Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sunday Conversation with...Indianola native Sam Lacey, No. 5 pick in 1970 NBA draft

GREENVILLE — Of the thousands of players to come through the NBA, only roughly 80 of them were born in Mississippi. Sort that list by those born in the Delta and it becomes miniscule.

But despite the odds, Sam Lacey won the game. And he won big.
The Indianola native, who was the No. 5 draft pick by the Cincinnati Royals in 1970, averaged 10.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in his 13-year career — most notably with the Kansas City Kings.
But before he went on to play with the likes of Tiny Archibald and Oscar Robertson, he faced local legends like Sammy Steen (Coleman High; Greenville) and Freddie Robinson (Rosa Fort High; Tunica) while at Gentry High School. Over 45 years later, the 63-year-old still vividly remembers those days.
“I remember playing against (Greenwood native) Leroy Jones,” recollected the 6-foot-10 Lacey, “and I used to see him when he came through town (Kansas City) when he played for the San Diego Chargers in football.”
Coming to Greenville to play Coleman High was always a tough game, he continued.
“Coleman just had more talent than we did,” Lacey remembered. “At that time, you were jumping the ball every quarter. There used to be a quarter where I didn't even see the ball. They pressed the whole game.
“And then we played teams like Shaw and Ruleville — those were our cupcakes. And Drew. At the time, we were in the Delta Conference and (Coleman) was in the Big Eight — the monster conference in terms of high schools. Another team that had good players was McNair High in Belzoni. Back then they had old men on the team....One of my friends told me, some of the guys you played against were 10 to 12 years older than you were. And that's a big difference when you're like 15 or 16 years old.”
Rewind back to Lacey's early years at Gentry and becoming a lottery pick in the NBA draft would have made some folks chuckle. The NBA all-star remembers the moment that changed his life forever.
His shot clanked off the backboard during a game against Hollandale Simmons — a shot his teammates and classmates didn't let him forget about.
“Back then it was wooden backboards. I thought I had broken the backboard. From then on, I said I will never get caught in that situation again.”
But not only did Lacey's skills heighten over time, so did, well, his height.
“When I graduated from grade school, I was 5-11,” he remembered. “At the end of my freshman year, I was 6-feet tall. At the end of my sophomore year, I was 6-1. But from like June to about mid-August, I grew seven inches.
“At the time a lot of kids would go to Chicago, St. Louis or Detroit for the summer. And when they came back, they said, 'I didn't know Sam had an older brother.' And I said, I'm Sam.”
Lacey went on to play for New Mexico State, where he finished with a 75-13 record over three seasons. (At that time, freshman weren't allowed to play on the varsity team.)
But how did the kid from a small Mississippi Delta town end up in New Mexico?
Lacey said a recruiter, who's name he couldn't remember, was in the area to recruit Richard Collins (Starkville) and William Ford (Greenville O'Bannon). The recruiter saw Lacey play and told then-New Mexico State head coach Lou Henson about what he saw.
“He (told Henson), if you're up here recruiting guys, there's a kid in Indianola named Sam Lacey. You need to get him,” remember Lacey, who had originally committed to Jackson State.
Lacey's most productive NBA season came in 1973-74 when he averaged 14.2 points and 13.4 rebounds. He was named an all-star in 1975 after averaging 11.5 points and 14.2 rebounds.
His jersey was retired by the Kings franchise.
“My jersey is retired everywhere but Gentry,” he said.
Nowadays, Lacey is still surrounded by the game of basketball. He has recently did TV and radio work. And he's currently part of an exploratory group to try to bring an NBA team to Kansas City.
And now the game he loves so much is at the start of an anticipated long and brutal lockout, which became official Friday. Former NBA player Charles Barkley recently said he thinks the NBA may not have a 2011-12 season.
It all boils down to money, said Lacey, who added that the only players who made over a $1 million per season during his time was those with endorsement deals.
“ I think a lot of things are going to be rearranged because of the way the economy is,” he said. “You can't continue to pay that kind of money. Everybody on the team is virtually a millionaire. I think you're going to have a salary structure like 1-12. Lebron James and Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe (Bryant), (Amare) Stoudemire, they're going to get paid.
“But it's the guys that came in in this world-wind of money — they're not going get those kind of contracts anymore. Look at Rashard Lewis. It's not the fact that you're making that kind of money; it's the fact that you're making that kind of money and not producing.”
Indianola, a town now of over 10,000 people helped mold him into one of the most consistent centers in NBA history, he said. Lacey, the lone NBA player ever born in Indianola who broke numerous records at Gentry, knows all about producing — even when the odds are stacked against him.
"They say you have a better chance of getting hit by lightening than becoming a pro player," said Lacey.
Safe to say, Lacey gave those odds a beating.

1 comment:

Baseball Mexico said...

I only read this post just now (on Dec. 4, 2012), but wanted to chime in anyway.

To me, Sam Lacey was one of the most underrated and underappreciated centers in the NBA during the 1970s. While attention usually went to teammates like Nate Archibald, Sam was solid as a rock: You could count on a double/double from him if he got the minutes, he could block a shot or pick up a steal for you and few people remember that he may have been second only to Wes Unseld (and maybe Alvan Adams) as a passer among big men. And he was one tough dude inside.

Nice piece on a good player who's never received his historic due as an NBA center.