Commentary

The NBA misses Maurice Lucas

Updated: November 5, 2010, 5:56 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Let's get this straight now: I do not advocate fighting. Not in the NBA. Not in any sport. It's silly, juvenile, and my teenage son knows the first time he throws a punch in any game will be the last time he puts on a uniform.

That said, man, I miss Maurice Lucas.

My friend -- and the former five-time All-Star power forward, mostly notably for the Portland Trail Blazers -- passed away Sunday, months after it was disclosed he had bladder cancer. Not surprisingly, Luke fought the disease like an opponent he was trying to intimidate into submission in the low post.

Maurice Lucas
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesMaurice Lucas tutored players on the court as a player and from the sideline later as an assistant.

But some battles are simply un-winnable, and just days ago, a mutual friend said, Luke "chose death over his condition," which doesn't surprise me, either.

As much as I'll miss the man, the game has missed him and his kind for a long time.

They were tough guys. Clint Eastwood tough, not fake-bravado tough. Guys who guarded their turf -- typically anywhere near the basket -- as if players trying to penetrate those borders were trying to steal food from their families' mouths. But they were also guys who, like Luke (known as The Enforcer) used their muscle to honor the game, not elevate their chest-pounding, jersey-snappin' egos.

There are no enforcers today. They're gone. Old-school physicality was legislated out of the game for marketability. And yes, safety.

"The league has done a 180," said Blazers assistant coach Buck Williams, a former power forward who was one of Luke's many (bruised) protegees. "To showcase the talents of the players, they've gotten rid of hand-checking and physical play. When they did that, guys like Maurice and myself -- guys whose game was largely based on intimidation and being a physical presence, being a gatekeeper to protect your teammates -- there was no place for us."

And that's too bad.

I don't want to call it the National Ballet Association, but there are nights when I wonder. The game is different. Players are, too. They changed because the rules changed, and perhaps because they're part of generation that often wears "respect" on its shoulders, where it can be challenged by any slight, real or perceived.

I'm not calling for a return of the days of bruising defenses that led to 88-87 games. But I wouldn't mind an occasional hard foul without the downed player jumping up like the guy had insulted his mother, and then both players being ejected faster than Sarah Palin at the Democratic National Convention.

Even his Airness says today's game would have been a playground for him compared to when the Jordan Rules ruled. Speaking recently with USA Today's Game Hunters Blog, Michael Jordan opined: "Based on these rules ... I'm pretty sure I would have fouled out or I would have been at the free throw line pretty often and I could have scored 100 points."

While Luke reveled in leveling an opponent who dared enter the lane or was too aggressive with a teammate, his look was as lethal as any fist. Today, almost any gesture that might be found in Webster's under "intimidating" (even holding on to the rim, for goodness sakes!) will get a player T'd up and placed on NBA behavior czar Stu Jackson's speed dial.

Luke, alas, was of another age. One long before punches turned into brawls that spilled into the stands. Long before mano-a-mano standoffs swelled into melees. (See: Nuggets-Knicks, December 16, 2006.)

Long before coaches held onto a player's leg in a valiant but vain effort to prevent him from fighting.

Long before Ron Artest found therapy.

To Luke, a punch was a tactic, not a statement about whether he was a better man than the punchee.

Not many people recall how Luke became The Enforcer. It's comical. Steve Jones, now a freelance basketball analyst, was a member of the ABA Spirit of St. Louis when Luke joined them out of Marquette in 1974 and describes the formative moments.

"We were playing in Kentucky when he and Artis Gilmore (at 7-foot-2, 240 pounds, the Shaq of his day) and Luke locked up at mid-court," Jones said. "You could see it coming. They squared off at center court like boxers. But neither guy looked like they wanted to fight. Artis backed Luke all way back under the basket. They kept moving and Luke must have thought, 'Guess I'm out of territory.' He fired a right hand and caught Artis flush. He went down like a tree.

"From that point on Luke was a wild man. He hit anything that moved. You set a screen; you got hit. You came anywhere in the neighborhood, he was smacking you.

"A few games later we were playing the Nets and Luke smacked Dr. J as he drove to the basket. Dr. J's eyes got all big and he said, 'Luke, what's you doing?'

"Luke yelled, 'Hey man, don't come here!'

"He'd smack you in the chest, glaring at you, and everybody bought into it.

"By the time he got to Portland [in 1976] he was well-schooled in the art of intimidation," Jones said. "And he was exactly what they needed."

