Sam Lacey: Time Passages, 1981

[In 1981, Kansas City and Portland met in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Steve Kelley, a reporter with the Oregonian, penned this brief profile of Sam Lacey, Kansas City’s hard-working center who helped lead the Kings to victory in the short series. It’s a nice piece heralding a mostly unsung NBA veteran. So nice, in fact, Basketball Digest decided to run the story the next season in its January 1982 edition. Here’s the profile.] 

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You probably know the fan. He sits in back of the scorer’s table at Portland Trail Blazers home games and yells his obnoxious slurs at most officials and assorted visiting players. Kansas City center Sam Lacey is one of his favorite targets.

Most players don’t like the fan. The insults aren’t clever, just loud. But in Lacey’s case, the insults might be welcomed. Portland is one of the few cities that bothers to acknowledge his existence.

For 11 seasons, the 6-feet-10 Lacey has labored in the shadows of taller, more-talented colleagues. While Moses Malone mumbles and muscles his way for points and rebounds; while Darryl Dawkins commutes from Planet Lovetron and shatters backboards; while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continues to break scoring records and defend his work ratio, Lacey simply digs and does what he has to do.

Even in Kansas City, where the Kings are the city’s No. 4 pro franchise behind the Royals, Chiefs, and golfer Tom Watson, Lacey fights for recognition. Only one in his 11 seasons has Lacey played in the NBA All-Star game. Coaches find very little to say about his game, until they pause to consider it.

“Don’t ask me about him, because I’m not a big admirer of Sam Lacey’s,” one NBA coach said last year. “But he is a good passer. He works pretty hard. He’s intelligent. He knows what he can and can’t do. And he makes things happen.”

That’s Lacey. Nobody likes him, but nobody can find many bad things to say about him. Efficient, but anonymous—until last year’s playoffs.

Suddenly, Sam was finding the spotlight. In the NBA’s second season, when CBS finally was forced to televise some games that didn’t involve either Boston or Philadelphia, Lacey earned some respect.

People discovered that he is the best passing center in the game since Bill Walton’s forced march to the sidelines. Lacey stands at the top of the key like quarterback Vince Ferragamo in the pocket, waiting, waiting for someone to pop free. Then, with the quick release of a Joe Namath, Lacey gets his man the ball.

“I’ve always played this way,” Lacey said. “I’ve never been a dominant center, never had the big stats. But I go out and play defense every night and make the passes.

“I know how I can play, and that’s what’s important,” he continued. “A few years ago, it bothered me that I wasn’t getting the respect, but what can I do about it? I can’t cry about it.”

Back when the lack of respect did bother him, Lacey played as if he was the league’s last angry man. He fumed at officials and burned at his mistakes. But, since Cotton Fitzsimmons took over as coach in 1978, Lacey has mellowed. Someone even saw him smile after a turnover last year.

“He [Fitzsimmons] has helped,” Lacey said. “I have quieted down on the court, but I still play with a lot of intensity and aggression.”

[Nice story—except when it ran in the January 1982 issue of Basketball Digest, Lacey and his intensity/aggression had been traded off to New Jersey. The trade was the beginning of the end for Lacey, and this piece from the November 25, 1981 issue of the Kansas City Star tells the story and just how devastating NBA trades can be to seasoned one-franchise veterans. Reporter Jack Etkin is on the call.]

There has been but one brief visit home, nothing but a layover wedged between the one-night stands. Sam Lacey was traveling when the Kings traded him, and nearly two weeks later, Lacey is still wandering, recovering from an injury and trying to gauge his future. 

In a rootless profession, Lacey had been lucky. He’d become a community fixture, some sort of municipal resource. He seemed to be as much a part of Kansas City as the Country Club Plaza. 

But he wasn’t really. On November 12, the Kings traded Lacey, who is in the final year of a three-year contract to the New Jersey Nets for guard Mike Woodson and a No. 1 draft choice. What looked like a routine game tonight at Kemper Arena has earned a historical footnote. For the first time in their 10 years, the Kings will play a home game without a No. 44 on their roster. 

