Saying goodbye to 'The Intimidator'
Dr. Jack, Maurice Lucas' coach on the Blazers, remembers one of the NBA's giants
The Big Man has taken Maurice Lucas from The Game. This time there was no scowl, no request to "let me go a few minutes more." Luke knew it was time to come out. He had typically "left it all out there" and had gone to the bench for a well-deserved rest.
Maurice Lucas has left us. Gone is The Intimidator of the 1976-77 championship Trail Blazers -- the macho man with the bulging biceps and menacing stare. Luke was the physical spirit of that team. He enjoyed intimidating opponents and began each game by delivering a few sharp elbows to any who crossed his path.
Luke had acquired a tough-guy reputation when he decked 7-foot-2 strongman Artis Gilmore with one punch in an ABA game before both became NBA players. I urged him to establish that same persona in the NBA. Luke loved the role. He had every Blazer's back. If an opposing player had a problem with any Blazer, he had to deal with Luke first.
He was especially protective of Bill Walton, whom he called "Big Red."
He recognized immediately Bill's special team value and bonded with him from the start; together they became the best big-man duo of their time in the NBA.
Luke was the best big forward in the league during his first go-round in Portland. He had an excellent low-post game with a tantalizing pump-fake that got defenders in the air. He could step out to 17 feet and knock down accurate jumpers. He was also a skilled passer, capable of firing full-court outlet bullets or deft passes in half-court traffic.
Luke exuded confidence and wanted the responsibility for taking critical shots with the game on the line. He also led the championship Blazers in scoring, averaging 20.2 points a game in 1976-77.
Luke loved those Blazers and the team the next year that started the season 50-10 before being beset with injuries that reduced the campaign to ashes. "We had it all, Doc. Too bad it didn't last," he said to me more than once.
Luke made sure the memory did last. He organized golf outings and periodic reunions of the '77 Blazers over the years and kept in touch with members by phone or e-mails. He was revered by his teammates and loved by his coach.
I knew on my last visit to see Luke three weeks ago that his time was running out. He was gaunt and his skin had lost color, but his eyes were bright and his spirit yet strong. He was propped up in bed, with big pillows cushioning his back.
He smiled warmly and said, "Good to see you, man" as we hugged. But he grimaced when I shook his hand too firmly. "My bones are so brittle," he explained.
Luke had just returned home from an extended period in the hospital. His bladder cancer, once in remission, had returned and Luke had undergone more chemotherapy treatments. This time there was no remission; Luke was taken off the chemo and allowed to go home while his doctors deliberated their next steps.
We talked briefly about the NBA and the '77 Blazers, but more about life and family. He said how fortunate he was to have a great wife -- "Pam's been an angel" -- and wonderful children. There was a pleasant, cheerful atmosphere in their home as Pam and his adult children tended his needs with a caring touch. Luke seemed at peace.
"I hope the docs come up with something", he said. "I'm not giving up, but I'm ready for whatever comes. I had a nice session with my minister last week. I'm in God's hands now."
I said, "God bless you, Luke" as we had a parting hug. Then I told him that I'd be in Portland again on Dec. 9 for an ESPN radio broadcast and planned to see him then. He said, "I'll look forward to it."
Unfortunately, I'll never get that chance.
But I can hear the bagpipes calling:
"Luuuuke, Luuuuke, Luuuuke ..."
Hall of Fame coach Dr. Jack Ramsay is an analyst for ESPN Radio and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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