Maurice Lucas was a tough guy on the court, a sweetheart off it
Times columnist Steve Kelley, who covered the Portland Trail Blazers for The Oregonian, says Maurice Lucas is one of his 10 favorite players. Lucas died Sunday at age 58.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Stretching on the floor before a morning practice session at his first NBA training camp, Sonics rookie Nate McMillan felt the steely stare of veteran center George Johnson coming from across the locker room.
"Hey rook, get up and get me some water," Johnson barked at McMillan.
It was 1986 and rookies still got hazed as if they were in boot camp. But looking up at Johnson and then over to the water cooler, McMillan wasn't having any of it.
"Hey man, I'm down here stretching," McMillan said. "You're next to the cooler. Reach in there and get it yourself."
McMillan could see Johnson getting angry. The veteran was testing the rookie.
Johnson got off his bench and started walking toward McMillan when another veteran, Maurice Lucas, holding a pair of sneakers in his hands, walked out of the training room, saw Johnson moving toward the rookie and asked McMillan if there was a problem.
"This guy wants me to get him a drink," McMillan said, "and he's sitting over there next to the cooler like a little boy."
Lucas looked at Johnson, dropped his shoes like he was ready to fight and said to Johnson, "Hey that's my rook. Don't mess with my rook."
Hardhearted and softhearted at the same time, that was Maurice Lucas. Old school, but evolved.
"Luke had a way of being the enforcer," McMillan, now the Portland Trail Blazers' coach, said by telephone from Chicago on Monday afternoon. "He stepped up and let me know he had my back. He saw this guy trying to take advantage of a situation and he was having no part of that.
"After that, I sort of became his shadow for the rest of the year. Wherever he went, I was behind him. He and I became really close."
When Maurice Lucas, who died Sunday from cancer at the age of 58, came into the NBA in 1976, the league was a much different place.
Back then there was no cable TV, very few sports-talk shows and no blogs. David Stern wasn't the commissioner, which meant there wasn't a dollar sign attached to everything connected with the league.
Teams flew commercially. Players didn't have entourages. Stars didn't have staffs. They were more approachable.
I first met Luke in the fall of 1978, as the Blazers were beginning training camp and I was starting my first year covering the team for The Oregonian.
The team was in free fall. Bill Walton was gone, and Lucas and Lionel Hollins were unhappy with their contracts and wanted to be traded.
Just two seasons earlier, Portland was the best team in the league. It was one of the smartest teams ever. On that Blazers team, Walton was a rock star and Lucas was the snarling, give-no-quarter power forward who protected him.
Back in that day, the violence in the game practically was celebrated. Elbows flew like punches in the paint. Big men battled for rebounds like heavyweight fighters.
Image wasn't everything to the NBA, the way it is now. Fights often broke out and only light fines were levied. It was a meaner game, and on the floor there wasn't a meaner player than 6-foot-9, 220-pound Maurice Lucas.
His two-punch combination that dropped 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore in an ABA game was the stuff of legend, and that reputation for orneriness followed Lucas into the NBA.
He was the toughest guy on the toughest block. His fight with Darryl Dawkins in the second game of the 1977 Finals lit a fuse under the Blazers. Dawkins wasn't a factor for the rest of the series, and after losing the first two games, Portland won the final four.
Lucas was mean for 48 minutes on game day. But for the rest of the time, the rest of his life, he was also one of the kindest, sweetest men in the league.
"He had to psyche himself up to be that tough guy and be the enforcer," Memphis Grizzlies coach Hollins said from Los Angeles. "But off the court, he was a sweet human being. Everybody loved him. He was very approachable and he was a very loyal friend. We connected right from the beginning.
"He always took care of me. On the court, I never had to worry about someone hurting me or trying to hurt me. Because I knew Luke was behind me. And off the court he took care of me. He was involved in a lot of charity work and always got me involved in things with him."
Lucas also was a great teaser. Nobody, including Portland coach Jack Ramsay, was safe from Lucas' razor-sharp sense of humor.
"He had that perception of being a tough guy, and he was that on the floor," McMillan said. "But off the floor he was one of the nicest guys you ever wanted to meet. He was a jokester. He always was smiling and full of life."
When I began covering the team, Lucas wanted to be traded. His salary was $300,000, and rightfully, he thought he deserved more. His anger affected his play and when I wrote that he wasn't playing well, he'd transfer his anger to me.
Once he called me over to his locker, clenched his large fist, stuck it on my chin and said, "If you don't get off my case, I'm going to give you one of these."
He liked to test the writers. If you didn't come back with something good when he was teasing you, he'd lose all respect for you.
Lucas would go weeks refusing to talk to me, then he'd come up to me and say, "This is pretty silly, isn't it?" And we'd go out to dinner on some dreary off night on the road in Cleveland or Kansas City or Atlanta.
He didn't let differences linger. I always knew where I stood with him. I also knew he wouldn't pull the trigger on that fist. More likely, he would sneak up from behind me in a hotel lobby, grab me in a bear hug and bellow out a laugh that would startle the other guests.
I loved Luke because he was genuine. If I made a list of the 10 favorite players I've covered, he'd be on it.
Times were different when I met him. Writers flew on the same planes. We had the same 5 a.m. wake-up calls. We suffered with the players through the inevitable winter flight delays at the same gates in the same airports.
Luke always made the waiting bearable, imitating singer Barry White, or telling stories about his childhood, growing up in Pittsburgh's tough Hill District, where, he said, the "mobsters" who hung out in his neighborhood protected him from the distractions and told him to stick to basketball and stay away from all the other stuff.
Lucas survived the Hill District and became a five-time All-Star. He was a manic rebounder, a deadly midrange shooter and a take-no-prisoners defender.
"He was a champion," McMillan said.
Maurice Lucas was just plain old-school cool.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
email@example.com | 206-464-2176
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