Lots of things come to mind when basketball fans remember Maurice Lucas, one of the truly underappreciated NBA greats, who passed away last weekend at 58 after a battle with cancer. The Phoenix Suns aren’t generally one of those things that come to mind. But Luke, who exemplified the “power” in “power forward,” played for the Suns for three seasons, and I’ll always remember him very fondly.
Luke was just past his prime when the Suns got him from the New York Knicks for another power forward, Truck Robinson, in 1982. Luke was not a prototypical Suns player, as I think of them. The prototypical Suns player, over the years of the team’s existence, has been a graceful, finesse-oriented player, precise and under control, creative and streamlined. I think of Connie Hawkins, Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, Paul Westphal, Larry Nance, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. In some ways, the history of the Suns has been a long quest to find a bona-fide dominant power player to complement those prototypes, and when the Suns have found some good ones (Paul Silas, Charles Barkley, Amar’e Stoudemire), the team has come awfully close to championships.
Truck Robinson was supposed to be one of those kinds of guys when the Suns picked him up from New Orleans in 1978. He’d led the league in rebounding the season before, and could score. He put up good numbers in Phoenix, but somehow never in the games that really mattered. For all his positives, he wasn’t an “intangibles” guy, and he wasn’t a leader. Then-GM Jerry Colangelo was smart enough to recognize his team didn’t need numbers, it needed a leader. A powerful personality who could go out and do what needed to be done when it needed to be done.
He needed a Maurice Lucas.
Like I said, Luke was just past his prime – His knees weren’t so good anymore. But he still had a lot of fight left in him, and he still would when he retired three years after leaving the Suns. Heck, Luke’s reputation was built on fight. Coming into the ABA as a rugged rookie out of Marquette in 1974, he promptly flattened Artis Gilmore with one punch. Artis wasn’t the meanest of guys, but at 7-2, 250 pounds, he was widely considered the strongest (his thighs were bigger around than his waist), and no one wanted to see what he’d do if he got angry. One game, he got angry, Luke rushed in and, bam, Maurice had made his bones as an intimidator.
A couple seasons later, Luke was with Portland in the NBA, on a team that made the Finals, and is best remembered for Bill Walton. In the second game of those Finals, against the Sixers, Luke found himself squaring off with 6-11, 250-pound Darryl Dawkins. Dawk was a baby then, just 20 years old, and he terrified the league. He smashed backboards with his dunks, talked about being from the planet “Lovetron,” and gave his assaults on the rim nicknames. “This guy might be crazy,” the league thought. Well, most of the league. Luke slapped him, challenged him to a fight, and the big man backed down. Philadelphia was never the same. Portland went on to win four straight games, and the title. Bill Walton might have been the best-remembered player on that Blazer team, but Luke was the heart, soul and guts. He wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the following season’s NBA preview issue, spotlighting a feature on NBA “enforcers.”
Which isn’t to say he was all fight and no talent. Luke led that Blazer team in scoring that season, reached double figures in rebounding five times in his career, could shoot the jumper out to the elbow, played fine defense, and was a master of rebound positioning. Good as Walton was, that Blazers team wouldn’t have sniffed the title without him – He was the truly essential ingredient. He defined the power forward in his era, much the same way Silas had done before him, and Karl Malone would do after.
Mostly, however, he was a leader. Everywhere he went, teammates took their cues from Luke. He wouldn’t let anyone play less hard than he did, or practice with less intensity. He’d glower fearsomely at a teammate on the court when something went wrong, and that teammate would respond by trying harder, because having the respect of Maurice Lucas really meant something. And even if you got into it with an opposing player, and you and Luke weren’t the best of friends, he’d be the first one to the altercation, the first to have your back, and usually, his mere presence alone was enough to stop the fight. He understood the concept of “team.” And that, even moreso his considerable physical skills, made him right for the Suns. He was, as they say, a pro’s pro.
He came to Phoenix when the Suns were heading into the end of the MacLeod Era. The teams were declining. In an effort to beef up, the Suns had shipped Dennis Johnson to Boston for Rick Robey, who vanished in a puff of injuries and potential. The Suns brought Paul Westphal back, but he was at the very end of his career. Walter Davis was having constant physical problems, as was Alvan Adams, who would move to the bench in favor of James Edwards. It was a jumbled, wounded team, and Luke himself wasn’t in the best of shape. But he didn’t care. There were seasons to be played. Suns fans loved him immediately, calling “Luuuuuuuuuke,” at his introduction. From his first day in Phoenix, he was a leader, and even though the team was crumbling around, and along with, him, he somehow dragged them, rather miraculously, to the Western Conference Finals in 1984, where they lost to the mighty Showtime Lakers in six games (and the Suns lost the last game by two points).
He took a team that had no business going anywhere to the verge of the Finals. And not by the force of his numbers (he averaged about 16 points and 10 rebounds that season), but by the force of his heart, soul, and guts. That’s what I’ll always remember about Maurice Lucas.
Oh, that, and one other thing.
I was in my early teens when Luke played for Phoenix, and I hung out a lot at the Jewish Community Center, where the Suns practiced. I’d shoot hoops by myself, then stick around and watch the team run their plays – You could do that in those days.
One day, the team’s work concluded, Luke walked off the floor drenched in sweat, a towel around his neck. He must’ve caught me looking at him, and I must’ve looked like Darryl Dawkins or Artis Gilmore (albeit slightly shorter and slightly less muscular) – nervous when I saw him coming my way, because he shook his head and kept approaching. “No, no,” he said, “You can’t look like that, you gotta look mean! Give me your best mean face.”
Perplexed, I just sat there. Luke gestured. Come on. “Your mean face. Show me your meanest face.”
I knew enough that when Maurice Lucas asked you to do something, you should at least make an effort, because that’s what he respected – effort above all. So I made my meanest face, which at the time, I imagine, mostly consisted of braces and freckles. Luke just shook his head again.
“Forget it,” he said. And he laughed and slapped my hand.
To me, that was Luke.