Did Jerry Lucas Outsmart Himself? 1963

[In Dennis D’Agostino’s excellent Garden Glory: An Oral History of the New York Knicks (2003), Jerry Lucas talks about his special aptitude for memory tricks. “The thing that impresses people more than anything else is my ability to rearrange words and spell them out in alphabetical order,” said Lucas. “I began to do that as a boy when I had nothing to do on automobile trips. I’d see words along the highway and on billboards and rearrange them. Cat, obviously, is spelled C-A-T. But, alphabetically, it’s A-C-T. Chandelier is A-D-E-E-G-I-L-N-R, telephone is E-E-E-H-L-N-O-P-T . . .” 

Okay, you get the idea. 

Phil Jackson: “I just loved playing with [Jerry’s] mind and listening to him talk. In card games, he kept the score. He kept track of the money because everybody trusted him.”

Jerry Lucas: “The guys loved to play poker, and they began to throw money in the aisles of the planes. We flew standard commercial flights, and Red [Holzman] didn’t like us throwing the money around. He felt it didn’t look good. So, Phil Jackson came to me and said, ‘Luke, here’s what you need to do. Keep track of everybody’s bets, all the money that’s been bet. So when we land, you can tell us who owes how much to whom.’ So they were able to play without throwing the money on the floor. For a couple of reasons, they didn’t want me to play. I never forgot what cards had been played.”

Cool stuff, except Lucas sometimes could be a little too brilliant for his own good. In fact, as laid out in this article from the 1963 Basketball Yearbook, Lucas almost “outsmarted” himself right out of an NBA career. Angelo Angelopoulos, a then-veteran sportswriter with the Indianapolis News, tells the tale. Angelopoulos was a fantastic reporter, and it really shows in this fine article “From Way Downtown.”] 

Seldom in the history of American sports, and certainly never in the history of basketball, has so bright a student and so brilliant an athlete faced so uncertain a future as Jerry Ray Lucas, Ohio State’s 6-foot-8 triple All-America center and basketball player supreme. And the order in which we list those descriptive words “student” and “athlete” is deliberate. Because Jerry Lucas has established a reputation in the classroom fully matching the one he has compiled on the basketball floor—first at Middletown, Ohio, High School and subsequently at Ohio State. 

It’s this intelligence and surprising maturity that make what has happened to Jerry so astonishing. In one respect, perhaps it’s Jerry’s own fault for having said so often and so publicly that he wanted no part of professional basketball. Now, at least in newspaper headlines, he has had to digest his own words. “I don’t think I could stand the life of a pro basketball player,” big Luke said. “The traveling is the worst part. It’s too much. And there are too many games. By the end of the season, the players look real drawn. That just isn’t what I want to do.”

If you know Jerry Lucas, you know he meant what he said—and probably still does. But even a level-headed college senior had to be impressed by the way two pro basketball teams, the Cincinnati Royals of the National Basketball Association and the Cleveland Pipers of the new American Basketball League, ardently competed for his services. 

A lot of people were surprised when Lucas signed with the Pipers—and made the announcement via an article in a national sports weekly. For one thing, Jerry did not sign for the price most basketball experts think he can command. He agreed to accept $10,000 a year for two years (he doesn’t want to play any more pro ball than that), along with a stock portfolio of $40,000 supplied by the Cleveland club owner, George Steinbrenner. 

George Steinbrenner (left) congratulates Jerry Lucas on joining the Cleveland Pipers. Treva Lucas smiles for the camera.

Alas, Steinbrenner and his Pipers have a record of inconsistency (except on the court, where they won last’s year’s ABL title). Two years ago, the Pipers petulantly ignored the National Industrial League schedule for a few days—then returned to the fold to win the championship. After that, they promptly accepted a bid to turn pro and join the ABL.

Sadly, it soon began to look as if Lucas had outsmarted himself. All he got from Steinbrenner, apparently, were promises. It developed that Steinbrenner’s funds were tied up in a lawsuit filed by his wife—and his father, a shipping magnate who held the real purse strings in the family, simply refused to cough up money to bail George out. 

Financially strapped, Steinbrenner reportedly didn’t even put into escrow the $60,000 to cover Lucas’ two-year contract. The affair grew so dizzy that one newspaper financial writer got into the act, estimating the losses that Jerry’s stocks had suffered on August 28, 1962—Wall Street’s “Black Monday”—when the bottom fell out of the stock market. The writer even named four securities supposedly owned by Lucas—American Ship Building, Republic Steel, Stouffer Foods, and Western Reserve Life Assurance, Co.—all Cleveland firms. Lucas calls these stories about his stock losses “pure speculation”—which is an ironically apt description at that!

Subsequently, it was announced that since the Pipers had not put Lucas’ salary and stock in escrow, he was a free agent and could sign with anyone he pleased! At this point, enter Maurice Podoloff, the roly-poly president of the prosperous, established NBA. The president told Steinbrenner he could join the NBA by paying $250,000 to the league, with $100,000 of it going to the Cincinnati Royals as indemnity for letting in Cleveland. Steinbrenner was also asked to put up a $100,000 performance bond. 

