First redeemer church of Forsyth County, Ga., rises out of
scrabbly red clay, erstwhile farmland rapidly yielding to the
predations of greater Atlanta. It's a Southern Baptist
megachurch, where worshipers sing not from hymnals from but
overhead screens, and blessings for a Sunday morning are
dispensed in two shifts. Jerry Lucas, a.k.a. Doctor Memory, will
deliver sermons at both 9 and 10:45 a.m., then return at 6 for a
presentation partly about memorizing the Bible. The following
evening he'll talk about how to recall names and faces. Two Days
to Remember, he bills his mid-Georgia stopover, one of 30 or so
such gigs he works a year, most at churches like this. ¬∂ To judge
by his ease around a lectern, Lucas at 63 still merits SI's
description of him, right after he led Ohio State to the 1960
NCAA basketball title, as "agile" and "nerveless." He has been a
born-again Christian since his final NBA season, 1973-74, when a
friend handed him a Bible and, between games and practices, as
his New York Knicks roommate, Phil Jackson, regarded him
curiously, Lucas committed the New Testament to his elephantine
memory. ¬∂ Since then his faith has fired a parallel evangelism,
that of a man who believes that anyone can share his prodigious
ability to learn.
As a nine-year-old on a fishing trip with his family, Jerry
decided on a lark to alphabetize the letters on a sign at a gas
station. Soon he could rearrange the letters of a word into
alphabetical order faster than other people could spell the word.
In an era before TV had dibs on a kid's time, he devised mental
games like this, eventually using them to master tasks at school.
He didn't yet know that words existed for what he was
doing--words like mnemonic and acronym--but his tricks helped him
see his way through childhood. "My parents aren't educated
people," Lucas says. "They never motivated me to do any of this.
I just had a gymnastic, active mind. The only way most of us know
to approach learning is through repetition, and I figured there
had to be an easier way."
Lucas thinks he developed that easier way on the rings and pommel
horses inside his young head. The crux of his Lucas Learning
System is the ability to store pictures in the mind and then to
retrieve them simply by thinking of them. "Automatic learning,"
he calls it. Lucas believes that millions of people who have
tried to learn by traditional means and have struggled, for
reasons of disability or environment, would flourish if only they
were taught visually.
"Picture a zebra in your mind," he tells the First Redeemer
congregation. "O.K., now, whatever you do, do not picture a zebra
in your mind. Do not picture a zebra, ladies and gentlemen."
There's laughter. "Can't do it, see? You cannot not picture a
zebra in your mind. It's automatic."
June 29, 2003
Audaciously, he has applied visualized learning to even the least
concrete concepts. "How many of you have seen a pronoun?" he
asks. "If a pronoun ran down the aisle and jumped on this podium,
would you say, 'Why, that's a pronoun! I haven't seen one for
In fact, Lucas has seen a pronoun and, with the help of an
artist, rendered it. She's a golf pro in a nun's habit--a pro
nun. She does many things, among them serve on a team of Lucas's
devising, the Capitalize Team. Like her teammates she wears a cap
graced with elongated eyes (cap-tall-eyes), and there, in a
cartoon tableau, she's teeing off on an eyeball. It's an absurd
image, but just wacky enough to make us never forget that we
capitalize the pronoun I.
Lucas has his own private Guggenheim of pictures like this with
which he can convey virtually any sound and build virtually any
concept. To illustrate a state and its capital, for instance, an
anthropomorphic ark stands next to a can, sawing in half a--you
guessed it--little rock. For the eighth of the Ten Commandments,
a picture of a knot of rope pulling open a steel gate, which
rhymes with eight, burns into the mind that thou shalt not steal.
When he introduces these pictograms, they touch off chuckles and
groans, as any bad pun would. Yet each makes an impression.
Someone once told Lucas that he thinks like a child, a comment he
has always regarded as the highest compliment. "Something we see
is a hundred times easier to learn than something we read or
hear," he says. "We don't run into someone on the street and say,
'Hi, Mary. I know your name, but for the life of me I can't
recall your face.' If we can just make the intangible tangible,
we can learn better."
Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, spending hours on the courts of
Sunset Park, Lucas mastered basketball in much the same way. He
was a wondrous athlete, to be sure, perfectly proportioned, with
20/10 vision. When he sighted a jumper, he looked, someone once
said, like a waiter carrying a platter of food. But his parabolic
outside shot found the net so reliably that it became known as
the Lucas Layup. He's the only person ever to lead the nation in
both field goal percentage and rebounding in two collegiate
seasons, and he may be the best-rebounding shooter, and
best-shooting rebounder, ever to play the game.
Yet watching him play offered no clue to how much he owed his
success to his mind's eye. Where billions of others would simply
see a hoop, Lucas saw the notches of a clock face on the top of
the rim. He would first shoot 25 shots at nine o'clock, trying to
slip the ball as close as possible to the inside left edge of the
rim. Then he'd shoot for three o'clock, just inside the right
edge. Then six just over the front rim, and so on, until he
wearied of making shots. Whereupon he would miss them, at each
spot on the dial in turn, all the while calibrating arc and
velocity so he'd know precisely where to spring for the rebound.
