Although he has failed to make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vanish, as the other Knicks urge, Lucas has put the wand to doubts about his own basketball play. Through much of his pro career he carried 250 pounds on his 6'8" frame, using his bulk to become the NBA's fifth all-time rebounder and a perennial all-star forward. But he was slow, particularly defending against small forwards. His jumping was impaired by chronically bad knees, forcing him to rely on timing and position to get his rebounds. His offensive rebounds were few.
"Lucas gets the easy defensive rebounds," Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn scoffed two years ago. "He cheats by sloughing off his man. He gets 18 rebounds but his man gets 35 points." And Los Angeles' Jerry West said, "Lucas can't move and plays no defense. Forget the statistics."
Significantly, neither Heinsohn nor West acknowledges this criticism today, and West fairly swoons in calling Lucas "the very unselfish player he has always been." The turnabout began in San Francisco, where Lucas shed both 20 pounds and the distractions of his Beef N Shakes restaurant chain. Lucas had boasted he would be a millionaire by 30, but his restaurants were caught in the tight-money squeeze of the late '60s. He went bankrupt, an embarrassment he came to consider a blessing. "It freed me to concentrate on basketball," he says. Having retreated from the realities of commerce to hocus-pocus, he now calls magic "more like fun than a business."
But, once again, it was the move to New York that brought deliverance. When the Knicks returned Lucas to his old Ohio State position of center he set out to prove his claim that he had been wrongly deployed during all those years as an NBA forward. "I never was a real forward," he insists. Of course, he has not been a real center, either. Too small to outrebound the Chamberlains and Abdul-Jabbars, he must try to box them out, leaving it largely to Knick Forward Dave DeBusschere to work the boards. Rebounding, once Lucas' strong suit, has therefore been the least of his duties for the Knicks. "I may not get the ball, but I don't want my man to, either," he says.
On offense Lucas plays outside, providing little of the physicality of low-post centers and at the same time leaving himself in better position to get back against the fast break. When he is shooting well he also draws the opposing big man away from the basket or else poses the problems Chamberlain faced in the '72 NBA finals. "Jerry almost killed us," recalls Laker Coach Bill Sharman. "We didn't want Wilt way out there and Jerry just popped away."
Lucas compiled a .513 field-goal average last season, sixth best in the NBA. He seldom shot except when open, a shyness partly explained by a quaint array of shots that require Lebensraum. Lucas puts in layups underhanded and his best weapon from 12 feet is an anachronistic roundhouse hook. His push-'em-up outside shot, which he unhesitatingly tries from what would be three-point distance in the ABA, reminds Knick telecaster Bob Wolff of a waiter hoisting a tray. Wolff and partner Cal Ramsey call it "the bomb," which is apt for reasons of trajectory as well as range.
"Luke's shots seem longer than they are because they take so much time to come down," says Ramsey. Of the high arch, Lucas himself says, "The best way to put an object in a wastebasket is from above. That's the angle I aim for."
But it is passing that Lucas professes to enjoy most, and old roommate Havlicek, for one, calls him the best ball-handling center in the NBA. Lucas gets the ball more at center than he did as a cornerman and, stationed outside, he hits teammates cutting up a middle left open by his absence. "Jerry's first objective is the pass," says Sharman. "He always sees the open man." Although the bomb was off target in last spring's playoff victory over Sharman's Lakers, Lucas passed well and alternated with Reed in the essential business of leaning against Chamberlain on defense. The NBA title was Lucas' first, and he said, "I think I'm more excited than the rookies."
This enthusiasm for team success suggests a selflessness which is at odds with Lucas' long-standing reputation for padding his rebounding totals by needlessly retrieving at-the-buzzer desperation shots. He is also known for keeping very close track of his statistics during games, but he disavows any base motives for this. "I like to count things, remember?" he says.
If the-Phoenix game attended by Treva was any gauge, Lucas may be mellowing. The contest drew the Garden's usual crowd of 19,700, give or take a few, and although the cigar-chewing Knick fans who habitually do just that—meaning give or take a few—had installed the home team as nine-point favorites, New York won by only 115-111. Lucas had nine assists.