by Armon Gilliam
Maurice Lucas, the great power forward from the Hill District who led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA title, lost his battle with bladder cancer and died Oct. 31 in his home in Portland Oregon. Although the basketball legend has passed away, his legacy lives on. He was 58 years old.
As a young and aspiring basketball player growing up in the Pittsburgh area I heard the legend of Maurice Lucas. Competing in high school games, summer leagues and post season basketball tournaments, I recall older basketball enthusiasts offering up many tales about Maurice. They told me about Maurice the “Intimidator” or “Enforcer” who played a rough house brand of basketball and enjoyed a lot of success on the high school, college and pro level. As a student of the game, I eventually did some research on this basketball legend.
I discovered that while playing for Schenley High School, Lucas led the Spartans to a State Championship in 1971. He led Marquette University to the 1974 NCAA title game against North Carolina State and was selected to the All-Final Four team. In his rookie campaign with the Spirits of St. Louis in the ABA, he was selected to the 1975 all rookie team. In 1976 he was selected to the ABA all star team. In his first year in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers he led them to a 1977 NBA championship. The 1977 Trail Blazers were the youngest team to win a NBA championship. Also in the western conference finals the Blazers swept the heavily favored Lakers (4-0) to advance to the championship series. In the finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, led by the great Julius Erving, Lucas led his team to victory with his excellent play and intimidating tactics. Lucas made five all-star appearances as a pro.
Once I was drafted into the NBA, I was very much looking forward to meeting and playing against Maurice. As a rookie with Phoenix Suns, my team was scheduled to play Portland. We flew in the day before the game, checked in to the hotel and the next day were set to play. However, before the game my teammates warned me about playing against Maurice. They told me “protect yourself, he’s going to try to intimidate you, he don’t like rookies, don’t say anything to him and don’t look at him.” Although they seemed to be afraid of him and gave me fair warning, I still was looking forward to the challenge of playing against Maurice.
The game started and Maurice eventually checked in. Immediately he started pushing, throwing elbows, trash talking and going at me on offense. By the way, in the late 1980’s there were only two officials on the court. One was charged with policing the action on the basketball and the other policed the strong side of a given play. That meant the weak side, to a large extent, was unregulated and you had to fend for yourself. This is where Maurice did his dirty work on many players, including me.
After unleashing a barrage of veteran tricks of the trade on me along with delivering some unprovoked cheap shots, he rushed toward me. He proceeded to cuss at me and gesture as if he was getting ready to throw some punches. I stood still and looked him directly in the eye. We were separated by a couple of players and the referees. Then we lined up for a free throw. I went to one side of the free throw lane and he followed me. While standing in the designated area, he says, “rookie you think you’re tough, don’t you?” I calmly replied, “I do.” Then he asked me where the F… are you from? I said Pittsburgh. A slight smile came to his face. Then he asked me what high school. I replied Bethel Park. He started laughing and said that’s not Pittsburgh and made some disparaging comments about my home town. From that quick series of events, Maurice transformed into one of the nicest guys I ever met in my life.
Maurice truly had a split personality. On the court he would go out of his way to intentionally bully, intimidate and even hurt players. He was particularly mean toward rookies and who he referred to as young bloods. Maurice would go to the extreme point of knocking the competitive drive out of some players by trash talking, delivering punches or elbows and/or dishing out bone chilling fouls.
Yet off the court with players that were in his good graces he was friendly, humorous, warm, encouraging and dare I say nurturing. He would put his arm around you, give you advice in many areas of life and tell you what you needed to work on to improve your game. “We were so fortunate to have his influence on the young men on this team. He was my mentor, my big brother, and I always knew he had my back. He has left us far too soon,” said Nate McMillan, current head coach of the Trail Blazers. McMillan’s words echoed the sentiments of many players that were on Maurice’s good side including myself.
As an insider and in the spirit of honest reporting I have to say there were a good number of players, coaches and GM’s that did not care for Maurice’s overly physical style of play. Many thought he was a thug, bully, a cheap shot artist and bad for the game of basketball. Although the criticism is partially valid, I think there was a method to his madness.
I believe Maurice was a fierce competitor who used any means necessary to win. Regardless of his heavily scrutinized tactics on the court, which allowed for many critics and was used as fodder by them, without question Maurice was a champion, legend of the game and great friend to those who were in his good graces.
A private funeral for Maurice was held Nov. 5 in Portland. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and assistant Johnny Davis, two former teammates from the Blazer’s 1977 championship team were among those that attended. “He had a tough exterior, but he was a sweetheart of a man and very loyal to his friends. He made an impact on a lot of people’s lives, and he influenced a lot of people,” Coach Hollins said of Lucas. Maurice Lucas is survived by wife Pamela, sons David and Maurice II and daughter Kristin.