Interview with Wally Lucas

How did you come to Middlebury? And what role did basketball play?

As a kid I would spend the summers in Burchard, Vermont with a family, and I became very close with that family and very close with Vermont. That was in the 40s — I was very young. Then I won a scholarship to Horace Mann school, a prep private school in New York City. And things began to look up in terms of my future education prospects. I played basketball at Horace Mann — I played a several sports there — and we were fortunate enough to have an undefeated basketball team my senior year. We’re going to go from 17-0 to 0-17.

And I wanted to combine the academic standards that I had set up to achieve together with the athletic [standards]. I enjoyed athletics in addition to the school life itself. When my senior year came around in 1959 I had college choices: Cornell, Hamilton and of course I had to consider Middlebury, a school in Vermont. And I guess I was biased — I was in love with Vermont. No matter what the other schools offered, I think that’s where I was headed. The attraction of the state and the people. Middlebury was almost like a secondary benefit, rather than the primary, which was Vermont itself.

When I was accepted, I asked my coach in high school, I said, “Coach I have a choice between Middlebury and Cornell, what do you think?” And he said, “Look you’ll probably play at Middlebury and you certainly won’t start at Cornell, you’ll get to play by the time you’re a junior or senior. But at Middlebury you may even start. Middlebury was just not known to be a basketball school. I went there for the academics, not for the athletics. Basketball was not my primary reason for coming to Middlebury.”

What was your relationship like with Stub Mackey and what was he like as a coach on the court and a person off the court?

Because I went out for track [Stub Mackey] and I were pretty close, as far as coach and athlete relationships go, keeping in mind that he was in a tough situation with the ski team and the hockey team and everyone else doing well. I know he had a tough time with the situation. But one of the games we won, I think it was against Norwich, he said, “Guys I don’t know whether we’re going to win or lose, but I’m really proud of you.” It was a close bonding moment at that time, and we all felt it; we knew how much he put into that game of his own emotion. So as far as I’m concerned, Stub was a good coach, relationship-wise. In terms of his basketball coaching skills, I have nothing to go by other than my high school. He had to work with who we were: we weren’t the biggest team, we weren’t the fastest and we weren’t the best. I don’t know what he could have done to make us a better team.

We were about to set the NCAA record for most consecutive losses and we screwed that up. Everyone came out to watch the game and we won — we beat Norwich at home.

But the game that I’m trying to recall was up at Norwich — an away game. It was probably the ’62-’63  season.

Are you aware that the ’66-’67 and ’67-’68 teams set the record?

They lost 18 in a row?

They lost 44 in a row.

Oh my god, I didn’t know anybody was worse than we were. I didn’t think it could get any worse. We can get on to what the reasons were, but I hope we’re more sympathetic culturally to what Middlebury was about — Middlebury was never about basketball before recently. It was about hockey and skiing — and even football.

What was it like playing basketball in that environment.

I was probably the second minority — black player — on the team. That was one of the dilemmas that I had. We were the “first and onlys” as minority students pioneering into these New England colleges. And there’s a subtext going along here, about how those of us from [New York] city, who happened to be minority — what our style of basketball was versus the small New England college style of basketball.

I’m going to take one step back beyond the minority issue and talk about what I perceived to be a New York, metropolitan area invasion. We used to go to the Springfield Basketball tournament. And I noticed some of the better teams … their rosters included guys from New Jersey, Long Island and New York — very few from New England. I think there was a transition going on in basketball in New England in terms of playing style. I think you had a New York, metropolitan area penetration.

I was used to that style of ball: New York city playground and New York city prep high school. I’m not sure if I could list what the differences were specifically between the New York city style of basketball and whatever was happening in New England at the time, but I know there was a transition. And the winning teams tended to have more players from the New York, metropolitan area.

I found that the style at Middlebury was not the style of ball that I had seen either in New York city playground ball or high school ball. It was a stilted [style of basketball]. There was certainly a stylistic difference that I was involved in. So I was a bit uncomfortable at Middlebury because of that. But I know when we played UVM and St. Michaels and these other teams, these guys had been recruited. And it seemed to me the other schools spent a little more time and effort first of all recruiting ball players from the Northeastern metropolitan areas and I’d like to think that maybe Middlebury’s [academic] standards were pretty high and didn’t have the flexibility in recruiting that other schools were provided.

