Sad news from the world of basketball: Maurice Lucas is dead.
Thirty-nine years ago this fall, I moved into the 11th floor of a 12-story dormitory at the corner of 16th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a freshman at Marquette University. (The dorm, McCormick Hall, is round and shaped like a beer can, which is remarkably appropriate in more than the metaphorical sense, and the building has been rumored for almost 40 years to be sinking into middle Earth.) Not long after I moved in, I found myself intrigued by the music coming out from under the door of the room next to mine — music which I now know to have been “Eurydice,” the closing track from Weather Report’s astounding debut album. (Mmmmmm. Wayne Shorter!) As I was listening, an extremely large man came out of the room and introduced himself. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?’ he said.
And that was how I met Maurice Lucas.
For the next couple of years, we talked about music, at least as much as Luke talked to anyone, him being what you call your campus celebrity and all during the glory days of Warrior basketball and the high-sun period of Al McGuire Era. Whatever I know about any jazz recorded after the big band records to which my father listened — Mmmmmmm. Basie! — I learned from Luke, with whom I don’t believe I ever exchanged four words about basketball.
Later that same year, when I was practicing with the fencing team in the basement of the old gymnasium while the basketball team practiced upstairs, Luke came out of the shower wearing only a towel. “Hey,” he said, “show me how to do that.” I handed him a foil and we squared off, I in my full regalia with a mask and Luke in a towel. I touched him once, lightly, in the ribs. He slapped my blade out of my hand and about 20 feet back down the hallway, hitched up his towel, and went off chuckling.
Lucas was one of the memorable characters on the Blazers’ championship team in the ’70s. I remember him later in his career–he was a professional tough guy and a fine player.
If you’ve never read David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game,” you should. There’s some good stuff on Lucas in there. Did I mention that he was tough?
Before the NBA, Lucas played with the infamous Marvin “Bad News” Barnes for the St. Louis Spirits in the ABA. Spirits announcer Bob Costas told Terry Pluto in Loose Balls:
It was interesting to watch Lucas develop. Early in his rookie year, he was coming off the bench. One night the Spirits were playing Kentucky in Freedom Hall and Lucas was trading elbows with Artis Gilmore. At 7-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Gilmore just towered over Maurice. Lucas’s only chance was to beat Gilmore to a spot on the floor and then try to hold off Artis. Despite his enormous size and strength, Gilmore was never known as a ferocious player and he seldom was in a fight. But all of a sudden, Artis just got sick of Lucas’s bodying him and you could see that the big guy was really hot. Gilmore took a swipe at Lucas and missed. Lucas put up his fists, but he was backpedaling like any sane man would when confronted by Gilmore. It was almost slow motion–Gilmore would take a step, then Lucas would take a step back. It was obvious that Lucas didn’t want to fight and was trying to figure out where he could go. Finally, he was trapped in the corner; he had run out of court. He didn’t know what else to do, so he planted his feet and threw this tremendous punch at Gilmore, and it caught Artis square on the jaw. It was a frightening sight. Artis hit the deck. Lucas was going crazy. Now he really wanted a piece of Artis. Guys were holding Lucas back and Artis was still down. For whatever reason, from that point on Lucas developed into a helluva player.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Lucas.