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"I saw a gas station sign, and for the fun of it I rearranged the letters in alphabetical order," Lucas recalls. "I did the same with other signs. Nobody could believe how quiet I was." He says he has not let a day pass since without spelling alphabetically, and his proficiency is such that if you try to trip him up with words like "floor," "ghost" or "chilly," he will reply immediately, "That one's already alphabetical."
Magic captured Lucas' interest at Middletown High, where he led the basketball team to a 76-1 record over three years and was president of his junior and senior classes. He fell under the influence of a local trucking executive named George (Hawkeye) Harvey, who performed card tricks at high school sock hops. Practicing Hawkeye's tricks at home, Lucas was soon showing his dexterity at neighborhood poker games. "Jerry could handle the cards," says Ed Payne, now Middletown's athletic director. "He was slick."
Lucas also developed his powers of memory, and these he credits for his election at Ohio State to Beta Gamma Sigma, the commerce school's equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. His freshman roommate John Havlicek, now of the Boston Celtics, says, "Jerry would flip through a book for 15 minutes and remember it all." When Havlicek asked about these cavalier study habits, Lucas told of having devised an "alphabetical and numerical system" by which he memorized items in groups of three, which he coded with other groups of three.
"John was the first person I revealed my system to," Lucas says, investing the moment with historical importance.
Today Lucas would share his gifts with the world, a magnanimity that became apparent when, leaving Don Kirshner's office, he moved on to his own. It could have been a child's room, strewn as it was with mazes, puzzles and other gadgets that Lucas had designed. He picked up a cardboard gizmo that, when compressed, assumed different shapes and colors. "This is a hexa-flexagon," he said. He reached next for a block inscribed with numbers. "A magic cube. When eight such cubes are lined up in a column, the numbers add up to the same sum in every direction."
Lucas made little pretense of modesty as he demonstrated what he called "the fun, exciting things I'm doing." For all his milk guzzling and the rest, however, what seemed oddest about him was his manner. Unfailingly polite and good-humored, he nevertheless had a distant quality that, as he moved about his office, seemed out of synch with the business at hand. When his visitor suggested that there might be something compulsive about all the counting he does, Lucas answered eagerly, "That's it exactly—I'm a compulsive counter!" But his face was stolid and he was scanning the room for other objects to show off even as he uttered the words. At another moment he straddled a stool and flicked imaginary pieces of lint off a pants leg. Then he drummed on the stool. "I'm also getting into mentalism and ESP," he said. "I don't dare tell you everything I'm working on, though, or you'll really think I'm crazy." Lucas smiled. He no longer was flicking or drumming. Now he was cracking his knuckles.
It was an hour before the start of a game last spring against Phoenix, and Jerry Lucas' wife, a tall pretty blonde, relaxed at courtside in Madison Square Garden. Treva and Jerry Lucas were married in 1960 when she was an Ohio State coed and he the campus hero, but their storybook romance had recently soured. The couple had begun discussing the possibility of divorce, a course they would finally agree upon during the off-season. Meanwhile, despite the strains in their marriage, she continued to cheer her husband on at courtside and was able to good-humoredly assess his new public role as a wizard of memory and magic.
"I asked Jerry what I should tell you," she began. "He said, Tell the truth.' " Her voice assumed an O.K., here-goes tone. "Well, the truth is that Jerry is the absent-minded professor. He has a good memory all right, but his mind is filled with so much trivia that he forgets birthdays and anniversaries. He also forgets names. We'll be driving to a party and he'll say, 'Who was that couple we met the other night?' I'll say, 'Gee, Jer, you're the mental wizard.' "
Now Lucas was on the court, the first of the Knicks to appear for the pregame warmup. A smattering of applause rose from the stands. Treva smiled and went on. She said that her children, Jeff, 9, and Julie, 8, had learned a few of their father's magic tricks, but that for herself it was enough that Jerry had insomnia spells during which he worked out new tricks, sometimes awakening her to tell her about them. "Can you imagine?" she said. "The last time it was four a.m."
Now, one by one, Lucas was joined on the court by his teammates, who have shared with Treva the role of sorcerer's apprentice. Some of the Knicks greet Lucas' magic with sighs, too. "We used to gather around to see if Luke could do some weird trick," shrugs Guard Dean Meminger. "Now we know he can. We say, 'Aw, go away, Luke.' " His teammates wisely ban Lucas from poker games, so he makes himself useful on trips as scorekeeper; he records bets, raises and calls in his head, then announces after a dozen or so hands how much each player has won or lost.