The guests had finished their dinner and were repairing to the living room to watch Jerry Lucas run through some card tricks. Lucas entered with the rest, a smile at his lips. "I'm going to dazzle you," he said. The bravado might have been more persuasive had this been a gathering of New York Knickerbocker fans, doting partisans who suffer few doubts that Lucas and his Knick teammates will repeat as NBA champions in the season about to begin. But no, it was a private party for the New York Rangers and their wives that Lucas had agreed to perform for this night, an audience in no way bashful about giving the Knicks" moonlighting magician the business.
No sooner had Lucas arrived at the ranch-style house in suburban Westchester County, in fact, than one of the Rangers, Walt Tkaczuk, pumped his hand and deadpanned, "So you're Jerry West." And now, ready to begin his act in the living room, Lucas was getting a similar razzing from another Ranger, Billy Fairbairn, who made a great show of taking the closest chair. "I'm going to watch you," Fairbairn said. "I'm going to pick you off during your tricks."
Lucas eyed Fairbairn with the same forbearance he displays toward all the others who have vastly underestimated his preternatural powers. They include the folks back in Ohio who cheered Jerry Lucas in high school, college and—until he was traded away after six full seasons with the Cincinnati Royals—the NBA. His fellow Ohioans knew him to be an honor student and star of the 1960 Olympics, and they thought of him as a clean-cut, level-headed young man without a frivolous bone in his long body.
Now those same people find Jerry Lucas, whose super-straight image has been blurred further by bankruptcy and divorce proceedings, shamelessly hamming it up on the fringes of show biz. They flick on TV talk shows and see him exercising the eccentric turn of mind by which he alphabetizes words the instant he hears them—so that his name, for example, is spelled "Ejrry Aclsu." Or they read in their newspapers where he has memorized a chunk of the Manhattan phone book, thus dramatizing powers that he would promote in his fellowmen by starting up a chain of memory schools in partnership with a mnemonic expert named Harry Lorayne. As for magic, Lucas is busily marketing trick playing cards, magic sets and adult puzzles of his own design. The Jerry Lucas Super Kids's Day Magic Jamboree was a network TV special last year, and its star talks next of making elephants disappear and of sawing into sections a scantily clad woman. The Jerry Lucas Ohioans remember would have blushed and trembled at the sight of a scantily clad woman.
October 7, 1973
A certain hellishness newly infects Lucas in basketball, too. A heavy-duty but colorless player in earlier days, he has masqueraded with the Knicks as a fancy passer and outside shooter extraordinaire. He came to New York 2½ years ago from San Francisco (which had acquired him from Cincinnati) in a trade for Cazzie Russell, and when Center Willis Reed was injured Lucas spelled him in ways other than alphabetic, leading the Knicks into the 1972 NBA finals. With Reed back on last season's championship team, Lucas was shorn of a regular's job for virtually the first time in his career—but he became by common consent the league's best backup center.
Settling into this role, Lucas exults, "I'm having more fun playing basketball than ever." At 33 he also professes to have chosen the work he will pursue when his playing days end. He means to continue trading on magic and memory, and that is why he found himself under Billy Fairbairn's gaze at the party in Westchester County. He directed his first card trick at Fairbairn's wife Lloydene. It was his "invisible deck" trick. He instructed Lloydene to take a card from a make-believe deck and announce which one she imagined it to be. The room fell silent. Lloydene mimed the removal of a card and said, "Nine of clubs."
"You sure?" Lucas asked.
He had her put the imaginary card back into the invisible deck, upside down. Then he produced a deck of cards—a real one—and shuffled. He fanned the cards before him. All were face down except the 9 of clubs. "Beautiful. I love it!" cried Bobby Rousseau, another of the Rangers. He looked around the room, regarding his teammates with profound distaste. "Finally I meet somebody interesting."
