Back FROM THE Abyss : John Lucas Couldn’t Stop Using Drugs When He Was in the NBA, but Now He Counsels Others on How to Stay Clean


There was that beeping again. From where he sat, behind the wheel of his blue, four-door BMW, it really appeared as if the only thing John Lucas is addicted to these days is his car phone.

After a brief conversation, Lucas hung up the phone. The way he looked, in his neatly tailored suit, he could have been a businessman, lawyer or developer. He didn’t look like a recovering addict.

“Before, it was like we didn’t understand it was a disease,” said Lucas, who played in the NBA for 14 years and six teams and twice lost his job because of drug problems.

“I’d hear, ‘You just don’t have any willpower.’ I tell coaches all the time at coaches’ seminars, ‘Coach, the next time you get diarrhea, you call on willpower.’

“That’s the same thing. My medicine for my disease is to go to meetings and being around other people who have the same problem I have.”


The phone beeped again. It was somebody with the same problem Lucas has.

The NBA, the most progressive of the professional sports leagues in its approach to drug problems, instituted the first comprehensive policy in pro sports in 1983 as a result of landmark cooperation between the players’ union and the league. Although the NBA’s official dependency treatment center is A.S.A.P. (Adult Substance Abuse Program) in Van Nuys, a looser relationship has evolved with one begun by Lucas three years ago.

Lucas claims to have treated 40 athletes in his recovery center and after-care program with a 100% success rate. The list includes former NBA stars Mitchell Wiggins, Lewis Lloyd, Micheal Ray Richardson, Jim Price and George Gervin, and football players Dexter Manley and Reggie Cobb.

Another notable sports figure, former Cleveland State basketball Coach Kevin Mackey, has been in Lucas’ program for 11 months. Until last week, Mackey was serving as unofficial coach for another highly public addict, 24-year-old Chris Washburn, who unexpectedly left Lucas’ care and has not yet returned.

Washburn, who is banned for life from the NBA as a result of violating league drug policy a third time, was drafted No. 1 by the Golden State Warriors in 1986, the third player chosen in the first round after leaving North Carolina State as a sophomore.

During an interview shortly before he left Lucas’ program, Washburn said that in quiet times, he had many painfully pensive moments.

“How good could I have been if I had been a normal-type person?” Washburn said.

“If I had of stayed in school longer, you know, been more responsible, especially on the court,” he said. “If I made all the strides that I made doing some type of drugs, smoking weed or drinking beer, and I still made No. 3 in the draft, if I wouldn’t have done anything, I could have been No. 1 maybe. At least I still would have been in the NBA right now.”

Washburn disappeared days later, although Lucas said he has spoken to Washburn since and wants him to return. Because the NBA will no longer pay $1,000 a day to the A.S.A.P. program, in which Washburn failed three times, and Washburn’s $1 million in NBA money is long gone, Lucas said he will take Washburn back again with no fee.

For now, Lucas waits by the phone for another beep. Maybe it will be Roy Tarpley calling back. Tarpley, of the Dallas Mavericks, is suspended without pay for violating his after-care program by drinking. With two strikes against him, Tarpley is one drug violation away from joining Washburn on the banned-for-life list. Lucas has offered his help in getting Tarpley straight.

But there is always the chance Tarpley is another Washburn. Lucas didn’t hear Washburn when he told a reporter in a long interview: “I can talk my way, basically, out of any trouble situation I’m in.”

The last time Lucas was in any kind of trouble was the early morning of March 13, 1986, when he awoke from a blackout in downtown Houston and tried to find his car. He had spent the night drinking and doing cocaine after leaving his house wearing a suit, five pairs of athletic socks and no shoes.

He tested positive for cocaine and the Rockets released him. Two years later, here he was, an addict starting his own drug-treatment center. Lucas has been sober for five years and is still tested once a week, saying that he must be above reproach. Skeptics abound when a recovering addict runs a drug clinic, Lucas reasoned.

“What leaves me open for criticism is that I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nurse,” Lucas said. “I just know how not to drink one day at a time, how not to do drugs, and I can share that.

“People can hear me because I’ve been there. When I called Dexter and asked him if he wanted to get some help, he said ‘Man, you were really, really sick.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but that’s not who I am today. The shoe is on the other foot today.’

“When people see me, they don’t believe that I’m really sober. And they don’t believe that I’m really going to meetings at 6:30 in the morning. What I know is that sometimes, people who are doctors, who aren’t recovering (addicts), it’s hard for us to buy off on the concept that they really know what it’s like.”