"In games, I never blocked out," he says. "I wasn't going to
waste my time on blocking out. I'd go up to tip the ball in
before anybody knew it was missed."
For hours a day in Sunset Park he would shoot to make and shoot
to miss, with Swiss precision, countless times--only nothing was
countless to Lucas. He counted everything. He counted steps in an
arena, cracks in a city sidewalk. During NBA games, whether he
was on the floor or off, he kept a running box score of every
player's stats. He'll still tell you that there are 132 painted
passing lines over a typical mile of two-lane U.S. highway,
except in Kansas, where there are 144, and California, where
there are 208. After Lucas's arrival at Ohio State his roommate,
John Havlicek, never saw him open a book and feared he wouldn't
last the quarter, yet Lucas aced every course he took freshman
year and eventually made the School of Commerce and
Administration's equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. Word of his knack
for learning soon reached Buckeyes football coach Woody Hayes,
who persuaded Lucas to tutor his players. "Woody Hayes," Lucas
says, "was the first person to ask me to teach."
Not even out of his teens, Lucas was a surpassing success with
his body and his mind. Yet all his accolades, he tells the
worshipers at First Redeemer, only left him with an
undernourished spirit. "It took me a long time to realize that
God was speaking to me--that he wanted me to change education in
America, to make it fun and simple," he says. Late in his sermon
he asks members of the audience to bow their heads. "If you've
decided to make a change in your life, if you feel the Holy
Spirit has heard you, look up and raise your hand so I can
Heads and hands go up around the church, and Lucas's voice
assumes the cadence of an auctioneer's. "I see one over here, two
down front, amen, you in the back, yes, you over there, two over
here...." As he notes all the saved souls, it's hard not to
believe that, in some spare chamber of his mind, he's counting
Basketball never seemed to be enough for Jerry Lucas. He enrolled
at Ohio State on the condition that he be on academic scholarship
so that he could quit the team if he wanted to. For most of his
time in Columbus he insisted that he had no interest in playing
professionally, and in 1962 he took a break from school to tour
the Soviet Union with an AAU team. When he finally joined the
NBA, signing with the Cincinnati Royals in 1963 for $30,000 a
year, he developed a portfolio of outside interests, including a
chain of fast-food joints called Jerry Lucas Beef 'N' Shakes. He
devoted up to a dozen hours a day to his burger business, in
season and out, and wrote the 270-page training manual himself.
"Most college kids don't know what they want to be, but Jerry
did," Havlicek has said. "You'd ask him and he'd tell you: 'a
millionaire.' When Jerry Lucas says he's going to do something,
he does it."
He became a millionaire before he turned 30. Then, as he tried to
expand his restaurant chain, Lucas got caught in the vise of high
interest rates, falling more than $800,000 in the hole as his
company tried to guarantee mortgages for new outlets. During the
1969-70 season, bankruptcy stripped him of his other holdings,
all his savings and his $150,000 Cincinnati home. He played
distractedly and gained weight, and the Royals traded him to the
San Francisco Warriors. Yet he kept a remarkably even temper
throughout. "I thought for a good number of years that I had to
make a million," he said at the time. "Well, I've made it and
I've lost it. I don't think about it anymore."
His star-crossed business empire had so consumed Lucas that once
it was gone, his basketball career blossomed again, never more so
than after the Warriors sent him to New York in 1971. Two years
later the Knicks won an NBA title, and Lucas became the first
person to claim basketball's ultimate team prize in high school,
college, the Olympics and the NBA. (Only Quinn Buckner and Magic
Johnson have done so since.) Soon teammates, fans and
sportswriters knew him as much for his mental agility as for the
clever inside-out way he played the pivot. Players assigned him
to keep score during their poker games in aisles of commercial
flights so coach Red Holzman and other passengers wouldn't know
the stakes for which they played. He performed prodigious feats
of memorization--from the first 500 pages of the Manhattan phone
book to the names of selected members of the studio audience of
The Tonight Show. With another memory expert, Harry Lorayne, he
taught classes in New York City and cowrote The Memory Book,
which spent a year on the best-seller list. "I want to be the
greatest magician in the world," he declared between light
references to how he had once made a million dollars disappear.
He even hosted a three-hour Don Kirshner-produced network special
called The Jerry Lucas Super Kids' Day Music and Magic Jamboree.
All of this lent his life a kind of carnival-act quality,
something not lost on Lucas himself.
"It wasn't like a hammer hit me over the head," he says of his
religious awakening. "Something just kept pecking away at me.
Something wasn't right." By the end of that final, 1973-74
basketball season, he and his wife, Treva, whom he had met and
married at Ohio State, were divorced. He and Lorayne soon parted
ways too. "Harry was interested in making a buck," Lucas says. "I
was interested in making a difference." Lucas walked away from
the game with two years left on his contract. He was 34.
