Lucas had a secret weapon, his mind

Updated: April 11, 2006, 12:59 PM ET
By Mike Puma | Special to ESPN.com

"He was a bit like the guy from Rain Man. He could count the toothpicks that fell on the floor faster than anybody else," says writer Barry McDermott about Jerry Lucas on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

These days he's known as "Dr. Memory" for his numerous books on memory training. To an earlier generation Jerry Lucas was known for his intelligence and talent on the basketball court.

Jerry Lucas
Jerry Lucas averaged 15.6 rebounds during his 11-year NBA career.
One of the greatest high school players in history, Lucas lived up to the hype and become a three-time All-American who in 1960 starred on Ohio State's national championship team and the U.S. gold-medal squad at the Olympics in Rome.

Then the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder became one of the NBA's top rebounders, with his career 15.6 average trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Pettit. Lucas and Chamberlain are the only players to average 20 points and 20 rebounds in more than one year.

Lucas played 11 NBA seasons for the Cincinnati Royals, San Francisco Warriors and New York Knicks. When the Knicks won the title in 1973 he became the first basketball player to perform on a championship team at every level: high school, college, Olympic and professional.

In his Hall-of-Fame career, he averaged 17 points while shooting 49.9 percent from the floor, an impressive percentage considering much of his scoring came on jumpers; he resembled a shot putter with his one-handed shot.

If Lucas had a secret weapon, it was his mind: He could store incredible amounts of information. "I knew everybody's shot in the NBA," he said. "I knew where they liked to shoot from, I knew the arc of their shots, I knew who boxed out and who didn't. I just logged that into my basketball computer in my mind."

The older of two sons, Lucas was born on March 30, 1940 in Middletown, Ohio, 35 miles north of Cincinnati. His father Mark was a pressman in a paper mill and his mother Jean worked on an assembly line in a box factory.

As a sophomore at Middletown High School, Lucas scored 53 and 44 points in consecutive state tournament games. He led Middletown to two state championships and 76 straight victories before suffering a loss in his last game. Twice earning Ohio Player of the Year and Parade All-American honors, he scored a state-record 2,466 points.

A straight A student, Lucas had scholarship offers from more than 150 colleges. "I wanted to go to school in Ohio, and Ohio State was the only school that talked about academics first," Lucas said. "The rest talked about athletics. It was as if my whole future was going to revolve around basketball. It wasn't."

Lucas teamed with John Havlicek and Mel Nowell in one of the top recruiting classes in college basketball history. In an era when freshmen were ineligible to compete at the varsity level, Lucas often led the frosh team to victories over the varsity in scrimmages.

An agile, nerveless center who played constantly without changing his deadpan expression, Lucas averaged 26.3 points and 16.4 rebounds as a sophomore in leading Ohio State to a 25-3 record and the national championship in 1960.

"He had such a detached approach to things, yet had such an outstanding attitude," Ohio State coach Fred Taylor said. "Points never mattered to Lucas. He knew he could be the leading scorer in almost any game he wanted -- he was that dominant -- but he would always sacrifice himself for the team. And he still put out as much in practice as everyone."

That summer, long before the term "Dream Team" was conceived, Lucas teamed with Oscar Robertson and Jerry West in helping the U.S. cruise to a gold medal, defeating Brazil 90-63 in the final. Lucas and Robertson led the scorers by averaging 17 points on a team whose average margin of victory was 42 points.

While Lucas' junior (24.9 points and a nation-best 17.4 rebounds) and senior (21.8 points and again he was No. 1 in rebounds at 17.8) seasons were sensational on a personal level -- he won Player of the Year honors each year -- both ended in disappointment. In 1961 and 1962, the Buckeyes were rated No. 1 throughout the regular season, but lost to intra-state rival Cincinnati in the NCAA final both years.

Lucas is the only three-time Big Ten Player of the Year selection. In 1960 and 1961, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Lucas graduated Ohio State in 1962 with a degree in management and with a Phi Beta Kappa key. The Royals made him a territorial draft choice, but for $40,000 ($10,000 more than Cincinnati offered), he signed a personal-services contract with George Steinbrenner, owner of the American Basketball League's Cleveland Pipers. However, the team dropped out of the league before the season started, and Lucas sat a year before joining Cincinnati in 1963.

Quickly emerging as an NBA star, he was voted Rookie of the Year after shooting a league-best 52.7 percent from the floor and averaging 17.7 points and 17.4 rebounds at his new position, forward. Reunited with Robertson, the Royals went 55-25 and reached the Eastern Division finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics.

But Lucas was just getting warmed up. The next season he became only the third "20-20" player in NBA history (21.4 points, 20 rebounds) as he made the All-NBA first-team. Also that season, he was voted MVP of the 1965 All-Star Game after scoring 25 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.

Lucas had six productive seasons with the Royals, but toward the end of his stay was criticized for poor work habits and being out of shape. Despite being a six-time All-Star, Cincinnati traded him to the Warriors in October 1969.

In his first year with San Francisco, Lucas was hampered by a broken right hand and distracted by a failed business venture. A fast-food chain he had founded, Beef 'n' Shake, went bankrupt at the end of 1969.

Though he averaged 15.1 points and 14.2 rebounds, those were the lowest figures in his first seven seasons. "People began saying I was the only retired active player in existence," he said.

But Lucas bounced back the next season, averaging 19.2 points and ranking fifth in the NBA with 15.8 rebounds per game. In May 1971, the Warriors traded him to the Knicks for Cazzie Russell.

Jerry Lucas
Jerry Lucas played on the New York Knicks 1973 NBA championship team.
Lucas seemed pegged for a backup role with New York, but when center Willis Reed's 1971-72 season ended after 11 games, Lucas was moved into his spot.

Playing the pivot for the first time since college, Lucas, the league's smallest center, averaged 16.7 points and 13.1 rebounds. He received his first taste of the NBA Finals when the Knicks lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.

With Reed returning the next season, Lucas' role decreased and he averaged 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in 28 minutes. However, he ended the year a winner for the only time as a pro as the Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games for the championship.

After averaging just 6.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in 1973-74, Lucas retired despite having two years remaining on his contract.

Never a religious man before, Lucas found spiritual fulfillment after a friend, John Emrick, gave him a bible and told him it would bring new meaning to his life. His second wife, Shara Lee Beard -- the daughter of a minister whom he married in 1973 -- encouraged Lucas to read it. "Miraculous things began to happen in my life," he said. "I stopped swearing and became more patient with people."

Lucas explored new business opportunities and put to use his photographic memory. He stores incredible amounts of information, including chapters of the bible. He amazed a national TV audience by memorizing pages from the Manhattan phone book. With Harry Lorayne, he co-authored The Memory Book, which sold more than two million copies and was a bestseller for 50 weeks. He has written more than 30 books and gives seminars on memory training.

ALSO SEE