There he is in 1981's The Breaks of the Game, the chronicle of the Portland Trail Blazers' 1979-80 season by the late David Halberstam -- Lucas grinding his way through a perplexing season, knowing his worth to the recent NBA championship team and to the league, battling over his contract, trying to both perform and lead under circumstances beyond his control.
And there he is, at an earlier stage of his career, in 1990's Loose Balls, Terry Pluto's oral history of the ABA -- Lucas as a young powerhouse, a force of nature on the court and in the locker room, someone who made opponents ponder where the line was between respect and fear, who channeled his strength into defending and rebounding but occasionally into a punch as well. And, for the purposes of this book, as a player with principles and a desire to win stuck on possibly the flakiest, most undisciplined, most dysfunctional group of players collected, the Spirits of St. Louis: a man of character stuck on a team packed with characters.
The Maurice Lucas described in these books is the Lucas who played 14 seasons in the ABA and NBA, who was in and around the game for the 20-plus years between the end of his playing days in 1988 and his heartbreaking early death, of bladder cancer, Sunday at age 58. That also is the Lucas who his coach on the 1977 NBA champion Blazers, Jack Ramsay, told the Portland Oregonian was "the strength of the team. He was The Enforcer. He was the heart of that team. And he liked the role. He enjoyed it. He really liked being the enforcer-type player.''
He also is the man no less than Bill Walton -- the '77 Finals MVP, the '78 league MVP and eventual Hall of Famer -- called "the greatest Blazer of all time.'' And he's the man after whom Walton named a son (the one who currently plays for the Lakers).
Walton, understandably, was the centerpiece of the Halberstam book, as it was the true beginning of the injury problems that derailed his career and his tenure in Portland. As a character in the book, Walton wavered between hero and villain, depending on the route he took on the stands he took in defense of himself and against the organization.
Lucas, however -- while often in the same type of battles with management -- came off slightly differently. While Walton was fighting from a love of the game, Lucas was battling from something much deeper and personal: for his own dignity, identity and self-respect. That made him a villain to the various coaches, scouts and executives posed against him.
As Halberstam wrote three decades ago: "(I)f Luke was a presence during a game, he was also a presence among his teammates -- sometimes, as in the championship season, an immensely positive presence but sometimes, Stu Inman believed, more dubious. There was, Inman felt, too much dissent, too much ego and too great a test for challenge in Lucas. Inman was sure that he was bound to bring problems to something as delicate as a basketball team.''
How unfortunate for Inman, the then-general manager of the Blazers and an excellent one on balance, to have words like that come back to bite you so many years later. Inman is also cursed with the world remembering that he drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan a few years later.
Lucas's impact on not only the players of his day but of later times, it's obvious now, was far from "dubious.'' Ask Walton, whom outsiders at the time erroneously perceived as Lucas' foe instead of as friend, then and for the rest of Lucas's life.
As for the fear? Well, there are two "incidents'' that will define Lucas, and it's a tribute to him that he is cast in a positive light in the wake of both. One is from his ABA days, a square-off with Artis Gilmore, who at the time was the single most dominant force in the league, and the one true classic big man the ABA ever had. It ended with Lucas punching Gilmore's lights out -- and, by most accounts, with Gilmore never being the same player again, and with Lucas transforming the same way.
"For whatever reason,'' Bob Costas told Loose Balls, "from that point on Lucas developed into a helluva player.''
As time wore on, Lucas became so good, Spirits general manager Harry Weltman recalled in the book, he was emboldened to speak out about the zoo the team had become, influenced by the talented but utterly disruptive Marvin Barnes.
"As he proved his worth, Lucas earned a platform to speak out, and he did about Marvin,'' Weltman said. Of course, in true ABA fashion, it was Lucas who was traded; he wound up in Kentucky, which was not taken in by the NBA in the merger and how Lucas landed in Portland in a dispersal draft the year they won their first and only NBA championship.
There, Lucas developed into not only one of the league's most effective power forwards, but as its prototype "Enforcer.'' That earned him the cover of "Sports Illustrated" as the 1977-78 season opened, under the headline -- you guessed it: "The Enforcers.'' (Just two months later, the entire concept took on a frightfully negative tone after the Kermit Washington-Rudy Tomjanovich punch.)
The other was in those 1977 Finals, against the 76ers of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Lloyd (not yet "World B.'') Free and Darryl Dawkins, the subsequent rhyme-maker and backboard-shatterer. It was late in Game 2 in Philadelphia, as the 76ers were taking a 2-0 lead in the series; Dawkins had thrown a Blazer player to the floor, then had started swinging wildly at all who approached (including teammate Doug Collins, who was clipped inadvertently. Lucas retaliated by taking on Dawkins -- two inches and a good 35 pounds heavier -- reaching up and, yes, cracking him in the face. The fight pretty much ended then and there. Dawkins, subsequently ejected, then famously destroyed his own locker room.
It didn't seem like a turning point in the series at the time, but it proved to be exactly that. The series moved to Portland, the Blazers won the next two, then won again in Philadelphia, then clinched the title in Portland in Game 6. It cemented the love affair between Portland and the Blazers, and that team became the one every subsequent roster was compared to by the faithful -- for better (when the Clyde Drexler-Buck Williams teams reached two Finals in the 1990s) or worse (the "Jail Blazers'' group a decade later, which all but forced a divorce with the fan base).
The healing began in 2005, when Nate McMillan -- ironically, a cornerstone with the rival Seattle SuperSonics as a player, but also briefly a teammate at the end of Lucas's career -- became head coach. It really took root when McMillan brought on Lucas as an assistant. A new generation of player gravitated to him, learned under him and respected his strength, external and internal.
On second thought, as good as The Breaks of the Game and Loose Balls were at illustrating the kind of player and person Maurice Lucas was in the bloom of his youth, the better testament to who he was over the course of his too-short life comes from those who shared the court and locker room with him. Nate McMillan, for example.
"He was a great man, and I mean that,'' McMillan said Sunday. "He was a man.''