Trail Blazers Press Release

Remembering Luke

11/08/10
  1. Written by: trailblazers  / avg. rating: 5.0



    BY WAYNE THOMPSON


    Wayne Thompson, the long-time Oregonian writer/editor and the author of the new book BlazerMania: This is Our Story, offers up his memories of "The Enforcer."

    When Maurice Lucas first heard that he had been drafted by Portland, Oregon in the NBA's  1976 Dispersal draft of American Basketball Association players, his initial reaction was "Where is it?"

         Professionals like Lucas, who spent their entire careers, up to then, in the East  often had a distorted sense of where things were on the West Coast.  There was Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle and a lot of open space and crazy time zones in between, went the logic.

    "Seriously," Lucas said to me in an interview  for Rip City Magazine a few years ago, "geography never was my best subject.  I knew Oregon was somewhere above California, but other than that, I had to go look at a map."

         Lucas died on Halloween at the young age of 58 after a long battle with bladder cancer. While in love with his adopted Portland home, Maurice was Right Coast, born and bred --  the image of a John Wayne-type who would look comfortable and fitting in a Harley Davidson ad. But there was much more to Luke than meets the eye. Underneath the tough guy, sometimes brash demeanor that Lucas portrayed on the court lived a large man at peace with his surroundings, yet eager and willing to change social conditions and make things better for those in need of a helping hand.

         He was a man of many causes other than basketball. Perhaps the best explanation of why he and Bill Walton got along so well together -- almost like brothers -- wasn't simply the way they helped each other in basketball, but also that they shared intellectually the desire to improve life quality for people not fully represented in the body politic of the Watergate years.

         In a sense, then, they held their own political tea parties back in the day, assembling usually at Walton's Northwest Portland home where many social activists gathered. On one such occasion, Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and poet and effective Vietnam war protester;  Jack and Micki Scott, peace activists connected to many social causes of the '70s, Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement and  William Kunstler, the self-described radical lawyer who gained  fame in 1972 by winning the government's case against the Chicago Seven, who were accused of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, were iat the party.  Another time, Dick Gregory, the comedian, writer, and civil rights activist, was there with Lucas and Walton, each discussing ways to make the country better.

         I only attended a couple  of these parties, at Bill Walton's invitation, but the scene there provided a different side of Luke -- not the enforcer as most of us saw him in the gym, but rather a gentle, tender and caring person who wanted to do his part to improve social conditions for all people, even if it meant challenging the establishment back in the day.

         Lucas was never very vocal at some of these parties, but he let me know once that he favored many of the social causes that gave disadvantaged citizens a larger slice of the American pie. Moreover, he understood all of this, just as clearly as the founders of social justice movements  did.  Lucas was as cool as he was keen.
                                  ---     
         For the past 34 years, Maurice Lucas, who reached all-star status in leading Portland to its only NBA championship, has been one of the franchise's most popular players, coaches, and an ardent fan of the organization's community involvement.

         Except for one stretch  --  1980 to 1989 -- when Lucas lived in New York, Phoenix and Los Angeles to play basketball, he has been a Portland resident, active in the community and successful in a variety of non-basketball pursuits.

         That he chose to raise his family in the Rose City is not uncommon.  Many former Trail Blazers opted to do the same thing.  Lucas just followed the crowd of former Trail Blazer players. Why?  "It's a nice city to live in, Lucas explained in the Rip City Magazine interview. "I  love the fact that we're just an hour's drive from the mountains and the beach. I like Portland's slower pace; it's not too busy and everything is accessible."

         Lucas and his widow Pamela were active in the community in the 17 years in which Luke was away from basketball.  Their contributions to Emanuel Hospital resulted in having a wing of the hospital named after them.

         "Portland is just a wonderful place to raise a family," Lucas said in his interview for Rip City Magazine.  

    "That's why we stayed here after my playing days were over. I like the rivers, the structure of the city with its bridges, the clean water and un-polluted air, and the fact that  I can see snow-covered Mt. Hood out of my  window."

         Compared to the cities in which Lucas played "the  Blazers have a unique fan base," he said in the interview    "They love their team. But I also believe the Blazers have earned that love," he added. "Not just with the way they have played on the court over the years, but also in the many ways the franchise has contributed to the community."

         Lucas became a large part of the community through its outreach programs that focus on youth and their families in areas such as literacy, education services, sports and fitness programs. He touched more lives than any other Trail Blazer player in history. Just about everybody who was interviewed following his untimely death has said so, from owner Paul Allen, and team president Larry Miller to most of his teammates from the 1976-77 championship team.

                             ---

         Growing up in Pittsburgh, Lucas had the genes to be a power forward. His father was 6-4 and his mother 6 feet tall.  As a junior at Schenley High School, he experienced a remarkable growth spurt, growing inches in three months.

         "All of a sudden I went from a shooting guard to a power forward almost overnight," Lucas recalled.

         He was a bit awkward in his new large body, and wasn't sure what his basketball future would be.  Then he met Clyde Gross, a former Philadelphia prep star and brother-in-law of Wilt Chamberlain. Gross taught Lucas some moves and slick maneuvers around the basket.

         Maurice spent most of his summers in Philadelphia and honed his game there. He has always credited Gross with having the greatest influence and impact on his game.

