The guests had finished their dinner and were repairing to the living room to watch Jerry Lucas run through some card tricks. Lucas entered with the rest, a smile at his lips. "I'm going to dazzle you," he said. The bravado might have been more persuasive had this been a gathering of New York Knickerbocker fans, doting partisans who suffer few doubts that Lucas and his Knick teammates will repeat as NBA champions in the season about to begin. But no, it was a private party for the New York Rangers and their wives that Lucas had agreed to perform for this night, an audience in no way bashful about giving the Knicks" moonlighting magician the business.
No sooner had Lucas arrived at the ranch-style house in suburban Westchester County, in fact, than one of the Rangers, Walt Tkaczuk, pumped his hand and deadpanned, "So you're Jerry West." And now, ready to begin his act in the living room, Lucas was getting a similar razzing from another Ranger, Billy Fairbairn, who made a great show of taking the closest chair. "I'm going to watch you," Fairbairn said. "I'm going to pick you off during your tricks."
Lucas eyed Fairbairn with the same forbearance he displays toward all the others who have vastly underestimated his preternatural powers. They include the folks back in Ohio who cheered Jerry Lucas in high school, college and—until he was traded away after six full seasons with the Cincinnati Royals—the NBA. His fellow Ohioans knew him to be an honor student and star of the 1960 Olympics, and they thought of him as a clean-cut, level-headed young man without a frivolous bone in his long body.
Now those same people find Jerry Lucas, whose super-straight image has been blurred further by bankruptcy and divorce proceedings, shamelessly hamming it up on the fringes of show biz. They flick on TV talk shows and see him exercising the eccentric turn of mind by which he alphabetizes words the instant he hears them—so that his name, for example, is spelled "Ejrry Aclsu." Or they read in their newspapers where he has memorized a chunk of the Manhattan phone book, thus dramatizing powers that he would promote in his fellowmen by starting up a chain of memory schools in partnership with a mnemonic expert named Harry Lorayne. As for magic, Lucas is busily marketing trick playing cards, magic sets and adult puzzles of his own design. The Jerry Lucas Super Kids's Day Magic Jamboree was a network TV special last year, and its star talks next of making elephants disappear and of sawing into sections a scantily clad woman. The Jerry Lucas Ohioans remember would have blushed and trembled at the sight of a scantily clad woman.
A certain hellishness newly infects Lucas in basketball, too. A heavy-duty but colorless player in earlier days, he has masqueraded with the Knicks as a fancy passer and outside shooter extraordinaire. He came to New York 2� years ago from San Francisco (which had acquired him from Cincinnati) in a trade for Cazzie Russell, and when Center Willis Reed was injured Lucas spelled him in ways other than alphabetic, leading the Knicks into the 1972 NBA finals. With Reed back on last season's championship team, Lucas was shorn of a regular's job for virtually the first time in his career—but he became by common consent the league's best backup center.
Settling into this role, Lucas exults, "I'm having more fun playing basketball than ever." At 33 he also professes to have chosen the work he will pursue when his playing days end. He means to continue trading on magic and memory, and that is why he found himself under Billy Fairbairn's gaze at the party in Westchester County. He directed his first card trick at Fairbairn's wife Lloydene. It was his "invisible deck" trick. He instructed Lloydene to take a card from a make-believe deck and announce which one she imagined it to be. The room fell silent. Lloydene mimed the removal of a card and said, "Nine of clubs."
"You sure?" Lucas asked.
He had her put the imaginary card back into the invisible deck, upside down. Then he produced a deck of cards—a real one—and shuffled. He fanned the cards before him. All were face down except the 9 of clubs. "Beautiful. I love it!" cried Bobby Rousseau, another of the Rangers. He looked around the room, regarding his teammates with profound distaste. "Finally I meet somebody interesting."
For more than an hour Lucas performed in this fashion, fingering the cards as expertly as a scalper handling tickets outside Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers and Knicks toil in less social moments. He removed from a pocket a slip of paper bearing the name of a card somebody had just pulled from a deck. Gasps. He shuffled, and somehow spades and clubs found their way into one pile, hearts and diamonds to another. Applause. He left the room, returning to correctly divine which three-digit figure the audience had selected in his absence. A chorus of I-don't-believe-its.