Members of the 1960 Ohio State men’s basketball team left little doubt about what is the best part of winning the national championship.
They’ve gotten to spend 60 years reliving it with each other.
“Winning a national championship is unique,” said All-American forward Jerry Lucas, who led the Buckeyes in scoring (26.3 points per game) and rebounding (16.4 per game). “It puts you in a very unique group of people. And this was a unique group of people before we ever won the national championship. We were all from Ohio except one. Many of us knew each other coming into school and had played against each other. It was just a unique situation. And for the rest of our lives from that point we could all say that we played on a national championship team, which so few people can do.
“You hear all the cliches, it’s a feather in your cap and it’s this and that, but more than anything else we had relationships that were more unique perhaps even than winning a national championship, and it has continued to this day.”
Teammates Dick Furry, Mel Nowell and Joe Roberts shared similar sentiments while joining Lucas for a press conference before the current Buckeyes beat Illinois 71-63 on senior night at Value City Arena.
“This group of guys is probably the closest group of friends that I have from that day, and it was because of what we did together as a team and almost as a family,” Furry said.
Roberts said the way Lucas, a 6-foot-8 standout from Middletown, handled his role as leading man was key to the Buckeyes winning it all.
“‘Luke’ was LeBron James of (his) time,” Roberts said. “I don’t know if you guys realize that because you’re so young, but he had all the publicity of LeBron coming out of high school, and he could back it up.
“Everything hinged on Luke and his personality as a team player. He didn’t care whether he got 30 or 10. He never cried. He was just a consummate team player, so everybody had to fall in line. If you work for a company and your boss is off kilter, see what happens. You’re not going to be successful. People are not going to work for him, so with Luke everybody fell in line and said, ‘Let’s go get ‘em.’”
If James, the 16-time NBA All-Star and three-time NBA champion, seems like a heady comparison, well, it is.
It also fits.
Lucas was picked for the NBA’s 50th Anniversary team and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
He won an NBA title with the Knicks in 1973 and was a seven-time all-star who won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics.
Nearly 58 years after his last game, Lucas remains the Big Ten’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,411.
He played only 82 games in three seasons but is still Ohio State’s third all-time leading scorer (1,990 points) and No. 2 in scoring average (24.3).
Aside from being the only three-time Big Ten Men’s Basketball Player of the Year, he is the only man from the conference to be national player of the year twice.
The Middies legend is still 11th in Ohio high school history in scoring while James, who starred at Akron St. Vincent St. Mary from 2000-03, is fifth.
But beyond their accomplishments, Roberts was drawing a parallel between them for being larger than life as high schoolers.
While James won three state championships with the Fighting Irish, Lucas led Middletown to a pair of state titles and a state record 76 consecutive wins.
Lucas seemed to appreciate the comparison, but he made clear they played different styles of game.
“I don’t compare myself to LeBron James,” Lucas said. “I think LeBron’s a great player. LeBron’s obviously one of the greatest players that ever lived. And the thing that I like most about LeBron is he’s a consummate team player, as we were. I think that’s the most important thing a player can be is part of a group. He ought to complement that group and play with that group.
“LeBron really looks to pass first and shoot second. LeBron has incredible skill, and I’ve always been a fan of LeBron’s and I always will be because I love the style he plays and what he’s done. His record speaks for itself. He’s gonna break so many records before he’s finished, it’s incredible.”
Roberts also said he respected Lucas for the physical beating he took on the court even as a sophomore, but Lucas protested.
“Hey, I was beat up more than that at Sunset Park in Middletown, Ohio,” Lucas said. “Let me tell you.”