What Jerry Lucas Will Do for the Knicks, 1972

[Some New Yorkers never tire of extolling the trade that more than 50 years ago sent Dave DeBusschere to the Knicks. After all, this stroke of front-office genius was the catalyst that brought New York its first NBA championship in 1970. But hardly ever mentioned in the same breath is the May 1971 trade that sent center-forward Jerry Lucas to shore up the Knicks’ undersized frontline of DeBusschere, Bradley, and the badly ailing Willis Reed? Without the multi-talented Lucas, previously with Golden State, there’s no way the Knicks take the 1973 title, their second and latest NBA crown.

“The trade totally surprised me,” Lucas later recalled. “I had no idea a trade was coming. I hadn’t pushed for one; I hadn’t heard anything. I was totally surprised and very, very pleased when I heard it. I was excited about going to the Knicks. They were the consummate team, incredibly intelligent.”

This article, which appeared in Action Sports’ 1971-72 Pro Basketball Yearbook, goes deeper into the reasons for Lucas’ big surprise. The byline reads Cal Garth, and I can’t find boo about his career in journalism. Nevertheless. Garth is an excellent reporter, who reminds us that Lucas had toyed a few seasons earlier with retiring from the NBA. What kept him in uniform was his investment in the Ohio-based Jerry Lucas Beef ‘N Shakes, Inc. restaurant chain. When the seven-restaurant chain went belly up in 1969, Lucas and his wife reportedly were about $400,000 in the hole and filed three bankruptcy petitions. While the courts cogitated, Lucas’ sole source of income—and lifeline—to pull himself out of his financial abyss was his NBA contract. Had Beef ‘N Shakes survived and had Lucas retired early as planned, who knows whether the Knicks would have won the 1973 championship. 

After the championship season, Lucas returned for another year with the Knicks  But, once again, he’d lost interest in the NBA. He was back on his financial feet and suddenly consumed by his next career move: memory training. “I had just published my first book on memory training, The Memory Book,” he said. “I had been involved in memory training, developing and creating learning systems . . . I knew that what I wanted to do with my life was to be involved in education, so I decided to retire early. I still had a couple of years left on my Knicks contract, but I wanted to devote my full-time efforts to creating, writing, developing, and teaching.”

By the 1974-75 season, Lucas was gone. But, as the 1973 NBA championship attests, his trade to New York was definitely one to remember. Here’s the story.]

If at first you do succeed, why not try again? The last time the New York Knickerbockers traded for an established star forward, they got Dave DeBusschere from Detroit and won their first NBA championship. Now they have plucked Jerry Lucas from the Golden State Warriors, and they’re hoping he will bring them title No. 2 this season. 

The deal was made last May, and it was a shocker. The Knicks gave up 6-foot-5 forward Cazzie Russell, a mobile, hot-shooting man with defensive and rebounding deficiencies, for the 6-foot-8 Warrior veteran, one of the game’s all-time great cornermen. 

All at once, the Knicks plugged their one great weakness—lack of rebounding—and at the same time radically altered the league’s balance of power. The Milwaukee Bucks, who lost only two of 14 games in their playoff blitzkrieg last season, may not find the pickings nearly so easy this year. The Knicks always did match up well against the Milwaukees, beating them easily in the playoffs two years ago when the Bucks didn’t have Oscar Robertson, then defeating them four of five times with the Big O last year before New York center Willis Reed suffered crucial injuries. 

With Lucas, one of the game’s rebounding giants and an excellent shooter, New York will be a formidable challenger, indeed. Other clubs know it. “It really upset me when I heard about it,” Baltimore Bullets’ coach Gene Shue said of the trade. “I don’t like to see the Knicks get any help at all, and this has to help them. Getting Lucas shored up a real weakness they had. The Knicks weren’t a good rebounding team. He’ll make them real tough.”

What made New York’s coup doubly difficult for Shue to accept is the fact that the crewcut Baltimore coach himself tried to get Lucas, not once but twice. He made a pitch early in the 1969-70 season, when Lucas was in his sixth and final season with the Cincinnati Royals, and he followed it with another bid last year, when word along the NBA grapevine revealed that Warriors’ coach Al Attles was amenable to a trade. “I expressed interest in him, but Attles never got back to me,” Shue said. 