Williams observed Lucas' on-court presence up close as a Nets rookie, sharing the court during preseason practices and games in 1981. (They didn't play together in the regular season because Lucas was sent to New York before opening night as compensation for the Nets signing Knick free agent Ray Williams.)

"He was extremely intelligent," said Williams. "He'd size you up, find your weakness and attack it. If you were a guy who could be intimidated with an elbow he'd do it all game until you forced him to stop.

"He'd hit you with an elbow just for being around the paint."

Is any player today bear any resemblance as an intimidator? Maybe the pre-couch version of Artest.

"But he was not as calculating as Luke, who was saying 'This is what I do,' " said Jones. "With Ron you, never knew when the fuse was going to go off or how long [it would] stay lit. ... Luke would run you down if he had to."

[+] EnlargeRon Artest
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesIf Ron Artest is the face of NBA enforcers today, the position has lost some of the nuance Maurice Lucas brought to intimidation and gamesmanship.

But it wasn't personal. He could punch a guy, then take him out to dinner, or shake his hand, as he did to former Philadelphia 76ers center Darryl Dawkins in an oft-told incident that occurred during the 1977 NBA Finals.

Luke's Blazers were about to go down 2-0 to Dawkins, Dr. J and the 76ers when Chocolate Thunder crushed Portland forward Bob Gross underneath the basket. Gross tumbled to the floor but rose and tried to come at Dawkins. He was restrained by teammate Doug Collins, who ended up taking Dawkins' punch when Gross ducked.

Cue The Enforcer. Luke, coming from the other end of the court, charged Dawkins from behind and, well ... "He clocked him!" said Williams.

Both men were ejected. ("It wasn't even a fight," Luke recalled. "We were both missing with all our shots.") But that was not the end of the saga.

During pregame introductions for Game 3 in Portland, Dawkins was expectedly booed. But when the Blazers were introduced, Luke did something stunning. Rather than head to center court with teammates, he ran to the 76ers' bench, grabbed Dawkins' hand and shook it. "I squeezed it hard," Luke said. "Told him, 'No hard feelings.'"

"After that," Luke said, "he was done."

Williams, like just about everyone else who knew Luke, laughed out loud as he told me that story this week.

In truth, Luke was more The Enforcer than a Fighter.

In fact, he wasn't even a very good fighter. He took boxing lessons as a kid in Pittsburgh but was barely in his teens when he learned the sport was not for him. "That's when a bigger kid beat the snot out of me," he told the Oregonian this spring. "I knew I was in trouble when he was hitting himself in the head and slobbering before the fight even started."

Funny. That's how Luke must have looked to myriad opponents. "He'd hit you first and see how you reacted," said Jones. "If you don't react well, he's say, 'I got you.' But not just for this game, maybe for the rest of your life."

Luke utilized the moves and instincts he learned in the ring to create a persona that came to define his era. From the tributes still flowing in the wake of his death, you'd think he punched somebody most nights just after "and the home of the brave."

He didn't, but he fought enough, he told the Oregonian, that if he played today, he'd be "broke."

Luke's real strength was the threat that were an opponent to push him too far he might end up slobbering and coming at him.

Luke was only 29 at the time Williams arrived as the highly-touted rookie power forward from Maryland, not that far from his prime. But Luke knew why Williams was there: to take his job. And yet, said Williams, he "took me under his wing and showed me how to play the position."

"Here was a guy, one of best in the game, who knows this young buck is coming in to take his position," Williams added. "But he was the kind of guy who looked out for the young, the weak and women; he had that mentality. I became an All-Star because of his tutelage."

There was a price, though, usually paid with sore ribs. "Some days, I didn't want to come to practice," Williams said, laughing again.

During Luke's time in New York, he even proved he could avoid a fight -- at least off the court. I was the New York Times' beat reporter covering the team that season. On the team flight late in the year, another player pulled his intimidation play on me by trying to say I was "in his seat."

I didn't go for it and he began to curse me out. I channeled my inner Gross and rose to take said (much taller) player on. But in an instant, an arm grabbed me around the chest, lifted me from the floor and plopped me down in a window seat. The arm, of course, belong to Luke. He then sat down on the aisle -- a presence between me at the still frothing player. He calmly looked at me and said: "So what are you going to have tonight, chicken or fish?"

Was there anyone who intimidated Luke? Jones didn't hesitate: Kermit Washington.

"Kermit's rep was even bigger than Luke's," Jones said with a laugh. "The difference was Kermit could really fight. Luke was a one-punch champion."

One the game truly misses.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com

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