I experienced one of the top thrills of my Oregon writing career in the most improbable of places — an NBA practice facility. In the course of writing a book about the Portland Trail Blazers' magical NBA championship season of 1976-77, I sat down with legendary forward Maurice Lucas for a three-hour interview about his key role in helping the franchise win its only title. Lucas was serving as a Blazer assistant coach at the time, and I will never forget his graciousness and candor. He didn't know who the hell I was but treated me like I worked for national magazine.
Lucas passed away from cancer on October 31 and all of Rip City mourned. As a kid growing up in Oregon City when Blazermania first exploded across the state, Lucas was hands down my favorite player. What follows is the full 4,000-word oral history that appeared in Red Hot and Rollin. Even if you disdain professional sports like I do now, I urge you to give this post a chance. Pro athletes like Lucas just don't exist anymore. They can't. And I find that incredibly sad.
Thanks for all the great memories Luke. You will be missed. There aren't too many vegetarian bad-asses in the NBA today. In fact, there are none. You were one of a kind.
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Coming to Portland
Love: How did you get to Portland in 1976?
Lucas: I was 24 years old and playing in Kentucky for the ABA and the ABA had merged a number of their teams, four, into the NBA. The team I was playing for wasn't one of them. There was a dispersal draft and I was the second player selected. I was selected by Atlanta, but Atlanta had hired my former coach at Kentucky, Hubie Brown, and they knew I wasn't going to play for him so the Blazers made some trades and acquired my rights.
Love: What was your feeling when you found out you were going to Portland?
Lucas: I had no idea where Portland was. I had never been out this way, never been in the Northwest. I had never been to Seattle or Oregon so I thought I was on the other side of the world.
Love: You got the word that you were coming to Portland. They hadn't had a winning season yet and were in the gulag of the NBA. What was you feeling about the players that you knew were there, and Ramsay, the new coach?
Lucas: I thought they were a young team, as far as being in the NBA. I had known Bill Walton from college so I felt comfortable with that. I had seen Herm Gilliam play, I had seen Lionel play. I saw Larry Steele at Kentucky so I had an idea about him. Lloyd Neal, I knew he was a player but I didn't know exactly how good he was. He was better than I thought he was. It was one of those deals where you just come into a situation and try to make the best out of it. I mean I was one of the top rebounders in the league and I knew if Bill Walton was halfway healthy, that he was a great player. Part of my job, I knew, coming to Portland was to make sure Bill stayed healthy.
Love: How were you going to go about doing that?
Lucas: I knew I was an influential kind of guy and played real physical. I knew I couldn't allow any cheat shots to go Bill's way.
Love: Had that been happening up to that point?
Lucas: I hadn't heard that specifically, but from playing in the ABA with some of their centers, same results. There was a job on the court where especially back in that day, the dirty, the hard hat job, where you go down there and play the toughest guy on the court. You bang with everybody and then you help your center. My job was to basically go down there and make sure that no dirty crap happened to my center.
Love: When you arrive in Portland and get to training camp, you're a black man coming to Portland — at the time, one of the whitest big cities in the United States. Did that enter into your mind at all? Being a high profile black man in this town with a very small black population.
Lucas: Not really. The biggest problem that I had was cultural events, like music, being able to turn on the radio and hear the music that I liked to hear. It really didn't bother me because I wasn't here a lot. I was on the road traveling. When in town, I would go eat at a lot of different places. The restaurant owners would be pretty nice to us. I would frequent a few places. If I wanted to hang with the blacks, I would go to Geneva's because that was the only joint that was popular. Back then, there were a few people who floated to a few different spots. Jazz was huge in Portland. Mel Brown used to play all over the city and I'd follow him from spot to spot to spot.
Love: I've read that you were a vegetarian at the time.
Lucas: I was. I was a vegetarian for my whole career in professional basketball. I had picked that up from my early ABA days, right after actually, my last year of college. I had played in World University games in Moscow and we got over there and I really couldn't eat some of the food. Then I started reading up a little about it. I read a couple really nice books on proper nutrition, eating the proper things, meditation. I was doing a lot of transcendental meditation, and so with that and the food, it all came together and worked. Of course my mom thought I was crazy, that I had lost my mind.
