The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 8 | Maurice Lucas
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 330, Postseason 32
*PTS: 15.6 | REB: 8.7 | ORB: 2.5 | FG%: 46.1%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: August 1976, acquired with the second pick of the 1976 ABA Dispersal Draft
Departed Club: February 1980, traded with two first-round picks to the New Jersey Nets for Calvin Natt
Joined Club: November 1987, signed as a free agent
Departed Club: May 1988, retired from the NBA
Place in History: Winning the 1977 NBA Championship remains the crowning achievement in the history of the Portland Trail Blazers franchise. 50 straight times the Blazers have suited up, hoping to walk off the court with the last victory of the season. Only once have they actually done it.
The mammoth accomplishment was a team effort. Dave Twardzik, Johnny Davis, Herm Gilliam, Larry Steele, Lloyd Neal, Bob Gross, Lionel Hollins, and Head Coach Jack Ramsay have already been honored on this list because of their contributions. Standing above all of them, at the absolute top of the list, are two stars that formed the core of the title team. Maurice Lucas is one of them.
Growing up in inner-city Pittsburgh helped Lucas negotiate his way through an occasionally-rough, always nomadic basketball journey. He learned when to slide in for the hustle and when to bull his way through. He excelled at both, demonstrating undeniable talent in the process. He started with Al McGuire at Marquette, where he’d play in the NCAA Championship Game. Then he moved to the American Basketball Association, appearing with the Spirits of St. Louis and Kentucky Colonels.
Wherever he went, Lucas produced. Stats were never an issue. 15 points and 10 rebounds per game were his standard, with point totals spiking upwards of 20 some seasons. The more you gave him the ball, the more he’d give you.
Lucas never stayed in one place for long, though. Five seasons spent in Portland easily equal any two of his other stops combined. He had a lot of stops. One or two years per franchise was the norm. That was largely because Maurice Lucas was, in the best sense of the phrase, a pain in the butt. He was outspoken, an advocate for player’s rights (particularly his own), operating in a society and economic structure that didn’t favor same. No matter what forces arrayed against him, Lucas refused to change who he was for anybody. He just would not back down. This made him a handful for more than one coach (and owner...and GM). Had it not been so, the Blazers would have never gotten him in the first place. Nor would he have done what they so desperately needed him to do.
Lucas’ trip to Portland began with the ABA folding. As the league collapsed, the NBA held a dispersal draft for now-displaced stars. It was the summer of 1976. The Atlanta Hawks held the second selection in said draft.
With Chicago picking center Artis Gilmore first, Lucas was the obvious choice for Atlanta. Except the Hawks were then coached by Hubie Brown, who had just wrapped up coaching Lucas with the Colonels. Brown, an inveterate screamer on the bench, was reticent to take on Lucas for a second year. It was like mixing oil and whatever was apt to punch oil right in the face if oil ever said that again. Thus the Hawks traded their pick to Portland for Geoff Petrie, whose knee had blown out and who would not suit up a single game for them. The Blazers selected Lucas with Atlanta’s former pick, and the rest is history.
Lucas was special. He was a powerful 6’9 forward with ballet-like grace. He could nudge you into the front row with the subtle move of a hip or he could hit an 18-footer in your face. It didn’t matter to Luke. Whatever got the job done.
Lucas’ underneath play was legendary. Opposing players would come out with bruises trying to hold rebounding position against him. This style stood in complete contrast to teammate Bill Walton, who was a tall technician, more cerebral than crafty, certainly not tough. While opponents gawked at Walton’s carrot soup and pony tail routine, Lucas came in from the side and knocked them flat. Anybody who thought about getting physical with the flowing and beautiful Blazers knew they’d have to reckon with The Enforcer. Few made that mistake twice.
