The Strange Legacy of PF Jerry Lucas

 Editor’s Note:  I added the teams to Lucas’ Win Resume

If there has been one superstar basketball player who has been strangely lost to time, I’d say it was power forward Jerry Lucas.  This weekend I did a MWS Win Resume for his career, which you can click on below. 

Click Here to see the Win Resume of Jerry Lucas

According to my numbers, Lucas was one of the great power forwards of all time, an elite win producer for three separate and very different teams.  His 1.060% career player winning percentage compares favorably with contemporary players like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.  (To compare Jerry Lucas’s Career Win Contribution Rating with the WCRs of the 20 Most Valuable Players from last season, click here.) 

Yet I surfed the internet for “all-time power forward” lists, and he isn’t on any of the ones I could find.  Most of them had lesser lights like Elvin Hayes listed but no Lucas.  Why the lack of respect? 

Bill Simmons, in his Book of Basketball, nicely summarizes contemporary opinion on Lucas.  Basically Simmons runs him down for being an unathletic statmonger who played on losing teams.  In his all-time rankings, Simmons rates Lucas below less accomplished players, namely Allen Iverson.

I don’t know that these critiques are fair, though.  The same “statmonger” criticism could be leveled at any productive player, and the “he didn’t play for winners” is completely bogus.  He played for virtually the same kind of teams as Oscar Robertson.  Yet Robertson is greatly admired, Lucas is not. 

Its so strange that Lucas’s legacy has worn so poorly.  He was one of the most famous high school players of all time.  He was one of the most accomplished college players of all time.  Coming into the NBA, he was incredibly popular.  Yet, according to Wikipedia, his popularity wore off by the end of the 1960s.  Let me speculate as to why.

First, he’s legendary for his intellect, which can sometimes come across as arrogance.  I’ll bet that rubbed people the wrong way.  Second, if his final season stats are indicative, he was mainly a defensive rebounder, and he probably scooped up every one of the “freebies”, which probably led to his “statmonger” reputation.

If I could compare him to anyone, it would probably be Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons.  Laimbeer, a center, had much the same skill set and league wide reputation.  Both players were fantastic rebounders who relied on very accurate outside shooting to do their offensive damage.  And both had a reputation for “sharp elbows” and arrogance.

But you cannot deny that Jerry Lucas was one of the great win producers of all time.  He may not have been athletic or likeable, but he could produce, and he according to my estimates he produced for three separate teams with three completely separate styles.  Everywhere he went he was versatile and productive.

And he deserves a better legacy than the one he has gotten so far.

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15 Responses to “The Strange Legacy of PF Jerry Lucas”

  1. nerdnumbers Says:

    Ty,

    My normal schedule is about as good as your “vacation schedule”. You should convince Robbie O’Malley to follow the same trend. Awesome find! Another drawback is his career time. He only played 10 years, which virtually shorts him of any shot on any all-time lists. Compared to the Big O’s 14 years and of course that championship. Good stuff as always!

  2. arturogalletti Says:

    Ty,
    Great post. I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again: selection bias. We seem to have a cultural bias against White bigs. Look at David Lee,Troy Murphy and Kevin Love.

  3. That Bucks Championship Season « Courtside Analyst Says:

    […] posts will make that even more clear.  (what I’m finding — this post and the previous post on the career of Jerry Lucas – tends to verify what Berri and Schmidt contended in Stumbling on Wins and the Wall Street […]

  4. Chicago Tim Says:

    Arturo, I think it is more about scoring than race. Remember Isiah Thomas’s infamous statement that Larry Bird would just be another player if he were white? I don’t think that’s true either. In terms of reputation and legacy and getting into the Hall of Fame, it’s not a plus or minus to be white — it’s a plus to score.

    Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Bill Walton were all high-scoring white bigs, and are still considered among the greatest players in history. Today, Dirk Nowitzki is probably considered the greatest white big in the NBA by those who look first for scoring. Meanwhile, Dennis Rodman has little or no chance to get into the Hall of Fame because he did not score.

    I would also note that Jerry Lucas’s commitment to basketball was at times questioned, since he clearly had many interests outside of basketball. In that sense he seems a bit like David Robinson, or even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had obvious passions outside basketball that caused fans to question their commitment to winning.