Love: What did the other guys in the league think about your vegetarianism? That is unheard of today.
Lucas: Well, when I beat them all up they wouldn't say jack. They thought maybe they should be vegetarians.
Love: Did anybody talk to you about that and say, "Hey..."
Lucas: Well, Bill was a vegetarian at the same time and so we hit it off real well right off the bat.
Love: Did you two have a good bond?
Lucas: Yeah, because we could go out and eat together, we could hang out, and I understood his stutter.
Training Camp and the Moses Mistake
Love: Training camp is held out at Willamette University that summer. What is your feeling when everyone on roster was there for the first initial practices?
Lucas: What happens is the coach kind of sees how you run, how you shoot. You do a couple drills, he sees how you shoot hoops, and he decides who he wants to put in the line up. Then you try to win your spot. Jack told me I was going to start right off the bat. Jack was one of those guys who would tell you exactly what he expected and if that is something you can't work with, maybe he'll find somebody else who can do it. So he told Lloyd Neal about his new role, coming off the bench, exactly what he needed do. We were in the perfect position for new roles because at the time, we had Moses Malone on our team and in training camp.
Love: He was actually there in Salem, at Willamette right?
Lucas: Yeah, and one of the biggest mistakes they ever made.
Love: You really think so?
Lucas: Was getting rid of Moses.
Love: Jack said, I mean I just read his book, and he said Malone didn't fit what he wanted. And Glickman in his book said Moses looked terrible.
Lucas: I disagree with that to this respect. They knew Bill wasn't very healthy. They knew Moses was okay, that he could play. They knew Moses was a little different than Bill. He played totally different which was fine. He could take care of some business down there, a young guy backing Bill up. Lloyd could've backed me up and we could have rolled for a long time. Bill could've played less minutes and Moses and Bill would have been a perfect center combination. Lloyd would come in with Moses and I would come in with Bill. You could switch that lineup up a whole lot of ways. You could put me and Moses beside each other. Lloyd and Bill. I thought not keeping Moses was one of the biggest mistakes they ever made.
Love: Did the team feel that way too at the time?
Lucas: Bill and I did. Most of the other guys didn't know Moses, but…
Love: He was 20 years old.
Lucas: I played with him in the ABA and so I knew him. I knew what he was capable of and I knew if you gave him a little time he was going to be damn good. But you know they didn't want to pay him to sit over there behind Bill. They would have made that money back 50 times.
Love: Was there a point during either training camp or the first part of the season where you thought, "Wow, we got something going on here, we've got something special?" Was there a moment that it crystallized?
Lucas: We all got along well. Everybody started understanding their positions. It didn't really click in training camp and one of the biggest problems was that we had a whole bunch of guys that had never seen each other. We had maybe 7 or 8 new guys, a different coach, a whole new system. But what we learned was that if we played defense and we passed the ball, Bill and I rebound, make the outlet passes, get it up quick because we had Twardzik and we had Lionel Hollins and we had Bobby who could flat out run, all three of them could run, we had something. Then we had Young Gun just sitting in the cut back there, Johnny Davis. When he got in the game, he changed the whole tempo of the game. On offense, if we just make that extra two passes... Man, we'll be shooting layups. And we got a big center to pass the ball. You can do a lot of stuff with someone like Bill. We'd throw it to Bill, two guys would come down and flash out to the side, two forwards post up, one of them going to be open and Bill will get it to you. Normally that was me because I'd be hollerin' YO!
Love: What was this thing that started to happen around the city, Blazermania? What did you sense?
Lucas: One of the things I think that really turned this team around was when they were booing Lionel early in the season. Lionel was reacting nastily, which he shouldn't have, but it hurt his feelings. Bill and I came right out to the fans and said, "We can't have that."
Love: You went to the press about that?
Lucas: We went to the press and we told them we cannot have the fans booing one of our players. And I'll be damned, but it stopped. Lionel became such a better player, just like that (snaps his fingers). It was like a light bulb went off in his head and he became one hell of a player, a defensive specialist. He hit some key shots too.