Mackey, 43, knows what it’s like. July 13, two days after signing a two-year, $300,000 contract extension with Cleveland State, he was arrested with a prostitute outside a crack house on Cleveland’s East Side during a sting operation.

As television cameras recorded the scene, Mackey was frisked, handcuffed and put in the back seat of a police car. Results of a urinalysis showed that Mackey was legally drunk and had been using cocaine. Six days later, he was fired.

“When I started to sober up, I realized I was going to lose everything,” Mackey said.

Mackey filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission Jan. 23, claiming that Cleveland State had discriminated against him because of his alcoholism and that he should have been given a chance to seek rehabilitation.

In any event, Mackey’s seven-year career as Viking coach is over and all Mackey has are memories of an appearance in the 1986 NCAA tournament, in which the Vikings upset Indiana; two National Invitation Tournament appearances and a 144-67 record.

Cleveland State is probably not in a forgiving mood on another count--NCAA probation for violations during Mackey’s tenure.

Indicted on a felony drug-abuse charge as well as driving under the influence, Mackey was not convicted after agreeing to a 90-day drug treatment plan. He spent 30 days with Lucas and 60 days at the Turning Point Residential Program in Brecksville, Ohio. After that, Mackey returned to Houston for Lucas’ after-care program. Once paid $2,500 for a speaking appearance, Mackey now delivers his speeches free.

He hopes to be making speeches in huddles again some day. He hopes that he can return to coaching.

“I felt when I first came down here that basketball was over for me because people would not accept me as a coach,” Mackey said. “John said to give him a year and he would get me back in basketball.

“Obviously, what happened to me is a public story. I accept that. I’ll put it at the head of my resume that I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict and that you can drug-test me twice a day for as long as I’m with you.

“If you want to say something bad about me, get in line and take a ticket. (But life is) about what you’re doing now. There’s no denial. I’ve accepted it, it’s public. I go and speak about it and I tell about being arrested and coming out of the crack house.

“That’s one of the advantages I have now as a coach if I get back: I’ll be able to see in the young man the same type of problems I had.”

Mackey began drinking when he was 16. By the time he had reached Cleveland State and coaching success, he was accomplished at drink-and-run, rounds of parties at successions of bars, drinking late into the night. Then he tried drugs, all the while keeping his secret from his family and friends.

The night of his arrest, Mackey packed a six pack of beer in ice and put it in the trunk of his car. He was heading across town later and didn’t want to be without a drink.

“My problem had just escalated to the point where the alcohol led to the cocaine,” he said. “Alcohol was my drug of choice, because I’m an addicted person, I’ll pick something else up for whatever reason. Obviously, when you go from a legal substance to an illegal substance, there is going to be problems.”

Mackey’s wife, Kathy, who lives at their home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, works as a supervisor in the medical and psychiatric unit at the Cuyahoga County Jail. It does not require a master’s degree, such as the one Mackey has, to realize his is a long, trying road back.

“One of the things I wonder every morning when I get up, ‘How good could I have been.’ ”

Washburn’s exit from Lucas’ care was nothing new. Six times before he had left a treatment or after-care program.

And how good could he have been?

Washburn said he had always been sort of limited, except when it came to playing basketball.

“There are only a few things in life that I can do and basketball is one of them,” he said. “I never had any friends growing up. Basketball was my outlet. I was the only child and most of my friends were jealous because my mom would buy me anything I wanted. Other kids had three or four brothers and so they would come over to my house and tear up my toys.”

But in basketball it was Washburn who tore things up. At 13, he was 6-foot-9. At 15, he was spotted at a basketball camp by Mackey, an assistant coach at Boston College.

“He was a phenom,” Mackey said. “He was so far ahead of kids when he was young. At North Carolina State, he did very well, well enough to be the third pick in the draft at age 19.”

That was after he had led North Carolina State in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore.

Widely recruited in high school, Washburn settled on N.C. State, where he quickly ran into trouble. As a freshman in 1984, Washburn was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of assault after slapping a female student.

Only months later, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges after a dormitory break-in and theft of a stereo. He was put on five years’ probation.

What happened?

“My social group changed,” Washburn said. “I went from positive people to people doing drugs. In high school, I was pretty well off. Everybody knew me, I was the No. 1 player in high school. I don’t know if that kept the fringe group away, but every place I went, I got in free.”

Once in the NBA, Washburn quickly wore out his welcome with the Warriors and was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in December of 1987, 11 months after his first stay in drug rehabilitation. But Washburn’s worst moments occurred in Atlanta.

