Even though Jerry Lucas is 72 years old, his big hands have not lost their crushing grip, and his eyes still flash like blue lasers. To see him again is to think, hey, why not suit up?
Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta had that thought earlier this week, when it was confirmed Lucas would be in town.
“I’m going to check to see if he can play for us,” Matta said.
Lucas responded, “I haven’t shot a basketball in 37 years.”
He’d fit right in, would he not?
Easy now, it is just a joke.
The Buckeyes have been criticized for their lack of offense in recent games, but they looked a lot better in pummeling Minnesota 71-45 in Value City Arena last night. It was an important victory as the Big Ten demolition derby enters its final weeks. It was special for the appearance of Lucas, who was given a standing ovation when he stepped to center court during a first-half timeout.
Lucas was on hand to accept a tasteful little trophy presented by Jim Jackson, another Player of the Year from a bygone era. The trophy was a token of Lucas’ inclusion among the top 75 college players in NCAA history, as determined by the governing body. The field will be cut further and, if Lucas is not among the top 10, it will be an upset.
“It’s great to be recognized,” he said. “We had the most success of any team in the history of Ohio State. I think fans understand and appreciate that.”
There is no better company than Lucas for a stroll down memory lane, and he has been strolling of late. Last weekend, he and his family took part in a series of events to mark the dedication of Jerry Lucas Court at Middletown High School’s Miller Gym. The blacktop at Sunset Park, where Lucas began building his legend, was also named in his honor.
“It was a wonderful weekend,” he said.
Lucas’ Middies won 76 consecutive games and back-to-back state championships in 1956-57.His Buckeyes teams made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA national championship game and won the title in 1960. That year, he won an Olympic gold medal at the Rome Games playing for a team that was enshrined en masse in Springfield. He went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA and won another championship with the New York Knicks in 1973.
What keeps the man fascinating is how he processes all of this. He might be one of the five greatest players in college basketball history. He made the NBA’s top 50 team when the league celebrated its first half century. And so on. Yet, when he speaks of what he has done, what remains impressed in his consciousness are the great coaches he had at every level — Paul Walker, Fred Taylor, Pete Newell, Red Holzman — and the way they instilled a team game in groups of high-IQ basketball players — Larry Siegfried, Bob Knight, John Havlicek, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and so on.
Of Ohio State, he says, “Most of the players were from small towns in Ohio. Our team GPA was 3.5 or 3.6. We knew and understood the game. We had an incredible coach. Everything was perfect. But what I remember are the friendships I’ve carried through my life. That’s what’s most important.”
Of his Knicks days, he said, “That was the smartest basketball team in history. We had Phi Beta Kappas, Ph.D.s, Rhodes scholars. We had Phil Jackson.”
It’s always good to see Lucas and, he says, we will be hearing more from him soon. He has authored more than 60 books about memory training and learning systems. His next project, soon to be completed, takes his tools to video.
“I love what I do and my real contribution to mankind is ahead of me,” he said. “We’re going to revolutionize learning.”
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.
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