Jerry Lucas: 1961 Sportsman of the Year

The Unassuming Ways of an Indispensable Man: Amateur basketball's finest player receives the Sports Illustrated award of the Grecian amphora, the classic symbol of excellence.
January 08, 1962

Jerry Ray Lucas

, a tall, intelligent and outwardly somber member of the senior class at Ohio State University, is the best amateur basketball player in the world. He has earned this distinction at a time when the competition in his sport has never been tougher, for basketball is being played by tens of thousands of his own countrymen with greater skill and fervor than ever before and is being enthusiastically adopted abroad.

Yet Lucas' achievements are unprecedented. Over the past two seasons he led his team to one national championship and to within a single dramatic point of another. He was the outstanding player on the U.S. Olympic squad that won a gold medal in Rome. He went to Russia with a touring American team and brought it eight straight victories in an intense competition that the Russians had privately thought they were going to win. As college play began last month, Ohio State immediately was ranked the top team in the country and Lucas again was the most watched—and competent—star of a young season.

But athletic excellence is only one facet of this 21-year-old youngster. He has also maintained a rare scholastic record, an A average that puts him in the top 4% of his class at Ohio State's College of Commerce and Administration. He is eligible for election to Beta Gamma Sigma, the commerce equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. During a decade of flattery, pressure and outlandish recruiting, he has remained as imperturbable as a Mount Rushmore face, behaving in a studied, discerning and appealing fashion both on and off the basketball court. Essentially shy, he has treated fame as a commodity of little intrinsic worth and in a sense has shunned it by playing as the perfect team man in a demanding team game. He has accepted victory with poise and grace and taken his few defeats (six losing games in 13 years) without emotion, displaying neither an appetite for remorse nor a thirst for revenge.

Thus, he has given a sport recently scarred by a tawdry scandal a recognized leader of laudable qualities. And he has given his own post-World War II generation, now facing the gravest tensions it has ever known, a wholesome example of fitness, awareness and common sense. "We are advancing into a different age, but humanity has always been facing the dangers of new ages," he said recently. "They thought no one would survive the plague. They thought the machine gun was the ultimate weapon of war. Now this is the atomic age, but it is just another phase of history. Someday I think people will look back on atom bombs as we look back on all the other things that it was once thought would end civilization. Meanwhile, my generation must realize that it will soon have the responsibility for running this country, that it must accept this responsibility as a challenge, not fear it. Our forefathers fought for this country. We must be willing to fight, too. We can't go along with those who would rather be Red than dead."

Because Jerry Lucas is not only a fine athlete but a symbol of his generation's best at a time when its best is sorely needed by his country as well as his sport the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED have selected him as Sportsman of the Year and awarded him the Grecian amphora, a classic emblem of excellence of mind and body.

On the wall of the basketball team's dressing room at Ohio State, where Jerry Lucas and his teammates can see it every day, there is posted a poem, which ends with these lines:

The moral of this quaint example
Is to do just the best that you can.
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There is no indispensable man.

In contrast to this uplifting sentiment, Lucas is an indispensable man on Ohio State's basketball team. He knows it and tries to pretend he doesn't. The other players know it and wonder why he is so self-effacing about it. At one point the team won 32 games in a row with him. It might not have won one in a row without him. In the past two seasons he led all major college players in shooting accuracy. Last year he was also the nation's leading re-bounder. Colleges don't keep records of assists. If they did, Lucas would almost surely be the national leader in that important aspect of the game, too. His 6-foot 7½-inch, 220-pound frame flows up and down the court in Ohio State's famous fast-break offense with no more apparent concern or effort than Bernard Baruch puts into sitting on a park bench. But this languor is deceptive, for no basketball player has better reflexes or more purposeful fakes.

One second Lucas is standing motionless near the basket in a semicrouch, hands on knees, following the ball with nothing but his eyes, like a man with a stiff neck watching a tennis match. The next second he has somehow gotten the ball from one teammate and passed it on to another who is wide open for a score. If the shot is missed he jumps high, with matchless timing, and flicks the rebound into the basket with his sensitive touch. He has a superb jump shot and one of the finest hook shots the game has ever seen. Coaches in the Big Ten say he could score 50 points a game if he wanted to. But he rarely tops 30. "The more I play, the less I care about points," he says. "Anybody can score these days if his teammates set him up."

"I have never even seen a pro who was any better," said St. John's Coach Joe Lapchick after Lucas had smoothly destroyed that team in a big game last season. "The best I have ever coached," said California's Pete Newell after handling the Olympic squad. "The greatest thing since sliced bread," sums up Lucas' own coach, Fred Taylor, using the simile he reserves for his highest praise.

Yet spectators who see Lucas play for the first time are prone to wonder, "What's so great?" The question arises because he seems to be doing so little, and to be bored by the little he does. He doesn't smile. He doesn't frown. He doesn't encourage. He doesn't berate. He wouldn't get excited if the roof fell down. He simply plays excellent basketball without wasting energy on show. "I wonder," said a fan once, after observing his mature and icy calm, "how old he was when he was born?"