Blazermania was beautiful. I was always one of those individuals who would go out in the community anywhere and walk around because there was nothing special about what I did. I felt it was my job, but I wasn't a special person, I never felt that way. Three-quarters of the way through the season it got pretty loud around the Coliseum. Bill Schonely was high off the rip city thing. People started making signs and bringing them to the games. That's when we knew all of a sudden that people were into it. They had masks with Jack's face on it, and of course his ugly pants and shirts!
Love: His outfits were utterly legendary.
Lucas: His outfits were great, but people started seeing the identity of our team and started appreciating us, how were a team, played together, shared the game, and shared a lot of things together. Everybody wasn't particularly tight with everybody else. I mean everybody wasn't going out to dinner together, but it was a nice bond once we hit the floor. Our guys knew their roles and it was a beautiful situation.
The Early Playoff Rounds
Lucas: We were winning and were getting a lot of confidence in each other. Some teams were breaking down, some teams were getting hurt. Los Angeles was rolling at the time but their power forward at the time got hurt and couldn't play the rest of the year and so their team changed. They started a guy named Don Ford after that. They ended up with the best record in the league, but by then we had just started getting our confidence.
The biggest game I thought for us was when we went down and played Chicago in that first playoff series. It was a three game series and Chicago came out and they were ready to play. It was a tough series, but it brought us all of age. I had been in the playoffs already so I'd understood it, but hardly anyone else had been in the playoffs. Twardzik, I think had been in the playoffs. Herm was in the playoffs before, but I think that's about it.
Love: Let's go to second series. You beat Chicago. Then you go to Denver.
Lucas: That Denver series was an interesting one because they had Dan Issel at the center who was a great outside shooter, great rebounder, and a great driver from the top spot. They had Bobby Jones who was voted the defensive player of the year at the power slot. They had David Thompson who walked on water. They had a great nucleus of players and I think they got a bye in the first round. So we go down to Denver and they got us in a corner, but we won the first game. I had a jumper at the end to win it and it was a play for somebody else, but I knew I was going to shoot it when I left the huddle. I knew the other guy didn't really want it. He wanted it, but he didn't really want it, you know? I wanted it. In the huddle, I was like "Ahh, hell no," because I played against these guys in the ABA so I had already known who they were and what their personality was like. I saw an opportunity. I could hear Jack McKinney out the side of my ear because I'm on that side. He's saying, when I'm about ready to shoot, "No, pass the ball! No, pass the ball!" I made the shot and he's like, "YEAH!"
L.A. and the UCLA Rivalry
Lucas: I would say we were confident going to the L.A. series. We knew Kareem was a serious threat. We said, "Let Kareem get his points because he's going to get his points anyway, but let's shut down everybody else." Our theory and our thought process were to put a lot of pressure on their guards. Their guards were big and slow. We thought if we pressured them and beat them at the 24-second clock we would make Kareem have to shoot quick. He would get his 35 points or whatever, but it didn't really matter unless he took it personal when he and Bill were playing.
Love: Did they have a thing?
Lucas: Oh, big time.
Love: Did they talk to each other on the floor?
Love: There was no talk at all?
Lucas: No talk.
Love: But you knew it.
Lucas: Oh yeah. You could feel it. They had the whole UCLA rivalry, the black versus white, the great white hope.
Love: Did Walton feel that too?
Lucas: Hell yeah! Hell yeah, he recognized it!
Love: I remember this dunk by Walton in game three that I have to ask you about. It is the single most vivid image to me of this era. There's a loose ball. You go after the ball and save it while falling out of bounds. Walton gets it at the top of the key, looks at the hoop, drives, and just stuffed it over Jabbar. Schonely went insane on the radio. I don't think anybody had ever dunked on Jabbar in his career. What was going on in that play?
Lucas: I remember that play. Well, what happened was Bill faked it and Kareem leaned toward the fake. Bill took it and dunked it right on top of him. A lot of people don't really know this because he used the glass, but Bill could dunk.
Love: You guys really took it to L.A.
