NCAA Tournament Interviews: Ohio State's Jerry Lucas

March 29th, 2012
Recently CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Ohio State great Jerry Lucas, who led the Buckeyes to the 1960 national title. Lucas won two MOP awards during his career in Columbus, helping lead the Buckeyes to three straight title game appearances. Lucas is one of three players in the history of basketball to have won a title at each of the following four levels: high school, college, NBA and the Olympics.

Jon Teitel: In the 1956 Ohio state high school semifinals you scored a state-record 53 points in a win over Cleveland East Technical, and followed that up with 44 to beat Canton McKinley in the title game for a two-game total of 97 points that is still a state record. Were you just that much better than everyone else, or were you playing against poor defenses?

Jerry Lucas: I was very good while very young: I may have been the best young player who ever lived, although I did not think that much about it at the time. I began playing against All-Americans at age 14 during the summer in Middletown, OH. That Cleveland team was #1 in the state at the time.

JT: In 1957 you led Middletown High to a second straight undefeated state title and broke Wilt Chamberlain's high school scoring record. Did you feel like you were one of the best players in the country, and what was it like to be so famous at so young an age?

JL: I really did not want to be famous and did not aspire to that. In junior high I began to get approached by recruiters and did not like it, so I went to my parents and my coach put the word out for people to stop contacting me. I did not feel special. I just wanted to be a normal kid.

JT: In the 1958 state semifinals your amazing 76-game winning streak came to an end with a one-point loss to an undefeated Columbus North team. How was your team able to win so many games without ever taking a single night off, and what was the feeling like in your locker room after that loss?

JL: We had great teams back then but my sophomore year team was the best. We were just superior so it was difficult to lose, but since we were good winners I hoped that we could be good losers. However, a lot of people tried to make up excuses for our loss.

JT: After an all-star game during your senior year, you convinced John Havlicek and Bobby Knight to join you and Coach Fred Taylor that fall at Ohio State. What did you say to convince them, and where do you think your recruiting class (including Mel Nowell) ranks in the history of college basketball?

JL: I think my sophomore year team was one of the best college teams of all time, but we do not get our just due. It was the first team with five guys who went on to play pro basketball, but it is hard to rank us against others.

1960 NCAA tournament

JT: You had a school record (for tournament play) 36 points and 25 rebounds in a win over Western Kentucky. Were you nervous going into your first tournament game, and how were you able to play so well?

JL: I was a little nervous before every game that I ever played. I worked harder than anyone else I knew, and if you prepare yourself then you will have some confidence.

JT: You had 16 points (7-9 FG) and ten rebounds en route to being named tournament MOP by winning the title over California. What did it mean to you to win the title, and what was the reaction like back on campus?

JL: You play to win and I was the first to win at every level. To be the best at your level in a particular year was an incredible thrill for everyone on the team. It was the first (and currently the only) national title that Ohio State basketball has ever won, and everyone of my age is still excited about it to this day.

JT: In the 1960 Olympics you were the leading rebounder and co-leading scorer for the U.S. team that won the gold medal, and you were a perfect 14-14 from the field in a game against Japan (84 FG% overall during the Olympics). Was that the best team you ever played on, and what are your memories of the Japan game?

JL: It was obviously an incredible team and the best Olympic team the USA had until the pros started playing. I remember the Japan game very well. They were not very big, and being my first Olympic game it was important to me. I had learned a few Japanese phrases so at the start of the game I said "Good morning" to the Japanese center. He looked at me, backed out of the mid-court circle, and bowed to me. He ended up speaking Japanese to me during the whole game and I just kept saying "Ohio", which is ironic because my home state is the Japanese word "good morning"!

1961 NCAA tournament

JT: You had 33 points (14-18 FG) and a school record (for tournament play) 30 rebounds in a win over Kentucky (who had 26 rebounds as a team), becoming the only player to ever have 30 points and 30 rebounds in a single tournament game. Was that the best all-around game of your college career, and how on earth were you able to out-rebound an entire team?

JL: Rebounding was my forte. Some people think I was the best rebounder for my size of all-time. I am the only NBA player besides Wilt to average 20 points and 20 rebounds per game for a season more than once. I remember having a good game against UCLA. Coach John Wooden always spoke highly of me, which is special coming from such a great coach.

JT: You had 27 points and 12 rebounds in the title game and were named tournament MOP despite Cincinnati getting a five-point overtime upset win, which Coach Taylor called a "stupid game" because your team had blown a couple of leads. Did it feel even worse to lose to your in-state rival, and what was it like to be named MOP despite losing the title?

JL: There was not much glory in being named MOP because we wanted to win the title and failed to do so. I believe that was the most devastating loss of my career, as back-to-back titles would have set us apart in college basketball history. We were undefeated and favored to win and there is no doubt in my mind that we had the better team, but Cincinnati just deserved to win.

1962 NCAA tournament

JT: You had 19 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Wake Forest (All-American Len Chappell had 27 and 18 for Wake Forest). Was your team out for revenge going into the title game against Cincinnati?

JL: I got hurt against Wake Forest and my entire leg was bandaged. We were not out for revenge. Cincinnati was just unique because they won two straight titles.

JT: You had 11 points (5-17 FG) and 16 rebounds in a title game loss to Cincinnati after trying to play on a badly-injured knee: was it just the Bearcats' night, or do you think your team could have won if you were healthy?

JL: I think we had the better team during both years but you have to give the Bearcats all the credit in the world. I am not sure if it would have been a different outcome if I was healthy.