Had he gotten Lucas, Shue really would have been getting two players in one, for among the considerable basketball assets of the 6-foot-8, 230-pound former Ohio State All-America is his great versatility. An All-NBA forward five times, he can also do a more-than-adequate job at center. And at either position, he can shoot from the outside about as well as any man his size ever has, and he can rebound with the best. 

Statistics bear out both these assertions. Lucas’ lifetime scoring average is 19.1 points per game, achieved on an excellent 49.8 percent shooting accuracy. His lifetime rebounding average—more than 18 per game—ranks him third behind those super-boardmen Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Last season, at 30, and in spite of aching knees and lack of speed that have been burdens throughout his career, Lucas averaged 19.2 points and 15.8 rebounds to remain among the league’s best cornermen. 

It’s primarily Lucas’ rebounding and versatility that attracted New York, though they’ll gladly accept his shooting punch, too. With their own star center, Willis Reed, the victim of knee and shoulder miseries last year, the Knicks found themselves in desperate need of a quality backup pivotman, both to replace Reed when he was hurt and to give him adequate rest during games. Neither Nate Bowman nor Greg Fillmore filled the bill, and the Knicks’ need was quite obvious. 

Before the trade, the Knicks fielded a small team that almost had to have Reed’s muscle and bulk in the lineup to compete against the league’s bigger teams. New York’s forwards were 6-foot-5 Russell, 6-foot-5 Bill Bradley, 6-foot-6 DeBusschere and Dave Stallworth, a slender 6-foot-7. Many college teams were bigger. In the semifinal playoff series against Baltimore last season, in which the Knicks were eliminated four games to three in a wildly emotional duel, it was their failure to control the boards that ultimately defeated the New Yorkers. 

It shouldn’t happen with Lucas in the lineup. The hard-working DeBusschere, an outstanding rebounder for a man his size, will finally get help from the man in the other corner, Reed will get his rest when he needs it, and the Knicks will have the flexibility to match up against both the NBA’s big and small teams. For example, no longer will Atlanta be able to bedevil New York by starting 6-foot-9 Jim Davis at forward and having him guarded by a man three or four inches smaller. Nor will Detroit cause havoc by putting 7-foot Mel Counts in a corner. Now the Knicks have some tall timber to match them. 

Knicks’ coach and general manager, Red Holzman, calls the trade “good for both sides,” a cliche that seems to fit the situation. Holzman plans to give Lucas 28-30 minutes’ playing time, to be split between center and forward. This relatively light workload reflects New York’s depth up front. It also figures to preserve Lucas’ knees and thus prolong his career. 

“I’m very excited about coming to New York,” said Lucas, whose pro career had encompassed two losing teams in two indifferent cities. “The Knicks are a winning team with a winning tradition, and I just might get to be with an NBA champion before I quit. And the Knicks play basketball the way it should be played. I don’t care if I score two or 50 points, I’ve got to help New York’s rebounding.”

And, in turn, perhaps New York will get Lucas out from under the dark cloud that’s been hovering over his head for the past two years. He’s been sidelined by injury and got so discouraged at one point that he seriously considered quitting. He went bankrupt, the sad end of a Beef ‘N Shakes restaurant chain he believed would make him a millionaire someday. 

Yet, in the long run, Lucas’ problems—both on and off the court—led him to a reassessment of his lifestyle. And out of this soul searching came a new philosophy and, as a result, a new lease on his basketball life. 

Bob Cousy started Lucas on his personal merry-go-round in the summer of 1969. Cousy, then the rookie coach of the Cincinnati Royals, opted for smaller, faster forwards. This meant that Lucas, with his lack of speed and superstar’s salary, was a most likely candidate to leave Cincinnati. At first, Jerry considered quitting, but with Beef ‘N Shakes shaky, he decided that the $100,000-a-year salary brought in was still nice pin money. He asked to be traded to the Warriors. 