Lucas: We just jumped on their guards and tried to take them out of the game. On the other end, they were old. We were 23 or 24 years old and we said, "Let's just run, let's just rebound and run." All we did was dash and throw that ball out and let Bobby and them do their thing. If we needed a stop we'd put Corky Calhoun in and he'd go slow somebody up. Johnny Davis would get out there and outrun people. When Johnny came in, he was different than any other rookie I'd ever seen. He wasn't nervous. He was so cool, so calm. We would tell him things and he'd say, "I'm on it," and he'd go out there and do it. Once our tempo went up again we became a really good team and we wiped Los Angeles out real quick. Then we had a rest period.
Philly and the Fight
Lucas: I'd played high school basketball in Philadelphia so I knew Philly pretty well. My cousin played in town, my sister lived there, so I was home and wasn't worried about it. Philly came with a lot of hype and the media had picked them to just blow us out and this series wasn't even worth watching, blah, blah, blah. I went into the locker room and told the guys, "These boys haven't seen us play, obviously."
In the first game we were nervous as hell. Bill's throwing balls out of bounds and guys are kicking him and I can't get a rebound. In the second game the referees were letting Philly do anything. Then the incident happened with Bobby and Dawkins. They get tangled up. He slams Bobby to the ground and I'm already back on defense. I see it and said, "Ah, hell no!" So I'm running, I'm already running at the play when Dawkins gets up and takes a swing at Bobby. Bobby ducks and Collins gets it in the face. I go to knock out Dawkins. I know he doesn't see me coming. He should have seen me coming. When I clocked him he didn't know what to do. He jumped up and said, "Oh yeah, my daddy used to be a boxer!"
Love: He was saying that?
Lucas: He was saying that and I was like, "I don't care about that!"
Love: Was it just instinct in you?
Love: You ran three quarters down the court to get at him!
Lucas: I was pissed off anyway. The way the referees were calling the game, they were getting away with murder. I'm thinking, "No way, they are not going to bully us out of everything."
Love: When you were running up on Dawkins, what was going through your mind?
Lucas: I knew this was it. This was our defining moment as a team.
Love: You were down 25 points at the time!
Lucas: That's all right. But it was our defining moment as to what our characters were going to be, and I was like, "I am not going down like this!" If nothing else, we were coming out fighting.
Love: Goddamn, it was one for the ages! I can still hear Schonely's call like he was ringside. "Oh, we got a good one!" he said.
Lucas: It was crazy, but I was cool, I was calm. I didn't say shit. I won the fight, why should I be mad?
There was security at the locker room door. The locker rooms weren't that far apart so security was telling me I have to stay in there. I said, "Hey, I'm cool, no big thing with me I just won me a fight." I mean I'm upset we're getting our butts kicked, but there's nothing I can do about the game. After the game they got all this security worried, but I got my cousins, my brothers. I got all my folks there and I wasn't really worried about a lot of stuff. These are some rough ass cats. I got some uncles that are kind of rough, you know?
Love: Did Dawkins say anything else?
Lucas: He was saying how he's going kill me the next time he sees me and do all this damage to me in the third game. I know I don't want to get into fists again because I don't want to be out of the game. We are down 2-0! That's when I came up with the idea of how to defuse their fans and everybody. They introduce him at the Coliseum, and the fans are booing and throwing shit at him. So I take off when they introduce me and run straight over to him. I run straight over to him and he doesn't know whether to shake my hand or not so I put my hand out there. I'm forcing him to shake my hand, and he finally puts his hand out there and I squeeze the hell out of it and said, "Hey man, let's have a good one out there, everything's cool." I went back to the huddle and at that point I knew he was like butter, he's done.
Love: You were down 2-0. What was the guys' reaction? Did they think it was over at point too?
Lucas: Well yeah, the guys were really depressed on our way home. Even in my mind, I had doubts. My doubts were: how would my team react? How are my guys going to play? So we're in the locker room before the third game and Jack is giving his speech and I get up there and said, "This is bullshit! We're going to fucking get out there and play the way we play!" I said, "Jack, I know you're trying to be diplomatic about this, but that's bullshit! Let's put our fucking ass on the line and get out there and play!" Man, Bobby came out, Bill came out, Johnny Davis and Lionel, and we put on a show.
Love: You won by about 30 in that game.
