When the president of Jerry Lucas Beef 'N Shakes, Inc., that growing Midwestern chain of eateries, moved to San Francisco several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal missed the story completely and the food industry took the news placidly. San Franciscans, on the other hand, perked up—particularly those 8,000 or so who regularly get their kicks at basketball games. It turned out that the food magnate had also contracted to play forward for the San Francisco Warriors, who were badly in need of someone about 6'8" high who could score maybe 20 points a game.
San Franciscans are the type of people who refer to their home town as The City and take their blessings pretty much for granted. Yet, when the food magnate was introduced to Warrior fans in Civic Auditorium for the first time, they stood and applauded him for two minutes in a very un-Citylike burst of enthusiasm and for the next few days others stopped him on the street to say welcome. Jerry Lucas was theirs, and a lot of people were thinking that maybe an NBA championship might also be. What with Wilt Chamberlain's disabling knee injury last Friday night, the prospects are now even more so.
Up to that moment, quite a few seers had been picking the Warriors to finish somewhere in the ruck of the NBA's Western Division this year. True, they had Nate Thurmond, all 6'11" of him, at center, and no one outplays Nate through the course of a season. They also had Clyde Lee, 6'10", at one forward. Together, Thurmond and Lee had led the Warriors to the rebounding championship of the league, last year. But there was a rather ominous void at the other corner after Rudy LaRusso decided last summer that a man of his age should be in business rather than in athletics. Lee is no Billy the Kid around the basket, so someone was needed up front to supply those 18 to 20 points a game and the kind of help around the backboards Lucas had been giving Cincinnati since he turned pro in 1963. With Luke alongside Thurmond and Lee, the Warriors now have power to spare. It might take an M-1 rifle and a blackjack to get the ball away from them.
Of course, you don't just go out and hire yourself a Jerry Lucas when you feel in the mood. You have to luck into that kind of deal. One Monday, just as the season was getting under way, Bob Feerick, the Warriors' general manager, took a phone call from Joe Axelson, his counterpart in Cincinnati. "How about a trade?" Axelson asked.
November 17, 1969
"Sure," said Feerick. "Who do you want to trade? Oscar Robertson or Jerry Lucas?" This was largely in jest, except that there had been rumors of grumbling inside the Royals' tent.
"You guessed it," Axelson replied. "I mean Lucas. He's not happy here, and he'd like to play for you."
At first the Royals wanted to make an even trade—Lucas for Jeff Mullins, the perpetually moving guard who, the Warriors feel, is on the verge of becoming one of the superstars of basketball. They were not about to part with him. Instead, they offered Jim King, a good but injury-prone guard, along with Bill Turner, a young forward with speed who was working his way into the Warriors' starting lineup. The Royals scouted these two in Atlanta and New York during the week of negotiations and happened to catch them at top form in games the Warriors won—the latter being the Knicks' only loss of the new season. In fact, both men played so well that the Royals began to fear the Warriors might lose interest in a trade.
By Friday of that week Feerick told the Royals, "I've got a very emotional boss [meaning Franklin Mieuli, the Warriors' very emotional owner]. He falls in love with his players, and if we beat Milwaukee tomorrow night, he may not want to make the trade." A few frantic phone calls later, the deal was on.
Even for a star athlete of Luke's dimensions it takes time to work into a new system. Under Coach George Lee, the Warriors' style is to dominate the backboards, then let Mullins or one of the other three guards bring the ball down the court while the play forms around those three big men up front. Thurmond can play a high post and hook, Lee patrols up close for the tap-ins and now there is Lucas for the longer outside shots or the quick drive-in and layup. And, of course, Mullins: he gets his 25 or 30 points from anywhere.
Lucas had to work into this pattern first against the Milwaukee Alcindors, a game the Warriors won largely because Thurmond was able to limit Alcindor to seven field goals and five rebounds while scoring 10 himself. "I just tried to stay out of the way," Luke said later, "and shoot when I was open." He got 10 that night. Then, after a desultory loss to the Chicago Bulls and a runaway 23-point victory over Lucas' old teammates, the Royals, the Warriors set off on a brutal five-game road trip last week that had them playing in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Boston, Atlanta and Salt Lake—all in a stretch of seven days.
In the airports, in the coffee shops, on the planes and in the drafty dressing rooms of the arenas, Luke and his new teammates found time to muse on how their new relationship was developing. Luke is nothing if not intelligent. A Phi Beta Kappa at Ohio State in 1962, he has spent his leisure time away from the courts, building that food business, for which he recently turned down an offer of $1.5 million. There is also the LTN Enterprises, a construction firm just getting under way.
Sitting in a Baltimore coffee shop just before the first road game, Luke talked about his new life. He is a handsome man with a large, open face and the sleepy-looking hoods of his eyelids are a sharp contrast to the alert gray eyes beneath. "I feel differently than I have ever felt professionally," he was saying. "I had wanted to come to San Francisco, not just because it was a nice place to live; I had always heard the Warriors were a happy club without a lot of hang-ups, that they got along well together and that Franklin Mieuli was a fair and considerate owner.
"This team has the potential to do real well," he went on, "and I think most of us feel we can go all the way if we play the way we can and stay healthy and get the breaks. This is the first time I ever played with a team with a real big, dominating center. There isn't a better man in the league than Nate, and that puts more pressure on you to do the things you can do best. It gives you more confidence.
"Another thing I hope I can contribute," Luke added, "is a voice in the huddle, a voice in the locker room—encouraging the other players. We're a young team, and I guess that except for Al Attles, our assistant coach who also fills in at guard, I'm about the oldest guy. I'll be 30 in March. So I ought to be able to help some of the younger players to think positively. It's really very exciting. It's given me a new lease on life, and I feel like a rookie again."
While he was talking, Luke was toying with his right hand, moving it up and down, pressing it back against his forearm. Though he had said nothing about it at the time, he had taken a crack on it in the Cincinnati game a couple of nights earlier and it was stiffening up. That night he could scarcely hold the ball, and shooting was impossible. He got only one field goal against Baltimore as the Bullets ran the Warriors ragged, winning by 19 points.
Depression descended. "We're a moving team," said Coach Lee. "We can get the ball, but if we don't move, we can't score. We were awful." Luke went to the hospital for X rays, which were negative, and the team moved on to Cincinnati, where Luke took heat on his arm and played with it bandaged. The Warriors moved that night, and it was a laugher—they beat the Royals by 21 points, and Luke's mending arm provided 19.
The next night in Boston was the opposite—a cliffhanger that was settled in the last few seconds by Luke's driving layup, giving him a total of 21. "We needed that game," everyone was saying afterward. "We came from 15 points behind, and it proved to us we can win the tough ones."
This is a point that worries everyone, Owner Mieuli especially. "Ever since we lost Rick Barry it's been tough for us," he says, "but now with Lucas I think maybe we have a winner. What worries me is that San Francisco teams aren't winners. I think a lot has to do with our way of life. It's too easy. We won't work as hard as people from those other cities where life is tough, cities like Green Bay and Cleveland. But beating Boston tonight on their own court may have proved something. Maybe it showed we are tough. Not just good enough to win but tough enough to win."