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RIP, Maurice Lucas

Posted by Charles P. Pierce  November 1, 2010 11:21 AM

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Thirty-nine years ago this fall, I moved into the 11th floor of a 12-story dormitory at the corner of 16th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a freshman at Marquette University. (The dorm, McCormick Hall, is round and shaped like a beer can, which is remarkably appropriate in more than the metaphorical sense, and the building has been rumored for almost 40 years to be sinking into middle Earth.) Not long after I moved in, I found myself intrigued by the music coming out from under the door of the room next to mine -- music which I now know to have been "Eurydice," the closing track from Weather Report's astounding debut album. (Mmmmmm. Wayne Shorter!) As I was listening, an extremely large man came out of the room and introduced himself. "Pretty cool, isn't it?' he said.

And that was how I met Maurice Lucas.

For the next couple of years, we talked about music, at least as much as Luke talked to anyone, him being what you call your campus celebrity and all during the glory days of Warrior basketball and the high-sun period of Al McGuire Era. Whatever I know about any jazz recorded after the big band records to which my father listened -- Mmmmmmm. Basie! -- I learned from Luke, with whom I don't believe I ever exchanged four words about basketball.

Later that same year, when I was practicing with the fencing team in the basement of the old gymnasium while the basketball team practiced upstairs, Luke came out of the shower wearing only a towel. "Hey," he said, "show me how to do that." I handed him a foil and we squared off, I in my full regalia with a mask and Luke in a towel. I touched him once, lightly, in the ribs. He slapped my blade out of my hand and about 20 feet back down the hallway, hitched up his towel, and went off chuckling.

He was strong and he was tough, and he had a nice little jump shot. And brother Ryan is correct in noting that Luke was the most upright player in the history of the league. He played, always, with near perfect posture. I followed his career as the Black Bart sidekick to Bill Walton on those great Portland teams of the late 1970's, teams of which none of us got enough. SI pictured him with his arms folded in an alley to illustrate the new generation of NBA enforcers. But Luke had more game than that. In fact, if there ever was a prototype from which basketball inevitably would develop a Karl Malone, it was Maurice Lucas. I got a big kick out of his becoming a star in David Halberstam's classic, The Breaks Of The Game, in which Luke confessed to the author that he'd come to Marquette because, in McGuire, an born operator had seen a master from whom he could learn so much. Luke also told Halberstam that he felt strange at Marquette because he was surrounded by white kids who drank a lot of beer and, most uncool, talked about how much beer they drank. I didn't take that part personally because, well, it was far from a non-fact.

The last time I saw him was in New Orleans, before the storm, when Marquette made the Final Four in 2003. He was there as part of a delegation of former players and Walton was in town for some event related to the Basketball Hall Of Fame. I walked up to Walton and told him, and his face lit up the way only Walton's can when his enthusiasm hits DefCon 1. I got the two of them together and backed slowly away. It wasn't my conversation. It was theirs.

Anyway, Maurice Lucas, my former neighbor in a silly round building far away, died yesterday of bladder cancer. He was 58. The obits are going to concentrate on Luke as an "enforcer." The people writing the obits never listened to music with him. Here's to you, big Luke. Here's something to take you home.

UPDATE -- Thanks to commenter KennyZ -- who should calm down just a tad - for pointing out a age-related vapor lock in Paragraph 1 here. In 1971-72, I did live on the 11th floor of McCormick Hall, but not next door to Luke. That came the following year, when I moved into Room 1128, which had been vacated (apparently) by KennyZ. The Weather Report-related encounter took place as described, and I would never presume to say that we were "best buds." In fact, I wouldn't say "best buds" at all because I am not a character in a Seth Rogen movie. This Blog regrets the error and thanks the self-correcting blogosphere for proving that it is an idiot.
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