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The picture on the cover this week is of Jerry Lucas, basketball player. The picture above shows Jerry Lucas, student. And it is a toss-up which is the truer portrait of this exceptional young man, because he is about as good as they come at both activities.
In a vintage year for new basketball talent, Lucas is the best of the crop, highly skilled at every facet of the game though he is only a sophomore. He is among the top five in the nation in scoring, rebounding and field-goal shooting, and he is the principal reason why his team, Ohio State, is also a leader in all three departments and is rated a prime favorite for the Big Ten title. At the same time, he is averaging a shade under straight A in State's College of Commerce, which is something of a comedown for him after being an A student for four years in high school. In his freshman year at State he carried 49 credit hours, far more than normal, and earned 42 hours of A's.
"I was always interested in my classwork," Lucas says. "Before I started first grade I already knew third-grade arithmetic, because my parents had taught me, and from then on I wanted to get good grades." He says this with the same dead-calm poker face he maintains on or off the basketball court no matter what goes on around him, his deep-set eyes furthering the impression of intense seriousness. This attitude toward his studies is the reason Lucas chose Ohio State over the more than 150 other colleges that were after him while he was still at Middletown, Ohio high school. "State was the only school that talked to me first about my education. All the others talked only about basketball. They didn't understand that I didn't want an athletic scholarship anyway. I wanted an academic scholarship, and that's what I have. No matter what happens—even if I couldn't make the team—I still get my education. That's the way I wanted it."
Lucas held out for what he wanted in the face of a recruiting campaign equaled only by the scramble for Wilt Chamberlain. "I used to get half a dozen letters every day," he says. "In my junior year the recruiters started to come to Middletown. They'd come to my house in the morning and wake up the family. They'd come to school and get me out of class nearly every day. They'd ask me to cut school and break dates in order to talk with them. It got so bad finally that mother and dad and I decided we just wouldn't talk to anybody. The Middletown paper ran a little notice, and the principal helped out by sending people away when they showed up at school." Before this, the recruiting inducements had reached scandalous proportions. Lucas' father had been guaranteed jobs at $15,000 (he is a pressman for a Middletown printing firm at about half that salary), there had been offers to pay off the mortgage on the family's modest seven-room home, and Jerry's younger brother, a fair football player, had been promised scholarships without regard, obviously, to his ability. Lucas reacted to all this and the attendant publicity by cutting himself off from everything but schoolwork and basketball, and continued to set the kind of records in both that made him even more attractive to the frantic recruiters.
He has, in addition to top-drawer ability, one particular asset as an athlete which coaches term the winning touch. Many another fine player, for reasons of personality or temperament, cannot contribute anything more than his own skill to a team effort. Lucas' easy yet unshakable poise and surging desire to compete have proved contagious to teammates wherever he has played. From the fifth grade on—in more than 125 games in elementary school, junior high and high school—he participated exactly once in a losing effort, and that was a one-point loss in the last game of his high school career. It must be emphasized that this record was set in the heart of the Midwest, an area where little boys dream of growing up to be basketball players and generally do.
Lucas himself started playing basketball when he was 9. "All the kids in Middletown start about then," he says. "They have about half a dozen parks with lots of outdoor courts and they light 'em up at night until 11 o'clock. They're always crowded. And most of the kids have baskets in their backyards." Lucas had one, put up by his father when he was still in grade school. ("Jerry spent all his spare time practicing," his father recalls. "He was out back all day Saturday and all day Sunday.") At the same time, Lucas was always somewhat taller than other kids his age, a natural inheritance from the paternal side of his family, which includes a number of gentlemen well over 6 feet. He was 5 feet 7 in the seventh grade, exactly a foot taller as a sophomore in high school, and has grown half an inch since then. From the beginning, his size enabled him to play playground ball with boys much older and more experienced. In the summers before he entered high school he participated in many a pickup game with college players. This kind of competition and the teachings of an excellent high school coach, Paul Walker, helped Lucas master every conceivable method of getting a basketball through the hoop. In his career under Walker at Middletown, he scored 2,460 points, breaking the record of 2,252 set by Wilt Chamberlain at Philadelphia's Overbrook High.
The years of playground ball also had one unfortunate effect. "I spent a lot of time on those courts," Lucas says, "and I feel it in my knees now—all that jumping and running on that hard concrete. The last few years, I've found it tough to move the way I used to, especially at the beginning of a season. My knees stiffen up, and I can't bend the way I have to on defense to get into the right position." Knee trouble forced Lucas to miss nearly half of State's preseason practice sessions this year. The jarring effect of jumping caused inflammation of both joints, because not enough fluid was getting to them to lubricate them properly. The condition was brought under control by a combination of diathermy, injections and the use of a molded plastic innersole to absorb shocks, and Lucas has been his old jumping-jack self for the past few weeks.
Lucas came to State with so much basketball experience behind him that he suffered not at all from the Big Ten ruling which forbids inter-school competition by freshmen. He led his frosh team to a number of victories over the varsity in practice games, personally scored 92 points in the last two of the season. Watching these performances, State's youthful Coach Fred Taylor—a rookie himself, in his first year—could hardly wait to build an attack around his prize freshman, and so he didn't wait. As he admits now, "We planned our varsity offense last year around Jerry even though he wasn't with us. We put in the whole kit and kaboodle. The boys learned the offense just the way we were going to play it this year with Lucas." Taylor was able to do this because many of last year's varsity players had at least another year of eligibility. And Lucas has joined them this season, in a strong single-post attack, like a veteran who has merely been absent for a short time.
Before Ohio State's opening game with Wake Forest, Jerry Lucas finally showed that he was only human by succumbing to the pressures surrounding his collegiate debut. (Among other things, he had already been chosen on one All-America team before he played his first game.) "I was really scared," he admits frankly. "I'm usually able to relax before a game, but it didn't work this time. I felt as if I had a thousand-pound weight on my shoulders. In the first half, I just stood around out there with my mouth open." He had company in his pregame jitters. Fred Taylor had spent the previous night (during which he turned 35) on his living-room floor. "I just couldn't sleep," Taylor says, "so I lay down on the floor and thought about the game, and finally dozed off. I woke up sometime in the middle of the night, but I figured I might as well finish sleeping on the floor."
Actually, Lucas' debut was an effective performance, especially in the second half, as he led State to a 77-69 come-from-behind victory over Wake Forest, which has since proved its strength by winning the Dixie Classic tournament. State's pivot attack was rendered useless by a Wake Forest defense which allowed outside men to maneuver while at least two players covered Lucas when he went into the post. And Lucas' shooting eye was way off, undoubtedly because of nervousness. But he grabbed 28 rebounds, more than half State's total, and many of these led to State scores because of his speed and agility at kicking off a fast break. He managed a respectable 16 points, chiefly on tip-ins of shots his teammates missed, a maneuver in which he excels because of his superb timing.