Members of the foundering, year-old ABL quickly threatened legal action to retain the Pipers (and their precious Lucas). The Pipers didn’t meet the deadline imposed on them by the NBA, which promptly voted to disinvite them.

Next, Podoloff made a personal pitch to Lucas, hiring a private plane to visit Jerry in Columbus. He suggested that Jerry sign an NBA contract with him—“and you can play with any NBA team you want.” The story is that Podoloff started with a $10,000 check and was willing to make it whatever sum Lucas wanted. But Lucas showed a remarkable loyalty to Steinbrenner. He still preferred playing in Cleveland, he told Podoloff.

And since Lucas’ marketing-major mind didn’t care for the NBA’s vagueness, the Podoloff bid went glimmering—for the time being, at least. One school of thought held that the NBA hoped to work a Hogue-for-Lucas deal. Paul Hogue, 6-foot-9 center who played such a large role in the Cincinnati Bearcats’ two NCAA victories over Ohio State, had been drafted and signed by the New York Knicks. The idea was that Hogue, a favorite in Cincinnati, would be offered to the Royals in exchange for draft rights to Lucas. But Jerry obviously didn’t want to play in Cincinnati or New York. Still, he had once said he wouldn’t play pro ball at all . . . 

The Royals didn’t push. Their vice president, Tom Grace, said he was not convinced Lucas was legally a free agent, and added: “We’re in the basketball business, and he would be a value to us. I would like to hear from Lucas if he is interested in playing pro ball; but we’re not going around courting a lawsuit.”  

It is a guess here—one that could turn out to be wrong, as so much other speculation about Lucas’ future—that Jerry did not care to become involved in negotiations with the Royals. He felt that Oscar Robertson was king in Cincinnati—justifiably so—and believed that even the most highly publicized collegian of the past three years shouldn’t make more money than the mighty “Big O.” In this respect, Jerry may have underestimated how much the Royals—or any team—would like to have him simply as a drawing card! 

Meanwhile, back at the ABL, its major-domo Abe Saperstein, was trying to get out of Buenos Aires, Argentina and hustle home to protect his interest in Lucas. Shortly after his arrival, the negotiations grew more confused when a Dayton sportswriter said Saperstein had shown him a letter addressed to Podoloff. In it, Saperstein asked if the NBA would consider taking Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City—the ABL’s strongest clubs—into the NBA. 

Next, some hope for the solvency of the Pipers was revived by George McKeon, who had run the San Francisco Saints in the ABL, but who had pulled out rather than buck Wilt Chamberlain [who’d just moved with the NBA Philadelphia Warriors to San Francisco]. McKeon offered Steinbrenner “good faith” money, and this was a don’t-be-surprised-at-anything story. 

The promise of still more weirdness was quickly fulfilled when Lucas and Saperstein accused Frank Lane, new boss of the NBA’s Chicago Zephyrs, of having said that Jerry had signed a contract with the Pipers and, thus, had been a professional when he played with OSU. The two sued Lane for $100,000 for libel and slander. Suddenly, quiet, gentlemanly Jerry Lucas found himself in a court fight. How unlikely that all these strange things could happen to the astute, wholesome young man who had guided himself wisely since his high school days. But professional basketball is a hazardous business for all concerned. 

That Jerry had decided to turn pro at all comes as a surprise to many who had considered him the image of scholarship (he has a college average of 3.5—out of a possible 4), integrity, and selflessness on a basketball floor. 

Some did not buy the business of his signing with the Pipers for less money than he would have received from the Royals, who publicly made a $100,000 offer. But on his past performance, there is no good reason to doubt him. He may have the last word yet. Perhaps Jerry suffers most from his insistence on doing his own thinking—though there is evidence that he did loyally listen to the advice of a Columbus fraternity brother, real-estate operator Joe Hardy. 

But as time sped on, the possibility even arose that the nation’s basketball fans might not get to see the remarkable Lucas play at all—if Cleveland didn’t get its problems solved. More would be the pity. Television viewers who witnessed the national collegiate tourney finals the past two years were treated to the pleasing spectacle of an agile, 6-foot-8 team-player alternately connecting on sensational hook shots from the corners, but usually passing off rather than hog the scoring himself. 

Jerry’s stature wasn’t at all diminished when he refused to offer his injured knee as an alibi after the Buckeyes were defeated by Cincinnati in the NCAA final last March. His right knee—injured in the semifinals—buckled under him in the first half. Cold packs and a pain-killing shot were administered at halftime. Still, Jerry limped badly. He could not drive, nor really get off his feet to rebound. But even to close friends afterwards, he firmly maintained, “It didn’t bother me.”

