He was one of the best athletes ever to compete in Altoona.
Maurice Lucas was a former basketball standout at Schenley High School who went on to greatness at Marquette and then with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he earned a reputation as "The Enforcer" and won an NBA title in 1977.
Lucas died Oct. 31 from bladder cancer at the age of 58. But fond memories of him will live on in basketball communities across the country, including right here.
The 3,000-seat Jaffa Mosque (now called the Jaffa Shrine Center) was a special basketball venue for St. Francis, Altoona and Bishop Guilfoyle. It featured theatre seating, a cozy environment and the smell and feel of a small-time arena.
And back before the days of ESPN, when boys basketball was played almost exclusively on Tuesday and Friday nights, the mosque would regularly be packed.
The Mountain Lions would take the floor to "Sweet Georgia Brown," and that added to the atmosphere which was never better than when Schenley came calling on Jan. 26, 1971.
At the time, the Pittsburgh City League was at its peak - Schenley would go on to win the PIAA title later that year - and Lucas was joined by the likes of Ricky Coleman and Jeep Kelly in a star-studded lineup.
"Beep, beep, beep, here comes the Jeep," former Mountain Lion Larry McAleer, a sophomore on that team, said. "There was never a game like that at the Jaffa Mosque. Schenley was probably the greatest Pittsburgh team of all time."
Altoona, though, was equal to the challenge. Coleman put on a show with 27 points, but the Mountain Lions held Lucas to 8 and scored the last nine points of the game to win, 75-71.
"I just remember how electrifying it was," Galen Bickel, a senior who scored 23 points for Altoona, said. "The people stormed the floor."
Bickel helped guard Lucas - "I had two black eyes from his elbows," he said - in order to free Mountain Lion center Billy Moore, who scored 24.
"He [Lucas] was my assignment," Bickel said. "He wasn't so much a big scorer as he was an enforcer. He was the first real enforcer in the NBA. He was very intimidating, and he could use his elbows."
Lucas was limited by foul trouble. Altoona fans joke that he had three when he got off the bus.
"He fouled out quickly," Bickel said, "and that was one of the reasons we beat them. But I remember taking a beating, just a beating. I looked like I was in a 15-round fight. But what a treat to have played against him."
Then Altoona coach John Swogger considers the wins over Schenley and Penn Hills, which had George Karl, as the signature victories of that era.
"We were certainly outsized against Schenley, but that night our fastbreak was clicking," Swogger said. "Billy was on the boards, and he'd hit that mid-air outlet, and the kids ran them off the court. I remember their coach, Spencer Watkins, telling his kids to slow the game down. That's uncharacteristic for a City League team."
Altoona had a 40-plus game winning streak at the mosque in part because everybody loved playing there.
"Back then, the Pittsburgh City League probably had as many strong teams as any league in the state," former Mirror Sports Editor Jim Lane said. "It was one of those special games the Mountain Lions played at the mosque. The mosque was the place to be. St. Francis played there, and it was Altoona's court, and there was a definite advantage for them."
The City League teams liked to come to Altoona, Swogger said, "because we gave them a good [financial] guarantee and lots of popcorn to eat."
Sadly, not only Lucas is gone, but so is Coleman along with two Mountain Lions who played in that game, Reese Piper and Robbie Carles.
"To pass away at a young age is sad," Swogger said. "I was shocked when I read about Maurice."
The fact that he went on to such greatness enriches the memory.
"It was," Bickel said, "a proud moment."
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org