For hours a day in Sunset Park he would shoot to make and shoot to miss, with Swiss precision, countless times—only nothing was countless to Lucas. He counted everything. He counted steps in an arena, cracks in a city sidewalk. During NBA games, whether he was on the floor or off, he kept a running box score of every player's stats. He'll still tell you that there are 132 painted passing lines over a typical mile of two-lane U.S. highway, except in Kansas, where there are 144, and California, where there are 208. After Lucas's arrival at Ohio State his roommate, John Havlicek, never saw him open a book and feared he wouldn't last the quarter, yet Lucas aced every course he took freshman year and eventually made the School of Commerce and Administration's equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. Word of his knack for learning soon reached Buckeyes football coach Woody Hayes, who persuaded Lucas to tutor his players. "Woody Hayes," Lucas says, "was the first person to ask me to teach."
Not even out of his teens, Lucas was a surpassing success with his body and his mind. Yet all his accolades, he tells the worshipers at First Redeemer, only left him with an undernourished spirit. "It took me a long time to realize that God was speaking to me—that he wanted me to change education in America, to make it fun and simple," he says. Late in his sermon he asks members of the audience to bow their heads. "If you've decided to make a change in your life, if you feel the Holy Spirit has heard you, look up and raise your hand so I can acknowledge you."
Heads and hands go up around the church, and Lucas's voice assumes the cadence of an auctioneer's. "I see one over here, two down front, amen, you in the back, yes, you over there, two over here...." As he notes all the saved souls, it's hard not to believe that, in some spare chamber of his mind, he's counting them, too.
Basketball never seemed to be enough for Jerry Lucas. He enrolled at Ohio State on the condition that he be on academic scholarship so that he could quit the team if he wanted to. For most of his time in Columbus he insisted that he had no interest in playing professionally, and in 1962 he took a break from school to tour the Soviet Union with an AAU team. When he finally joined the NBA, signing with the Cincinnati Royals in 1963 for $30,000 a year, he developed a portfolio of outside interests, including a chain of fast-food joints called Jerry Lucas Beef 'N' Shakes. He devoted up to a dozen hours a day to his burger business, in season and out, and wrote the 270-page training manual himself. "Most college kids don't know what they want to be, but Jerry did," Havlicek has said. "You'd ask him and he'd tell you: 'a millionaire.' When Jerry Lucas says he's going to do something, he does it."
He became a millionaire before he turned 30. Then, as he tried to expand his restaurant chain, Lucas got caught in the vise of high interest rates, falling more than $800,000 in the hole as his company tried to guarantee mortgages for new outlets. During the 1969-70 season, bankruptcy stripped him of his other holdings, all his savings and his $150,000 Cincinnati home. He played distractedly and gained weight, and the Royals traded him to the San Francisco Warriors. Yet he kept a remarkably even temper throughout. "I thought for a good number of years that I had to make a million," he said at the time. "Well, I've made it and I've lost it. I don't think about it anymore."
His star-crossed business empire had so consumed Lucas that once it was gone, his basketball career blossomed again, never more so than after the Warriors sent him to New York in 1971. Two years later the Knicks won an NBA title, and Lucas became the first person to claim basketball's ultimate team prize in high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA (Only Quinn Buckner and Magic Johnson have done so since.) Soon teammates, fans and sportswriters knew him as much for his mental agility as for the clever inside-out way he played the pivot. Players assigned him to keep score during their poker games in aisles of commercial flights so coach Red Holzman and other passengers wouldn't know the stakes for which they played. He performed prodigious feats of memorization—from the first 500 pages of the Manhattan phone book to the names of selected members of the studio audience of The Tonight Show. With another memory expert, Harry Lorayne, he taught classes in New York City and cowrote The Memory Book, which spent a year on the best-seller list. "I want to be the greatest magician in the world," he declared between light references to how he had once made a million dollars disappear. He even hosted a three-hour Don Kirshner-produced network special called The Jerry Lucas Super Kids' Day Music and Magic Jamboree. All of this lent his life a kind of carnival-act quality, something not lost on Lucas himself.
"It wasn't like a hammer hit me over the head," he says of his religious awakening. "Something just kept pecking away at me. Something wasn't right." By the end of that final, 1973-74 basketball season, he and his wife, Treva, whom he had met and married at Ohio State, were divorced. He and Lorayne soon parted ways too. "Harry was interested in making a buck," Lucas says. "I was interested in making a difference." Lucas walked away from the game with two years left on his contract. He was 34.
He began to take his message into churches. He published a guide to committing Scripture to memory and in 1974 married the contemporary Christian singer Sharalee Beard. Shortly before their son, J.J., turned three, Jerry introduced him to his learning techniques. Jerry worked with an artist to develop pictures to help J.J. see the U.S. presidents, states and capitals and the basics of grammar. "Get a job, Dad," his eldest daughter, Julie, told him. But Lucas had something more now—he had a calling. "You can't study and understand the Bible without realizing that things in there are life-changing," he says.
Some dozen years later the Lucas family itself provided an object example. It turns out that the scrubbed image that graced the cover of SI's 1962 Sportsman of the Year issue—Lucas, crew-cut, in an Ohio State letter blazer—had belied an imperfect home life. Jerry's father, Mark, a World War II vet turned pressman in a Middletown paper mill, drank too much, and the Lucas household suffered as a result. "When my father's brothers and sisters came through the front door," Lucas says today of the often stormy family gatherings, "I basically went out the back." Jerry's mental calisthenics, whether applied to a highway billboard or a hoop in Sunset Park, offered escape.
In 1959, shortly after Jerry's younger brother, Roy, graduated from high school, Mark Lucas and his wife, Jean, divorced. Both wound up remarrying, and Jerry remained close to his mother as well as to her new husband, Carl Sabota, wooing both to Christ soon after his own conversion. But he had almost no contact with his father. From time to time Jerry would call Mark, urging him to come hear him preach, but Mark never showed any interest.