Maurice Lucas was meaner than a junkyard dog with an impacted wisdom tooth. Maurice Lucas was as so soft hearted he wouldn’t hurt even the most annoying fly. No, there weren’t two Maurice Lucases.

Trust me, there was only one. And the Suns were fortunate to have him for three of his 12 NBA seasons.

During his career he was almost always referred to as an “enforcer”. In fact, The Enforcer! And you hardly read more than two or three paragraphs on him without coming across the word “fierce”. And with a menacing scowl and bruising game to match he was all of the above — on the court.

But off the court his demeanor was as different as Jekyll’s was from Hyde’s. Granted that would have been a hard sell to opposing players and fans. In fact, the first time I had a chance to sit down and visit with him after he joined the Suns I was so startled at the contrast I almost said, “Okay, why didn’t anybody tell me Maurice had a twin brother?”

If they had been twins the Suns certainly would have been disappointed if they hadn’t gotten the evil one, since his junkyard dog persona was the very reason they acquired him from New York for Truck Robinson in 1982.

The thing is in those days the Suns had a desperate need for a true power forward (yes, there’s nothing new under the Suns), and Truck was a true small forward in disguised as a power forward. And the further thing was the Suns had grown tired of having bullies kick sand in their faces.

So although Coach John McLeod was the NBA’s most successful practitioner of finesse basketball, and most vocal critic of what he scorned a brass knuckle basketball, Lucas was brought aboard.

And the 6-9, 245-pound former Marquette star’s presence had an immediate effect. So immediate that about two months into the season a league official said to General Manager Jerry Colangelo, “We used to get complaints about rough play from you guys almost every week, but since you get Lucas those calls seem to have stopped.”

Lucas came within three tenths of a rebound of averaging a double double (15.4 points, 9.7 rebounds) in his three seasons here, and was particularly impressive and fearsome in the playoffs that second year when the Suns pushed the Lakers to a sixth game in Western Conference Finals before bowing 99-97.

He of course was best known for his key role in Portland’s 1977 NBA championship. His number 20 was retired by the Blazers s few years ago, and he returned as an assistant coach with the team before the illness that eventually led to his way-too-soon death this week at 58.

In one way he reminded me of former Diamondback Randy Johnson, a future Hall of Famer whose fierce glare was as much a part of his repertoire as his unhittable assortment of pitches. Like Randy, Lucas found his junkyard persona quite useful. And in both cases the professional persona was no accident.

Johnson actually was known as a jokester and cutup early in his career, and the wins didn’t really start coming until he developed the glare, and was never seen to even smile again in uniform.

As for Lucas, he once told me that when he was at Marquette Coach Al McGuire told him he had a great future in basketball is only he would stop being so soft and settling for jump shots.

Message obviously received! But fortunately, Lucas changed only his basketball personality.

In this tweeter and facebook age “gentleman athlete” might be cynically be regarded as an oxymoron, but it’s a term that fit Maurice Lucas.

Alas, they don’t make quite as many of those as they used to, and he will be missed.

  • JAS

    Thanks for the heartfelt memories Joe. Lucas was a great one and gone way to early to a hideous disease I unfortunatly share. Your insight was so correct, not many current players could ever reach his status on or off the court.

  • http://planetorange.net Lori Ann Gershman

    RIP, Mo’!
    I’ll never forget you!
    My deepest condolences to family and friends of Maurice Lucas.