Lucas was born, at the usual age, in Middletown, Ohio, a community of 42,000 some 28 miles north of Cincinnati. The city's chief products are steel, paper and basketball players. Middletown's parks have five lighted outdoor courts that get constant use, fans stand in line all night to buy tickets to big games and the local high school coach was once given a car after his team lost a state title.

Organized basketball starts in the fourth grade, which is where Lucas, the son of a paper company pressman, got his first competition. As a high school sophomore he was already 6 feet 7 inches tall, averaging 28.7 points a game and one of the hottest college prospects in the country. By his senior year he was also president of his class and an honor student. Some 150 colleges from Hawaii to NYU were after him, and the professional Cincinnati Royals had gone so far as to draft him for four years hence. The recruiting scramble was formidable, if not scandalous. One Ivy League coach came rapping at a window of the Lucas home at 5 a.m. There were others offering money, cars, jobs and profusions of goodies, including employment for Mr. Lucas at twice his pressman's pay.

"I stopped even reading the letters from the schools," Lucas says. "I come from an ordinary family. I could picture myself with a new car, my dad with a lot of money, and right away I could see myself getting into a lot of trouble. I felt I had a good future. A wrong decision could have ruined everything. You've got to look at the future in life, not at what is being offered you right now. I knew I wanted to go to school in Ohio, and Ohio State was the only school out of all of them that talked about academics first. The rest talked about athletics. It was as if my whole future was going to revolve around basketball. It isn't." He decided on Ohio State—and insisted on an academic scholarship so that he could quit basketball if he wanted to.

Lucas' career at Ohio State began with a harsh incident. Attending his very first class, freshman history, he sat near the rear of the room. The instructor looked in his direction and said, testily: "If any athlete thinks he can sit in the back of the room and do nothing and pass my class, he is sadly mistaken." Lucas stared straight ahead. He said nothing. But he got the highest mark in the first history examination. "Surprise, surprise," the teacher tartly announced. Lucas also got an A in the course.

He has done almost as well since. James R. McCoy, dean of the College of Commerce and Administration, calls his academic performance "truly outstanding." In spite of the rigorous demands of his sport, Lucas has carried more hours of classes (17) than the average OSU graduating student and has had few grades below A.

As a freshman, Lucas got a reputation for helping his less able dormitory mates with their studies, for making up his own mind and for changing girl friends. One of these had charms enough to play the seductive Maggie in the school version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Another, possibly out of pique, sent him a live alligator from Florida. "It was a mean alligator," remembers John Havlicek, Lucas' teammate, who roomed with him then, "and goofy Luke kept letting it walk around loose in our room."

In that year, too, while playing an odd kind of baseball, Lucas demonstrated what is certainly one of his most unusual physical assets, his 20-10 vision. The baseball game was played with a fraternity paddle and a plastic ball. Ground rules made a ball hit over the roof of the four-story dormitory a home run. Nobody ever hit a home run except Lucas. He did it regularly, and he used the quarter-inch width instead of the broad, fiat side of the bat. "Nobody else could even hit the ball with the thin side of the paddle," recalls Havlicek. "I couldn't come close." Yet Havlicek could hit .591 as the best player on the freshman baseball squad.

The changing of girl friends ended abruptly in September 1960, when Lucas married Treva Geib, an 18-year-old, 5-foot-10 brunette beauty, the daughter of a Columbus barber. She was an OSU sophomore. Lucas had outgrown the horseplay of his classmates, and off-campus life has obviously suited him since his marriage. Today he goes out rarely with his friends. Surprisingly, however, he is the gregarious hit of the few parties he attends. He knows 100 jokes and will tell them by the hour. He also has a parlor trick that could become the national rage. Given a word, he spells it aloud instantly but arranges its letters in alphabetical order. Thus, basketball becomes aabbekllst.

His mind actually sorts the letters so quickly that he has the proper order faster than he can say the letters. "I started it about five years ago," he says. "I don't know how I do it, or why. I've never seen anybody else do it." The alphabet game is not Lucas' only idiosyncrasy. His teammates long ago nicknamed him Frog because of the way he bent his knees and stared with his big eyes from under bushy brows when he was shooting a jump shot. Lucas was a sophomore when OSU won the national championship by beating California in the NCAA finals. He took it casually. Last winter his team lost its national championship and its only game to Cincinnati in an overtime period. He took that discouraging defeat casually, too. The winners received self-winding watches. "The losers got watches also," Lucas wryly observed, "but we have to wind ours."

At this point he was sick of basketball. His knees, which have bothered him for several years, possibly because he played for so many hours a day on the concrete courts of Middletown, were worse. When an offer came to tour Russia with an AAU team, Ohio State officials advised him not to go. Lucas knew better than to listen to them, and dropped out of school for a quarter to embark on what he now considers the most interesting weeks of his life. "It wasn't the basketball," he says. "I wanted to see the Russian people. They are supposed to be our enemies. I would go out with an interpreter every chance I had, and we would talk to people on the streets, in stores and in restaurants. The anti-American propaganda turns your stomach, but I think the average Russian wants to be friendly and have peace every bit as much as we do. When you talk with them you get the feeling that the problems between our countries will be settled one day. Until then, we have to stick by our ideals. I hope to raise three or four children—mostly boys—and I just intend to teach them the same kind of principles I was taught."

