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JOHN LUCAS : This Ex-Maryland Star Survived Drug Addiction, but Not Without Problems

The Washington Post

was on familiar turf, standing about 20 feet from the basket, his eyes searching the court. He looked as confident as ever, his eyes alive and alert, his movements quick and graceful. John Lucas was on a basketball court again and, just as in high school, college and the NBA, he was the man in charge.

One thing was missing, though: the ball.

Lucas had his arms folded on his chest as he paced back and forth. He had his back to the basket. The other people on the court were sitting in a circle around him. Lucas’ target at the moment was a young man about his age who was dressed, like Lucas, in running pants, a T-shirt and running shoes. Lucas pointed a finger at him. “I’m black, you’re white,” he said. “So what do we have in common?”

The man looked at Lucas for a moment. The answer came quickly. “One thing,” he said. “A taste for cocaine.”

John Lucas smiled. “You got that right, pal,” he said. “A taste for cocaine.”

Lucas says he has not touched cocaine since March 14. He can pick the date out of the air as easily as he used to dribble the ball behind his back. Then, he was playing the best basketball of his career for the Houston Rockets. Now, he is running a fitness program at Houston International Hospital, one that ends each day with the patients sitting in a circle to talk about drugs, life and how to curb their taste for cocaine, heroin, beer or whatever else they are addicted to.

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Lucas, 33, says he is finished with drug use. He has said that before.

“Now, though, I’m not trying to get back to a basketball team,” he said. “And I won’t tell you I’ve beaten it for life. I’ve just beaten it today. That’s all I can do now. Go one day at a time. It took me a long time to understand that.”

He paused. “It took me a long time to understand, to accept the fact that I’m an addict.”

There were nights, John Lucas remembers, when he would come home, look at his wife Debby and say, “Don’t you feel lucky, being married to God?”

Like so many others, Lucas thought he was above it all. Cocaine couldn’t hurt him the way it had hurt others. He wasn’t really addicted the way others were. He didn’t need it, he just liked it. He went to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and stood in the back because “I wasn’t like them. I didn’t really have a problem.” He was what abuse specialists call a “binge user.” He could go weeks, even months without it. But something would go wrong in his life and he would go back to it. Or something would not go wrong in his life and he would go back to it.

It seemed it couldn’t happen to John Lucas, who came from a model home and had been a model youth, truly the All-American boy. He married his childhood sweetheart and became the first guard ever to be the No. 1 pick in an NBA draft. He became rich and, even with his unorthodox style, he was one of the better point guards in basketball. Family, friends and teammates loved him.

“I always wanted to be perfect,” he said. “When I was in college, I went out every day and tried to make 25 straight free throws. I never made more than 23. It used to drive me crazy then that as good as I knew I was, David Thompson (of North Carolina State) was better. Just plain better than me. I couldn’t understand that. How could anyone be better than me?

“But you know what? If I had been perfect back then, I’d probably be dead now. Bad as I got, I might have gotten worse. I never figured I’d live past 35 when I was young. I couldn’t imagine what I would do with myself. Maybe play in the over-35 tennis tournaments. Other than that, there wasn’t anything in my life I was looking forward to.”

And so, like many other rich young athletes, Lucas lived fast and hard. He started using cocaine during his second year as a pro. He says he cheated on his wife. And he lied to everyone--including himself--about his drug use.

“Maybe somewhere along the line we missed the signals,” said his father, John Lucas Sr. “We never lost contact with him; he called almost daily. But when he didn’t sound like himself, we always figured it was the road, the life, all that. When we would see him and go into the locker room, there was always beer in there. It just seemed a natural part of the pro life style. Play a game, drink a beer, have a party. I think John fell into that just as so many professional athletes do.”

Lucas fell hard. At one point, his agent, David Falk, said he cut off Lucas’ money because he knew where it was going. Falk left instructions with others in his office that no one was to give Lucas money, no matter what reason Lucas gave for needing it.

“It got to the point where he would call and I would say, ‘Okay, John, what’s your opening bid?’ ” Falk said. “He would ask for $400, and I would say, ‘Why? Why not $100? What do you need it for?’ We would go back and forth. It was as tough as any negotiation I’ve ever been in. Especially saying no. It seems laughable to describe now, but back then it was anything but funny.”

Even now, almost eight months after the last fall, those who care most about Lucas shudder slightly when the possibility of Lucas playing in the NBA is raised. Lucas admits that a part of him would like to give it one more shot. “I know I can still play,” he said. “And I still don’t have the (championship) ring.”

But others think that would be risky, that putting him back into the world of pro basketball might be putting him back in a world he proved repeatedly he couldn’t handle.

“It would concern me,” said Bob Ferry, general manager of one of Lucas’ former teams, the Washington Bullets. “The one thing I’ve found out in this league is that drugs are part of a life style. In fact, they become a life style. I could see where being back in the NBA environment might be dangerous for John. The risk for the team picking him up would be minimal. The risk for him might be great.”

