One of the few pleasant things Jerry Lucas has experienced in the past 12 months has been the taste of good wine. Since he was traded early last season to San Francisco, Lucas, who seldom drank any wine during his first 29 years when he lived in Ohio, has traveled in the Napa Valley, tested and enjoyed the region's products and now buys in bulk directly from the vintners. The subtle flavors and bouquets are fresh stimulants to his senses, senses which are revived, and perhaps more discerning, now that he has survived a bitter, vinegary period in his life.
The last year was not a vintage one for Lucas. He asked to be traded away from his home state, where he had been a widely admired figure since his high school days in Middletown, when he found that the feeble Cincinnati Royals, for whom he had been an NBA All-Star for six consecutive years, no longer seemed to need him.
When he was graduated eight years ago from Ohio State—Phi Beta Kappa in management—Lucas wavered briefly between business and pro basketball as the best way to make a million dollars. The decision seemed academic to those who knew him. Everyone agreed he had the intelligence and ambition to get his million any way he chose. And Lucas made money; only two years ago he was offered $1.5 million for his businesses and turned it down because the deal would have required him to quit basketball and work full-time for the prospective buyer. Thereafter, he stretched his time and his credit line too thin, and last December his little empire of Beef 'N' Shakes restaurants turned into hamburger. He filed bankruptcy petitions with debts of $822,000, and lost his three other companies, his savings and his $150,000 house in Cincinnati. The purchasers of Lucas' restaurants removed his name from their signs. "We felt it was a loser's image," said a representative of the firm.
Lucas knew his financial holocaust was at hand when he joined the Warriors, and the knowledge destroyed his game. Critics in San Francisco complained that he did not score or even shoot enough to help the team's ponderous offense and that he was out of shape. Lucas admits they were right. But he adds that the broken bone he sustained in his shooting hand a month after he arrived in San Francisco prevented him from regaining confidence in his shot or from working himself into condition after a largely inactive exhibition season with the Royals. In any case, he finished the year with his lowest scoring (15.1) and rebounding (14) averages as a pro—not bad totals for most players, but well below par for the best rebounding forward in the game and one of its finest percentage shooters.
"People began saying I was the only retired active player in existence," Lucas said last week. A San Francisco observer close to the Warriors put it more astringently before this season began. "Until Lucas got here," he said, "I never realized how good Oscar Robertson was. If Lucas played like this in Cincinnati, then Oscar must have been carrying him on his back into the All-Star game every year."
By last week it was hard to find Lucas critics of that stripe in San Francisco. The day after the close of the 1969-70 season Lucas, his wife Treva and their children Jeff and Julie moved out of the motel where they had spent the winter and into a permanent residence in the Bay Area and Jerry began adapting to a new style of life. He used to work on business projects at least 12 hours every day—and now there were none to work on. For the first time since the summer of his junior year in college, when he was trying out for the 1960 Olympic team, Lucas devoted himself to basketball. He set up a rarely used, 5-year-old Exercycle and sweated off 20 pounds. All through June he practiced shooting five hours a day and later he scrimmaged regularly with his teammates. It was the first time Lucas had practiced in the off season since he became a pro. And, also perhaps for the first time, he seemed to be enjoying life instead of trying to beat it to death.
"Last year was the most discouraging I've known," Lucas says now. "Nothing went right for me, nothing, nothing at all. As far as basketball was concerned, I had no energy. I could do certain things, but I couldn't sustain my drive. Four or five times up and down the court wore me out.
"Of course, the financial thing influenced me. My mind was so cluttered that I couldn't think about the game during the day or even when I got into the locker room. When I was out on the floor I thought about it during the timeouts and free throws. I guess I tried to do too many things myself. I worked 12, 16 hours a day. I did everything. I even wrote the manuals for the restaurants and they were 270 pages long. I was always on the phone when we were on the road or checking out new sites or seeing potential investors. I should have gotten other people to do some of those things. This year I'm not thinking about anything but basketball."
It shows in Lucas' play and, naturally, in the Warriors' record. Jerry is averaging 21.7 points and 17 rebounds, and San Francisco, which before the season was rated the Pacific Division's weakest established team largely because Lucas was considered semi-retired, is in and out of first place. As the Warriors won nine of their last 15 games, Lucas was the team leader in scoring and rebounding and, says Coach Al Attics, his contributions were far greater than the statistics indicate. Lucas' rejuvenation has allowed Nate Thurmond to concentrate on defense. The Warriors can assure Thurmond that he need not be concerned about his scoring totals, and after a slow start he has responded with some of the best defensive play by a center since the days of Bill Russell.
"We had some things to prove," said Attics, "because people said we couldn't do it. Lucas took the worst raps. He had a bad year by Jerry Lucas standards, and they started saying it was worse than it really was. What really burned me up was when they said he never had been a good player anyhow."
John Havlicek, who played and roomed with Lucas at Ohio State, thinks he sees some familiar signs in Jerry's revival. "When he went bankrupt it hurt him," says Havlicek. "He's a very ambitious person. I think he figures if he has a good season he can renegotiate his contract [Lucas makes $70,000 a year]. There's a lot of money to be made with the two leagues competing. Luke has that old fire in his eyes—like he had in college. When he threw the ball up and it didn't go in he was amazed. I see this back in him now."
Lucas is still inordinately dismayed by his missed shots. Last week, as the Warriors made one of those routine NBA transcontinental treks during which they played four games in five days in four different cities, he complained first in Philadelphia about his eight-for-18 shooting against the 76ers. One of those that fell in was a tough tip that resulted in a three-point play for Lucas and gave San Francisco the lead it needed to sew up a victory with 2:10 remaining. The next night in Cleveland, Lucas was displeased with his nine-for-19 shooting despite his 21 points and 22 rebounds in another Warriors' win.
In a close loss in Seattle on Friday, Lucas scored 27 points, shooting .500 and displaying more movement on offense than pro fans had ever seen from him. Six of his baskets were scored on drives or with the running hook that was his trademark as a college center. On Saturday night the Warriors took over first place with a 92-88 win over the Lakers at home. Lucas again scored 27 points, had 17 rebounds and played a penetrating game. He tried only four long shots and scored on two of them while hitting on 12 of 21.
On the plane to Seattle, some of the Lucas ambitiousness that Havlicek recalls seemed subdued. "Business is not on my mind," said Lucas. "My vision is changed. I've got more time for my family and for myself now. Losing the restaurants might have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I've got more friends now, real friends. I thought I had some in business in Cincinnati, but it turned out they were not my friends at all. I thought for a good number of years that I had to make a million. Well, I've made it and I've lost it. I don't think about it anymore. I've got peace of mind. Life is fun for once and my mind is freer than it ever has been."
Then he reached for a glass of white wine, took a sip and said, "You know, it wasn't until we moved to San Francisco that I got to like this."