“The younger kids see me walking by and I’m probably high, you know, 90% of the time I was,” Washburn said. “It got to a point where it was like going to work every day because I wasn’t playing and I felt like I was the whipping boy. I couldn’t wait until practice was over and I could get away from everybody.”

Washburn owned a house in the suburbs, 45 minutes from downtown Atlanta, but he was rarely there. It was too far away from where drugs were bought and sold.

“I would go home and half an hour later I was back out there again,” he said. “It just got monotonous. I would end up staying down there three or four days until I was out of money or just physically drained and I needed to go home and get some sleep.”

The Hawks had already lost Washburn by then, the NBA having banned him for life for a third violation of the league’s drug policy. Washburn was twice arrested by Atlanta police for drug-related offenses and his weight ballooned to more than 300 pounds.

Washburn estimated that he spent most of his $60,000 monthly salary on drugs, sometimes as much as $5,000 a day. He kept three apartments in downtown Atlanta for his drug use, figuring that no one would know, for sure, where he lived.

“The dope dealer would come, he wouldn’t have to leave,” Washburn said. “I would buy everything he had and then send him back for some more. So they would come sit in the room with me. I’m thinking they are my friends. But by the time he leaves, he’s leaving with the dope and the money and I’m sitting there broke, wondering where I’m going to get some more money from.”

Washburn played pickup games on playgrounds for drugs while wearing his street shoes.

“It was real funny from just going out to play basketball for fun to go out when I’m getting paid to playing for drugs,” he said. “That was a real, real big drop.”

After several months with Lucas and working out with Mackey and Price, Washburn was signed by the Tulsa Fast Breakers of the Continental Basketball Assn. in January, but was released last month. He returned to Lucas’ care but then left last week, further clouding any possible return to the NBA.

Washburn, eligible to apply for reinstatement June 29, is one of six players who have received lifetime bans from the NBA. Wiggins, Lloyd, Richardson, John Drew and Duane Washington are the others. Wiggins, Lloyd and Richardson applied for reinstatement and got it. “I told him I don’t care if he ever makes it back to the NBA,” Lucas said. “He’s just got to get himself right.”

The hand-printed sign high on the wall near the door to one of the three John Lucas Treatment and Recovery Centers reads: “Oh, God, let me not be afraid of my loneliness.”

Since he placed his first program in a hospital five years ago, Lucas has been fighting such a battle for others.

“I tell people all the time, when I did drugs, I got very paranoid,” Lucas said. “I would be chasing my own shadow. I’d have a conversation with nobody. And guys start laughing in the audience.

“But you couldn’t share the loneliness and that guilt and that pain that comes from using drugs, out of fear that your teammates know. I know about that. I can put that on the table pretty quick.”

The John Lucas Fitness Program is available in eight hospitals, six in Texas. It is geared toward those hospitalized for drug problems and includes group therapy. His anti-drug program for school-aged youngsters is featured in 23 school districts in Texas, among them the state’s biggest, the Houston Independent School District.

The John Lucas After-care Program is designed for recovering addicts who come out of his treatment centers and need counselors in every NBA or NFL city where his clients might play. In addition to the treatment and recovery center at the West Houston Medical Center and Spring Branch Memorial Hospital, there is another at the Ft. Worth Medical Plaza.

For Mackey, Washburn or anybody else who listens, Lucas will say it is a long road back. He remembers one of his comebacks with the Rockets, playing a game in Sacramento and someone sticking a sign on his back that read, “Things go better with Coke.”

Another time during a game in Philadelphia, Lucas walked to the free throw line to shoot.

“It was real quiet and somebody yelled ‘Hey, Luke, don’t snort the line,’ ” Lucas said.

The cost of Lucas’ program is $10,000 for the length of the program, most of it paid by insurance carriers, but there are those such as Washburn who are admitted at no cost. The price of not letting someone in who cannot pay is much greater, Lucas said. They must travel a great distance.

“You know, we don’t try to get them to do anything other than accept that they have a problem the first 30 days,” he said. “Our treatment concept is based on, if you can get the ego deflation the first 30 days, then that is a foundation. Then the after-care is the key component. We can only hope they have enough ego deflation to want to go to an outside meeting and not worry about how big they are.

“And another thing, after 30 days, you don’t have a drug problem anymore. Know what you have? You’ve got a living problem.”

Lucas glanced at his watch and excused himself. He was already late for an appointment at the airport.

He ran out the door and punched the elevator button nervously. When the elevator didn’t come quickly, Lucas took off down the stairs for a six-floor run. He was in a hurry to get to his car. He wanted to get there before the beeping started again.