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CROWE'S NEST

Innovation comes naturally to basketball Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas

As a player he was the first to win championships at high school, college, NBA and Olympic levels. Today, at 69, he champions his Lucas Learning System and a new website he says will ‘revolutionize the education process.’

January 11, 2010|Jerry Crowe

From Templeton, Calif. — Jerry Lucas never abided the mundane.

It wasn't enough for Lucas, in the early stages of an athletic career that would earn him enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame, to merely launch 5,000 shots a day as a youngster.

He challenged himself by visualizing a clock face atop the rim, not counting a shot made, for instance, unless it grazed 3 o'clock -- or 9 o'clock or 12 o'clock, wherever he was aiming -- before falling through the net.

Other times, to improve his rebounding, he'd purposely miss shots while mentally cataloging where the ball caromed, insight that Lucas claims made boxing out unnecessary.

"I did things," he says, "that I found out later on no other basketball player in the history of the world ever did."

But Lucas didn't stop there.

With an incredible capacity for retaining information that earned him the nickname Dr. Memory, he didn't content himself with feats such as memorizing the Bible or the Manhattan phone book, which he did, or identifying hundreds of studio-audience members he'd only just met moments before appearing on "The Tonight Show," which he did to Johnny Carson's astonishment.

He wanted to share his gift.

For years he has traveled the country to demonstrate his Lucas Learning System, which is based on the ability to store pictures in the mind and retrieve them simply by thinking of them.

But that wasn't enough either.

And now, his 70th birthday approaching in March and his final NBA season more than 35 years behind him, the restless Lucas says he is nearing completion on a Pixar-quality interactive website that will "totally revolutionize the education process."

He and wife Cheri, a dog trainer who has appeared on TV's "The Dog Whisperer," live in a hilltop log cabin on their rural 20-acre property about 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo.

It's an idyllic, peaceful setting, but Lucas is far from idle.

"My mind has never been inactive my entire life," he says during an interview in a cozy den outside his home office. "When I had nothing to do physically, I began to invent all sorts of mental games, hundreds of varieties, to keep my mind occupied."

In basketball, the 6-foot-8 Lucas was a prodigy who led Middletown High to two Ohio state championships. At Ohio State, which he insisted on attending on an academic scholarship, he led the Buckeyes to a national title and two other championship-game appearances in three varsity seasons.

In 11 NBA seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, San Francisco Warriors and New York Knicks, he averaged 17 points and 15.6 rebounds, twice averaging "20 and 20" in a season.

Later voted one of the top 50 players in NBA history, Lucas was the first basketball player to win championships at the high school, college, pro and Olympic levels, a feat that has since been matched only by Quinn Buckner and Magic Johnson.

Sports Illustrated, noting that his arching outside shot found the net so consistently that it became known as the Lucas Layup, suggested that Lucas "may be the best-rebounding shooter, and best-shooting rebounder, ever to play the game."

Since leaving the Knicks after the 1973-74 season, however, Lucas has had virtually nothing to do with the game, even turning down offers to work as a TV commentator.

"I enjoyed basketball," he notes, "but it wasn't life-changing. What I'm doing now is life-changing."

When he retired, Lucas says, he embarked on a 25-year plan to develop education curricula that would "make learning practically automatic" by giving tangible identities to intangible concepts. Thirty-five years later, he's still at it.

"To do what I set out to do is an overwhelming task," he says. "It takes time -- like, when I did grammar and punctuation, I read 300 grammar books over a period of a couple years -- but the end result is going to be remarkable."

Lucas says it probably won't be up and running for two more years, but his animated website, Doctor M's Universe, will highlight all he has written and created over the last 3 1/2 decades in an effort to make learning "fun, simple and exciting."

As Lucas explains the site, students will build their own planets on which they will virtually live, flying spaceships to learning destinations in the universe such as an alphabet planet, a reading planet, a spelling planet, a math planet, and so on.

So far, Lucas says, he has developed more than 120 games, created hundreds of characters and written lyrics to about 300 songs that will be incorporated into the project.

"What Jerry's been able to do," says Jeffrey Varab, a Disney-trained animator helping to build the site, "is to take something incredibly complex and make it accessible to anybody."

This year, Lucas notes, he will start to seek funding, estimating it will cost about $20 million to launch the site.

Lucas, though, says his pet project does not occupy his every waking moment. He has spent much of his time the last two years in Erlanger, Ky., with his younger brother, Roy, who has been diagnosed as having a malignant brain tumor.

Lucas continues to lead seminars, and he also found time to write a screenplay about a formative summer in his youth.

"I guess I'm a typical type-A personality," he says, laughing. "Maybe quadruple-A, I don't know."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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