I was adjusting to several styles: New York to New England; [as a] minority to [a] majority, preppy style — there was definitely a stylistic difference. There was a style [of basketball] that was not as aggressive, the players weren’t athletically as able — you could play a pickup game on the streets of New York and have a better game. To me, Middlebury was still an adventure. If we didn’t win a game, I was still enjoying traveling.

A kid named Ken Stone came in my freshman year, and he was supposed to be the next superstar there, but he didn’t like the environment and he left before the season was over. He was pretty good.

Charlie Rand was good. The last year we won, my freshman year — I think it was five games that year — Charlie Rand was a co-captain and Howie Wiley was a co-captain. We won 5 or 6 games that year and we had a pretty good team — I didn’t realize it was going to go downhill from there!

I ended up playing with Charlie Rand again in New York. And it seemed like the Middlebury experience never haunted us. We came in second place in the industrial league and he and I played fairly well together. I used to go to a summer camp as a counselor in Connecticut and I played with guys throughout New England, again.

I brought up the minority issue because that certainly was one, from my perspective, an issue. It was interesting to observe the other teams where most of them had no minority players, the others had maybe one token and we would acknowledge each other and smile. But it was understood that we were at these schools more of academic reasons. And, oh by the way, we also played basketball, which was sort of like a stereotypical insider joke. If Middlebury didn’t have the interest in basketball, we certainly weren’t going to change it in those days.

I spoke yesterday with Cecil Forster who also spoke talked his experience in New York city playing that kind of playground style that you talked about. What was your relationship like with him and how did he change the way team played?

Cecil came my sophomore year, but he ended up quitting [my senior year]. But [after we graduated] he and I played ball in Brooklyn, a pickup game. We were in a rough neighborhood in Red Hook where you went out on the court and you called “Next” and you stayed on the court as long as you won, when you lose the game, some other guy would come on and try to put together another team that could win. And for some reason, Cecil and I were chosen at the same time. Now we’re the only guys sitting out there in our clean-pressed gym shorts and sneakers, but because we had played together at Middlebury and knew each other’s moves, we won several games. We validated ourselves; things weren’t as bad as Middlebury made it seem. We could still play New York ball and we did well that night.

I don’t think Cecil was on his game as much as he could be [at Middlebury]. You play up to the level of the other players on the court, as in any sport. If you play with a bunch of bad players, your game is going to come down a notch. If you play with a bunch of great players, your game goes up a few notches. And I’m going to guess that when Cecil and I played together, things were so bad at Middlebury there was nothing either one of us could do. I would say Craig Stewart was affected the same way. The three of us played our hearts out. Cecil for some reason felt like his priorities weren’t there his junior year, but Craig and I stayed even though recognized that we weren’t going to win many games because we didn’t have the horses out there. We didn’t have the legs. You can have the greatest coach in the world — we just didn’t have the material, I’m the first one to admit that. You’re just not going to win those games up there in New England, or anywhere, when your school doesn’t provide the horses you should have. And we didn’t have the horses.

When you look back on what your career was like on the court, but also the relationships you formed with your teammates and coaches off the court, what stands out most?

This is another unique situation because you’re interviewing Wally Lucas who was also captain of the track team of which Stub Mackey was also the coach. I had a very nasty hamstring tear [my senior year] the week before my comprehensive [exams]. The comps were very important — if you didn’t pass that, you didn’t graduate. And there was no way I could run in the track meet before my comps. So I said, “Stub, I’m going to bow out of this meet because I’ve got my comps going up and I can’t run. If I could run I would go.” And he was disappointed, but I know that disappointment went farther — there was definitely an attitude throughout the field house. [The trainers] would tell me about how certain football players would play hurt … they were really getting into a thing, as if athletics were ruling the campus life. And I said, “Wait a minute guys, I didn’t come to Middlebury to risk my health and flunk out of here. These were my priorities, my comprehensives, so I didn’t go … I couldn’t run anyway.” So it became such a big deal that I quit.

