The Lowdown: Sam Lacey

Sam Lacey

Photo by NBA PHOTOS/NBAE via Getty Images

“The return of Tiny Archibald has been of great help, but the biggest factor in the Kings’ surge has been the emergence of the 6’10”, 230-pound Lacey as one of the NBA’s better centers. Heading into the All-Star game, where he was to play behind Abdul-Jabbar and Lanier, Lacey was leading the league in minutes played, in assists for a center and in defensive rebounds. Still, for some reason, people find it hard to admit that the four-year veteran is really that good.”

Via “No Slowdown in Detroit” by Pat Putnam

Years Active: 1971 – 1983

Career Stats: 10.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.5 bpg, 1.3 spg, 44% FG, 74% FT

Accolades: All-Star (1975)

As you can judge from his accolades and the Pat Putnam quote, 1975 was indeed the only year people admitted Sam Lacy was really that good. His always solid, at-times stellar all-around play largely went unrecognized during the 1970s. Or whatever positives he brought to the game were glossed over with the veneer of what he couldn’t do. To be sure, there were things Sam couldn’t do. He wasn’t the most refined of scorers. Only three times in his 13 year career did Sam manage shooting 47% from the field. Three was also the number of times his points per game peaked above 13. Not eye-popping numbers to hang your hat on, hence Sam’s relative anonymity even during the 1970s.

Hailing from Indianola, Mississippi, (where B.B. King grew up for you blues aficionados) Lacey was transported to New Mexico State for his college ball in the late 1960s. Showing visceral domination of the glass, Lacey impressed well enough to be drafted 5th overall by the Cincinnati Royals in 1970. Although filled with talented players like Tom Van Arsdale, Johnny Green, and Norm Van Lier and with the injection of Lacey and 1970’s 19th overall pick, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, the Royals were rudderless and mediocre under Bob Cousy’s coaching.

By 1973, it was all Tiny Archibald, all the time for the franchise, which had now moved west to (get this) Kansas City and Omaha. This is the year that Tiny led the league in minutes (46), points (34) and assists (11) per game. This however was insane over-reliance upon one player. The KC-Omaha Kings axed Cousy midway through the next season eventually settling on Phil Johnson as the head man.

Johnson decided to utilize Lacey more in the team’s offensive schemes. Lacey had certainly played well during his first three seasons with serviceable scoring and stellar rebounding. However, under Johnson his assists blossomed as he became a key cog in the Kings walk it up, deliberate offense. As a result, Archibald saw his scoring average halved and his assists drop to 7.6 per game.

An offense certainly needs scorers to finish, but a man who can set devastating picks or pass out of the high- or low-post to benefit shooters is indispensable. Lacey was that man. Starting at 3.8 in 1974, Lacey would thereafter average at least 4 assists a game between 1975 and 1981, three times topping the 5apg mark. Turns out the offensive sieve was quite useful.

Lacey’s 1st full season under Coach Johnson was spectacular: 11.5ppg, 14.2rpg, 5.3apg, 2.1 bpg, and 1.7spg. He was truly the linchpin holding together the Kings team with Tiny, Scott Wedman and Jimmy Walker. “Slammin’ Sam” was recognized for his fine play with the only All-Star selection of his career. And for the 1st time, Lacey and the Kings made the playoffs with a 44-38 record.

Squaring off against the Chicago Bulls in the Western Conference Semifinals, Lacey would lead KC-Omaha in rebounds, steals and blocks and would be just a smidgen behind Tiny in the lead for assists. However, Chicago prevailed in 6 games as Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan hounded the perimeter Kings into horrendous shooting.

Despite returning the same principals, the ’76 Kings fell off a cliff to 31 wins, briefly rebounded to 40 wins in ’77 (not good enough for the playoffs) and then the rebuilding began. Jimmy Walker abandoned the NBA, Tiny Archibald was traded to the Nets and Cotton Fitzsimmons replaced Johnson as coach. Lacey, although minutes reduced from the high 30s and 40s he was accustomed to, survived the turmoil and  enjoyed the windfall of these overhauls.

The Nets gave the (now-just Kansas City) Kings two 1st Round picks for Archibald and they turned out to be dynamite guards Otis Birdsong and Phil Ford. The 1979 Kings sprang up from the grave with 48 wins and began the 1st of three straight postseason matchups with the Phoenix Suns. Falling to the Suns in 1979 and 1980, Lacey and the Kings secured revenge on 57-win Phoenix in 1981 despite only 40 regular season wins. Midway through the series, Sam latched onto the sentiment that the Suns were easily shaken due to their flighty demeanor: “I tell you what… they glide two more games, they may be gliding on home.” Although up 3-1, the Kings let the series go 7 before finally silencing the Suns behind Lacey’s beef up front and forwards Ernie Grunfeld and Scott Wedman filling in as the starting backcourt for the injured Ford and Birdsong.

In the most improbable of conference finals, the 40-win Kings met the 40-win Houston Rockets. Only one Cinderella could move on and it would be the led by Moses. The Rockets defeated KC in 5 games and thus ended KC’s three-year run of glory and Lacey’s own decade of solid post play. Early in the 1981-82 season, Lacey was shipped to New Jersey and signed with Cleveland the next season before finally retiring in 1983.

Despite his obscurity to the wider basketball world, Sam has his #44 retired by the Kings franchise. He’s one of 23 players to have at least 999 steals and 999 blocks for a career, despite not having steals and blocks counted by the NBA during his first three seasons. He left the game a slight brush away from joining the illustrious 1.4 bpg and 1.4 spg club of Dr. J, Bobby Jones, Hakeem and the Admiral. Again, had Lacey had blocks and steals tallied earlier in his career he’d easily be in the club, instead of just on the outside with 1.3 spg and 1.5 bpg.

Finally, Sam’s passing as a big man shouldn’t be discounted. He’s 6th all-time amongst centers in apg (3.7) and has the fourth-highest single season average (5.7 in 1980) amongst centers behind only Wilt (2x) and Bill Russell. Not bad for the kid out of Indianola. Really, Sam has no reason to sing the blues, but fellow Indianolan B.B. King will play it for you anyways.

Seth Carstens