JT: You were named All-American and played in the NCAA title game during each of your three years on the varsity, were a two-time national Player of the Year, and are still the only player to ever be a three-time Big Ten Player of the Year. How satisfied are you with your college career, and do you consider yourself to be one of the best players in college basketball history?

JL: You cannot evaluate yourself; that is for others to do. I was pleased with my career and prided myself on being an unselfish player. Some have called me one of the best college players ever. You cannot have one or two players who dominate everything on the court. You need a group of individuals to play together as a team.

JT: In the summer of 1963 you signed with the Cincinnati Royals and ended up being named NBA Rookie of the Year. How did you deal with the high expectations going into your rookie season, and why was it so easy for you to make the transition from college to the NBA?

JL: It was tough for me initially because I had to change positions from center to forward, so everything was different. We played 20+ exhibition games but it took me awhile to learn the position. I wish that I could have played center during my entire pro career, and when I finally got to do so with the Knicks I loved it.

JT: You led the nation in rebounding twice in college, had a franchise-record 40 rebounds in a three-point win over Philadelphia in 1964, and your 15.6 career rebounds per game in the NBA is fourth-most ever. How on earth were you able to get 40 rebounds in one game, and what is your secret for rebounding?

JL: It goes back to when I was a child. I would take 5,000 shots every day with a purpose. I did things that other players never did. I would intentionally miss shots for eight straight hours just to see where the ball would go. I knew where every missed shot was going so 99% of the time I did not block out because I already knew where to go. I also had great timing and determination and the heart of a champion.

JT: In the 1965 All-Star Game you had 25 points and ten rebounds and was named All-Star MVP in a one-point win by the East. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?

JL: It is a great honor for anybody to win MVP when playing with the best players in the world. It was very rewarding and is one of the biggest highlights of my career.

JT: What are your memories of the 1972 NBA Finals (Wilt Chamberlain picked up his 5th foul at the end of regulation in Game 4, but blocked several shots in overtime to lead the Lakers to a five-point win and won his only Finals MVP award after the Lakers won the series in five games)?

JL: There is no way that the Lakers could have beaten us if Hall-of-Famer Dave DeBusschere had not gotten hurt. I have never seen a team that was more out of whack than the Lakers were during Game 1. Wilt later called me the toughest guy he ever played against because I made him do a bunch of things that he was not comfortable doing. When Dave got hurt Phil Jackson came in to replace him, and Wilt just shut him down. The match-ups had started out as incredible in our favor before quickly changing in the opposite direction.

1973 NBA Finals (with the New York Knicks)

JT: You beat the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on a Sunday and requested that Game 1 of the Finals be delayed until Wednesday, but you had to fly to L.A. for Game 1 on Tuesday after the Lakers denied the request. How exhausted was your team, and how pissed were they when the Lakers stood firm?

JL: We won the series, which was most important. The Celtics game was the first Game 7 that they ever lost in Boston.

JT: All five games of the series were decided by single digits. How close a series was it, and what did it mean to you to win your first NBA title?

JL: It was a very close series. Some of my teammates had previously won a title with the Knicks in 1970, but the 1973 title meant a lot to me because I had not. That is why you play: to be the best.

JT: Winning the series made you the first American basketball player to win championships at every level (high school, college, Olympics, and the pros). How big a deal was it at the time, and how big a deal is it to you now that only two others have done it (Quinn Buckner and Magic Johnson)?

JL: Winning that title was the "jewel in my crown". It was the last thing missing from my championship career. I did not know it until years later when I read it someplace and others began to research it. It might be one of the most unique things in basketball history. Only 3 players have ever done it.

JT: In 1980 you were inducted into the Hall of Fame, in 1996 you were named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, and in 1999 you were named to the Sports Illustrated five-man College All-Century Team. Do you consider yourself one of the best players in the history of the sport?

JL: You do not judge yourself, but some of the awards I won have to at least put me in the discussion.

Lucas is also on Jon's list of best fantasy players in Big Ten history.

Illinois: Dee Brown (2006) 1812 PTS (#3), 674 AST (#2), 231 STL (#2), 299 3PM (#2), 2-time All-American, conference POY
Indiana: Calbert Cheaney (1993) 2613 PTS (#1), 55.9 FG% (#2), 3-time All-American, conference POY, national POY
Iowa: Roy Marble (1989) 2116 PTS (#1), 183 STL (#4), All-American
Michigan: Glen Rice (1989) 2442 PTS (#1), 56.9 FG% (#3), 48 3P% (#1), All-American, NCAA MOP
Michigan State: Scott Skiles (1986) 2145 PTS (#3), 645 AST (#2), 175 STL (#2), 85 FT% (#3), All-American, conference POY, national POY
Minnesota: Mychal Thompson (1978) 1992 PTS (#1), 956 REB (#1), 56.6 FG% (#2), 2-time All-American
Nebraska: Dave Hoppen (1986) 2167 PTS (#1), 773 REB (#4), 60 FG% (#2), All-American
Northwestern: Evan Eschmeyer (1999) 1805 PTS (#2), 995 REB (#1), 132 BLK (#2), 59.5 FG% (#1), All-American
Ohio State: Jerry Lucas (1962) 1990 PTS (#3), 1411 REB (#1), 62.4 FG% (#1), 3-time All-American, 3-time conference POY, 2-time national POY, 2-time NCAA MOP
Penn State: Jesse Arnelle (1955) 2138 PTS (#1), 1238 REB (#1), 3-time All-American
Purdue: Rick Mount (1970) 2323 PTS (#1), 84.3 FT% (#5), 3-time All-American
Wisconsin: Michael Finley (1995) 2147 PTS (#2), 371 AST (#3), 168 STL (#4), 213 3PM (#3), 3-time All-American