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Up Close: Remembering Maurice Lucas

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In 2006, George Von Benko interviewed western Pennsylvania basketball legend—and NBA All-Pro—Maurice Lucas, who lost a battle with bladder cancer and passed away at the age of 58 on October 31, 2010. Lucas, a Schenley High School graduate known as "The Enforcer" during his 14-year professional basketball career, shared his thoughts on today's NBA.

Von Benko: Looking back at your high school days when Schenley was such a power, what you remember most about your high school career?
Lucas:
We were talented, with guys like Ricky Coleman and Jeep Kelley. We knew how to win and we knew what it took to win.

GVB: You decided to play your college ball in Milwaukee at Marquette. Was that a tough decision to leave Pittsburgh and go away?
ML:
I needed a change. I grew up less than a mile from both (Pitt and Duquesne). I loved Pittsburgh and I had a great childhood, but I needed to go away.

GVB: You struggled early in your career at Marquette, didn’t you?
ML:
I did my first year. I didn’t play the first 30 games or so. I was sitting on the bench. I got an opportunity to play and I never relinquished that opportunity.

GVB: What was your relationship like with legendary Marquette coach Al McGuire?
ML:
He prepared me very well. Some of things he told me didn’t make any sense at the time, but as my career went on I understood what he said. He said to approach the game as a business. But the biggest thing he ever told me was, “Watch your own money,” and I’ve done that since day one.

GVB: McGuire was against you leaving to turn pro. Is that correct?
ML:
According to Al, I was never intended to play in this business. He told me when I left school, “Luke, you’re just not ready.” I said, “Well, we’ll see.”

GVB: You started out playing with St. Louis and Kentucky in the ABA. Do you think the ABA wasn’t given it’s just due?
ML:
It definitely wasn’t at the time. It all comes down to media and marketing and we had neither. But the first year after the merger, 16 of 24 guys in the NBA All-Star game had ABA roots, so that tells you something. Some real marquee talent came over: Dr. J, George Gervin, Larry Kenon, George McGinnis, Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore. I got to play with some western Pennsylvania guys like Gus Gerard and Freddie Lewis. How about the rookie front line we had with St. Louis? Me, Gerard and Marvin Barnes?

GVB: What was the style of play like in the ABA?
ML:
It was. It was an open and very aggressive kind of play. It wasn’t the fundamental style of play where you pass the ball back and forth and make backdoor cuts. The NBA really hadn’t seen this and wasn’t quite ready for it. The ABA merger was just what they needed. It gave them a new lift.

GVB: You won a championship in Portland when you defeated Philadelphia in the 1977 NBA Finals. Do you view your altercation with Darryl Dawkins as a turning point in the series?
ML:
I think what it did was loosen up the referees. Philly had the best team on paper and we were Cinderella and just happy to be there. They were just supposed to beat us, but that particular incident really changed things; it really just knocked the fear out of everyone.

GVB: Did you do it with the intent of sparking your team?
ML:
No. He took a swing at Bobby Gross and I thought he hit Bobby and we couldn’t let that just slide. If we did that, they would have run us off the court. You cannot let your teammates be hit. Afterwards, he talked about how he was going to get me—and us—back, and so in the third game, as a psychological ploy, I went over and shook his hand and took the edge off him and didn’t know how to respond to that.

GVB: Tell me about the NBA today and today’s enforcers?
ML:
The NBA has gotten a lot softer these days. Part of that reasoning is the way the league wants to manage itself. They're opposed to a lot of physical play. You can't bump guys down in the lane, you can't bump guys getting through the lane. You can hardly touch anybody anymore. Everything's a foul now. And then the emotions are being taken out of the game.

GVB: How many of today’s so-called tough guys and big men would have survived and thrived back in the day?
ML:
Some of them would survive because they'd have to make that adjustment. But a lot of them wouldn't. That's what happens when we play these international games. These guys are superstars. They're used to getting calls when they go through the lane, and they're used to getting to the foul line 10, 15 times a game. In the international game, they don't call that. So these guys have a very difficult time adjusting to physical play. As a result, we've been getting busted in international ball, and a lot of that has to do with the guys not having the ability to (contend with) guys bumping them all over the place. In international ball, you can do all that.

GVB: Is the toughness gone from the game?
ML:
The mind-set is a little different. They don't have the same passion. There are so many distractions today. These guys, they play with more passion when they're playing Nintendo than some of them do on the court. When we played, we had a certain commitment to the game and a knowledge of the history of the game. I knew about the guys who played before me. I knew the Luke Jacksons. I knew the big power forwards. I knew Paul Silas and Dave DeBusschere and Chet Walker. I knew what those guys did. I never played with them, but I knew their game. I saw their game. I watched them. These guys, you can ask them about somebody who retired that wasn't Michael Jordan and they'll have no clue because they're not students of the game. That's the biggest difference.

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