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Maurice Lucas should have led Bulls to ’75 title
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 1
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It was a difficult day Monday for the Portland Trail Blazers coming into Chicago to play the Bulls. They received the news late Sunday that team legend and assistant coach Maurice Lucas had died of cancer.
Hearing Lucas’ name always brings a smile to the faces of many around the NBA for his tough guy, enforcer image that defined the ’70s and ’80s in the NBA, though personally with a gentle heart.
He was involved in one of the seminal moments in the NBA in the 1977 Finals when his punch against Darryl Dawkins, to many, changed the series for the Trail Blazers as Lucas was coming to the defense of teammate Bobby Gross, who has been manhandled by Dawkins.
Dawkins’ subsequent meltdown with the 76ers ahead 2-0 was credited by many as the reason Portland won the next four games and the championship.
“He was an enforcer,” said Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who hired Lucas when he got the Portland job. “He understood and played that role, to be an intimidator. He was a hit first guy when that was legal. He played mind games, almost like Muhammad Ali. He would go after the biggest guy and get him first. Then the rest of the guys he didn’t have to worry about.
“Off the floor, he was totally opposite,” McMillan said before Monday’s game. “He was a fun guy who loved to joke and enjoy life. But once on the floor, he flipped a switch.”
The interesting part of that incident was that before Game 3 back in Portland Lucas walked toward the 76ers bench. Uh oh. But Lucas walked up to Dawkins and said, “No hard feelings.”
Dawkins didn’t know what to think or how to react and was reduced to an ineffective mess.
Bulls TV broadcaster Neil Funk was the 76ers announcer then.
“Darryl was useless the rest of the series after that,” Funk recalled Monday with a laugh.
The Bulls had a moment of silence for Lucas before the game.
The incident is often brought up by NBA veterans like the time Kevin McHale helped turn around the 1984 Finals with a clothesline takedown of Kurt Rambis after Rambis went after Larry Bird in the previous game, and the famous Robert Parish punch at Bill Laimbeer in the 1987 playoffs, basically in retaliation for Laimbeer taking cheap shots at everyone.
But with it all, Lucas should have been helping the Bulls win their first championship in 1975 if not for what was then the most bumbling management in franchise history.
Lucas, a star at Marquette, was a first round pick of the Bulls before that season in 1974. The Bulls had traded the underachieving Howard Porter to the Knicks for the No. 1 pick, those being less valued in that era.
The Bulls selected Lucas in what everyone believed would be the run to the championship. The Bulls were coming off a 54-win season and knocked off in the playoffs by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Bucks when Jerry Sloan was hurt.
The team tried to talk Wilt Chamberlain out of retirement that summer, and was close. And things later would finally begin to break for the Bulls as Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand in preseason punching the basket stanchion.
Unable, finally, to get Chamberlain, the Bulls made what was then regarded as the blockbuster of the summer with a deal for Nate Thurmond. The dominant center was coming off his seventh All-Star appearance after averaging 13 points and 14 rebounds, but the Warriors were facing financial problems.
So the Bulls went all in and gave the Warriors Cliff Ray, $500,000 (a lot then) and a No. 1 pick. Thurmond had a quadruple double in his first game with the Bulls, the first ever in the NBA as blocks only came in as a statistic the year before. Thurmond had 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks. Media reports of the day only listed Thurmond with 22 points and 14 rebounds in that non statistics era.
Thurmond, though, was a disappointment as he never could get accustomed to coach Dick Motta’s forward oriented offense and eventually fell behind Tom Boerwinkle. Ray went on to play a key role in defeating the Bulls in the conference finals.
That also was the season with Motta also as general manager that Motta reneged on agreements former GM Pat Williams had made on contacts with Bob Love and Norm Van Lier, and both held out into the season. After the season, Motta would publicly blame Love and Van Lier’s holdouts for costing the Bulls the title and ask other players to deny them playoff shares, which played no small part in the breakup of that great Bulls team.
Love and Van Lier eventually returned, but the Bulls lost famously at home on Mother’s Day in 1975 before going back to Golden State to lose Game 7 as the Warriors then went on to sweep the Bullets in the Finals.
But how much different would it have been if they signed Lucas?
Motta didn’t want to pay Lucas the $500,000 he was seeking.
So Lucas signed with St. Louis of the ABA, where he averaged a near double/double as a rookie and quickly became the enforcer as he was in leading Marquette to the championship game in 1974.
Having him with Love’s late arrival and then to support Love and Chet Walker could easily have been the difference in getting past the Warriors in 1975 and winning their first NBA title.
The Bulls went on to use their No. 1 pick for forward Cliff Pondexter, whom Motta said would be better, and was much cheaper. Pondexter was hurt early in the season and was a bust in three poor seasons with the Bulls.
Lucas went on to a brilliant career, first at St. Louis and Kentucky in the ABA and then with Bill Walton led the Trail Blazers to the title in 1977 when he was the team’s leading scorer. Walton always has called Lucas the greatest ‘Blazer ever.
He later played with the Nets, Knicks, Suns, Lakers and Supersonics before returning to Portland to settle and eventually joining the team’s coaching staff with McMillan in 2005.
He’ll always be remembered as one of the great men of the NBA, a classic teammate who defined the cliché of “having your back.” He should have been a Bulls great, but the NBA is richer for having known him.