Lucas says he knows that. A minute later he says, “This hospital (Houston International) is part of the Hospital Corporation of America. There’s an HCA hospital in every NBA city. All 23. If I felt myself getting weak or needing help, there’s a hospital right there.”

This was in October. “Right now, I’m not interested,” he said. “Maybe in December.”

The path that took John Lucas to last March 14 was an unusual one. He is the son of two high school principals. John and Blond Lucas met in a line in the lunchroom when both were teaching high school. “If you act as lovely as you are,” the elder John Lucas remembers saying to the new English teacher, “you’ll be my wife.”

“I hope,” she said in reply, “you have some better jokes than that one to tell.” Two years later, they were married.

John Jr. was one of those kids everybody likes--bright, funny, outgoing, an excellent athlete. “People always talk about how gregarious John is,” said his sister Cheryl, who works for the National Education Assn. in Washington. “But really, that’s not John. He’s almost shy. The outgoing part is like his game face. He thinks he should be friendly to people, so he is. But, underneath, he really enjoys getting off by himself and being quiet.”

At Hillside High School in Durham, N.C., where his father was the principal, Lucas starred in basketball and tennis. He was unorthodox in both sports, a lefty with a big forehand in tennis, a point guard who shot a weird-looking push shot in basketball.

Many college coaches tried to recruit him. Maryland’s Lefty Driesell got him, partly because Cheryl was in Washington, partly because Lucas couldn’t resist Driesell. For the next four years, Lucas was Driesell’s leader, the player who took control on the court.

“John was the kind of guy that everyone loved,” Driesell said. “He could order the big guys around, and they never minded. When he was a freshman, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore were already juniors. But he ran things, and they never minded. He just had that kind of personality.”

Lucas was an All-American at Maryland in basketball and tennis, the only athlete ever to complete that unusual double. He probably played his best basketball as a sophomore on the McMillen-Elmore team that lost the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, 103-100, to North Carolina State in overtime. People have called that the best college game ever played. Lucas missed a one-and-one at the free-throw line with nine seconds left and N.C. State leading, 101-100. He cried in Driesell’s arms during the awards ceremony after the game. Lucas’ pain was so palpable that the ACC passed a rule the next year allowing the losing team in the championship game to leave the floor during the postgame ceremony if it chose.

As a junior and senior, Lucas spent a lot of time playing forward because the gifted Brad Davis had arrived at Maryland as a point guard. Even out of position at 6 feet 2, Lucas was impressive enough that the Houston Rockets made him the first pick in the NBA draft in 1976. Perhaps only one person had any doubts about his future: his sister.

“I always felt that tennis might be safer for him,” she said. “The NBA is a place where anyone can find trouble. It’s the life they lead there. I just don’t think it’s a healthy environment for anyone. The atmosphere in the NBA leads to destruction. People are paid to produce at any physical cost, no matter what. The whole drug scene is as much a part of pro sports as practice is.”

Cheryl Lucas never expressed those fears to her brother. At first, there was no indication that they were warranted. Lucas was a starter from day one with the Rockets and spent two happy seasons there. In 1978, he was sent to the Golden State Warriors as compensation when Houston signed Rick Barry as a free agent. He was there, in the San Francisco Bay area, for three seasons before the Warriors decided not to renew his contract after the 1980-81 season. By then, his troubles with cocaine were the subject of loud whispers around the league.

“I never touched the stuff when I was in college,” Lucas said. “I didn’t even drink much beer. Guys always gave me a hard time about being too straight. I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’ But in the pros, it was different. It gets to be part of the routine. You know, play the game, party, stay out all night, then do it all the next night. You say, ‘I’ll only do it on Wednesdays.’ Then you say, ‘Tuesdays and Wednesdays.’ It just keeps building and building.”

The first person to confront him was Al Attles, the Warriors’ coach. Lucas denied he used drugs. Attles told him he knew he did. That was the start of a pattern. While his drug use built, so did Lucas’ lying. Falk still has the tape of a TV interview Lucas did while at Golden State in which Lucas categorically denied any use of drugs. By then he had missed several practices and flights, and his behavior had become erratic. Lucas said he had personal problems, citing the death of his grandmother and his high school coach.

“I keep that tape as a reminder,” Falk said, “that when you are dealing with something like this, the truth becomes irrelevant.”

When the Warriors did not re-sign him, Lucas became a free agent. It took most of the summer before Falk was able to find anyone interested in Lucas. The Utah Jazz offered him a four-year contract at $300,000 annually. The Warriors matched the offer and traded him to the Washington Bullets.

“We knew it was a risk,” Ferry said. “But the hope was that coming home, being near his family, his friends, even Lefty (Driesell) would be the right thing for him. We had heard the rumors about his problems, but he had never admitted to it. We were hoping the rumors weren’t true.”

