The Unassuming Ways of an Indispensable Man
Jerry Ray Lucas, a tall, intelligent and outwardly somber member of the senior class at Ohio State University, is the best amateur basketball player in the world. He has earned this distinction at a time when the competition in his sport has never been tougher, for basketball is being played by tens of thousands of his own countrymen with greater skill and fervor than ever before and is being enthusiastically adopted abroad.
Yet Lucas' achievements are unprecedented. Over the past two seasons he led his team to one national championship and to within a single dramatic point of another. He was the outstanding player on the U.S. Olympic squad that won a gold medal in Rome. He went to Russia with a touring American team and brought it eight straight victories in an intense competition that the Russians had privately thought they were going to win. As college play began last month, Ohio State immediately was ranked the top team in the country and Lucas again was the most watched—and competent—star of a young season.
But athletic excellence is only one facet of this 21-year-old youngster. He has also maintained a rare scholastic record, an A average that puts him in the top 4% of his class at Ohio State's College of Commerce and Administration. He is eligible for election to Beta Gamma Sigma, the commerce equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. During a decade of flattery, pressure and outlandish recruiting, he has remained as imperturbable as a Mount Rushmore face, behaving in a studied, discerning and appealing fashion both on and off the basketball court. Essentially shy, he has treated fame as a commodity of little intrinsic worth and in a sense has shunned it by playing as the perfect team man in a demanding team game. He has accepted victory with poise and grace and taken his few defeats (six losing games in 13 years) without emotion, displaying neither an appetite for remorse nor a thirst for revenge.
Thus, he has given a sport recently scarred by a tawdry scandal a recognized leader of laudable qualities. And he has given his own post-World War II generation, now facing the gravest tensions it has ever known, a wholesome example of fitness, awareness and common sense. "We are advancing into a different age, but humanity has always been facing the dangers of new ages," he said recently. "They thought no one would survive the plague. They thought the machine gun was the ultimate weapon of war. Now this is the atomic age, but it is just another phase of history. Someday I think people will look back on atom bombs as we look back on all the other things that it was once thought would end civilization. Meanwhile, my generation must realize that it will soon have the responsibility for running this country, that it must accept this responsibility as a challenge, not fear it. Our forefathers fought for this country. We must be willing to fight, too. We can't go along with those who would rather be Red than dead."
Because Jerry Lucas is not only a fine athlete but a symbol of his generation's best at a time when its best is sorely needed by his country as well as his sport the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED have selected him as Sportsman of the Year and awarded him the Grecian amphora, a classic emblem of excellence of mind and body.
On the wall of the basketball team's dressing room at Ohio State, where Jerry Lucas and his teammates can see it every day, there is posted a poem, which ends with these lines:
The moral of this quaint example
Is to do just the best that you can.
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There is no indispensable man.
In contrast to this uplifting sentiment, Lucas is an indispensable man on Ohio State's basketball team. He knows it and tries to pretend he doesn't. The other players know it and wonder why he is so self-effacing about it. At one point the team won 32 games in a row with him. It might not have won one in a row without him. In the past two seasons he led all major college players in shooting accuracy. Last year he was also the nation's leading re-bounder. Colleges don't keep records of assists. If they did, Lucas would almost surely be the national leader in that important aspect of the game, too. His 6-foot 7�-inch, 220-pound frame flows up and down the court in Ohio State's famous fast-break offense with no more apparent concern or effort than Bernard Baruch puts into sitting on a park bench. But this languor is deceptive, for no basketball player has better reflexes or more purposeful fakes.
One second Lucas is standing motionless near the basket in a semicrouch, hands on knees, following the ball with nothing but his eyes, like a man with a stiff neck watching a tennis match. The next second he has somehow gotten the ball from one teammate and passed it on to another who is wide open for a score. If the shot is missed he jumps high, with matchless timing, and flicks the rebound into the basket with his sensitive touch. He has a superb jump shot and one of the finest hook shots the game has ever seen. Coaches in the Big Ten say he could score 50 points a game if he wanted to. But he rarely tops 30. "The more I play, the less I care about points," he says. "Anybody can score these days if his teammates set him up."