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First redeemer church of Forsyth County, Ga., rises out of scrabbly red clay, erstwhile farmland rapidly yielding to the predations of greater Atlanta. It's a Southern Baptist megachurch, where worshipers sing not from hymnals from but overhead screens, and blessings for a Sunday morning are dispensed in two shifts. Jerry Lucas, a.k.a. Doctor Memory, will deliver sermons at both 9 and 10:45 a.m., then return at 6 for a presentation partly about memorizing the Bible. The following evening he'll talk about how to recall names and faces. Two Days to Remember, he bills his mid- Georgia stopover, one of 30 or so such gigs he works a year, most at churches like this.
To judge by his ease around a lectern, Lucas at 63 still merits SI's description of him, right after he led Ohio State to the 1960 NCAA basketball title, as "agile" and "nerveless." He has been a born-again Christian since his final NBA season, 1973-74, when a friend handed him a Bible and, between games and practices, as his New York Knicks roommate, Phil Jackson, regarded him curiously, Lucas committed the New Testament to his elephantine memory.
Since then his faith has fired a parallel evangelism, that of a man who believes that anyone can share his prodigious ability to learn. As a nine-year-old on a fishing trip with his family, Jerry decided on a lark to alphabetize the letters on a sign at a gas station. Soon he could rearrange the letters of a word into alphabetical order faster than other people could spell the word. In an era before TV had dibs on a kid's time, he devised mental games like this, eventually using them to master tasks at school. He didn't yet know that words existed for what he was doing-words like mnemonic and acronym—but his tricks helped him see his way through childhood. "My parents aren't educated people," Lucas says. "They never motivated me to do any of this. I just had a gymnastic, active mind. The only way most of us know to approach learning is through repetition, and I figured there had to be an easier way."
Lucas thinks he developed that easier way on the rings and pommel horses inside his young head. The crux of his Lucas Learning System is the ability to store pictures in the mind and then to retrieve them simply by thinking of them. "Automatic learning," he calls it. Lucas believes that millions of people who have tried to learn by traditional means and have struggled, for reasons of disability or environment, would flourish if only they were taught visually.
"Picture a zebra in your mind," he tells the First Redeemer congregation. "O.K., now, whatever you do, do not picture a zebra in your mind. Do not picture a zebra, ladies and gentlemen." There's laughter. "Can't do it, see? You cannot not picture a zebra in your mind. It's automatic."
Audaciously, he has applied visualized learning to even the least concrete concepts. "How many of you have seen a pronoun?" he asks. "If a pronoun ran down the aisle and jumped on this podium, would you say, 'Why, that's a pronoun! I haven't seen one for four days!' "
In fact, Lucas has seen a pronoun and, with the help of an artist, rendered it. She's a golf pro in a nun's habit—a pro nun. She does many things, among them serve on a team of Lucas's devising, the Capitalize Team. Like her teammates she wears a cap graced with elongated eyes (cap-tall-eyes), and there, in a cartoon tableau, she's teeing off on an eyeball. It's an absurd image, but just wacky enough to make us never forget that we capitalize the pronoun I.
Lucas has his own private Guggenheim of pictures like this with which he can convey virtually any sound and build virtually any concept. To illustrate a state and its capital, for instance, an anthropomorphic ark stands next to a can, sawing in half a—you guessed it—little rock. For the eighth of the Ten Commandments, a picture of a knot of rope pulling open a steel gate, which rhymes with eight, burns into the mind that thou shalt not steal. When he introduces these pictograms, they touch off chuckles and groans, as any bad pun would. Yet each makes an impression. Someone once told Lucas that he thinks like a child, a comment he has always regarded as the highest compliment. "Something we see is a hundred times easier to learn than something we read or hear," he says. "We don't run into someone on the street and say, 'Hi, Mary. I know your name, but for the life of me I can't recall your face.' If we can just make the intangible tangible, we can learn better."
Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, spending hours on the courts of Sunset Park, Lucas mastered basketball in much the same way. He was a wondrous athlete, to be sure, perfectly proportioned, with 20/10 vision. When he sighted a jumper, he looked, someone once said, like a waiter carrying a platter of food. But his parabolic outside shot found the net so reliably that it became known as the Lucas Layup. He's the only person ever to lead the nation in both field goal percentage and rebounding in two collegiate seasons, and he may be the best-rebounding shooter, and best-shooting rebounder, ever to play the game.
Yet watching him play offered no clue to how much he owed his success to his mind's eye. Where billions of others would simply see a hoop, Lucas saw the notches of a clock face on the top of the rim. He would first shoot 25 shots at nine o'clock, trying to slip the ball as close as possible to the inside left edge of the rim. Then he'd shoot for three o'clock, just inside the right edge. Then six just over the front rim, and so on, until he wearied of making shots. Whereupon he would miss them, at each spot on the dial in turn, all the while calibrating arc and velocity so he'd know precisely where to spring for the rebound. "In games, I never blocked out," he says. "I wasn't going to waste my time on blocking out. I'd go up to tip the ball in before anybody knew it was missed."