Slick-passing big man Sam Lacey dies at 65

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Bob Lanier. Rudy Tomjanovich. Pete Maravich. Dave Cowens.

Those names now are part of NBA lore, the players revered for the brilliance of their skills and validated by championship rings, plaques in the Naismith Hall of Fame or both. That those men were stacked up at the top of the 1970 NBA Draft – Nos. 1 through 4, picked in rapid succession by the Pistons, the Rockets, the Hawks and the Celtics – only adds to their legend. So much skill, so many highlights, so much winning.

Kansas City Kings vs. Boston Celtics

Big man Sam Lacey was a talented NBA passer and scorer.

Well, the guy taken at No. 5 was no slouch either.

When the news of Sam Lacey‘s death broke Saturday, it hit hard for many who knew him or at least knew of his terrific basketball achievements. Here’s how the Las Cruces (N.M.) Sun-News framed it in a late-night report:

LAS CRUCES – And, then the celebration just stopped.

Moments after New Mexico State’s Aggies won the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament, with a 77-55 victory Saturday against the University of Idaho, word came that former Aggie great Sam Lacey died. Lacey, 65, apparently died of natural causes…

Lacey was a hero of NMSU basketball, a 6-foot-10 center who led the Aggies to a 74-14 record in his three varsity seasons and their only trip to the Final Four in 1970. Lacey was a little overshadowed that weekend by St. Bonaventure’s Lanier, Jacksonville’s Artis Gilmore and UCLA’s Sidney Wicks, all future NBA stars. He was overshadowed two days later, going fifth in the Draft that also produced Calvin Murphy, Dan Issel, Randy Smith, Geoff Petrie, Gar Heard, John Johnson and the great Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who like Lacey was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals (who moved to Kansas City and became the Kings in 1972).

But Lacey more than held his own through a 13-season NBA career. In fact, no one from that 1970 Draft class played more games than he did (1,002). And of those four more-famous players taken in front of him – for all of Maravich’s fancy passes, Lanier’s skills or Cowens’ unselfishness – none passed for more assists than Lacey (3,754).

The big man’s prowess at finding and putting teammates in scoring position came up just two weeks ago in NBA circles, after Chicago’s Joakim Noah posted a triple-double against New York, passing for 10 assists in the first half on his way to a career-high 14:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the most assists by a center since Sam Lacey had 14 for the Kansas City Kings on December 6, 1978.

Lacey also had 14 assists for the Kings in a 1977 game, giving him two of the four games in the past 40 years in which a center had at least 14. The other two: Noah and Bill Walton in 1975 for Portland.

The native of Indianola, Miss., who would have turned 66 on March 28, was Archibald’s center when the quick Kings’ point guard led the NBA in scoring (34.0 ppg) and assists (11.4 apg) – and minutes (46.0 mpg), by the way – in 1972-73. That earned Archibald the first of six All-Star appearances in his Hall of Fame career; Lacey got there once, earning an All-Star spot in 1975.

Over his first six seasons, Lacey was a double-double machine, averaging 12.8 points and 12.5 rebounds. Here’s the elite list of Lacey’s opponents who managed to average 12 and 12 in those same six years (1971-1976): Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Spencer Haywood, Paul Silas, Nate Thurmond, Cowens and Lanier.

As a passer, Lacey grew more adept over time. After averaging just 2.0 assists through his first three seasons, the big man boosted that to 4.8 per game over his next eight. In his 1974-75 All-Star season, he averaged 5.3 assists. Lacey dished 5.2 assists in 1978-79, 5.7 the next year and 4.9 in 1980-81, the season in which he turned 32.

With vision and generosity like that, it’s no wonder Lacey was popular with teammates, as noted in the Kansas City Star’s story of his death:

“He was the heart and soul of the Kansas City Kings,” said former teammate Scott Wedman.

And:

Early in his career, he played with the likes of Nate “Tiny” Archibald, and later in his career teamed with Otis Birdsong, Wedman and Phil Ford.

“He was the team captain during our best run, so that says a lot about him as a leader and teammate,” Wedman said. “He’d take the young guys like me and Phil Ford under his wing. He expected a lot out of you, and you didn’t want to let him down.

“And he was all about winning. A great defensive center. He went up against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens, Nate Thurmond and worked his tail off against those guys.”

Lacey, who made his home back in Kansas City, finished his career with 54 games with New Jersey and 60 with Cleveland. He retired in 1983 with 9,687 rebounds, which ranks 42nd in combined NBA/ABA history. He blocked 1,160 shots, good for 58th on the all-time list. And had he managed just one more steal – officially he finished with 999, though the stat wasn’t tracked in his first three seasons – Lacey would be on another short list: Only 22 players have managed 1,000 steals and 1,000 blocks.

Not bad for a guy who beat long odds, coming out of a small town in the Mississippi Delta to become an NBA All-Star, as he was quoted a few years ago:

“They say you have a better chance of getting hit by lightening than becoming a pro player,” said Lacey.

After his playing days, Lacey did some radio and TV work and reportedly took an interest in efforts to bring another NBA franchise to Kansas City. His jersey number (44) hangs in the rafters of the Sacramento Kings, where the Cincinnati/Kansas City club moved in 1985. In 2008, Lacey was one of the first players enshrined in New Mexico State’s Ring of Honor.