Despite the reputation for toughness, Lucas was no hockey goon. His sideline jumper was money. He’d often stand and watch the ball sail through the air after he shot. Theoretically you’re not supposed to do that. You’re coached to either follow it for the offensive rebound attempt or start getting back on defense. One got the sense that Lucas gesture—sometimes accompanied by a funny double-bounce of his sneakers on the floor—was one of confidence, maybe defiance. He knew the shot was going in. If you didn’t know it too, that was your problem. And woe be to the coach or bystander who told him that he wasn’t rebounding or defending hard enough. He worked for that shot. He earned the right to see it through.
(In actuality, Lucas’ shooting percentage wasn’t out-of-this-world good. With jump shooting, as with most things in Luke’s life, what people thought—or feared—he was became more real than reality.)
Besides the jumper, Lucas also had a hook shot and a few different layups up his sleeve. He could dunk, of course, but he wasn’t a player to dominate with flashy slams. Trying to defend him was less stopping a truck than playing the shell game with a hand grenade under one of the coconuts. You might win sometimes, but you really should ask whether you wanted to be playing that game in the first place.
To top it off, Lucas was an underrated passer. Portland’s game was predicated on ball movement. Operating from the high post, Walton was apt to hit any teammate at any time. Lucas was not only a great target, he was a good thoroughfare for the ball. He did not need to score to help the offense; it just didn’t hurt a bit that he could.
Head Coach Jack Ramsay’s system was the perfect way for Lucas to make his NBA entrance. Vicious rebounding, speed down the floor, permission to shoot, and opportunities to pass all suited his style. Playing with unselfish teammates allowed him to grow into his prodigious stat lines without being consumed by them.
Lucas found a kindred spirit in Ramsay, professionally if not personally. The intense, driven coach could stand eye to eye with Lucas and make demands, knowing that he would also pass Lucas’ stringent scrutiny in return. For a while, at least, Lucas didn’t have to fight the world. He could channel passion and angst through the conduit Ramsay and the team provided, taking it out on opponents instead.
And he did. In that inaugural, 1976-77 season, Lucas averaged 20.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2,9 assists, and 1.1 steals per game during the regular season. He, not Walton, led the team in scoring. He was nominated to the 1977 NBA All-Star Game, the first of three consecutive selections. With Lucas at the four, the Blazers cruised to a 49-33 record and into the playoffs for the very first time in team history.
Everyone knows the outcome of that journey. Portland won the title and a place in NBA lore forever. Lucas upped his production considerably in the postseason, scoring 21.2 points on 51.9% shooting with 9.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.2 blocks. He did everything a power forward could do. But he also had a couple of completely unique moments, things only Maurice Lucas could do. Without them, the Blazers might not have hoisted that trophy.
The first, relayed in David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, came during Portland’s first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. NBA referees were on strike at the time. The league hired inexperienced substitutes to officiate the postseason. One of the replacement refs took exception to Lucas’ critiques of him and whistled a technical foul against Big Number 20. Fair enough.
Later in the game, the same ref called a common foul on Luke. Lucas once again objected. The ref, having heard enough, lifted whistle to lips, ready to call another tech. That would have resulted in Lucas being ejected. Lucas calmly took hold of the lanyard around which the whistle hung, raised it up in one fist (with ref still attached), and said, “You don’t want to do that.” The ref looked at the glaring giant and promptly removed the whistle from his mouth. Lucas got to stay and play.
The second, and far more famous, event occurred at the end of Game 2 of the NBA Finals. The Philadelphia 76ers had manhandled Portland and were about to go up in the series 2-0. Towards the end of the game, forward Bobby Gross got tangled up with Philadelphia center Darryl Dawkins, a huge, second-year center who would become known for his rim-threatening dunks and generally fierce attitude.
Dawkins and Gross fell to the floor, intertwined, then stood up and began jawing at each other. While they were being restrained by teammates, Dawkins got loose and took a swing at Gross. He then backed away down the court, only to be blindsided by Lucas, who threw a forearm to the back of Dawkins’ head. Luke then squared off against the larger center with no hesitation in his eyes and zero uncomfortable health-class lectures to give. The two combatants were separated and order restored, but Dawkins was thrown for a loop, furious that Lucas had gotten the better of him. Reportedly Dawkins destroyed plumbing in the arena after the game and vowed revenge.
