NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Jerry Lucas

One of the best rebounders in NBA history, Jerry Lucas was a complete player who was known for his work ethic.

When Jerry Lucas played forward, he was statistically one of the greatest rebounders ever at his position — for a season, in fact, the very best. When at center, he would loft the ball from range that extended well beyond 20-feet, leaving his opponent, with both feet in the paint, helplessly watching as the ball soared overhead and into the basket. And as a personality, should we even bother asking if anyone has simultaneously dabbled as an entrepreneur, part-time magician and full-time memory expert? There have been fascinating characters over the course of the NBA’s 75 years and then there is Lucas. Here is your complete introduction.

If there ever was a flawless entrant into the National Basketball Association, isn’t Lucas it? His high school career in Middletown, Ohio, decorated to an almost unprecedented degree, was subject to a single loss against a great many victories, leaving Lucas as the state’s most celebrated scholastic player B.L. (Before LeBron).

In his first year of eligibility at Ohio State in 1960, he teamed with John Havlicek to lead the Buckeyes to a national championship, and later that year he was a pivotal figure on the United States’ drive to gold at the Rome Olympics, joining Oscar Robertson and Jerry West on one of the greatest amateur teams ever assembled.

Ambitious, intelligent, the model citizen, Lucas’ choosing of the doomed ABL over the NBA would come to serve as a mere footnote to begin his professional career; a belated arrival as a Royal in Cincinnati did nothing to change the course for which he seemed destined — an overwhelming success. (By the way, his bonus for winning the 1964 Rookie of the Year award: $200!)

Jerry Lucas entered the 1965 NBA All-Star Game in St. Louis as one of the game’s elite forwards. He left it a motorcycle owner.

That was the prize for the game’s Most Valuable Player in these simplistic times — with the game played on a weeknight, a midday luncheon the only other festivity scheduled, and opportunistic management eager to bang out a few deals when in each other’s company (Wilt Chamberlain in fact was traded within hours of the game’s completion).

Against that backdrop, the game’s greatest players — Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson, West, Pettit, Baylor, need I go on? — convened for a hard-fought game, and Lucas, by a 36-12 count over fellow Royal Oscar Robertson, emerged the clear MVP: 25 points, 10 rebounds, and a 124-123 East victory.

Powered by a combination of Lucas, Robertson, and Bill Russell, the East bore resemblance to a team that, the previous summer (1964), jaunted overseas on a goodwill tour, mostly throughout Europe. Indeed the best collection of basketball talent ever assembled to that point took their act international, almost thirty years before the Dream Team took Barcelona by storm. Games were played indoors, outdoors, against national teams, against club teams; Lucas was part of a group that helped not only spread the game’s popularity, but the sophistication of its practices.

Friends by summer, foes by season — Russell and his Celtics remained in Cincinnati’s (and everyone’s) way as the Royals sought to emerge from the Eastern Division to reach The Finals. In 1966, these two teams went the distance once again with a winner-take-all played in Boston Garden.

What you’re about to see is a true cinematic treasure. Well, that might be an exaggeration. But for basketball footage in the 1960s, this is simply as good as it gets. Here’s Russell, Robertson, Lucas — in color, from every angle.

From an odds perspective, in the 1960s one had a greater chance of winning the lottery than gaining a forward spot on the All-NBA first team. Elgin Baylor, nine times in the decade, had a permanent inscription on the plaque. Bob Pettit, through 1964, was alongside.

Only five forwards actually gained a first-team nod in the entire 10-year period, and behind those two immortals in appearances is Lucas, who, remarkably, earned three first-team selections — 1965, 1966, and 1968. It remains an incredible testament to his standing in the game during his best years, a laurel to rest on when debating the top forwards of that period.


Traded to San Francisco in 1969, Lucas then became a Knick in 1971, brought in to reinforce a frontline led by the now-hurting Willis Reed. Lucas was thrust into the starting position when Reed was restricted to just 11 games, but the Knicks once again emerged from the East and returned to the championship series. Lucas averaged 20.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists in the five-game loss to the Lakers, his first Finals appearance, troubling Chamberlain with his range.

A year later, this time with Reed back, the Knicks avenged that loss to Los Angeles. For Lucas, though entering the league as a conqueror of other worlds, this was his first title. And reflecting years later, it takes a special place when looking back.

The qualities that made Lucas one of the greatest and most unique frontcourt men in league history – his insatiable appetite for rebounding, his ability to shoot from great range, his mind — can be appreciated by future generations of players. And this was the case when one-time forward Jerome Williams, himself an endlessly energetic worker of the boards, was asked to look at Lucas’ career from a player perspective.

For Lucas, rebounding was not as much physical as it was mental. His analysis of the missed shot and then ability to track it down places him in a category statistically that is rarefied. As a shooter, there was a method in trying to scrape the ceiling; the higher the arc, the greater angle for the ball to enter the basket, the more troubling it was for bigger opponents to contest. These elements became the foundation for a Hall-of-Fame career, one that culminated in a title.

Jerry Lucas had the ability to remember every sequence during that remarkable career, and now we make some simple requests, a memory test if you will. Watch this collection of rarely-seen Lucas highlights showing off the best of his game — and never forget them.