         After his senior season at Schenley, Lucas received a scholarship from legendary Coach Al McGuire to attend Marquette University. Lucas also considers McGuire the second most influential person in helping him develop his game. "He was the smartest coach I  ever had in managing the last two minutes of a close game," Lucas told Rip City Magazine.

         Lucas played two years at Marquette, where he was a second-team All-American and led the Golden Eagles to the 1974 NCAA Tournament championship game by averaging 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.     He left Marquette after his junior season and was a first-round selection in the NBA and ABA drafts. He signed with the ABA Spirits of St. Louis, and,  along with Marvin Barnes and Gus Gerard, became part of the Spirits' famous 1974-75 "all-rookie" front line. Lucas was named to the 1974-75 ABA All-Rookie 2nd team after averaging 13.2 points  and 10.2 rebounds per game.

         The Spirits traded him during the 1975-76 season to the Kentucky Colonels for center Caldwell Jones (another former Trail Blazer). There he played on the front line with 7-foot-2  center Artis Gilmore.  

         In ABA laurels, the names of Maurice Lucas and Artis Gilmore will forever be associated with each other in story telling after an incident that happened in Louisville's Freedom Hall one night in 1975, sportswriter George Rorrer of the Louisville Times wrote the following description of the incident:

         "One night at Freedom Hall, Maurice Lucas of the Spirits got under Artis Gilmore's skin. Artis, normally the most gentle of giants, started trying to punch Lucas.

         Artis had superhuman strength, but he wasn't much of a boxer. His blows were almost slaps.

         Lucas, one of the league's most feared fighters, backpedaled the length of the court. When he got to the baseline, he planted his feet and hit Artis with a straight right to the jaw.

         Artis went down in sections. First his knees crumpled, then his waist folded, then his arms flailed and then his trunk and head found the floor. By then, teammates had broken up the fight.

         Those who knew Artis were shocked and saddened, not that Artis had lost a fight but that he had even been in one. His agent, Herb Rudoy, flew in from Chicago to soothe the big guy's psyche. You know the rest. Gilmore got over it and Lucas eventually became a Colonel, too."

         It was from that one-punch knockdown of Gilmore that Lucas enhanced his reputation as "the Enforcer." Known throughout the ABA for his aggressive, bruising style of play, he often used intimidation to get into the heads of opponents. "I used my reputation as an enforcer as a psychological tool," Lucas often said when asked about his forceful approach.

         A member of the 1975-76 ABA All-Star team -- the last year of the ABA existence --  Lucas was  selected in the first round, 2nd pick overall, of the ABA dispersal draft.

         A two-time ABA all-star, his acquisition after the merger of the two leagues was the final piece -- and in the opinion of Blazers coach Jack Ramsay "the most important one --  in putting the Blazers’ 1977 championship team together.

         Considered one of the premier power forwards in the game at the time, the big, rugged “enforcer” teamed with Walton to give Portland the best front court combination in the game.  Lucas  led the Blazers in scoring during the 1976-77 season with a 20.2 points-per-game average, was second in scoring the next year (16.4 ppg), then was the team leader again in 1978-79 (20.4 ppg).

         His all-time professional career averages, spanning 14 seasons and 1,021 games with eight different teams was 14.6 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. His first coaching stint came during the 1988-89 season, serving as a Trail Blazer assistant coach to Mike Shuler and Rick Adelman.  Lucas'  No. 20 was retired by the Trail Blazers in ceremonies, Nov. 4, 1988.

         During his Portland career, Lucas was one of the most popular Trail Blazers ever. Whenever he made a public appearance and his name was  announced over the public address system, most fans shouted out, "Luuuuuke," which might seem to strangers that he is being booed.
         
         If Lucas could collect the ingredients to make the perfect basketball player, he confided, the traits he would look for would be:

         1. "All-around ability and grasp of fundamentals
         2. "Emphasis on players who are long, with
    a lot of reach rather than just tall.
         3. "Leadership qualities (players who demand
    respect and are willing to sacrifice their own
    stats for the good of the team)
         4. "Players with a high basketball I.Q., who have good court vision and a keen sense of how to play the game the right way."

         Lucas, as a basketball source for writers like me, was a lot more candid about player shortcomings than most coaches these days, many of whom won't call players out when their performance or behavior hurts the team.

         "I don't believe in babying professional basketball players," he said in his interview with me for the Rip City Magazine story. At the Blazer Summer League in Las Vegas in 2007, when all of Portland was in a jitter about the coming of fun-loving Greg Oden, and the rapid development to stardom of the young Blazers, led by nice guys Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, Lucas felt something was missing.     

         "It's nice to have a team full of nice guys, with good character and high ideals," he said then.  "We should all strive for that in building a team.  But we should leave open one roster spot for some bad dude who  is willing to smash some opponent in the mouth if  it needs to be done.  Yeah, it needs someone like I used to be." he mused.

         If there is one thing about today's young NBA players that bothered the no-nonsense Lucas, it's their attitude, or as Maurice called it, "the rock star syndrome."

         Too many players coming out of high school with no college experience seem only interested  in making the highlight reel on ESPN, he said. There's not enough interest in sacrificing their game for the good of the team, Lucas added.

         "And those tattoos all over their bodies, what's that all about?" Lucas asked.  "In my era, you'd best keep the identification stuff in your wallet rather than engrave it permanently on your arms or chest."

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