    • tywill33 Says:

      Do you have a backstory on his sudden fall from popularity? All it says is, on Wikipedia, he was one of the most popular players in basketball in the early 60s, then his popularity “disappeared”. I know losing can take a toll, and I think he had financial troubles, but that shouldn’t be held against him. I think generally, and I get this from ESPN SportsCentury, but I think generally he was viewed as a player who was only out for himself, and a bit of a loner. Don’t know if that is true.

      • Chicago Tim Says:

        Here’s a bio with a little more detail about his frustration in Cincinnati and also his unexpected revival in New York.

        http://www.nba.com/history/players/lucasj_bio.html

        Key quotes:

        “Lucas continued to post big numbers, but aside from All-Star Oscar Robertson, the Royals never fielded a sufficiently strong supporting cast to vie for the championship. Lucas recalled later that the long stretch of futility took a toll on him. ‘All those years in Cincinnati were pretty frustrating,’ he recalled. ‘I thought, for the longest time, that there was no way I would ever be on a championship club.'” …

        “Critics in Cincinnati had accused Lucas of poor work habits and of being out of shape. Although statistics showed he was highly productive, he admitted to some of the charges. ‘I drifted into a whole lot of bad habits,’ he conceded after arriving in the Bay Area. ‘The last four years with the Cincinnati Royals I didn’t work as hard as I could have.'”

        He won a championship at the end of his career in New York, where he was a high-quality back-up to Willis Reed.

      • tywill33 Says:

        Thank you!! I’m actually fascinated with shit like this… by the looks of the Blog Stats most others are at best mildly fascinated. (On the days when I alternated between contemporary posts and historical posts, the blog stats made a perfect “W”! LOL!) But hey, its August! Thank you for the link, and thanks for reading!

  5. Curtis McIntosh Says:

    I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s. In my mind, Jerry Lucas is the greatest power forward that ever played in the NBA. He could have scored 40 points a game if he wanted to but was the consumate team player and deferred scoring to Oscar Robertson in Cincinnati. Yet, Lucas and Wilt Chamberlain are the only 2 players in NBA history to have multiple 20-20 seasons. Chamberlain said that Lucas was the only player he feared. Lucas is the only PF in NBA history to have 40 rebounds in a game. After Bill Russell retired, he became an analyst for the NBA on ABC’s game of the week. In every close game televised, Russell would always say that they had to get the ball to Lucas if his team was going to win. Lucas never sought stardom. Moreover, Lucas was a natural center but played forward in the NBA to help his teams. I can’t even imagine Chamberlain or Jabbar trying to play forward.

  6. Curtis McIntosh Says:

    I want to say some more things about Jerry Lucas. Back when Dennis Rodman was leading the league with 13.6 RPG, people were saying he was the greatest rebounder in the history of the NBA. I was amused with these comments as I had grown up watching the likes of Chamberlain, Russell, Thurmond and Lucas, four of the all time greats in rebounding. Roman could pull down 15 rebounds and people would say he had a monster of a game, when 20 rebounds was an “average” game for Lucas. Yes, some people said Lucas was washed up when his rebounding dipped to 15 per game. He had established such high expectations. But Lucas did return and have seasons rebounding 18 per game and 21 points per game. The 1973 NBA finals was fun to watch. The Knicks had Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschre (sp), Earl Monroe and Lucas. All could shoot lights out. You never knew which of them would put up 25 points.

    The matchup between Chamberlain and Lucas was especially fun to watch in the 1973 finals. If I recall correctly, Chamberlain had blocked 2 of Lucas’ shots in the paint in the 1972 finals at critical times. In 1973, the Knicks brought Lucas out to play the perimeter forcing Chamberlain to come out from under the basket in the low post. Lucas was making uncontested 25 foot shots. When Chamberlain came out to contest Lucas, Lucas stepped back to about 30 feet and just kept hitting the bottom of the net. It was an incredible shooting performance. I believe this is why Chamberlain said Lucas was the only player he feared. Lucas only got credit for 2 points for these baskets but the shots were coming about 10 feet behind today’s 3-point line.

    Lucas had an interesting shot when he made these long range bombs. At one time, Lucas held the Ohio high school record for shot put. And that is how he launched these bombs. He layed the ball on his right shoulder and fired away. The ball would seemingly go into the lights before coming down. I thought I was the only person that remembered this. But when ESPN Classic aired its Greatest Sports Legends show featuring Lucas, Walt Frazier commented on these shots. Frazier referred to these shots as 35 foot rainbows. Frazier said something to the effect that he could not believe Lucas was taking these long range shots and was amazed when he kept making them. These long range shots became so common for Lucas that eventually people referred to it as the “Lucas lay up.”

