Sunset Park, located on Bellemonte Street in Middletown, Ohio, was once the Rucker Park of the Midwest — when summertime rolled around, professional and collegiate basketball players alike would swarm the courts, hoping to play a game of pickup basketball against the best players in the area.
One summer, former University of Dayton senior and captain Johnny Horan was matched up against a man named Jerry Lucas. Lucas absolutely destroyed him, embarrassing him on both ends of the court.
Horan, who had never heard of Lucas, went around asking the other players which college Lucas attended. He was impressed with what he saw, and he wanted to find out where Lucas went to school so that he might follow the young man’s career.
“He was told that Lucas was a sophomore, so he asked, ‘What college does he go to?’ and he was told, ‘Well, he’s a sophomore in high school. He’s a 10th-grader,'” said Lee Caryer, Buckeye basketball historian and author of “The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball.”
Throughout his life, Lucas has been a step ahead of the competition. In grade school, Lucas said, his coursework bored him.
“When I got to school, I realized I wasn’t being taught how to learn,” Lucas said. “In school they use repetition. Everybody has forever, and I realized that this is no fun. There has to be an easier way.”
Lucas began to experiment with different learning methods, creating a series of mental games that would help to make the material tangible and easier to learn.
“I was always an excellent student — I was a 4.0 student at Ohio State, and my learning systems made it easy for me to learn,” Lucas said. “By the time I got through high school and into college, learning was very simple and easy for me.”
At 6-foot-8, Lucas wasn’t always the biggest man on the court. He wasn’t the most athletic or the fastest. He was, however, a tireless worker.
“Nobody ever worked harder than I did at basketball, or for longer hours,” Lucas said.
Blessed with a gifted mind, Lucas relied on both his intelligence and his unrelenting work ethic to become a better basketball player. Throughout most of his high school career, it seemed Lucas might never lose a game. Middletown High School went undefeated for Lucas’ first three seasons, and he became a hot commodity.
“Jerry Lucas was recruited harder than anyone, with the possible exception of Wilt Chamberlain up to that point,” Caryer said.
Lucas’ media coverage was similar to that of Akron, Ohio’s LeBron James when he played at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. But Lucas shied away from the spotlight.
“Throughout my high-school career, I didn’t want to be bothered by recruiters,” Lucas said. “I wasn’t interested; I just wanted to be a normal person who enjoyed my life and enjoyed my friends.”
When the time came to decide on a college, Lucas made only one visit. The summer after his senior season, when he lost his last high-school game to Columbus North High School, he chose to study at OSU.
“I liked the atmosphere there, and I was primarily interested in an education,” Lucas said. “I went on an academic scholarship and not a sports scholarship. Everything about Ohio State was very attractive to me, and it seemed like the best situation.”
Once Lucas committed to play for the Buckeyes, other high school basketball stars in Ohio began to follow his lead, including local standout Mel Nowell and Bridgeport’s John Havlicek.
“Before they got to campus, there was this buzz,” Caryer said. “Then, when they were freshmen, the story about people leaving and missing the varsity games because they wanted to see the freshmen play — that was very true.”
Lucas said the freshmen made a habit of beating the varsity team in practice. Dick Furry, then-junior and future co-captain of the varsity squad, remembers things a little differently.
“Some of those stories got blown out of proportion,” Furry said. “I think one story that was widely circulated was that they beat us all the time. And basically, if I remember right, we broke even. I think it was about 50-50.”
Regardless, Furry said the team was “doggone happy” when Lucas committed to OSU. When he joined the varsity team his sophomore year, 1959-60, Lucas became the centerpiece on the offensive end.
“Our offense revolved around Lucas, and that was the best thing for the team,” said John Havlicek, former Buckeye and Celtic Hall of Famer. “For the way we wanted to play, we used him as the focal point.”
That year, the Buckeyes won the National Championship Game against the University of California, 75-55. The team played a nearly impeccable first half, making 15 of its first 16 shots.
Lucas averaged 26.3 points and 16.4 rebounds per game that season, and he received the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
That summer, Lucas traveled to Rome and suited up for the 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team. The team’s roster was stacked, featuring future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
“That’s a real honor for any athlete, in my opinion; to have the opportunity to represent his country is just incredible,” Lucas said. “As I look back, it was one of the utmost highlights of my entire basketball career.”
It was the last championship Lucas won for a number of years. His junior season, the Buckeyes strolled into the National Championship Game undefeated, but fell to Cincinnati, 70-65.
“There’s no doubt that our team was better,” Lucas said. “Unfortunately we didn’t play as well as we had been playing. Cincinnati played better, and they beat us.”
Cincinnati went on to beat OSU again at the end of Lucas’ senior season, but the first loss still haunts him.
“That first Cincinnati loss is the most devastating loss I’ve ever had in my life,” Lucas said. “It’s something that you believe you have a chance of winning — you shoot for it all year, and then when it’s taken away from you, it’s not a pleasant memory in anybody’s life.”
The NBA’s defunct Cincinnati Royals drafted Lucas and offered him a contract of $30,000. George Steinbrenner, the late New York Yankees owner who at one time owned the American Basketball League’s Cleveland Pipers, had other ideas.
“He offered me $40,000 a year, so I signed with him,” Lucas said. “I never got a nickel from him, nor did I ever play a game in the ABL, because the league folded prior to that season beginning.”
Lucas eventually signed with the Royals. For the better half of a decade, he witnessed the Boston Celtics perennially eliminate his team from championship contention. Legendary center Bill Russell and former Buckeye teammate Havlicek led the Celtics.
It wasn’t until Lucas became a member of the New York Knicks that he won an NBA championship, reaching the top of the mountain in 1973. For his professional career, he averaged 17.0 points and 15.6 rebounds per game. He played in seven All-Star games and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979.
Lucas’ list of awards and achievements includes being the only college player to lead the nation in rebounding and field goal percentage for three straight years, and the first player in history to win a championship at every level of competition, according to his official website.
“I would argue to this day that Lucas was one of the top five college players of all time,” said Bob Ryan, longtime Boston Globe contributor and occasional ESPN “Around the Horn” panelist. “Lucas was a great rebounder and an extraordinary player.”
Lucas lives near San Luis Obispo, Calif. He has written more than 70 books that aim to help others by teaching memory education techniques, and he’s working on a website he refers to as the “culmination of his life’s work.”
“I’m in the process right now of creating a very unique educational website, which will be called ‘Dr. M’s Universe,'” Lucas said. “And I know that when America — and the world, as far as that’s concerned, because it will be on the World Wide Web — when they have an opportunity to experience it, it will change millions and millions of lives.”
Sharing his intellectual gifts with others makes perfect sense, given he took pride in his selfless play on the court, and team achievements were always more important to him than individual honors. Of the championships he won at four levels, one in particular stood out to him.
“The Ohio State team was more special than the others because I was with that group for a longer period,” Lucas said. “The core of that group came in as freshmen, so we were together for a long time, and we developed great, lifelong friendships that continue to this day. So, that was uniquely special for all of us.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Jan. 24, 2011
An earlier version of this story stated that Oscar Robertson was on the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball team that beat Ohio State in the 1961 National Championship Game. Robertson was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals in 1960 and was not on the University of Cincinnati team in 1961.