Lucas was born in Middletown, Ohio, a town of 20,000 halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati, which had boasted one of the most respected high school basketball programs in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s when Lucas arrived there in 1955. Lucas was already a playground legend by age 15, as he was then already almost his full-grown height of 6'9". He had already developed shooting accuracy as far out as 25 feet and had trained his leaping ability and timing to becoming an amazing rebounder. Lucas was gifted with great hands, which he could use to dazzle with his array of magic card tricks, as well as 20-10 eyesight.
In 1956 and 1957, Jerry Lucas led Middletown High to undefeated seasons and back-to-back Ohio state high school championships. With his advanced gameplay, Lucas broke nearly every existing high school record during these two seasons, and became arguably the first high school basketball player to be known coast-to-coast at a time when television was in its infancy. Crowds of as many as 10,000 were common for games he played in. Lucas strained somewhat under the media glare, and his minutes in blowout games were usually limited. Lucas usually scored more than two points per minute, and his best performances were in closer games against better teams because he was allowed to play more. Shying from the limelight, Lucas decided to pass more so that his scoring would not make him appear selfish. It would become his standard for the rest of his playing career. Even while passing up shots, Lucas broke Wilt Chamberlain's national high school scoring record as a senior by making more than 60% of his shot attempts and 85% of his free throws, his standard for entire career. Coaches and scouts often traveled hundreds of miles to see Lucas play, swelling Middletown's gym capacity to nearly three times. Lucas was so popular that a radio network was set up so his games could heard across Ohio, drawing more listeners than several Division I colleges. He, Chamberlain, and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) are generally considered the greatest high school basketball players of all time. Lucas's team suffered their only loss in 1958 in the state playoffs.
Offered more than 200 athletic scholarships, it appeared Lucas might choose Adolph Rupp's legendary Kentucky program, but he instead chose more-local Ohio State, which was not well-known for basketball at the time. Lucas insisted on an academic scholarship also, as he was nearly a straight-A student and already well-known for his memory. Ohio State had also recruited three-sport star John Havlicek and Columbus-area star Mel Nowell that year. When the three became sophomores in 1959 (freshman were then properly ineligible for varsity college sports) they teamed with junior Larry Siegfried to form a basketball juggernaut that would go 78-6 over three NCAA seasons. Lucas was the team's clear star, leading the nation in shooting accuracy and rebounding all three years, and leading Ohio State to three straight NCAA Finals. Future coaching legend Bobby Knight was a reserve. They were national champions in 1960, and had just one loss in 1961. The 6-9, 240-pound Lucas was All-American all three years, Big Ten Player of the Year all three years, and was named ahead of all college and pro athletes to be Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1961. He was considered the greatest college player ever upon graduation, and remains the only player ever to record 30 points and 30 rebounds in the same NCAA Tournament game.
In 1960, Lucas also was named to the U.S. Olympic team for the Rome Games that year. The team, which also listed Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Bellamy, and Terry Dischinger, is generally considered the greatest amateur team of all time. The team's youngest player at age 20, Lucas was its leader and star at center. The U.S. team roared through the international tournament to easily win the gold medal. Lucas also was noteworthy as he had memorized paragraphs of Japanese, Italian and Russian and would briefly converse with those players during the Games. U.S. coach Pete Nowell called Lucas "the greatest player I ever coached".
Arguably the greatest amateur player of all time, Lucas had no motivation for professional basketball. He already had his bachelor's degree by the end of his junior year of eligibility, had married, and was pursuing a post-graduate degree in business marketing when his senior year concluded. Lucas agreed to a combination player-management contract with George Steinbrenner's Cleveland Pipers of the ABL in 1962 so he could use his education. But the ABL went bankrupt, and Lucas had to sit out the season.
In 1963, Lucas agreed to join the NBA's Cincinnati Royals, who had actually drafted him as a high-school junior in 1957. He would be reteamed with Oscar Robertson, a schoolyard and college rival as well as Olympic teammate. Robertson was jealous of Lucas's publicity and was adamant about being the star of the team, something Jerry did not actually want. Despite that, the two All-Pros were often at odds and they failed to win a championship during their years together in the 1960s. As disappointing as that was, Lucas did post his usual amazing individual achievements, becoming a seven-time All-Pro, nine-time all-star, was Rookie of the Year in 1964, and All-Star Game MVP in 1966. As a shooter/scorer, rebounder and passer Lucas showed himself to be one of the greatest players ever. His intelligence also made him an effective defender also cleanly forcing opponents to take difficult shots or using his sense of timing and technique to be an underrated shot blocker. He also earned the reputation of being arguably the most intelligent man ever to play in the NBA.
With the star-laden Boston Celtics as clearly the best team, and the 7'2" Wilt Chamberlain as the dominant player, the Royals and Lucas would have to take a backseat during the 1960s. Lucas would have to enjoy his personal fame and one of the league's best paychecks. He would also briefly have his own chain of fast-food restaurants, Jerry's Beef-N-Shakes. 1969, though, would see the chain go bankrupt, and the unsatisfied Lucas would consider retirement from the NBA as well without the championship he coveted. Traded to the San Francisco Warriors in 1970, the uninspired Lucas had his first 'down' season ever before roaring back to All-Star form the following season.
Having spent years on the courts since Middletown, Lucas now began to have real knee and back problems and his career appeared to be ending when San Fransisco traded the All-Star center/forward to the New York Knicks before the 1971-72 season. Expected to back up Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere at the two positions, Lucas fit in and became a team leader. With Reed injured, Lucas starred at his natural center spot along with guard Walt Frazier and forward DeBusschere to lead New York to the NBA Finals in 1972. With Reed returning the following season, New York easily returned and won the NBA Championship in 1973. Lucas became the first American basketball player to win championships at all four levels: High school, college, Olympic, and pro. He would retire after the 1974 season, which he spent largely as an unhappy 34-year-old backup seeking the minutes he felt his still-present ability deserved.
He, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West were enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. Moving on from his fame in basketball, Lucas has found success in other areas. He is now a world-renowned educator and memory expert, an achievement which now dwarfs even his basketball successes. He has written over 30 books on memory and image-based education, many of them best-sellers, and briefly even had his own television show. Even with his successes today, Lucas remains one of the greatest legends in the history of basketball.