Dressed California casual, Jerry Lucas is riding the rails in the last Amtrak coach car on a special Boston-to-New York run. He is one of the National Basketball Association 'Legends' on board to help celebrate the league's 50th anniversary, but for the moment he is not talking basketball.
Instead, the topic is education. What Lucas calls his "20-year plan to impact education curricula" is "totally finished now."
"I've made learning very simple and very easy and I think it's going to have a real impact," he says of the curriculum materials currently being introduced under a new business banner, Lucas Educational Systems Inc. of Templeton, Calif.
A memory specialist, Lucas was a star with the Cincinnati Royals, San Francisco Warriors, and New York Knicks during a 10-year NBA career that ended in 1973.
He became famous beyond basketball as the co-author of "The Memory Book," a hot seller in 1974, and as the guy who memorized substantial parts of the Manhattan phone book. TV talk shows loved him.
The 6 ft., 8 in. Hall-of-Famer once had the New Testament committed to memory and still teaches Bible memory. He has also done work with Fortune 500 companies but longs to share his techniques with schoolchildren across the United States.
"Frankly my goal in the last 20 years has not been to make money," he says. "My goal has been to create and do something that I think is going to be life-changing."
He has worked at the edges of the educational world, working "quietly and diligently in a very disciplined way," as he puts it. Part of his personal agenda during the Boston-to-New York train trip, he says, called for visiting NBA commissioner David Stern to discuss an educational partnership.
Lucas capped his NBA career playing in New York for the champion Knickerbockers. He's convinced it was one of the most intelligent groups of players ever assembled. Lucas was Phi Beta Kappa, Bill Bradley (later a New Jersey senator) was a Rhodes Scholar, Dick Barnett earned a PhD, and Phil Jackson, current coach of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, is a known intellect and author.
"Playing with really intelligent people made the game a lot more fun," Lucas says. "If you go through a year with guys who you can converse with, it makes it a lot easier than 82 games with guys who don't know what day it is."
Lucas says his relentless devotion to rebounding made him similar to controversial modern star Dennis Rodman "I could score and I did score, but my thoughts were rebounding - before the game, during the game, always. I tried to get them all." To that end, he studied every player's shot - mentally cataloging its arc and spin characteristics - to better position himself for the rebound.
He once collected 40 rebounds in a game, a record for an NBA forward, and is the only player besides Wilt Chamberlain to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game for an entire season more than once.
These achievements are special to him, as is his play in the 1960 Olympics, when he was the leading scorer and rebounder on a gold medal-winning US team that included fellow Hall-of-Famers Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.
Lucas had just finished his sophomore year at Ohio State, which was national champion in 1960 and runner-up to the University of Cincinnati in '61 and '62.
He didn't play his first year out of college due to contractual complications. The Cincinnati Royals, who owned his "territorial rights" and had drafted him while a local high school player, weren't offering enough. So Lucas signed for more money with George Steinbrenner's Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League. The league folded, however, prompting Lucas to ink a personal-services deal with guys bidding to land an NBA expansion franchise for Cleveland. That fell through, too, so he was back to square 1.