By the time he came back from Russia he had played basketball for 20 straight months and was 30 pounds underweight. He went to work as an instructor for a summer camp that prepares high school graduates for the first months of college. He didn't touch a basketball. "I was dreading the start of the season," he recalls. But when practice began at Ohio State he was better than ever.

"The Big Kid is different this year," says Fred Taylor. "He's laughing and clowning a little, which he never did before." At a recent practice Lucas dropped a pass. "It hit me in a bad spot, the palm of my hands," he hollered. The Ohio State athletic department couldn't have been more surprised if Woody Hayes had said he was planning to de-emphasize football. But Lucas still isn't shooting much. In the first game of the season against Florida State he took exactly one shot in the first half. Much of Lucas' personality can be seen in what amounts to his fiat decision not to score more points. This is a grandly unselfish attitude, though a risky one at times, because against certain kinds of teams Ohio State needs more points from Lucas.

His attitude about losing similarly confounds the team. "I play a defeat over and over and over," says Havlicek. "With Luke, it is as if a curtain comes down. As if it never happened."

"We have won so much," says Lucas, "that I always think we are going to win until the game is actually over. Then it's too late to think about it, so I don't. You should worry about the problems of the future, not the past."

Nor has Taylor tried to change this approach to the game. "He has tremendous pride," says the coach. "Nobody works harder. When the chips are down he is fantastic. What more should I ask of him?"

Lucas can be found almost any evening this winter studying with Treva in their four-room apartment, which is located exactly 1.3 miles from the granite-gray Ohio State field house. Their telephone number is unlisted. There is no name tag on their door. But, aside from that, they live much like the thousands of college married couples across the land. Their furniture is Early American, selected because it won't go out of style. They own a 1955 Chevrolet, on which the final $46 payment was made last month, a new dishful of plastic fruit, which Jerry considered an extravagance at 80¢, and an India-rubber plant that looks very dead, though Treva insists it will revive. Nowhere in the living room is there an indication that this is the home of a basketball player. In the basement are several cardboard boxes filled with emblems, medals, plaques and clippings, waiting for the trophy room Jerry someday plans to have. There is also a silver punch bowl big enough to float a basketball and maybe even a referee. Middletown had wanted to give Lucas an automobile after the Olympics, but the NCAA said no, and Jerry wouldn't let the Lucas Day Committee fake it by giving the car to his family. He got the punch bowl; he wishes he had the car. ("You see a lot of athletes with new cars," he says. "It makes you wonder.") The Lucas budget is a frugal one. Jerry recently had to get through four days on $1.76, waiting for his monthly scholarship check to come. He laughs about it, but he is eager now to be out of school and employed. Which brings up the problem of pro basketball.

He was considering this question one recent night after an Ohio State home game. His apartment was surprisingly empty, considering the fans and friends who had mobbed him after the game. There was only one visitor. Jerry sat on the couch next to Treva and drank four cream sodas, trying to regain the nine pounds he had lost that night. He nervously kneaded his hands, his toe idly traced over the pattern on the brown braided rug and he talked of his future: "I would like to think there isn't enough money in the world to get me to play pro basketball," he said. "I think I've had it with basketball. How long has it been? Thirteen years. That's a long, long time, and there are more important things in life than basketball.

"I still don't know what I am going to do, though. I know I want a home, a place where I can get away and just enjoy my family and friends. I want to write a book. Athletics are an important part of lots of young men's lives, and I think I've got some things to say that might influence them in the right direction. I'm just beginning to realize how people look up to someone like myself. They deserve an image worth following. I'd like to have some time to lecture and to work with children, as well as getting started in some business. Can I do what I want to without playing professional basketball?" he concluded. "I really hope so. I'm going to try."

It was two days after this, about the time that Pepper Wilson, general manager of the Cincinnati Royals, was saying, "We'll offer him so much money that he can't turn it down," that Jerry Lucas showed what kind of thing really interests him. He seemed in rare fettle as practice began on this Monday afternoon in the field house. When Coach Taylor walked out on the floor, Lucas discreetly waved four fingers at him. Minutes later he came over to Taylor. He was grinning. "Did you get my signal, coach?" he asked. "I got it," said Taylor.

"What signal?" Taylor was asked. "Oh," he said, "Luke just wanted to let me know he thinks he might get a 4.0 average this quarter. That's the highest there is."

Jerry Ray Lucas, sportsman, student and retired alligator keeper, is a tall man with keen eyesight and a very long view.

The year 1961 was notable for performances by many other fine athletes and sporting moments of high drama. Some of the best are shown on the following pages.

 

 

 

PHOTOPHOTOGARRY WINOGRANDPHOTOWith a perfectly timed leap, Jerry Lucas blocks shot by Willie Hall of St. John's. Behind at the time, OSU won the game.PHOTOJerry and Treva Lucas relax at a neighborhood soda shop. For years Lucas avoided such places, because he was uncomfortable under the stares that followed him. Recently he has acquired much more ease in public.

 

 

 

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)