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.
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.
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.