Rehab Doesn’t Mean No Relapse


The words came out in a torrent, sometimes tumbling over one another as ex-major league pitcher Dock Ellis recounted his adventures in the scary world of drugs.

You remember Dock. Outrageous Dock, running around with his hair in curlers. Rebellious Dock, throwing a no-hitter while high on LSD. Addicted Dock, experimenting with every banned substance known to man, and a few not yet discovered.

Ellis had just come out of drug rehabilitation when another ex-patient invited him over to his house.

“The guy had been in treatment with me,” he said. “I knew something was up. I could smell the stuff before we were in the door. Anyone who has used it knows that smell. It smells like nothing else in this world and you never forget that smell. When we got inside, he showed me two kilos. He said he wanted to get back in the fast lane.”


And what did Ellis say?

“I told him, ‘I’m outta here.’ ”

The smell of the stuff lingers in the brain, a siren’s call, always there, always beckoning. That is why the most dangerous time for an addict is the time after rehabilitation. For an athlete, that problem is compounded by lifestyle.

The idle time. The extra money. The constant opportunity. The gnawing craving. They are all permanent landmines, threatening to blow up without warning. Ellis knows that. He runs scared, afraid of the slip that drug treatment professionals say is so common among recovering addicts.


“The temptation is there every day,” he said. “It’s right there, the first day out.”

And not only for him.

“Addiction is an obsession,” said Dr. Arnold Washton, who has treated two dozen professional athletes with substance abuse problems. “It’s easy to stop but hard to stay away from. You don’t get fixed in rehabilitation. And the first day out is the first time you have to live without that artificial protection.”

Ego can interfere with recovery. “Superstars expect the laws of the universe apply to everybody but them,” Washton said. “The goal is how you get through the day facing the reality and stress of daily life without getting high.”

Getting started in drugs is the easiest thing in the world, Ellis said.

“You’re not scared. You just do it. It feels good so you do it again. You don’t ever want to stop. The only thing that matters is the drug. And then you start to need more to feel just as good. So you do more.”

How much more?

In the end, Ellis said, “I was a vacuum cleaner.”


The recovery is much more complicated than the addiction.

“I wouldn’t go for an X-ray.” Ellis said. “I was afraid I’d see a guy with drugs and ask for it. It was a long time before I could go into a bar. The smoke, the glasses . . . I just didn’t know.”

Now Ellis allows himself that small social pleasure, but he limits drinks to the Dock Cocktail. “Orange juice, pineapple juice, grenadine and pina colada. It’s fruit punch and it never costs more than $1.”

Ellis says he’s cured and he’ll never go back. “I’m a walking miracle and I know it,” he said. “They’ll die waiting for me to get high.”

Others, however, have trouble resisting the temptation.

John Lucas of the Houston Rockets needed two trips through rehabilitation and a year away from basketball to get clean. He remembers the last time he did drugs. You might say it was rather unforgettable.

“I wound up at 7 o’clock in the morning in the middle of downtown Houston wearing a fancy suit, five pairs of athletic socks and no shoes,” he said. “I was wearing shades because, hey, I didn’t want to be recognized.”

The disguise didn’t work. Lucas was discovered, probably because on that particular morning nobody else was running around the downtown area with five pairs of athletic socks and no shoes.


The disguise never works, Lucas said. Sooner or later the addict gives himself away. He’s liable to do just about anything when the craving gets to him.

“This disease has my utmost respect,” Lucas said. “It’s patient. It’s always waiting for me. My disease hates to lose. It wants me back and it’s a constant battle.”

“The nature of the disease is to relapse,” said Dr. Allan Lans, the psychiatrist who worked with Dwight Gooden after the New York Met pitcher tested positive for cocaine in 1987. “If that were not the case, everybody would quit the first time around.”

Many substance abusers, of course, do not. “Drug-free behavior can not be sustained unless there are reinforcements,” Lans said. “The drug is often more powerful than any reinforcement.”