The trade had been rumored for weeks, but when it happened, Lacey was shocked. “I really thought I would finish my career in Kansas City,” Lacey said from Seattle where the Nets played earlier this week. “I thought (the trade) was off because (Kings coach) Cotton (Fitzsimmons) told me it was off. 

“Tuesday morning (November 10) when we had a shootaround in Chicago, Cotton had told me, ‘Look, take your time (and let your bruised knee heal) ‘cause you’re going to be here as long as I am.’ I took him for his word. I don’t know; I guess he felt he had to make the deal.”

“First of all,” Fitzsimmons said, “I didn’t tell him he wouldn’t be traded.” On that Tuesday in Chicago, Fitzsimmons said, “the deal was off because New Jersey had called it off. They were going to sign Bob McAdoo.

“If Sam said in Chicago the deal was off, it was off that day. I wouldn’t deny that I didn’t say the deal is off today.”

Fitzsimmons said “out of respect to Sam,” he told Lacey he might be traded. Never before, the coach said, had he ever told any player that a trade for him was brewing.

“Down deep, I feel it’s a break for Sam,” Fitzsimmons said. “I don’t think he had a future in Kansas City. The personnel had changed, and while Sam can adjust to many things, we’re trying to develop an inside game.”

“I think after you’ve been through the grind for this long,” said Lacey, 33, now in his 12th year in the league, “you kind of know what you can do. And I look at myself and know that I still can play. And when Cotton says that I can’t play in the offense that he was running, I think he’s lying. Everything he ever asked me to adjust to, I felt I was intelligent enough to where I can adjust to it and do it.

“I think the only thing that irritated me a little when Cotton traded me was that he thought I’d never get well. I gave him all I had every night I went out there, and I played hurt a lot for him. It’s like this thing is you’re hurt now, so just get the hell out. It wasn’t that kind of attitude, but that’s what it seemed like to me.”

Fitzsimmons readily agrees Lacey played when injured. “Sam was not traded because he was hurt or because he was out of shape,” Fitzsimmons said. “He was traded because we needed a starting guard and (we also) got a No. 1 draft choice.”

Lacey felt that more loyalty was owed him. Last winter when Phil Ford suffered an eye injury, and the Kings began to struggle, Lacey said, “it was as though (Cotton) had given up, and he said, ‘Look Sam, they won’t listen to me. Why don’t you go talk to them, they’ll listen to you.’ I thought maybe that would pull a little weight.”

Fitzsimmons strongly denies having feelings of surrender during the team’s travail last season and said he’s never “asked a player to talk to any (other) player.” One member of the Kings, who asked not to be identified when told of both Lacey’s and Fitzsimmons’ remarks about last season’s events said, “Sam’s not lying.”

When the deal was made, Fitzsimmons insisted that neither the Kings nor the Nets announce it until Lacey could reach his wife, Arlene, at their Prairie Village home. “I didn’t want her to hear about it on the radio,” the coach said.

More than an hour after he was told of the trade, Lacey finally reached his wife and told her: “They did it.”

“That’s all he had to say,” Arlene Lacey said. “Sam was hurt, deeply hurt. He knew that it was a definite possibility, but he just didn’t really think they’d do it. For a few days, there was this funny feeling that someone’s going to call up and say, ‘Oh, come back. We changed our minds.’ That’s unrealistic, but I had a funny feeling it might happen. But, it’s gone.”

So is Kansas City’s No. 44. Lacey has become New Jersey’s No. 40, news that in most places merited nothing more than an agate line on the scoreboard page. Just another bite-sized morsel, a sporting hors d’oeuvres from the transactions smorgasbord to be nibbled but hardly worth savoring since, sure enough, tomorrow will bring something just as tasty.

But it’s never really that matter-of-fact. It’s always more personal. 