    I believe the reason that time has forgotten Lucas is that he played before the days of ESPN, TNT and all the other sports channels. Most people today never saw him play. I fault Bill Walton for some of this lack of awareness about Lucas. In his days as a TV announcer, he would talk about the NBA’s great forwards. He would always mention the players that could be seen on all the highlight reels. Walton apparently had no knowledge of the history of the NBA.

    In the final analysis, Lucas was inducted into basketball’s hall of fame in his first year of eligibility, along with Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Many people believe this is the greatest class ever inducted into the hall of fame. Additionally, Lucas was named one of the 50 greatest players in the NBA. In my mind, Lucas was the greatest power forward in the history of the NBA.

    • tywill33 Says:

      Good stuff.

      If you had to choose a Doppelganger for Lucas in today’s game, who would it be? Maybe Nowitzki?

      Ive never seen him play outside Youtube. But the strange thing is, there are a whole host of players I never saw play whom I knew a lot more about than Lucas… Walt Frazier, Oscar, Jerry West, Pearl Monroe, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, Hal Greer, Wilt, Bill Russell, Heinsohn, I guess… I pretty much new the history of all these players, but I knew nothing of Lucas, other than I had heard the name in passing. I bring this up only to underscore the disrespect he’s received from history.

  7. Curtis McIntosh Says:

    Here is a link to an interview with Jerry Lucas. http://www.kencoleman.net/Podcast/57C6FD87-34C8-4D96-A18F-93615BF73611.html

  8. Curtis McIntosh Says:

  9. Gerry Says:

    Just wanted to add my two cents. Lucas was a legendary and unique player. He had a great hook shot, which he could shoot on the run or in the post. He was a master at tip ins at just 6′ 8. He was a very, very good passer, often out of the ‘ high post ‘. Today, with a three-point line, he’d drive opposing big men and defenses crazy — because you have to guard him out there. Of course, as many still know, he was an unbelievable rebounder. Maybe the best ever.
    People also forget how many minutes he played on a knee that was permanently damaged in college. He routinely averaged 45 minutes per game in the NBA for the entire season. Very tough guy.
    Great team guy, just wanted to help his teams win. Boy, did he ever win. Championships at every level.
    Many today have forgotten him, of course. He last starred over 35 years ago. But I saw him play and remember him. A great, clean, highly skilled, very intelligent, unselfish player. For all some have said, he was a class act on and off the court.
    His educational teachings are just amazing too. Google ‘ Dr. Memory ‘ .

  10. Louis J. Asmo Says:

    Jerry Lucas should be forever remembered as amazing in basketball. He went something like 5 years without playing in a losing game as a young boy. He also was the best ever amateur basketball player winning 76-1 in high school, something like 76-6 at Ohio State, then someting like 12-0 in the Olympics for a ridiculous 164-7…..can you name any 1 amateur basketball player with that kind of team record???
    Further, all the way through the pros, Lucas was one of the most unselfish great players ever playing basketball properly as a team sport.
    Pound per pound, Jerry Lucas using rebounds per minute played was the best ever rebounder and 3rd only to WIlt and Bill Russell.

    Shooting the ball sometimes from 25 or 30 feet…no problem. Jerry Lucas was probably the best long range shooter ever too.

    A remarkable player whether remembered or not, Jerry Lucas as an all-time basketball legend.

    I saw him and watched him play near perfect team basketball always.

    Ask the teammates he had over the years….maybe except Oscar Robertson who always seems jealous of Jerry Lucas.

    Too bad, as a tandem they were 2 of the best players ever but they just did not click. Oscar just played too much Oscar ball. Lucas played team ball.

    I saw and experienced this with my own eyes!!!

    Lastly, it was John Wooden who said that the best player he ever coached against was Jerry Lucas who just happened to score 30 points and get 30 rebounds for the ONLY TIME EVER by a college player in an NCAA tournament game.

    That is a pretty good referral from a pretty darned great coach!!!

    During the 1960 Olympics, Coach Pete Newell called Jerry Lucas the best player he ever coached.

    What more can I say!!!

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