For more than an hour Lucas performed in this fashion, fingering the cards as expertly as a scalper handling tickets outside Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers and Knicks toil in less social moments. He removed from a pocket a slip of paper bearing the name of a card somebody had just pulled from a deck. Gasps. He shuffled, and somehow spades and clubs found their way into one pile, hearts and diamonds to another. Applause. He left the room, returning to correctly divine which three-digit figure the audience had selected in his absence. A chorus of I-don't-believe-its.
Presently Ranger Ted Irvine turned to Fairbairn, who had been long silent.
"Which one did you catch him on, Billy?" Irvine asked.
Everybody laughed. Fairbairn shook his head. "The guy's amazing," he said.
"Magic used to be a hobby, but it's more than that now," Lucas was saying the day after the party. "Let's face it, New York is the place to be if you have ability." The Big Apple's benefits for Lucas have included television commercials for Vitalis, magazine ads for United Airlines and the elegant surroundings in which he was now being interviewed, the 28th-floor midtown suite of producer Don Kirshner, who put together Lucas' TV special and provided him, temporarily, with office space.
The receptionist had buzzed Lucas, who soon appeared in the waiting room. His medium-length sideburns framed a lean face expressionless save for the eyes, which kept busy inside deep sockets. Lucas extended a size-14 hand in greeting and led the way along a burnt-orange carpet into Kirshner's office, a sanctuary dominated by a grand piano and commanding a view of Central Park. Kirshner was ill today, and Lucas was spurning his own more modest accommodations down the hall.
Where Jerry Lucas had been a practitioner of the black arts the night before, he seemed in this executive suite setting not so different from the all-American boy of his Ohio days; it was as if Mandrake had changed capes to become Superman. Indeed, if Lucas comes off as a ding-a-ling in New York, he himself implies that it is a case of knowing his audience. "I'm no flake," he said. "I know what I'm doing, but I don't care if people think I'm crazy. I want them to think what I do is unusual."
It was surely because of this desire that Lucas went on to tell of his varied idiosyncrasies, pausing now and then to be sure the interviewer recorded every last one. He confessed, for example, to being a vitamin freak who has consumed up to 100 pills a day, washing all down at once with only a sip of water. To explain so prodigious a feat of swallowing, he cited the valuable experience gained as a teen-ager hanging around a Cities Service station in his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, where he hustled pocket money by guzzling quarts of milk in five seconds flat.
He also let it be known that his mind was filigreed with strands of esoterica, including the information that most highways have 132 painted center stripes per mile, but California's have 208 and Kansas' 144. He said he counts all manner of things, sometimes doing so even on the basketball floor. At time-outs his eyes will dart across the crowd. "I might be counting the people wearing red or the steps in an aisle," he said. Or he will shuffle across the court head down. "I count cracks and I try to step on them with my right foot."
Lucas told, too, of being a tinkerer. He once invented a Santa Claus-shaped nutcracker as a holiday novelty item, only to lose interest before anything came of it. He designed a "perpetual motion machine" that ran without outside energy. His own energies, he said, had lately been devoted to magic. He had read hundreds of books on the subject, but little besides that, explaining, "I don't like to read. My mind wanders."
All this would smack of public relations pure and simple, except that so many of Lucas' eccentricities date to boyhood. His alphabetical spelling, for one, began when his father, a pressman at a Middletown paper mill, drove the family on fishing trips. In the back seat 9-year-old Jerry Ray Lucas was so fidgety he had to be reminded to keep still.
"I saw a gas station sign, and for the fun of it I rearranged the letters in alphabetical order," Lucas recalls. "I did the same with other signs. Nobody could believe how quiet I was." He says he has not let a day pass since without spelling alphabetically, and his proficiency is such that if you try to trip him up with words like "floor," "ghost" or "chilly," he will reply immediately, "That one's already alphabetical."
Magic captured Lucas' interest at Middletown High, where he led the basketball team to a 76-1 record over three years and was president of his junior and senior classes. He fell under the influence of a local trucking executive named George (Hawkeye) Harvey, who performed card tricks at high school sock hops. Practicing Hawkeye's tricks at home, Lucas was soon showing his dexterity at neighborhood poker games. "Jerry could handle the cards," says Ed Payne, now Middletown's athletic director. "He was slick."