This raises a forbidding thought: Jerry has brittle knees—they’ve bothered him on and off both in high school and college, and occasionally have had to be drained by a doctor. Could Jerry’s legs withstand even the shorter ABL schedule, not to mention the punishing NBA marathon? Lucas says there would be no problem, adding that his knee aches occur at the start of each season and disappear as his underpinning grows stronger with continued play. But some basketball men speculate that Luke might become the Mickey Mantle of pro basketball, with respect to weak legs. 

Jerry’s latest test of his knees came last spring, when a band of Ohio State seniors went on a barnstorming tour through Ohio. They played about a dozen games. The series not only convinced Jerry that his knees would stand the gaff, but also brought in just enough money to pay the apartment rent and to ease the burden on Treva Lucas, Jerry’s attractive bride. His original intention of remaining an amateur was presented by desire to stay in Columbus and finish his schooling there with Treva. 

The fact that Lucas has not been graduated from Ohio State is, in a sense, a tribute to his patriotism. He gave up one whole semester when urged to join a U.S. basketball team on a tour of Russia. With Jerry dominating the play, the Yanks won every game—but Luke lost academic time. 

A visit by OSU to Purdue late last season—the final of four meetings between Lucas and Terry Dischinger—further illuminates Jerry’s self-effacing nature. Both he and Dischinger had controlled Big Ten basketball play for three near-identical years. In the state of Indiana, most Hoosiers choose Terry over Jerry—and pointed to the fact Dischinger had outscored Lucas three times in their four head-to-head meetings. 

OSU led 46-39 at halftime, with Jerry primarily playing a feeder’s role. From the second half on, believe it or not, Lucas looked at the basket for a shot just once, taking only that single fling the remainder of the game. Buckeye fans pleaded with him to shoot, but Jerry wiped himself out as he grimly went about grinding Purdue down off the boards! On other occasions, Jerry has been almost as sparing with his shots. Once, against Minnesota, he took only 15 shots—and made 14 of them!

Until late in August, it looked very much as though Lucas had indeed outsmarted himself. But then matters took an unexpected turn. What it amounts to is this: Jerry has signed a $140,000, three-year personal services contract with Cleveland advertising and public relations executive Howard Marks, who hopes to acquire an NBA franchise for the 1963-64 season. So big Luke won’t be playing pro basketball this year. He’ll complete his work at Ohio State, then go to work as a scout and good-will ambassador for Marks. 

In the final analysis, then, Jerry has gotten just about the price people expected he would. And he won’t be playing in hostile Cincinnati or aloof New York. Of course, there’s the little matter of Marks getting that NBA franchise. As George Steinbrenner discovered, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip—although Marks says he has plenty of financial backing. 

Lucas’ decision has been a bitter pill for the NBA to swallow—but think about how the poor ABL must feel! With Jerry, a lucrative TV deal might have been arranged. Without him, oblivion beckons. The NBA, studded with name players, will “stagger along” without Lucas, although many basketball men feel that the big Buckeye is making a mistake picking up one year’s worth of rust. 

What kind of ballplayer would Lucas be as a pro? Is he a match for big, strong, determined players like Chamberlain, Russell, Baylor, Robertson, Pettit, and the rest? These are the men against whom he must be measured. Ask veteran pros, and they look at you as though you’re daft. Says big George Mikan, this magazine’s pro basketball expert and himself one of the greatest centers the game ever knew: “I’d put Lucas with Robertson and Baylor as the greatest college players I’ve ever seen. And he’d be just as great as a pro.”

Minnesota coach John Kundla, whom Mikan used to play for while with the Lakers, rates Lucas over Mikan—at similar stages or their careers. “Jerry was a more all-around player than George was in college at DePaul. He can run, he can play defense, he can rebound, he can pass, he can do everything!” 

Rhapsodizes Frank McGuire, who coached the NBA Philadelphia Warriors last year: “Lucas is one of the great players. He will play the post, and he’ll pass off all day. He’s not selfish.”

Of course, being unselfish can be a drawback in the run-and-shoot realm of pro basketball. But once Jerry caught wise . . . well, he led all college shooters with a 61 percent accuracy record last year, a 22 ppg average—and topped all the rebounders, too. 

If there is any quibble about Luke (beside his knees), it’s this: at 6-foot-8 (and that’s giving him the benefit of maybe half an inch), is he big enough to play center against fellows five inches taller (like Wilt)? Some NBA coaches think the ideal place for him is a forward position, where he can roam at will, like Elgin Baylor, going into the pivot or sniping from the corners—then crashing in for the rebound. George Mikan believes Luke could make it in the pivot. “Sure,” George admits, “he might have trouble stopping Chamberlain, Russell, and players like that. But don’t forget, they’d have to guard him, too.  With his quickness and all his fakes and shooting ability, that wouldn’t be easy.”

Could Mikan have handled Luke? George grins. “You ask me that 15 years too late. But I would have liked to have had a shot at him!” In any event, put Lucas on any NBA also-ran, and it immediately becomes a hot drawing card and top contender. 

That, friends, is the measure of any basketball player!

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