I only have faint memories of Maurice Lucas as a basketball player. I was not yet born when he and the rest of the '76-'77 team gave the city of Portland the gift of pride wrapped up in an NBA championship, and I don't much remember Lucas' years playing for five different teams before ending his career as a Trail Blazer.
But I'm so grateful to be able to say that I did know Lucas as an assistant coach and, more importantly, as a man. It was always funny to me that the man I knew who was so kind, so willing to engage in conversation, was the same man who was rightly feared by his contemporaries. I was still rather reluctant to engage the coaches during my early days working for the team, except for when it came to talking Coach Lucas (I know most people called him Luke, but I could never muster up the courage to address a man of his stature in such a familiar way). For a good while there I was scared stiff of asking Coach McMillan a stupid question, so I opted not to ask any at all, but with Coach Lucas, the questions came easy. And it usually wasn't even questions I planned on using for stories. It was more like it just made sense to speak to a legend while I could.
Maybe it had something to do with the way he talked. He certainly forgot more about basketball than I will ever know, but he didn't talk about the game like the other coaches. I don't mean this as a slight to anyone else on the staff, but Coach Lucas never made me feel stupid or embarrassed. That's not easy for a legend to do.
And he used words like "jive." I loved that.
There would be times when he would sit on the team bench in between running the bigmen through their pregame workouts and we'd talk about whatever. It was the kind of chitchat I would usually use to loosen up someone before pulling out my recorder and getting down to business, but with Coach Lucas, the chitchat was too much fun to be ruined by work. We'd talk about family and basketball and whatever was on either of our minds for a few minutes before he'd get back to banging with guys 30 years younger than he. It was probably the same thing he did with everyone who had the opportunity to sit with him, but it made me feel like I belonged.
I like, like many others I'm sure, just figured Coach Lucas would pull through. He was much thinner and prone to tiring easily when I interviewed him after he returned to the coaching staff, but he seemed to be getting better. Maybe that was wishful thinking on my part.
“You learn a hell of a lot about the human anatomy," said Lucas. "And you learn a lot about patience too. The one thing that I’m finding is an issue for me is learning patience, being patient with myself. I’m trying to understand what this process is all about. It takes a little longer amount of time than I’d like it to take in order to recover. But it is what it is and I’m not in charge of it. I’ve just got to play my role, be patient, feed myself well, take the right meds and see if I can get back on track."
I've often wondered if Coach Lucas ever did find patience. I know I haven't. But when we play in Milwaukee on Tuesday, where Coach Lucas' Marquette jersey hangs from the rafters, I'm going to take some time while the bigmen warm up to have one more sitdown on our bench.