[And then one day] I was jogging around the track just to keep in shape, even after I had quit, and I bumped into Stub and I walked over to him and said, “Hey Stub, I just want to let you know this isn’t personal between you and me.” And we had a chat and he gave me a philosophical view that if I were to go through life with the attitude that I had I would end up being a quitter in life. And that was the last conversation I had with Stub and it disappointed me because I was the one that overlooked whatever shortcomings he may have had as a coach and it seemed like he was closing ranks with the athletics department. So I said, “OK I’m still not going to take this personally, Stub, I’ll keep in mind the things that you’ve told me.” I’ve tried not to be a quitter in life, and I don’t think I have been because I was on a journey before getting to Middlebury and I’ve continued on a journey after Middlebury facing struggles that I don’t think they even understood. I still feel close to Stub, [I feel] no animosity towards him.

What are some of your fun memories spending time with your teammates off the court?

Craig Stewart was a hell of a guy. He was in DU, another fraternity, which tended to define your social circles, even across athletics. If you were a [member of] DU and you played football or basketball you tended to hang out with DU athletes. I was in Sig Ep, so I tended to hang out with Sig Ep athletes. Cecil and Bill Reuger were the only teammates who were Sig Eps. Cecil and Bill Reuger were my closest friends within the fraternity. Craig and I were good friends to the extent that we socialized outside of the fraternity.

On the court are there any games or moments or plays that stand out in your mind to this day?

Oh, yes. Craig and I were at Union, I think — somewhere down in the Utica area. And everybody who came to those games were lovers of basketball … and remember, we’re getting closer and closer to the metropolitan area basketball, so you have people who just love the game who would come, even though they knew there team would whip us. But we had a fast break and Craig and I were coming down the court. And remember the style in those days — there was very little passing behind the back like at playgrounds or in the city. But I did a behind-the-back pass to Craig and he scored the layup and the crowd just went crazy. They cheered us, the opposing team! [That play] stands out and every once in a while I ask Craig if he remembers that play, and he does.

The biggest event I recall was at Northeastern — we beat Northeastern, in overtime, on their court! It was in front of the largest crowd I’ve ever played in front of in my life and I was only a freshman or a sophomore. (It must have been in ’59-’60). We won that game, and Northeastern was a good team. And I just remember how happy Stub was at the end of that game, too. I don’t know how many points I scored, but it doesn’t matter — it was a team effort and we beat Northeastern by one point. We shocked the crowd, we shocked ourselves and we shocked Stub!

My final question — what did you take from your experience in athletics, but particularly playing basketball at Middlebury into your post-Middlebury career?

Without sounding too trite, there are things called reality checks. Clint Eastwood in a movie once said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” [Laughs]. The reality check was coming from my high school environment — the glory days — where you had seven good players and you could think about winning as the only goal in each of those games. But up at Middlebury, there was something more to it, and I think Professor Perkins saw it. He was older and wiser than we were. But I’m sure if Craig and I got together over drinks we would talk what it was like representing the school, something bigger than we were, and being loyal to it, knowing that we probably wouldn’t win, but that we would play our best game. That’s not easy to put into words. I’m proud of it personally.

If you have a copy of the yearbook, this is something I might bring up when I get to my 50th reunion. I didn’t think 50 years later it would still stick with me, but the guy who wrote the summary of basketball for my ’63 yearbook, the year we graduated, was just a numbnut. He showed he knew nothing about basketball. He made some ignorant statements in that write up, and I’ve had to live with that for 50 years. Whoever edited it never should have let it go out. I’m only brining it up because he made a judgment first of all about basketball at Middlebury, and he knew nothing about basketball at Middlebury even though he attended the school. Worse, he knew nothing about the team, about the heart of the players. You had to enjoy it to the point that a Middlebury uniform meant that you were trying to support Middlebury as best you could, knowing that you probably weren’t going to win. So it’s with good feelings that I think back towards actually playing the game with Stub and all the players, but it’s a very negative response that I get from the clown who wrote the basketball summary in the [’63] yearbook.

I have nothing but positive feelings about playing for Middlebury. I wish we could have won more, obviously, but there’s something more than winning.


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