The Memorial Coliseum became a 3:00 PM schoolyard as everyone gathered for Game 3 to see the two go at it again. Except Lucas had another move in mind. During pre-game introductions, he jogged over to the Sixers’ line and shook Dawkins’ hand right out there in front of everyone. “No hard feelings,” he said. No fight ensued. Lucas was now in the opposing center’s head. Portland walked away with that game, and eventually the series.
Remember the first lesson: sometimes it’s about the power, sometimes it’s about the hustle. Either way, Luke wins.
The Blazers went 50-10 at the start of the 1977-78 season only to falter when Walton went down with a foot injury that would spell the end of his career in Portland. Lucas persisted another three seasons. They were not happy ones. Portland ownership loved him for the championship, but also because he was on a long-term deal and was underpaid. Lucas loved the championship too...the underpaid part, not so much.
A guy who isn’t afraid to dead lift a referee or box one of the strongest centers in the league is not going to be intimidated, or quiet, going up against real estate agents and accountants in the front office. The same qualities that once saved the Blazers now annoyed them. But Lucas was Lucas, and he was still one of the most talented forwards in the league. He gave them their money’s worth and more.
Luke would average 20.4 points again in 1978-79. That year brought the last of four straight ABA and NBA All-Star nominations. He’d make it again with the Phoenix Suns in 1983, bringing the total to five for his career. In 1978 Lucas was named to the All-Defensive first team and All-NBA second team. He’d make in onto the All-Defensive second team the year following.
Awards or no, the Blazers and Lucas weren’t destined to be happy together for long. In February of 1980, Portland would move Lucas to the New Jersey Nets along with two first-round picks for another forward they coveted, Calvin Natt. Lucas was just about to turn 28. He’d play eight more years, suiting up for the Nets, Knicks, Suns, Lakers, and Sonics. In Seattle he became acquainted with a rookie named Nate McMillan, who would take a liking to the veteran forward and, a decade later, invite him to become part of his coaching staff.
The 1986-87 season in Seattle was the next to the last for Lucas. In the Summer of 1987 he was a free agent, looking for one last go. The Blazers had Steve Johnson, Caldwell Jones, and Kevin Duckworth at center. They lacked a true power forward. Would Lucas be interested in reuniting with his old club for a farewell tour?
As it turned out, he would. Luke averaged 16.3 minutes over 73 games that year. He scored 18 points in 23 minutes against the Detroit Pistons on December 8th, 17 in 20 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 5th. The old guy still had it sometimes. Throughout the season, familiar chants of “Luuuuuuuuke” cascaded from the Coliseum seats every time he touched the ball, almost as if it were 1976 all over again.
Lucas’s softer, off-court image came to the fore in retirement. The secret got out; “The Enforcer” was actually a really nice guy. He became one of a handful of players who was equally beloved in memory and in the present day. When he showed up, the room felt different. He had become an icon.
Lucas would join the Blazers coaching staff in 2005, the first assistant hired by Head Coach Nate McMillan. He would remain in that position until his battle with bladder cancer made coaching impossible. Lucas resigned his position in the Summer of 2010. In October of that year he passed away.
At the time Blazers center Joel Przybilla had this to say:
“More than anything, you won’t find a better person who care about you... I mean, he cared about how we did on the court, but he really cared about what we did off the court. There will never be anyone like him.’’
Many NBA players are described as “larger than life”. Their stature and athletic ability make the expression wholly appropriate. But even among giants, Lucas stood out. It wasn’t because of his height, or even because of his talent. It was because he was Maurice Lucas. The name meant something, not just to him, but to everyone around him. The Blazers and the city were better off because they came to know it.
For being the last piece in the championship puzzle, for being one of the most skilled all-around forwards the franchise has ever seen, and for being absolutely unforgettable, Maurice Lucas earns the 8th spot in our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
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