Tragedy, Then the Triumph
It took Oklahoma State junior guard John Lucas III a split-second to release the three-point shot he made to beat Saint Joseph’s on Saturday night in the Meadowlands ...
... and his whole life to prepare for it.
John Lucas Jr. -- his famous father, the former Maryland basketball and tennis star, 14-year-NBA player, recovering drug addict, hired NBA coach, fired NBA coach -- sat in the stands at Continental Airlines Arena and watched the incredible events unfold like a two-half drama:
* First half: John is lost and his insecurities are on public display -- with Jim Nantz and Billy Packer reporting. Three of his five three-point misses have missed the rim.
He’s frustrated, too short, only 5 feet 10. Gawd, will I ever measure up?
“He would kill to be 6-3 or 6-4,” his dad says.
John III is trying so hard to be man of the house, the man he tried to be when his dad left the house.
Father is watching son flail away in an NCAA tournament regional final game and thinking:
“That first half was kind of like our lives starting out together, me and him. I was the adversity.”
* Second half: The redemption. Seventeen points. Why Dad sobered up 18 years ago. Why the son transferred from Baylor to Oklahoma State -- two different, yet tragic, situations.
Why, after Lucas learned last summer that Baylor teammate Patrick Dennehy had been killed, and the primary suspect was a teammate, and that his head coach, Dave Bliss, tried to cover his tormented tracks by secretly painting Dennehy as a drug dealer, Lucas retreated to his bank-shot bunker.
“Just to get it out of my head, I just stayed in the gym all summer,” he said. “First thing, when I heard about what was going on, my dad was, like, ‘You want to talk?’ and I was like, ‘Nah, I just want to go to the gym.’ I just got a lot of shots up.... That was, like, my thing to get away from it.... “
And maybe even why John Lucas, the father, was canned as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in January 2003.
“When I was fired in Cleveland, I thought it was such a curse,” the elder Lucas said.
Finally out of a job after years on the NBA run, Lucas was able to spend quality time with his son and help facilitate the Baylor-to-Oklahoma State transition.
“I was able to give him back something he gave me 18 years earlier,” the elder Lucas said. “He needed me again.”
What if Lucas had not been fired?
Well, on Saturday night, while Oklahoma State was beating St. Joe’s, Cleveland was playing host to New Jersey.
Thanks to that NBA pink slip, Dad was free to witness his son’s heroics in East Rutherford, N.J., and congratulate him afterward with a hug instead of a phone call.
Lucas’ three-point shot with 6.9 seconds left was the difference in a 64-62 win.
The victory earned Oklahoma State a trip to this weekend’s Final Four in San Antonio. The Cowboys play Georgia Tech on Saturday in a national semifinal game.
Lucas the father, an All-American guard on talented Maryland teams in the 1970s, never led his Terrapins beyond a regional final.
“This is all new territory for me,” he joked. “I’ve gone to speak at the Final Four, but not to play at the Final Four.”
If making a last-second shot to send your team to the Final Four takes guts, fortitude, trust, confidence, maturity, toughness and a little bit of been-there, done-that, John Lucas III was ready to make that shot.
Almost everything in his life prepared him for it.
“He had to grow up, like I did, in front of people,” the senior Lucas said. “You either have to put up or shut up now.”
As the son of a famous basketball-junkie, Lucas’ early life was like a load of laundry on quick cycle.
He moved from town to town with the father who played for six NBA teams and coached for four.
Lucas the son ticks off the cities like whistle stops: Washington, Seattle, Oakland, Milwaukee, Houston, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
“I always learned how to adapt to certain things,” the younger Lucas said. “One year I’d be in one elementary school and he’d end up getting traded to another team and next year I’m at a different elementary with different people. I just learn how to make friends quick.... “
As John grew up, from maternity ward to Milwaukee, his father’s drug addiction and rehabilitation played out on sports pages.
“That last name of Lucas is sometimes a blessing, and it’s just as much a curse,” the elder Lucas said. “Kids used to tease him when he was in junior high about my drug use because [knowledge of] it was very public. I just told him to take that and understand that people go through a lot. And a lot of those other kids, who were giving his dad a lot of grief, his dad is going to be there to help them along the way. I think it has made John have a fond appreciation for people.”
After sobering up, Lucas went a step further and opened a rehabilitation center in Houston, where he has mentored many.
Lucas the son credits his mother, Debbie, for holding the family together (John and the kids: John III, Tarvia and Jai).
John III did his part.
He remembers throwing himself at his dad’s feet to keep him from getting out the front door.
“I used to always hold on to his coat or shirt to make me go with him,” he said, “because I knew if I was with him he wasn’t going to do anything.”
It’s a wonder Lucas III never became bitter or distant.
Quite the opposite, he became a communications major.
His dad tells him, “When you go to a new place, be open to new things. Don’t be stubborn and keep to yourself. Let everyone know you’re a friendly person, that you are willing to know people.”
Of course, sometimes you only think you know someone.
Lucas III starred for three years at Bellaire High School in Houston, averaging 30.3 points as a senior.
The rap on him, though, was that he was a shooting guard trapped in a tiny point guard’s body ... hello, Baylor.
Lucas says things were going badly for him in Waco even before last summer, when the Dennehy slaying scandal exploded.
Lucas had already had it with Bliss, and that was before his coach was caught on tape, trying to get others to disparage a dead man’s character.
“I put my trust in this man for two years and played my heart out for him,” Lucas said of Bliss.
“It just hurt me. You think you know somebody, but you never know who they really are.”
Because these were such unusual circumstances, the NCAA allowed Baylor players to transfer without having to sit out a season.
Oklahoma State was the perfect fit.
As the son of a coach, Lucas did not suffer basketball fools gladly, yet there would be no second-questioning the acumen of Cowboy Coach Eddie Sutton.
Father put it to his son: “You might as well shut up. You can’t tell him about basketball, OK?”
Sutton, like the elder Lucas, had also been to hell and back, a recovering alcoholic and 12-step coach who rehabilitated himself after a scandal-plagued tenure that left Kentucky on probation.
The elder Lucas also admired the way Sutton held steady after the 2001 plane crash outside Denver that killed 10 people, including eight members of the Oklahoma State program.
Handing his son to Sutton was as close as Lucas could come to coaching John himself.
“I think that I was maybe able to relate to him,” Sutton said.
Lucas the son made the cognitive connection:
“They had gone through a tragedy too,” he said of his new Oklahoma State family.
The Cowboys, make no mistake, also needed a point guard, yet Lucas was looking for teammates as much as he was a team.
His regret at Baylor was in not getting to know Dennehy.
“I came in saying, ‘The next team I play for, I’m going to get to know everybody like they’re my own little brothers,’ ” Lucas said, “somebody I’m willing to go out and ride or die with them, on anything, like the game or anything.”
A team bonds or it doesn’t.
Teammates need to have faith in the player who takes the game-winning three-point shot, even if that player shoots three airballs in the first half.
Lucas has worked his whole life to earn that trust.
The circle came full Saturday night when, with a season on the line and the clock ticking down, teammate Joey Graham returned a pass to Lucas, who swished the game winner.
And what if Lucas had missed?
“I got my son,” his father said. “It’s not about basketball. I tell him all the time, basketball is what he does. Now we’re on a journey to find out who you are.
“You aren’t the number on your jersey. That’s what got me into trouble. I really believed I was the number on that jersey. I said, ‘You know what happens? When you leave Oklahoma State, somebody else is going to wear 15. It’s not yours. That’s your number now.’
“These are some hard-learned lessons that recovery has taught me. And I just try to share them with my kids.”