Lucas also developed his powers of memory, and these he credits for his election at Ohio State to Beta Gamma Sigma, the commerce school's equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. His freshman roommate John Havlicek, now of the Boston Celtics, says, "Jerry would flip through a book for 15 minutes and remember it all." When Havlicek asked about these cavalier study habits, Lucas told of having devised an "alphabetical and numerical system" by which he memorized items in groups of three, which he coded with other groups of three.
"John was the first person I revealed my system to," Lucas says, investing the moment with historical importance.
Today Lucas would share his gifts with the world, a magnanimity that became apparent when, leaving Don Kirshner's office, he moved on to his own. It could have been a child's room, strewn as it was with mazes, puzzles and other gadgets that Lucas had designed. He picked up a cardboard gizmo that, when compressed, assumed different shapes and colors. "This is a hexa-flexagon," he said. He reached next for a block inscribed with numbers. "A magic cube. When eight such cubes are lined up in a column, the numbers add up to the same sum in every direction."
Lucas made little pretense of modesty as he demonstrated what he called "the fun, exciting things I'm doing." For all his milk guzzling and the rest, however, what seemed oddest about him was his manner. Unfailingly polite and good-humored, he nevertheless had a distant quality that, as he moved about his office, seemed out of synch with the business at hand. When his visitor suggested that there might be something compulsive about all the counting he does, Lucas answered eagerly, "That's it exactly—I'm a compulsive counter!" But his face was stolid and he was scanning the room for other objects to show off even as he uttered the words. At another moment he straddled a stool and flicked imaginary pieces of lint off a pants leg. Then he drummed on the stool. "I'm also getting into mentalism and ESP," he said. "I don't dare tell you everything I'm working on, though, or you'll really think I'm crazy." Lucas smiled. He no longer was flicking or drumming. Now he was cracking his knuckles.
It was an hour before the start of a game last spring against Phoenix, and Jerry Lucas' wife, a tall pretty blonde, relaxed at courtside in Madison Square Garden. Treva and Jerry Lucas were married in 1960 when she was an Ohio State coed and he the campus hero, but their storybook romance had recently soured. The couple had begun discussing the possibility of divorce, a course they would finally agree upon during the off-season. Meanwhile, despite the strains in their marriage, she continued to cheer her husband on at courtside and was able to good-humoredly assess his new public role as a wizard of memory and magic.
"I asked Jerry what I should tell you," she began. "He said, Tell the truth.' " Her voice assumed an O.K., here-goes tone. "Well, the truth is that Jerry is the absent-minded professor. He has a good memory all right, but his mind is filled with so much trivia that he forgets birthdays and anniversaries. He also forgets names. We'll be driving to a party and he'll say, 'Who was that couple we met the other night?' I'll say, 'Gee, Jer, you're the mental wizard.' "
Now Lucas was on the court, the first of the Knicks to appear for the pregame warmup. A smattering of applause rose from the stands. Treva smiled and went on. She said that her children, Jeff, 9, and Julie, 8, had learned a few of their father's magic tricks, but that for herself it was enough that Jerry had insomnia spells during which he worked out new tricks, sometimes awakening her to tell her about them. "Can you imagine?" she said. "The last time it was four a.m."
Now, one by one, Lucas was joined on the court by his teammates, who have shared with Treva the role of sorcerer's apprentice. Some of the Knicks greet Lucas' magic with sighs, too. "We used to gather around to see if Luke could do some weird trick," shrugs Guard Dean Meminger. "Now we know he can. We say, 'Aw, go away, Luke.' " His teammates wisely ban Lucas from poker games, so he makes himself useful on trips as scorekeeper; he records bets, raises and calls in his head, then announces after a dozen or so hands how much each player has won or lost.
