Stories That Don't Suck: David Halberstam On Maurice Lucas And The Powers That Be Scared ShitlessS

Occasionally, we'll select stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that we urge you to read for one reason or another. Today: the late Maurice Lucas, menacing the whistle right out of a ref's mouth.

From The Breaks of the Game, by David Halberstam (1981)

Lucas's first year in the NBA had been remarkable. He was a constant physical presence with a light and almost delicate scoring touch and he brought Portland a sense of physical protection that [Bill] Walton, somewhat intimidated by more physical NBA players in his first two years, badly needed. Luke's ability to intimidate other players had been important that year. Walton, in fact, believed he had witnessed the single most intimidating act in NBA history, the intimidation, not of an opposing player, but of a referee. It was in the first game of the miniseries against Chicago, a very physical team then on a prolonged hot streak. The game was in Portland, the regular referees were on strike and the game was being refereed by scab refs, men accustomed to handling high school games of smaller, slower, less powerful players. In the third quarter, with the game close, one of the refs, angry at Luke's performance, had called a technical foul on him. Luke had shouted back his disagreement and stormed towards the referee. The referee had reached for his whistle, about to call the second technical, which meant automatic ejection, just as Luke arrived. The whistle was poised there in the ref's mouth, ready for blowing. Luke's hand touched the chain. Luke shook his head, very gently. But his eyes were burning. "You don't want to do that," he said. Their eyes met. The referee was 5'10" and Luke was 6'9". Luke held the referee's eyes. The referee slowly took the whistle out of his mouth. Amazing, Walton thought, Luke had backed a referee down. It was pure theatrical instinct.