLAM: Give me two names.

LUCAS: Come one now, Alan. You know I’m not going to do that. [laughs] I don’t want to embarrass anyone-but there were plenty. Plenty!

SLAM: Who were the toughest guys for you to guard?

LUCAS: The smaller, quicker guys. Sometimes they’d throw someone like Jamaal Wilkes or Doc over at the big forward and guys like that caused me a lot of havoc. Then when I’d swing over to the center spot, the real big guys like Bob Lanier and Moses Malone gave me a hard time. They’d get you down deep and do some damage. I never really liked playing center and luckily I didn’t have to do it too much.

SLAM: Do you think the quality of play in the ABA was underrated?

LUCAS: It definitely was at the time. It all comes down to media and marketing, and we had neither. But the first year after the merger, 16 of 24 guys in the NBA All-Star game had ABA roots, so that tells you something. Some real marquee talent came over: Dr. J, George Gervin, Larry Kenon, George McGinnis, Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore.

SLAM: Was the actual style of play very different?

LUCAS: It was. It was an open and very aggressive kind of play. It wasn’t the old-boy fundamental style of play where you pass the ball back and forth and make backdoor cuts. The NBA really hadn’t seen this and wasn’t quite ready for it. But they needed a new spark. The game was getting boring and the commissioner [Larry O’Brien] was not a marketing kind of guy. As a result, the NBA got itself in trouble because you had a lot of talent just sitting and languishing, with no energy, nowhere to let out that juice. The ABA merger was just what they needed. It gave them a new lift.

SLAM: Everyone knows about Doc, but what made George McGinnis so good?

LUCAS: He had these huge, tremendous hands. And he was a pretty tough guy, too. He had a great physical presence and when you see that, you kind of got to get out of the way. But he was a very diverse player. He could run the floor, he could shoot, he could score and he could rebound.

SLAM: But you shut him down in the Finals.

LUCAS: Well, what happened is that we controlled the boards and slowed the game so they couldn’t run and that took Mac out of his game. He had to face me up out front or try to post me up and he was too small to get away with that.

SLAM: You are one of the most prominently featured characters in David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, which many consider one of the best books written about the NBA. Do you agree?

LUCAS: David spent a lot of time with us and the book is a good representation of what was going on with us as a team and the League in general. It focused on the business of basketball. What was happening with Blazers was typical business. Everyone was pushing for more-more money, more playing time, more recognition-and as a result of all the pushing and pressure, we had a breakdown. Of course, we also had a physical breakdown in some of our players, most importantly Bill [Walton], and that was the end of that dynasty.

SLAM: Before it ever really happened; did it really feel like you were building a dynasty?

LUCAS: We thought so, until Bill started having his foot problems. It’s really tough, too, because we had Moses Malone for one preseason [the Blazers got Malone, along with Lucas, in the ABA dispersal draft]. We begged and scratched to get them to keep Moses, but they traded him anyway. We thought that was a major mistake because we knew Bill couldn’t play but so many games-history said so-but management just would not see that. They didn’t want to have a big investment in a backup center, when they had so much sunk into the starter. Even the year we won the title Bill only played 60-some games, and the next year the wheels fell off. If we had had a great, young backup center, we might have pressed that thing for a few more years.

SLAM: Who were some of your favorite teammates?

LUCAS: Bill, for sure. I really enjoyed playing with Michael Ray Richardson on the Knicks. Dennis Johnson was just a great all-around player. He played defense. He wasn’t a great shooter, but he could score, and he really understood team concepts. We had a great bunch of guys in Phoenix, including Dennis, Walter Davis, Alvan Adams and Larry Nance. Then I went to L.A. and played with Magic, Kareem and Worthy, all phenomenal players. In Seattle, I really enjoyed playing with Tom Chambers and the X Man [Xavier McDaniel], who was in my mold, like a little Luke [laughs]. He was smaller than I was, but he would make some people pay.

SLAM: Did being teammates with Kareem give you a heightened appreciation of him?

LUCAS: Not exactly. Kareem was a different kind of a bird-a truly great player and a very different person. He was not the kind of guy you really got to share a lot of time, even as a teammate.

SLAM: You mentioned Sugar Ray Richardson. How good was he?

LUCAS: Rich had a tremendous amount of talent. I had played in the ABA with Fly Williams, who had some of the same unique abilities-a big point guard who could handle the ball, run the court, pass the ball, shoot the ball and out-run and out-jump everyone, but he had those same weaknesses as well. Sugar was self-destructive and he had his own little mission to party…He was burning three ends-basketball, drugs and the nightlife. There’s not been a person in the history of this or any other business that survived that for long.

SLAM: You were involved in other businesses even while still a player.

LUCAS: Yeah, I got interested in computer software really early, and got a data processing company going that’s been rolling ever since. I knew I had to find some diversity. People have a tendency to think that this thing is gonna last forever and there’s never going to be any changes in their lives. Unfortunately, it does change and you do get old and the game belongs to the younger man and those who prepare for that will be much more successful than those who don’t.

SLAM: You were relatively outspoken as a player. Did that give you a bad rep?

LUCAS: Anyone who’s outspoken in any business gets the title of a troublemaker. I was an officer for the Player’s Association for many years, which gave me the fortune and misfortune of seeing it from both sides. I understood how a lot of owners truly thought about players. Some really cared about the game and the players and others didn’t give a crap about our insurance policy or anything else. The mentality of some of the old-time owners was simple: If someone gets hurt, just get another one.

SLAM: Sounds like a plantation.

LUCAS: No, no. When you’re getting paid more than 98 percent of the people in the country, you can’t think in terms of slavery. But there is a system that is designed for physical existence, and those who are physically capable of maintaining it are valuable and those who are not are interchangeable. If something happened to you they really didn’t give a flying crap.

SLAM: Did that knowledge effect the way you played?

LUCAS: No, I just made sure I had a good guaranteed contract [laughs]. I played low to the ground anyhow. I started out above the rim but I found out I didn’t have to play that high and realized that’s a danger zone and you don’t last too long playing up there. The ability to be above the rim is overrated in terms of being a good defender and rebounder anyhow. It may not be that way quite as much today due to how many guys play so very high above the rim, but look at guys like Charles Oakley and Karl Malone. They’ve been very successful for many years just by doing the very simple fundamental things really well. Nobody used to play that long, but of course, fitness has really improved. Personal trainers and all that yak and guys don’t hang out in the bar as much [more laughter]. But I have to say, Oak reminds me of me more than just about anyone else I’ve seen.

SLAM: Though I don’t think Oak could average 20 points if his life depended on it.

LUCAS: [Laughs] You’re right. His arm might fall off trying. But I admire his style. I just love to watch these guys who are like old warlords camped under the hoop. That’s their terrain and you have to pay their toll to visit. I love that.