Recovering athletes thrust back into the environment where they got into trouble in the first place, need a strong support system and safety net to prevent relapses. “The craving can be overwhelming,” Lans said. “The key is aftercare. Anybody can maintain sobriety for 30 days. What counts is what happens after that.

“To stay clean, the recovering athlete has to look in the mirror and see what is reflected. He has to make sobriety the No. 1 priority in his life. It can never be on the back burner. The most important thing in his life has to be beating this.”

And if he slides back, it won’t be the first time that happened.

Of the 13 past and present NBA players who came forward after brushes with drugs, nine slid back to that culture after rehab. Thirty-one NFL players have tested positive for drugs more than once and been suspended for 30 days. Baseball has suspended 11 players for repeated drug use.

Drugs don’t discriminate, either. The list of two- and three-time losers includes frontline stars like Roy Tarpley and Walter Davis in the NBA, Lawrence Taylor and Dexter Manley in the NFL, Steve Howe and Lamarr Hoyt in baseball. Each of them used drugs, underwent rehabilitation, went back to their sports and then went back to drugs.

This epidemic has been going on for a long time. Only the names seem to change.

In 1977, NFL teammates Randy Crowder and Don Reese got caught up in cocaine. In 1989, the same thing happened to NFL teammates Manley and Barry Wilburn.

In 1978, NHL player Don Murdoch was suspended for cocaine possession. In 1989, NHL player Bob Probert wound up in jail for the same thing.

In 1979, major league pitcher Bob Welch underwent treatment for an alcohol problem. In 1989, major league pitcher Pascual Perez missed spring training while undergoing drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Drug policies of the major sports vary widely.

In hockey and baseball, each violation is handled individually. In football and basketball, players who come forward with a problem are sent to rehab at the club’s expense. Repeat offenders in the NFL face 30-day suspensions. In the NBA, a second offense produces a second rehab, this time without pay. A third relapse in the NBA produces a suspension of at least two years.

How likely is relapse?

“The tendency is to use again,” Lans said, “and nobody knows the trigger.”

Lucas qualifies as an expert. After two rehabilitations, the first in 1980 before the NBA drug policy was in place, the second in 1986, he now heads the NBA Players Association drug program and has had a number of athletes in his care through the John Lucas Fitness Systems for chemical dependency patients.

“Recovery is one day at a time,” he said. “The journey is unreal, better than any game I ever played and I played in some great ones. It’s hard work to stay sober, but I’m willing to go to any length for my sobriety. If I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs, the rest of the day is a success.”

So every morning when the Rockets are at home, Lucas is up at 6:30 a.m. for a support group meeting. And every day at practice, he attends another impromptu one with the Rockets’ other recovering addict, Mitchell Wiggins. A third, Lewis Lloyd, started the season with Houston but was placed on waivers last month and was just signed to a 10-day contract by the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Anytime two or more addicts get together, it constitutes a meeting,” Lucas said. “With the Rockets, we’ve got a permanent one.”

Wiggins and Lloyd returned to the NBA this season, both retrieved following two-year suspensions for using drugs. Their rehabilitations included sessions in Lucas’ program, the same one in which Dexter Manley is now enrolled.

In each of Manley’s previous rehabilitations, he insisted that his problem was just alcohol. “The major problem was Dexter denied,” attorney Bob Woolf said. “He never admitted a drug addiction. He was embarrassed to say he used drugs or cocaine. When he called me after the third test and told me he was using cocaine, that was a major breakthrough.”

Manley held a press conference before going to Houston and the Lucas program. “Everything I have worked so hard to achieve has been destroyed by my senseless behavior,” he said. “Like so many unfortunate people in the world, I underestimated the tricky and insidious nature of this disease.”

Why turn to drugs?

“It was the thing to do, the greatest lie ever told,” Lucas said. “I lost conscious contact with myself. I didn’t know who I was. On the court with all those people watching me, I was a lonely man.”

Then Lucas summed up the problem of the recovering athletes in simple terms.

“The game lasts 2 1/2 hours,” he said. “There are 21 1/2 more hours in the day that you’ve got to deal with.”