“Even now,” Lacey said, “when we go to play in different places, people come up to me and say, ‘You just don’t look right in a New Jersey uniform.’

“People ask me around the hotel what team you play for, and I even now find myself saying, ‘Kansas City . . . no let me rephrase that. That’s New Jersey.’

“I mean  Kansas City was like a way of life. It’s home. But it just goes to show you that nothing is forever, and I can live with that.”

The day after Lacey had played for the Nets against the visiting Kings, he woke up in a room in the Sheraton Heights Hotel in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. His instincts were taking him to the sun room, his favorite area for lounging and watching television in the spacious Missouri home he built and moved into last year.

“I got up out of the bed in the hotel,” he recalled, “and said, ‘Why don’t you go in the other room.’ And I walked over and caught myself just standing at the window. I said, ‘Hey, this is not home anymore.’” 

Just where the Laceys will live remains uncertain. Beside their Prairie Village home, the Laceys own a house in Kansas City North. What Lacey wants from the Nets is a two-year guaranteed contract, a business matter he hopes to resolve when the Nets finish a 12-day road trip this weekend. Otherwise, Lacey says he’ll retire after this year, move back to Kansas City and seek work.

Lacey’s dilemma is unusual. Only Calvin Murphy of the Houston Rockets among active NBA players has spent more time with one franchise than Lacey did with the Kings. “Knock on wood, Sam could’ve fallen down a long time ago,” Arlene Lacey said. “It takes one fall, one wrong fall, and it’s over. We’ve been so lucky, so I can’t complain a whole lot. I just don’t want to leave here, that’s all.”

“I know it’s hard on ‘Lene,” Lacey said. “She’s starting to wonder, was this a good deal? They always say it happens for the better, but it takes you a while to see it.”

“He’s like any man or business executive changing jobs,” Arlene Lacey said. “He goes on with his day-to-day schedule, which is not changed. Our life changes, Gretchen’s (the Lacey’s 8-year-old daughter) and mine.”

After the trade, Gretchen, whose best friend’s father is a lawyer, asked her mother, “Why couldn’t Daddy be a lawyer? Then we wouldn’t have to do this.”

What Gretchen worries about is having to move, which they’ll do if the Nets give Lacey the two guaranteed years he’s seeking. “We’ll make our home wherever Sam plays,” Arlene Lacey said. “We made that decision long ago.”

New Jersey may provide Sam Lacey several more years of NBA income and better post-basketball job opportunities. But Arlene Lacey realizes life may never be as good as it’s been in Kansas City. “I think how we built this house,” she said wistfully. “The fireplace sat in the basement of my other house for three months. The kitchen wallpaper, I carried a little square of it around in my pocket for six months. The arbor in the back was built with last year’s playoff money. The doorways are seven feet tall, so Sam doesn’t have to duck down.

“We’re not going to get this again; we’re just not. This home is so much us. It’s funny, because Sam did not want to move, but once he got in this house, he was really happy here. We had no intention of leaving Kansas City; our hearts are here. But we will make the best of it. We have to.”

[Lacey’s heart never in playing for New Jersey, finished out the season, averaging a career-low 12 minutes, 2.9 points, and 1.9 rebounds per game. “When he played, he can’t score,” summarized a New Jersey reporter. “He is slow, even for his size, and that is partly because he let himself get out of shape.” New Jersey didn’t tender the two-year contract, and Lacey retired. 

Lacey stayed good and retired until December 1982, when he signed a one-year deal with Cleveland. Lacey’s veteran presence and good-guy image in the locker room helped stabilize the Cavs. Lacey also played well, logging his 1,000th career NBA game in April 1982. “Up and down the court, I guess that’s about 3,000 miles,” he said. “A coast-to-coast run.” But the Cleveland front office decided it was time for a rebuild, a youth movement, and didn’t ask Lacey to return for another season. And so, as age 35, Lacey called it quits.]

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