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Lucas Gives Oregon an Emotional Leader

HOW THEY'RE DOING: ONE IN A SERIES .

February 21, 1991|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three Oregon State players settle under the basket, awaiting the rebound. Suddenly, a yellow-and-green blur flies past them, grabs the ball off the rim and slams it through the hoop.

The crowd responds.

"Luuuuuuuuke."

Richard Lucas, University of Oregon center, hustles up court in time to deflect a pass, forcing a turnover. A moment later, he has the ball along the baseline, steps in and jams another one home.

"Luuuuuuuuke."

Lucas waves his fist in the air, and the crowd eats it up. He can do no wrong.

"The crowd seems to appreciate my style," Lucas said. "Oregon has always been a dive-on-the-floor type team and the fans reward hard work."

Lucas, a senior from Katella High School, has earned the cheers with determination.

In four years, he has gone from a freshman out of position to one of the better centers in the Pacific 10. He has proved he can play inside at the college level, something Oregon Coach Don Monson, and even Lucas, weren't too sure about.

At 6 feet 7 and 215 pounds, Lucas doesn't look like a typical Pac-10 center. He looks lanky when standing next to some of the big men roaming the conference these days, and most of the time, he has to look up at them.

But what Lucas concedes in size, he makes up for in heart.

This season, he is averaging 15.7 points and 9.2 rebounds (second in the conference) and is leading the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage (63.4%).

But numbers aside, Lucas fills a vital role for the Ducks, that of emotional leader. His competitive drive gets his teammates, not to mention the fans, pumped up.

"Richard is relentless," Monson said. "It's one of his best assets."

Outside of Oregon, few people would recognize Lucas. Around Eugene, though, he's nearly a folk hero.

Children approach him in malls to ask for his autograph. Local high school coaches send him letters of appreciation. Strangers see him and stop to offer congratulations.

"I was at home the other day, and a UPS guy delivered a package next door," Lucas said. "He saw me and yelled out, 'Go get 'em, Luke.' You've got to love the fans up here."

Lucas repays them with hustle. He dives for almost every loose ball, pursues every rebound and pushes around guys who outweigh him by 25 pounds or more.

His style has carried the Ducks on more than one occasion.

Against Stanford this season, the Ducks trailed by 17 with 11 minutes left. Led by Lucas, they rallied to send the game into overtime. And Lucas scored the basket that put the Ducks ahead to stay. He finished with 19 points and 16 rebounds in the 81-77 victory.

"Richard was the instigator in that game, there's no question about it," Monson said. "He set the tone for us."

It was that persistent style that first impressed Monson when Lucas was a senior at Katella. Monson said he liked the way Lucas ran the court and the ferocity with which he battled for rebounds.

Of course, when he watched Lucas play, he envisioned him as a small forward: someone to fill the lane on the fast break, handle the ball and sink 18-foot jumpers.

"When a kid is 6-7, you normally think of him as a forward," Monson said. "I felt that, with Richard's strength and his ability to run, he would improve enough to be a forward."

There were just a few glitches, the most noticeable of which was that outside shooting wasn't exactly Lucas' forte. He also had trouble handling the ball.

"I don't know why they thought of me as a small forward," Lucas said. "I never demonstrated any small forward skills during four years in high school. I guess people thought there was no way I could handle Pac-10 centers."

Lucas got a chance to change some minds as a freshman.

The Ducks had only one legitimate center in 1987-88, Brett Coffey, who had good abilities as a shot-blocker and was even more adept at getting into foul trouble. With nowhere else to turn, Monson gave Lucas a chance to go inside.

He played in 25 games, starting five, mostly at center. Against Purdue, Lucas had 11 points and eight rebounds, his best performance of the season.

"I was a little intimidated at first," Lucas said. "I really wasn't sure if I could play center at this level. The players were so big and strong. I'm sure that some of those centers started salivating when they saw this freshman guarding them."

Although Lucas averaged only 2.4 points and 3.2 rebounds, he didn't get pushed around. His play convinced Monson that he belonged inside.

"Sometimes people get hung up on height," Monson said. "I realized Richard had good skills at the post. We decided that's where he belonged."

Lucas has been a fixture in the middle since midway through his sophomore season. As a junior, he finished fourth in the Pac-10 in rebounding (8.6).

This season, Lucas has had his best games against quality opponents. He had 19 points and 16 rebounds against Utah, the Western Athletic Conference champion. In conference, he has scored 26 points against UCLA, 22 against USC and 20 against Oregon State.

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