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B1G Basketball Historical Perspective - The Prodigy

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Jerry Lucas
Sports Illustrated

Ohio State basketball has been one of the more successful programs in both the Big Ten and nationally: including a National Championship (1960), 11 Final Fours, 20 Big Ten Regular-Season Championships, and 4 Big Ten Tournament Championships. There have been many great players to take the court for the Buckeyes; among those 46 First-Team All Big Ten and 11 consensus All-Americans. But the greatest of all of these was a literal basketball and intellectual prodigy in Middletown, Ohio's Jerry Lucas.

I first heard about Jerry Lucas when watching television segments in the 1980s discussing Lucas Ohio State teammate Bobby Knight. Knight was part of Fred Taylor's recruiting class which landed two eventual Naismith Hall of Famers in John Havlicek and Lucas. In today's era of Rivals and 24/7 recruiting ranks Ohio State's 1958 recruiting class would have been widely heralded. Instead, these recruits would go on to show their success on the court; and in the case of Lucas also show his success in the classroom as well.

Lucas was one of the greatest high school basketball players ever. He led Middletown High School to back-to-back Ohio state championships his sophomore and junior years. A loss in the state playoffs his senior year ended his high school career with a record of 76-1. The highest honor was Lucas being named US Basketball Writers Association High School Player of the Year twice: a feat only matched by Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and LeBron James (ironically, also an Ohio native).

1960 National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

In 1958 Lucas entered Ohio State on an academic scholarship (after receiving 150 athletic scholarship offers for both basketball and track). Lucas academic performance was quickly noticed both by teammates John Havlicek and Bobby Knight; plus Buckeyes football coach Woody Hayes. Hayes was so impressed by Lucas' academic performance that the freshman basketball player tutored upperclassmen football players.

In the 1959-60 season Ohio State went 21-3 in the regular season; the only losses being at Utah, at Kentucky, and at Indiana (the only conference loss). In the NCAA Tournament the Buckeyes knocked off Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech in Louisville, getting to the Final Four in San Francisco. There Ohio State dispatched New York University 76-54 in the National Semifinals, and in the Finals defeated California in a de-facto home game (just across San Francisco Bay from the Berkley campus) 75-55. Jerry Lucas was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Performer. For the entire season (his sophomore season) Lucas averaged a double-double: 26.3 points a game and 16.4 rebounds a game.

In his remaining 2 seasons in Columbus Lucas led the Buckeyes back to the National Championship game. These two times though, Ohio State ran into in-state rival the Cincinnati Bearcats. In 1960-61 the Buckeyes went 27-1: the only loss being to Cincinnati in the National Championship game (with Lucas being named Tournament Most Outstanding Player for a second year in a row). In Lucas senior season the Buckeyes went 26-2; the only losses being at Wisconsin and again to Cincinnati in the National Championship game. Lucas college career ended on a bit of a bitter note, as he was injured in the National Semi-Final game against Wake Forest (that featured future college basketball commentator Billy Packer in their starting lineup).

Lucas career statistics in Columbus speak for themselves: averaging 24.3 points per game and 17.2 rebounds per game. Jerry Lucas was a 3-time consensus All-American and 2-time National Player of the Year (1961 and 1962). Additionally, Lucas played on the 1960 gold-medal United States Olympic Team (along with fellow Hall of Famers Jerry West and Oscar Robertson). Arguably Lucas' most impressive on-the-court feat was having a 30-30 night, 30 points and 30 rebounds, in a game against Kentucky. Yet, it was Lucas ability to make his teammates better that most impressed both his head coach Fred Taylor and his teammate and backup shooting guard named Bobby Knight. It was all of these qualities which led Sports Illustrated to name Jerry Lucas their 1961 Sportsman of the Year; the first time a college athlete had been granted this honor.

January 8, 1962 Sports Illustrated Cover - with Jerry Lucas as the 1961 Sportsman of the Year
Sports Illustrated

Following college Jerry Lucas played in the NBA for the Cincinnati Royals (now Sacramento Kings), San Francisco Warriors (now Golden State Warriors), and New York Knicks. In his NBA career Lucas had very impressive statistics averaging 17 points per game and 15.6 rebounds per game. Among Lucas individual achievements is being the only NBA forward to record a 40-rebound game in 1964. However, it was late in Lucas career that he achieved his greatest professional accomplishments. In the 1971-72 season for the Knicks Lucas replaced injured starter Willis Reed; playing center for the first time since college. The Knicks made it to the NBA finals before losing out to the Los Angeles Lakers. The next season with a healthy Reed, Lucas moved to a reserve role for the first time in his career. Getting ample playing time to keep Reed healthy the Knicks returned to the NBA Finals, this time knocking off the Lakers. In 1973 Jerry Lucas became the first basketball player to win a high school state championship, NCAA Tournament Championship, Olympic gold medal, and NBA Championship (joined by fellow Big 10 players Quinn Buckner and Magic Johnson). Lucas role as a bench player wasn’t lost on his Knicks teammates, including a reserve forward from Wyoming named Phil Jackson.

Lucas’ legacy is just as much tied to education as it is to basketball. His ability to memorize things including phone book pages led to development of The Lucas Learning System™ and has earned Jerry Lucas the title of Dr. Memory™. To this day, Lucas is quick to point out that he came to Ohio State on an academic scholarship: a walk-on basketball if you will. His basketball achievements - both professional and amateur, which earned him enshrinement into the Naismith Hall of Fame - merely supplement the overall greatness of this modern-day renaissance man.

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