Although he has failed to make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vanish, as the other Knicks urge, Lucas has put the wand to doubts about his own basketball play. Through much of his pro career he carried 250 pounds on his 6'8" frame, using his bulk to become the NBA's fifth all-time rebounder and a perennial all-star forward. But he was slow, particularly defending against small forwards. His jumping was impaired by chronically bad knees, forcing him to rely on timing and position to get his rebounds. His offensive rebounds were few.
"Lucas gets the easy defensive rebounds," Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn scoffed two years ago. "He cheats by sloughing off his man. He gets 18 rebounds but his man gets 35 points." And Los Angeles' Jerry West said, "Lucas can't move and plays no defense. Forget the statistics."
Significantly, neither Heinsohn nor West acknowledges this criticism today, and West fairly swoons in calling Lucas "the very unselfish player he has always been." The turnabout began in San Francisco, where Lucas shed both 20 pounds and the distractions of his Beef N Shakes restaurant chain. Lucas had boasted he would be a millionaire by 30, but his restaurants were caught in the tight-money squeeze of the late '60s. He went bankrupt, an embarrassment he came to consider a blessing. "It freed me to concentrate on basketball," he says. Having retreated from the realities of commerce to hocus-pocus, he now calls magic "more like fun than a business."
But, once again, it was the move to New York that brought deliverance. When the Knicks returned Lucas to his old Ohio State position of center he set out to prove his claim that he had been wrongly deployed during all those years as an NBA forward. "I never was a real forward," he insists. Of course, he has not been a real center, either. Too small to outrebound the Chamberlains and Abdul-Jabbars, he must try to box them out, leaving it largely to Knick Forward Dave DeBusschere to work the boards. Rebounding, once Lucas' strong suit, has therefore been the least of his duties for the Knicks. "I may not get the ball, but I don't want my man to, either," he says.
On offense Lucas plays outside, providing little of the physicality of low-post centers and at the same time leaving himself in better position to get back against the fast break. When he is shooting well he also draws the opposing big man away from the basket or else poses the problems Chamberlain faced in the '72 NBA finals. "Jerry almost killed us," recalls Laker Coach Bill Sharman. "We didn't want Wilt way out there and Jerry just popped away."
Lucas compiled a .513 field-goal average last season, sixth best in the NBA. He seldom shot except when open, a shyness partly explained by a quaint array of shots that require Lebensraum. Lucas puts in layups underhanded and his best weapon from 12 feet is an anachronistic roundhouse hook. His push-'em-up outside shot, which he unhesitatingly tries from what would be three-point distance in the ABA, reminds Knick telecaster Bob Wolff of a waiter hoisting a tray. Wolff and partner Cal Ramsey call it "the bomb," which is apt for reasons of trajectory as well as range.
"Luke's shots seem longer than they are because they take so much time to come down," says Ramsey. Of the high arch, Lucas himself says, "The best way to put an object in a wastebasket is from above. That's the angle I aim for."
But it is passing that Lucas professes to enjoy most, and old roommate Havlicek, for one, calls him the best ball-handling center in the NBA. Lucas gets the ball more at center than he did as a cornerman and, stationed outside, he hits teammates cutting up a middle left open by his absence. "Jerry's first objective is the pass," says Sharman. "He always sees the open man." Although the bomb was off target in last spring's playoff victory over Sharman's Lakers, Lucas passed well and alternated with Reed in the essential business of leaning against Chamberlain on defense. The NBA title was Lucas' first, and he said, "I think I'm more excited than the rookies."
This enthusiasm for team success suggests a selflessness which is at odds with Lucas' long-standing reputation for padding his rebounding totals by needlessly retrieving at-the-buzzer desperation shots. He is also known for keeping very close track of his statistics during games, but he disavows any base motives for this. "I like to count things, remember?" he says.
If the-Phoenix game attended by Treva was any gauge, Lucas may be mellowing. The contest drew the Garden's usual crowd of 19,700, give or take a few, and although the cigar-chewing Knick fans who habitually do just that—meaning give or take a few—had installed the home team as nine-point favorites, New York won by only 115-111. Lucas had nine assists.