It didn’t take long for Lucas to find trouble with the Bullets. Once again, he began missing practices and airplanes, even a game. Early in November, he admitted to his teammates and coaches in a team meeting that he had a drug problem. In January, he went public with his admission. But even then he insisted, “I’m not addicted.”

“Even then, I didn’t really admit to myself that I had a problem,” Lucas said. “The media kept asking me if I had a drug problem, so finally I just said, ‘Yeah, I do, now will you leave me alone.’ I just did it so I wouldn’t have to answer any more questions.”

Driesell was stunned to learn that the rumors were true.

“I would have bet all the money in the world that the last person who would ever have a drug problem would be John Lucas,” Driesell said. “I guess that shows how much I know about drugs. But when I heard, I called him and I told him to go to the hospital and get treatment. I told him it was no different than cancer. If you don’t get treated for it, you die, simple as that.”

Lucas listened to his old coach and, as he had done with everyone else, told him he was right. Then he ignored him.

By the end of that season, Bullets Coach Gene Shue wasn’t even speaking to Lucas. “There’s no point,” Shue said then, “because every time he opens his mouth, he lies to me.” Driesell hired him to work at his summer camp, so he could keep an eye on him, then fired him. “He kept showing up late,” Driesell said. “I told him he had to stop, he had to get help. He just nodded and didn’t listen. I didn’t know what to do.”

No one did. Not his friends, not his agents, not his family. The Bullets finally gave up on Jan. 25, 1983, waiving Lucas. “The Bullets went to the wall for John,” Falk said. “In fact, they went through the wall for him--about three times.”

Lucas played pro tennis for a while, failed a preseason NBA tryout with Cleveland and played minor league basketball at Lancaster, Pa., then came back to the NBA, first with the San Antonio Spurs before moving on to Houston. The pattern never changed: he would stay clean and play well, then something would go wrong and the problems would start again. The Rockets waived him once (in 1984), then reinstated him. Lucas fought constantly with Rockets Coach Bill Fitch. Now he says Fitch saved his life.

“I’ve done everything possible to hate the man,” Lucas said. “When I played for him, he always picked on me. I mean, always. There were times I did hate him. But now I know what he was trying to do. He was trying to save me from myself.”

Lucas began the 1985-86 season as if he had finally turned the corner on his troubles. He was playing the best basketball of his life, running the show for a rapidly rising team that was led by two brilliant young big men, Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon. But Lucas had stopped going to AA meetings, thinking he didn’t need them anymore. When he didn’t make the all-star team, an honor he thought he had earned, he became depressed and starting drinking, he says, “a lot of beer.” Finally, on March 13, after a loss to the Boston Celtics, Lucas failed to show up for practice.

“We had just finished playing our games against Golden State right before the Boston game,” Lucas said. “I thought I had made it because I’d always gotten into trouble when we played Golden State. But then we lost to the Celtics and, I don’t know, I just didn’t handle it.”

When he showed up for the game that night against Portland, Fitch told him two things: submit to urinalysis and don’t dress for the game.

“Sitting on the bench in street clothes that night was the low moment maybe of my entire life,” he said. “I knew what the test would show. I knew what I had done and that I had let everybody down. It was an awful feeling. I just wanted to get away somehow, but it was too late.”

As soon as the test results came back the next day, Lucas was waived. He left Houston right away to go to California, where he enrolled in a rehabilitation program.

After 45 days of rehabilitation, Lucas was ready to return home. But to what? The NBA playoffs were under way, and the Rockets were going to make it to the final, without him. Knowing he had let his teammates down, Lucas couldn’t face them, or the games. He stayed away. But while he was in California he had an idea.

“The one thing no one was doing in rehabilitation was getting people’s bodies back in shape,” he said. “That was what I missed most of all. So I started a fitness program for myself. Then I began thinking that if I could put together a fitness program for others, it would be unique.”

Looking both for a place to market his idea and a place he could go for his after-treatment, Lucas approached Houston International. The hospital was interested.

“The fact that John had been a drug user, that he knew from personal experience what he was talking about, intrigued us,” said Darrell L. Pile, the hospital’s senior assistant administrator. “We thought that if he could make the program work, we would have a true role model for the patients, especially the young ones who look up to athletes. Here was someone who had made the mistakes, taken the fall but come back.”

A clause in Lucas’ contract with the hospital provides for continued random urinalysis (he says he requested it) and sessions with a psychiatrist twice a week. Lucas also is president of STAND (Students Taking Action Not Drugs), a newly formed Houston group that counsels teen-agers against drug use. Lucas still clowns around on a basketball court every now and then, but for the most part, he is a businessman. He knows that a lot of people will be skeptical, because this is not the first time he has said drug use is behind him.

Lucas says he thinks he has a handle on his problem because he has finally accepted the fact that he has a problem.

“I feel like I’m back in high school right now,” Lucas said. “I feel like I have a real future.”


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