Joining San Francisco in late October, Lucas soon got shut down again. In November, he broke his right hand in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. In December, he was back home in Ohio, signing bankruptcy papers. By New Year’s Eve, he was back in the lineup but obviously out of shape. His wife and two kids were home in Ohio, leaving him to fend for himself in lonely, antiseptic motels. It was not the best of all possible worlds. 

Used to having things go his way, Lucas was profoundly shaken by his streak of setbacks. When he was finally reunited with his family at the end of that terribly frustrating 1969-70 season, he was a different man.

“For as long as I could remember, I was always busy doing something,” he said. “If it wasn’t basketball, it was schoolwork. After I finished at Ohio State and began playing pro ball, I spent most of the offseason working 17 hours a day on my business venture. Now that I’ve gone bankrupt and gotten out of business, I decided to take time off and do absolutely nothing. Nearly drove me crazy for the first two or three weeks. I was nervous and fidgety. It was really hell. But gradually I began enjoying myself. I took the family on trips to the ocean, redwoods and other places around the San Francisco Bay area. I played golf, watched television, and just generally loafed.”

While he loafed, Lucas began to think about basketball, which was now his sole source of income. Lucas began to plan for a far different 1970-71 season, one in which he would regain his reputation as one of the game’s brightest stars and refute any rumors that he was washed up. 

“I know one reason for my poor 1969-70 season was a lack of conditioning,” he said. “During the 1969 summer, I’d been tied down with the business and unable to work out as much as I should have. Training camp was too easy, and I played irregularly for Cincinnati at the start of the year (because of Cousy’s new offense), which was tough on my knees.”

Lucas put two and two together and came up with the logical conclusion that he’d better enter the new season in better shape. “In June, I decided to start a whole new program for myself,” Lucas said. “I began losing weight. I played at 250 for the past four years, but that seemed like too much for a guy my age to be carrying around. So, I lost 20 pounds in a couple of weeks just by cutting out my constant snacking.”

His newly found free time, which used to be spent on business interests, now was devoted to basketball. Obtaining the keys to a local gym, Lucas practiced for hours every night. “It was the first chance I’d had to really analyze my shot, to figure out exactly what was right and wrong about it,” Lucas said. “I realized that I was using six or seven different grips, depending on my position on the court. But over the summer, I was able to develop a single grip that seems to have improved my accuracy.”

He was also able to develop a new peace of mind that helped even more. “It may sound a little corny, but I really got a new attitude toward life,” he says. “After the bankruptcy, I sat down and had a little talk with myself and decided that business wasn’t that important to me. I had gotten out of school anxious to make a lot of money, but I found out that it just wasn’t worth it.”

So it was back to basics in basketball for the former budding business tycoon. Now he had to cope with the problem of his aching knees, the products of too many one-on-one boyhood games over the concrete outdoor courts of Middletown, Ohio. For years, trainers had been treating the knees with cortisone to relieve the pain. But in the summer of 1970, Lucas tried a different approach. First, he helped toughen his legs with heavy workouts on an Exercycle. Second, he began to put ice bags on his knees for 20 minutes after each workout. Third, he began to take a new anti-inflammatory drug. “These pills make it possible for me to live a normal life,” he said happily. 

You can sense Lucas’ peace of mind when he speaks about his goals for this season. “Some pros are anxious to score a little more, figuring it will help them get more money at contract time,” he said. “But I figure there’s more money for a team that works together and wins in the playoffs. One superstar just isn’t enough. That’s why I’m glad to be going to the Knicks. They don’t care who’s scoring, all they worry about is staying ahead. 

“The problem in the NBA is that the 24-second rule makes some guys think they can get a shot off right away. But if you pass three or four times and work the ball to the weak side, someone’s bound to be open and able to get off a better shot. That was one of our problems last year, we didn’t work for the good shot.”

One of the hallmarks of New York’s game is its teamwork and ability to move the ball. For that, and many other reasons, the Knicks and Jerry Lucas should be very happy with each other. Which means unhappiness for the rest of the league—and a powerful challenge for that big kid up in Milwaukee [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar].   

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