Monday, November 1, 2010

Obituary: Remembering Maurice Lucas

Maurice Lucas is dead. The King is Dead.

Former NBA power forward Maurice Lucas died yesterday as a result of a long illness with bladder cancer. He was fifty-eight.

Maurice Lucas was unquestionably one of the best things about Pro Basketball's "dark times" - the time after the great Celtics/Lakers rivalries of the 1960s and before the great Celtics/Lakers rivalries of the 1980s. In a time where basketball was thought of alternately as too black, too violent or too druggy, the Power Forward position was thought of as an enforcer - someone to start fights and - crucially - finish them. No one finished fights like Luke. A bruising PF, Maurice Lucas was also a student of the game and a "thinker" - indeed he gave up red meat and started elaborate stretching exercises long before core-strength was regarded as important in any sports other than gymnastics.

He got his pro start with the most amusing team of them all, the Spirits of St. Louis, after joining the ABA despite being drafted by Chicago of the NBA. Indeed, to look at the Chicago sides of the 1970s and insert Mo Lucas is to see a near-Championship calibre squad. But Lucas chose the money and playing time of St. Louis and was dumped straight into the world of Marvin "Bad News" Barnes and Fly Williams. On a team renowned for craziness, Lucas was a calming influence and one of the only players and people on the roster on whom management could rely.

Although he began his ABA career at 6'9 and only 220 pounds, Lucas took to the role of enforcer like few before him. In the tradition of Jungle Jim Loscutoff and Chet Walker, Mo was tough and provided the ultimate example of Star Wars' Tarkin Doctrine - ruling through fear of force, rather than through force itself. When it was necessary to step up and fight as the basketball of the era demanded, Maurice did so with a fury that no-one in either league could match - in his most memorable stoush he knocked out 7'3 giant Artis Gilmore with one punch. What's not remembered as clearly though is that Luke tried to avoid the conflict and only fought when it became clear it was a case of "kill or be killed".

After a time with the Spirits, it became obvious that the dedicated, passionate Lucas and the free-spirited, drug-addled-but-supremely-talented Barnes couldn't co-exist and he was traded to Kentucky to form possibly one of the most imposing "big" lineups in memory: he joined the behemoth Gilmore. When Kentucky folded at the conclusion of the final ABA season, he was the first pick in the ABA Dispersal draft and joined Portland, where he is most fondly remembered. In the first year post-merger, "Luke" led the Trailblazers in scoring and grabbed 10.4 rebounds per game to be the league's best power forward (you will never convince me that "Big E" Elvin Hayes was better that year).

Although the Blazers won the Championship, Lucas wasn't rewarded with the improved contract he had been seeking. His 1978 was superior (according to the experts) as he made the All-NBA Second team, but as his contract demands became an irritation he was deemed by coach Jack Ramsey as a disruptive influence and traded to New Jersey in 1980. Luke was never the same player - he was 27 at the time of the trade - and made one more All-Star game appearance though his career headed down the road marked "Journeyman".

After stints in New Jersey, New York, Phoenix, LA (the Lakers) and Seattle, Mo returned to Portalnd for his final season in 1987-88. He will be remembered in many ways: not least because Bill Walton said he was his favourite teammate and best friend, and the reason why Walton's third son was named Luke. It was his scoring and toughness that won the Blazers their sole NBA title in 1977 and his game allowed smaller guards like Jonny Davis and Lionel Hollins to flourish. Luke was a winner and took no crap: although almost every Phoenix player during his time there enjoyed using nose candy, Luke did not. He helped an extremely young Sonics to the 1987 Western Conference Finals. Portland was never the same after he left with youngsters like Billy Ray Bates taking over the asylum. Luke wasn't management, but he made sure you did the best thing by the team.

Luke finished his NBA involvement last year working with Great Blazer Hope for the Future Greg Oden as an assistant coach before leaving to fight his condition. He will be remembered. He will be missed.

Rest In Peace Maurice Lucas.

No comments:

Post a Comment