Tip-Off Timer: Portland Welcomes the Return of No. 20
It's tough to imagine another assistant coach in the NBA getting a welcome back like Maurice Lucas will when the regular season opens for the Portland Trail Blazers later this month.
They don't forget their heroes in this town.
The Blazers retired his No. 20 jersey -- the only No. 20 in the NBA to be retired -- back in 1988, even though he played only five seasons in Portland. That's how much he meant.
Lucas -- a huge part of the Blazers miraculous NBA title run in 1977 -- has been on the Portland staff since 2005, but he is returning to the sideline now after an ongoing bout with bladder cancer that included surgery in the spring.
Lucas missed the Blazers' run late last season that ended with their first playoff appearance in six years. He wasn't there, but the big men he tutors were there doing the things he had instilled in them.
"We are glad to have Luke back, healthy, and working with our big men again," Blazers head coach Nate McMillan said. "He is a very important part of our family. We all missed having him here during the stretch run.''
It was McMillan who added Lucas to his staff when he took the job in 2005. They had played together in Seattle late in Lucas' career. McMillan knew all about the toughness and work ethic that Lucas brought to the game.
Lucas, a 6-9, 220-pound power forward, joined the Blazers as a player before the 1976-77 season as part of the ABA dispersal draft. And although it was a young Bill Walton who garnered much of the attention, it was Lucas who did it all. He led the team in scoring (20.2 ppg), was second in rebounding (11.4 rpg) and served as the enforcer at a time when the games were considerably more physical than they are today.
With Lucas standing alongside him, the talented but frail-looking Walton didn't have to worry about the goons of the league abusing him. The Blazers won the title in just the seventh year of their existence, and in their first playoff appearance. Walton was so appreciative, he later named his son Luke in honor of his protector and good friend.
The Blazers haven't won a championship since.
Lucas, 57, will start this season focusing mostly on player development responsibilities at the team's practice facility and at home games. His road schedule, at least at the start, will be limited, at the advice of the doctors treating him. His role, working with LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden among others, will be key.
Since this staff came to Portland to start this rebuilding project, they have improved each season, winning 21, 32, 41 and 54 games. The fans that were once so rabid, but cooled during the lean years, are coming back in Portland.
When the season opens, they will roar their approval for the young and rising Blazers. They also will salute the comeback of Lucas, their original No. 20.