He began to take his message into churches. He published a guide
to committing Scripture to memory and in 1974 married the
contemporary Christian singer Sharalee Beard. Shortly before
their son, J.J., turned three, Jerry introduced him to his
learning techniques. Jerry worked with an artist to develop
pictures to help J.J. see the U.S. presidents, states and
capitals and the basics of grammar. "Get a job, Dad," his eldest
daughter, Julie, told him. But Lucas had something more now--he
had a calling. "You can't study and understand the Bible without
realizing that things in there are life-changing," he says.
Some dozen years later the Lucas family itself provided an object
example. It turns out that the scrubbed image that graced the
cover of SI's 1962 Sportsman of the Year issue--Lucas, crew-cut,
in an Ohio State letter blazer--had belied an imperfect home
life. Jerry's father, Mark, a World War II vet turned pressman in
a Middletown paper mill, drank too much, and the Lucas household
suffered as a result. "When my father's brothers and sisters came
through the front door," Lucas says today of the often stormy
family gatherings, "I basically went out the back." Jerry's
mental calisthenics, whether applied to a highway billboard or a
hoop in Sunset Park, offered escape.
In 1959, shortly after Jerry's younger brother, Roy, graduated
from high school, Mark Lucas and his wife, Jean, divorced. Both
wound up remarrying, and Jerry remained close to his mother as
well as to her new husband, Carl Sabota, wooing both to Christ
soon after his own conversion. But he had almost no contact with
his father. From time to time Jerry would call Mark, urging him
to come hear him preach, but Mark never showed any interest.
By the mid-'80s, after both Mark and Jean were widowed, Jerry had
all but given up on reaching his father. Then, in 1988, Jerry
showed up to speak at an Assembly of God church on the outskirts
of Cincinnati only to find Mark in the audience. When Jerry urged
people to signal their desire to make a change in their lives by
looking up at him, he met the eyes of his dad. "It overwhelmed
me," Jerry says. "He hasn't touched a drop since."
A year and a half after that day, Mark and Jean Lucas were
married again. They remain so, happily, 30 years after their
first untidy go of it. Jerry, who had divorced a second time and
married Cheri Wulff, moved back to Middletown in 1989 and stayed
for three years to rebuild his relationship with his father. Mark
and Jean now live in Erlanger, Ky., two doors down from Roy
Lucas, who's an assistant football coach at Thomas More College.
Today, between church events and eight or 10 tournaments a year
on the Celebrity Players Tour, Lucas alights at his 20-acre
spread in Templeton, Calif., where he and Cheri have lived for
the past decade and together run a shelter for neglected and
abused dogs. His bank account ebbs and flows depending on how
much product he can sell at appearances and through his website,
doctormemory.com. Bill Murray, who has been Lucas's booker and
Guy Friday since 1979, humps Doctor Memory books, tapes and
videos from city to city in a GMC truck, setting up a table at
each venue, most often a church. A year ago, in Amarillo, Texas,
a bent tailpipe caused half the payload of that truck to catch
fire and become memorization memories, as it were.
From time to time the television networks make a pass at Lucas,
knowing what a natural he would be as an analyst. He's
well-spoken, hoops-savvy and, of course, unlikely to mess up a
name or a stat. But he shuns their money. "If I did TV, I'd be
passing up what God has called me to do," he says. Instead he
develops pictograms, hoping to land a grant from an educational
foundation so he can publish more materials and set up a pilot
program to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Lucas Learning
System. "The biggest hurdle continues to be financial," says
Lucas, who's in discussions with the Columbus Education
Association, which he hopes will introduce his methods to the
grade schools of that city. "Every sound a human being can make I
have pictured in my clip-art file. What I need are grant writers,
animators, support people. I live on a month-to-month basis. A
few years ago I was picking up cushions on couches and looking in
drawers for money for a meal."
After each evening presentation at First Redeemer Church, Lucas
holes up in his room at a Marriott in nearby Alpharetta, Ga., to
work on one of his latest projects: 500 words of ancient Greek to
help theology students study the Bible in the original. A
professor is feeding him definitions and pronunciations; Lucas
uses Adobe Illustrator software to create a pictogram for each
word. (He has already published Picture Perfect Spanish.) It's
easy to, yes, picture him, framed by a lone illuminated
hotel-room window at 2 a.m., squinting at a laptop as he puts
overalls on elephants and legs on igloos and facial expressions
on cars, all to make something difficult less so--all to turn
some confounding smidgen of human knowledge into, more or less, a
"I don't know when, but I believe the Lord is going to open
doors," he says. "Even if it happens after I'm gone, I know this
will change education and millions of lives.
"People ask, 'What's the greatest thing ever to happen to you?'"
The answer, coming from an All-America, a Hall of Famer, a
Sportsman of the Year, tends to surprise people. "I tell them it
hasn't happened yet."
"It took me a long time to realize that GOD WAS SPEAKING to
me--that he wanted me to make education fun and simple."
"I live month-to-month. A few years ago I was picking up cushions
on couches and looking for MONEY FOR A MEAL."