Lucas: It was the beauty of the show. It was like we were ready to play. We were running, passing the ball all over the place, and Philly didn't have an answer for it. What we had figured out during the course of those two games was that Philly would never play defense after the second pass. We figured out that if we made 3 or 4 passes they would stop playing defense and we'd shoot lay-ins.
Love: So you come back to Portland after winning game five and there are a lot of people at the airport, do you remember that?
Lucas: Yeah, there were about 30,000 people out there.
Love: This really hadn't happened before in the NBA, people showing up at two in the morning. What was your feeling about that?
Lucas: It was unbelievable man, we had no idea. In games three and game four the fans were crazy. The fans were just pushing us out there and the more we pounded the 76ers, the louder they got.
Love: Did that make you play better?
Lucas: It makes you feel a lot more secure. I don't know if we played any better, we just felt a lot more secure. For me, I preferred playing on the road because that's where I did my best damage, when everything was against me. Some guys operate like that.
Love: Did the players ever talk about how nuts the fans were getting toward the end?
Lucas: Yeah, but in a fun way, you know? The Portland fan kind of looked like Bill Walton! The long hair, shaggy kind of thing going on. It wasn't the sophisticated thing you see in like Chicago or New York or LA or something. You know these folks started coming out the woodwork. Everybody was out there doing their thing.
Victory and Celebration
Lucas: The last game is tight anyway. Everybody looked tight. I mean nerves were on the ground. I pulled a hamstring before the game. I felt it and I knew I couldn't go back to Philadelphia and play. The Coliseum was unbelievably loud, you couldn't hear a play. It was crazy. Philly had to have felt that pressure. I know we did.
Love: What did you feel when that horn sounded?
Lucas: It was one of those real moments where you say, "Damn, damn…it happened." We had a lot of joy that day, for 30 years now. After the game, after two or three hours of interviews, I came outside and so much was going on in the parking lot. I finally got in my car, and these people just got me surrounded. Then I went out to Geneva's.
Love: And there was an epic block party up there.
Lucas: It was actually the only party I had heard of. Later, we knew we were all going to meet later on at a restaurant downtown, the team, that is. A place called Chucks. A buddy of mine used to own it. So I was going to meet Jack and everybody else after Geneva's. They had the only black house in the joint so I went up there and parked my car. It was like I was walking on water up there. People were so excited. I had hugs and hugs, people were like HEY! They were real fans that couldn't afford to get into the game. It was a very touching moment.
Love: Tell me about this Chuck's thing because I've never heard of this before.
Lucas: We left Geneva's and I think we even had time to go home and change. We ended up at Chuck's restaurant downtown and we had a team party. No reporters.
Love: What was said there?
Lucas: It was a hush hush thing. Everybody congratulated everybody. And of course Jack is talking about next year. Everybody was like, "Hold up Jack, hold that thought, dog." He wanted to talk about next year but we all said, "We'll get to that." It was there that we started to understand the magnitude of what had just really happened. And then it dawned on us, later that evening, it dawned on me, "We're the best in the world. There is nobody better this particular year. I am the best in the business."
Love: Not a lot of people could say that about anything.
Lucas: Exactly and that's what kept that bond all these years.
Love: Talk about the parade the next day.
Lucas: You would have had to been there to appreciate it. It was all downtown, all those people, I couldn't believe it. Man, they were all over the poles, all over the trees, on Broadway, hanging out balconies on the side, hanging off of everything man. I was late getting there because the way I drove in, was a long way and the wrong way. I parked my car and I had to walk, had to walk through the crowd of people before I could get into the convertibles we were riding. It was just unforgettable, there is no other word. It was just unforgettable for a town like Portland to rally around and put this town on the global map. The people were so appreciative.
Love: Tell me about your involvement in the community after you won the title?
Lucas: Well, we went down to McLaren and the Oregon State pen and did some clinics. I remember that. We did a bunch of other things with the schools too. A lot of guys did.
Love: You set this up yourself? You didn't have the Blazer front office doing that for you and the other guys?
Lucas: Oh no. They had about five people working for them back then!
Love: So you just did that on your own.
Lucas: Yeah, on my own. I felt a responsibility.