19 Comments

  1. toni callis says:

    I meet Mr. Lacey about a year and a half ago. He lived in the same building as my mom. I saw him and talked with him quite often. I have twin boy 10 years old, one who plays basketball. My son used to sit in the building’s community room and watch basketball with him, give my son advice and skill suggestions all the time. Came to watch my boy play and just talk to the both of them all he time. In the short time we knew Mr. Lacey, he grew as a fixture in our daily life we always looked forward to seeing him in the building. I came to the building on summer day last year as usual to see my mom . I always knock on her window so she can let me in. This day I knocked and knocked and she didn’t get up . I could see her lying in her bed from a little space at the bottom of her window. I saw Mr. Lacey on the patio about to bar b que. I ran around there and asked Mr. Lacey to help me. We went to my moms door and Mr. Lacey almost beat the door off the hindges before my mom heard us . Thank you Mr. Lacey for helping me. I was scared that day and you were there and helped me with the drop of the hat. You will be missed by my boys and I.

  2. Hayward Findley, Jr says:

    RIP, Slammin Sam, you stayed in contact the whole journey beginning as fellow Aggies. I will miss our conversations and your keen insights on the journey!
    My prayers to your daughter, Gretchen and others who loved and respected who you were, as well as the man you became…
    Many laughs and fond memories.
    Hayward Findley

  3. Alvan Romero says:

    Slammin’ Sam Lacey will always be remembered as a Great New Mexico State Aggie. He and Jimmy Collins, with Charlie Criss, Chito Reyes and a handful more made the Final Four in 1970. They would have made it in 1969 and possibly in 1968, but in those days they had to meet and did meet Lew Alcinder (Abdul Jabbar) and John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins in the West Regionals. Gave them good games! Last saw Sam at Coach Lew Henson’s Honorary Dinner at the Pan American Center. He looked liked a million dollars, tall, debenoir in that pin-stripped suit. A very hospitable man. Professional, kind and humble. What a grade player!!! NMSU will never forget him. His large Picture Hangs High where we all See It every time we go to a game. My condolences to the Lacey Family.

    Alvan Romero NMSU 1974

  4. Jim Young says:

    My condolences to the Lacey family. When I was growing up in Kansas City, I would listen and watch every Kings game I could. I can honestly say, that in those formative years is where my love of the game of basketball was developed. Sam Lacey was a big part of that. I would go outside the day after a game and shoot hoops, pretending I was Sam Lacey, or Nate Archibald, or Scotty Wedman. The best part was finally rejoicing a playoff appearance. Great memories of Sam Lacey and the rest of the teams.

  5. Gretchen Lacey-Downey says:

    On behalf of Sam’s family I want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all the kind words and memories we have had the pleasure reading.
    My father had a huge heart and never met a stranger which is clear as all of you share your memories of him.
    We find so much comfort and joy knowing that my father’s love, sense of humor and infectious laugh had a very long reach.
    Both on the court and off he gave his heart and his memory and spirit flourish as we each remember our special time with him.
    He touched many, many lives and again I thank you for sharing your memories of my hero #44.

    Memorial Service information for those who would like to attend can be found at http://www.gofundme.com/Sam-Lacey-Memorial-Fund.
    I can also be reached through this site for any additional questions.

    Thank You,
    Gretchen Lacey-Downey

  6. Clarence Lott says:

    It’s great to hear all the talk about Sam’s excellent basketball skills and know that people appreciated just how talented he was. I watched him play both live and on TV. But he became my friend in 1983, in Atlanta, after his playing career – and what a friend he was. Sam’s heart was made of gold and he was a man of great principle. I knew “Sam the Man” and was blessed to have known him.

    He will be missed. God Bless the Lacey Family.

  7. Gary Abernathy says:

    Saw Sam play his first two years, in Cincinnati. He and Tiny Archibald were coming in on the heels of the Oscar Robertson-Jerry Lucas years in Cincinnati, and provided an exciting, fast-breaking team under coach Bob Cousy. Sam was one of the hardest-working players throughout his whole career. Remember being at a game at Cincinnati Gardens were Sam blocked Kareem’s hook shot, something you didn’t see often. Sad news. rest in peace.

  8. Essie Brown says:

    My prayers goes out to the Lacy family

  9. Essie Brown says:

    The Lacy family are in my prayers.

  10. baseballmom94 says:

    Sam and his family lived in my Kansas City neighborhood and I used to babysit for his young daughter in the late 1970s. I remember him picking me up to babysit in his Jaguar… he was a very nice man and his daughter was such a cutie. RIP Sam!

  11. Bill Fiske says:

    As a proud Aggie from that era ’63 I was fortunate to meet Sam and enjoy our conversations. Anyone that kept up with BB during Sam’s era knows he was a heck of a ball player and an outstanding gentleman. Condolences to his family. RIP Sam.

  12. robert says:

    Got to see Sam play his rookie season in Cincinnati. Great player,great memories Thanks Sam RIP

  13. AJC says:

    RIP Sam.

  14. A. J. says:

    Sam was a fan favorite in Kansas City, especially with the Backcourt Boosers. He was as nice a person off of the court as he was a fierce player on the court. The NBA could use more individuals of his character today.

  15. Bernard King says:

    As an NBA player I had the honor of playing against the great Sam Lacey. Sam will forever be part of NBA history because of his play and the leadership he displayed.

    My condolences to the Lacey family.

    Bernard King
    Hall of Famer

    • S Colter says:

      Without a doubt “BK”. Words well spoken.
      My congratulations to you on your induction sir.

      Steve Colter

  16. The Voice In The Distance says:

    Sad News. Thoughts and condolences to all who cared for him.

  17. howard myers says:

    I remember this guy,he was good. But he never had the chance to play for a ring so a lot of people forget about him. That is not fair for such a great player. His numbers speak for themselves.

  18. Fefe (Nets) says:

    RIP Sam Lacey! Condolences to his family.