Afterward Lucas estimated his assists at "seven or eight"—but he may have erred on purpose rather than sound overly stat-conscious. He was seated in the Knick dressing room holding ice packs to his battered knees, long a postgame ritual. Around him pressed the Knick ballboys, one of whom suddenly called, "Hey, Jerry—instantaneously."
Lucas did not blink as he rattled it off. "A-a-e-i-l-n-n-n-o-s-s-t-t-u-y."
Harry Lorayne sat in the living room of his Greenwich Village brownstone contemplating the act that he and Jerry Lucas were to put on at an upcoming trade show. Lorayne, a peppy man in a brown turtleneck and khaki suit, felt that reference should be made early on to the fact that he, at 5'6", was more than a foot shorter than Lucas. "I'll say, 'Jerry and I go to extremes,' " he said. "Or I might tell the audience how I went to a Polish dietician and lost height."
The team of Lucas & Lorayne was formed after the taller member had sought out the shorter. Lucas had read Lorayne's books, including How to Develop a Super-Power Memory, and he was familiar with the act in which Lorayne circulates through an audience, meeting 500 or more strangers, then recalls every name. Lorayne also runs a memory school in New York's Roosevelt Hotel, teaching students to remember gin rummy discards, stock-tape symbols and other information of value.
Having found themselves to be "on the same wavelength," Lucas and Lorayne now envision not only a chain of campus-based memory schools, but a series of jointly authored memory books. Lorayne brings to their union show-biz experience, Lucas an access to the media he sometimes exploits with zeal. Invited onto the Tonight Show last spring to discuss the Knicks' championship win, Lucas was bleeped when he brazenly tried to tell the world that he and Lorayne could be reached c/o Lorayne's agent in the Empire State Building. For their act, which they have tailored to business seminars and college lectures, the partners talk of making a standing offer of $100,000 to anybody who can beat Lucas at alphabetical spelling. As for Lorayne's talents, he was happy to display them there in his living room. He began by inviting guests to grill him on the contents of a magazine that, he said, he had bought only that morning. The mere mention of a page number evoked, from memory, Lorayne's recitation of exactly what was on the page: headlines, author's name, picture captions. His recall was total except for the name of the magazine, which he kept calling SPORTS ILLUSTRATION.
Jerry Lucas meanwhile was working on a beer—he drinks his with ice cubes—and nodding approvingly. When Lorayne launched into a memory trick involving numbered squares, Lucas whispered, "Watch this one, it's incredible!" Lorayne does card tricks, too, and with them came another Lucas aside: "You're watching the best now." Lucas also deferred to Lorayne, as Plato to Socrates, when the subject turned to the athlete's memorization of the Manhattan telephone directory.
Lucas admits that he undertook this feat for publicity. What he memorized, specifically, was the first column on each of the phone book's first 500 pages—50,000 entries. He studied on Knick road trips, concealing ripped-out pages in magazines. "Can you imagine the team's reaction if they saw me reading the phone book?" he asks. Then came a press conference at which Lucas pretended to be directory assistance, only without the inconvenience of having to look up any numbers.
But now, in his living room, Harry Lorayne was saying, "The phone book thing was too strong, Jerry. You've got to be human, not a machine."
"You're right," Lucas replied. "The thing was too strong."
It was Lorayne's evening, although Lucas unavoidably shone when it became necessary at one point to return a couple of books to a high shelf. It was Lucas, too, who solved the mystery of a thumping noise that briefly sounded in the living room. It was unclear whether the phantom sound—probably a neighbor hammering nails—had come from either of the adjacent buildings or from the tenant who rented Lorayne's basement.
Suddenly Lucas pointed to the wall before him. "It's coming from there," he said triumphantly. To judge by his explanation, Jerry Lucas may possess strange and wondrous powers still unrevealed.
"I felt the shock in my toes before my heels," he said.