Jerry Lucas: Greatest High School Basketball Player in the Country? 1958

[We’ve looked at Wilt Chamberlain, Lew Alcindor, and Artis Gilmore as preps. Here’s another prep profile from way back when. This one checks in on 17-year-old Jerry Lucas, who was big stuff entering his senior season at Middletown (Ohio) High School in the late 1950s. Lucas went on to star at Ohio State before embarking on his Hall of Fame pro career. This short article ran in the magazine Sports Review’s 1958 Basketball Issue. Retail price: 50 cents. The byline belongs to Jimmie Blount.]

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Favored Middletown, defending Class AA Ohio high school champion and winner of 50 straight games, was on the short end of the score, 60-53. Unheralded Toledo Macomber was accomplishing the unbelievable. Even Jerry Lucas, the Middies’ 6-foot-9 junior center, was having a “bad” night. The easy-going honor student had only 35 points. 

Only 52 seconds remained in the semifinal game of the Ohio prep tournament, a contest that promised to be the biggest upset in the state’s cage history. But just when the Lucas-Middies myth was about to be exploded, Jerry came to life. 

He pumped in two field goals and Captain Jay Byrd added another. The Middies still trailed, 61-59, with less than five seconds left to play. Then a bad pass gave the favorites the ball out of bounds. 

Lucas moved into an ultra-high post—at the outer edge of the foul circle. Naturally, the ball went to Jerry. He jumped and fired. The game-ending buzzer sounded as the ball meshed the net. 

Jerry Lucas for two against Cincinnati’s Elder High.

The rest was anti-climax. Lucas added five points in the overtime session as Middletown won, 70-65, to set the stage for its second-straight Buckeye crown. That gave Jerry 46 points on 16 out of 23 field goal tries and 14 out of 16 free throws. He picked off 25 rebounds for good measure. Pretty good for a “bad” night. 

Performances like this have earned Lucas the reputation as the finest individual in Ohio basketball annals. That includes Rio Grande’s Bevo Francis and Ohio State’s Robin Freeman, high-scoring high schoolers of a few seasons back. 

Middletown Coach Paul Walker calls Lucas “the best high school player I’ve ever seen, and I don’t except Wilt Chamberlain.” The Middie sparkplug hasn’t the high-game totals to match Freeman and Francis. But they didn’t play for championship teams. And they weren’t the all-around threats, either. 

Jerry has 1,650 points in two years (52 games). But a rival coach claims Lucas “is good for at least 20 additional points” because of his rebounding, ballhandling, and defense. 

No “goon,” Jerry scores on hooks, jump shots, and outsiders, as well as tip ins. “This year, he’ll be shooting from further outside,” contends Walker. “He’ll be shooting from where a college forward normally would.”

As a 15-year-old, Lucas was the only sophomore named to Scholastic Magazine’s high school All-America. He repeated again last season and also gained Parade Magazine’s first team over older and more-publicized players. However, “the greatest high school basketball player in the country,” according to many college coaches, is just another student. 

Basketball has always demanded much of his time. “Never less than an hour a day,” Jerry admits. But that hasn’t prevented Middletown’s 1957-58 basketball captain from building up a straight-A scholastic record, heading the junior class administration, attending Boys’ State, setting the school discus record, and dating his steady girl. 

The 17-year-old leader has weaknesses, too. These would be mail, clothes, and college coaches. Starting with the clothes, his extra-long stature demands extra-long lengths and size 15 shoes. These must be purchased by mail. 

Jerry’s fame has reached international heights. As a result, he receives more mail than he can handle, including some from Hawaii and Alaska. Many are autograph and picture requests from girls. Others are aspiring cage stars seeking advice, and still more are “sales talks” from alumni and college coaches, exclaiming the virtues of their particular institutions. 

Eager coaches aren’t exactly a problem. Although Jerry’s been listening to them since he was a ninth-greater at Roosevelt Junior High, he still lends an attentive ear. Jerry hasn’t talked too much. The coaches are still guessing. Neither has Jerry named a college. 

“I’m going to college, but I don’t know where,” he admits. “I don’t want to go too far from home.” Dayton, Cincinnati, Miami, Xavier, and Ohio State are less than a two-hour drive from his southwestern Ohio home. One thing is certain. The Middletown pivot will be ready. His accumulation of A’s in a college preparatory program and his basketball exploits would open almost any college door. 

Handsome Jerry, who observed his 17th birthday a week after Middletown won its seventh Ohio championship in 10 years, wasn’t born with a basketball in his hands, as some rivals believe. He began playing the game when he entered school and joined the first team as a fourth grader. It was during his sixth year at Sherman Elementary School that Jerry played in his last losing game. 

In three years at Roosevelt Junior High and two varsity seasons, Jerry has been nothing but a winner. He estimates the “victory streak” at approximately 150 games. 

As a 6-foot-7 sophomore, he tallied 719 points in leading the Middies to the championship. In the two-game state final, Lucas pushed in 97 points. His Middletown mates aggregated four less. 

When the 1956-57 campaign opened, Jerry measured 6-foot-9. With Lucas performing better than ever and breaking a record every time that he scored, Middletown waltzed through 27 more victories. The 52 “Lucas-era” triumphs established an Ohio prep winning mark, eclipsing the previous record that had survived 28 seasons.

But the skein wasn’t accomplished without difficulty. There was the 72-68 overtime victory over Columbus East and the 48-36 triumph over arch-rival Hamilton. In that game, with the Big Blue using slowdown tactics with some effectiveness, Jerry scored 28 of the 48 points as Middletown pulled away in the final minutes of the contest. 

Middletown walloped Cincinnati Taft, 84-45, but Lucas had only 21 points, his low. That “poor” output could be attributed to Coach Walker’s experimenting and “mercy,” rather than Taft’s defense. 

As the 1957-58 season approached, Ohio high school coaches were searching for new ways to stop Middletown and Lucas. Every conceivable defense already has been tried. “They’ve used two and three men, sometimes four, on me. We hit zones most of the time. Hamilton tried the ‘freeze.’ Only three or four teams tried man-for-man,” Jerry recalls. 

Rough-up tactics haven’t worked. Jerry doesn’t lose his temper. 

Walker, who believes Jerry would be as great on the gridiron, has set a 40-points-a-game quota for Lucas this year as his Middies try to become the first racehorse era quintet to win three consecutive Ohio titles. “He was just under that (40) last year, and he played an average of three quarters of a game all season,” Walker explains.

“He could do better, but I don’t believe in rubbing it in on the other team just because you have the power to do so. All us coaches have to eat, you know. 

“Reached his peak?” Walker repeated. 

“Certainly not!”

[Just for the record, Lucas and the Middies lost to Columbus North, 63-62, in the 1958 Ohio Class AA High School Basketball Tournament. As one reporter puzzled, “The mystery of the tournament is why Middletown waited until so late in the game before beginning to feed Lucas, who had spent most of the evening either tapping in rebounds or batting the ball back out to teammates for set shots.” The loss snapped Lucas’ 77-game winning streak in high school. In the spring, Lucas hoisted the discus, 162 feet, 6 inches to break the state record.]

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