RIP: Indianola basketball great Sam Lacey
Indianola native Sam Lacey, regarded as one of the most versatile big men in NBA history, died Saturday in his adopted hometown of Kansas City of natural causes. He would have turned 66 on March 28.
Former Delta State and Ole Miss coach Ed Murphy helped recruit the 6-foot, 10-inch Lacey out of Gentry High to New Mexico State when Murphy worked as an assistant for Lou Henson there.
“Sam was a great person, not just a great basketball player,” Murphy said. “He was a good student, a good citizen. He worked hard at basketball and he was a nice kid, everything you wanted.”
As a senior, Lacey helped New Mexico State to the 1970 Final Four in College Park, Md., where John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins eliminated the Aggies in the semifinal round, 93-77. New Mexico State finished with a 27-3 record.
Lacey, the fifth pick of the 1970 NBA draft, went on to a 13-year pro career. He averaged a double-double (double figures in scoring and rebounding) his first six years in the NBA. His jersey number, 44, has been retired by both his alma mater and by the Sacramento Kings, who were the Kansas City-Omaha Kings when Lacey played.
Lacey’s most productive NBA season came in 1973-74 when he averaged 14.2 points and 13.4 rebounds per game. He was named an NBA All-Star in 1974-75 when he finished the season averaging 11.5 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game.
“Sam was a really shy kid when he first came to New Mexico State,” Murphy said. “I don’t know that he had ever been out of the Mississippi Delta and Las Cruces, New Mexico, was a long way from home in more ways than one. But he adjusted well and earned everybody’s respect. Everybody loved Sam.”
By the time he retired in from the Cleveland Cavs in 1983, Lacey had accumulated 9,687 rebounds and just over 10,000 points.
Cass Pennington, a future state College Board member, was a teacher and middle school coach in Indianola when Lacey was in high school at Gentry.
“I didn’t teach or coach Sam, but I knew him and kept up with him all through the years,” said Pennington, 71, and retired. “He was a late bloomer. Jackson State had signed him and nobody really knew about him, and then he got in the Mississippi High School All-Star Game, went down to Jackson and was the MVP. Then, everybody in the world began to know about Sam. That’s when New Mexico State got in the picture.”
Pennington said Lacey often returned to Indianola, including right after he signed his first NBA contract.
“He drove into town in a brand new, canary yellow Grand Prix,” Lacey said. “It was part of his signing bonus, and then he just gave that car to his high school basketball coach, Andrew Brown (who has since died). Can you believe that? He just gave his old coach his new car and went out and bought him another one. That was Sam.
“He loved Indianola and he loved the people here. He loved to come back and mingle with the folks. And the people here loved him back.”
Lacey came out of Indianola Gentry at a time when the historically white Mississippi universities were not recruiting African-American players, a shame then and now in retrospect. After all, players such as Sam Lacey come along all too infrequently.
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