Lucas, John 1953–
John Lucas 1953–
Athlete, professional basketball coach, business executive, activist
“I believe in miracles,” John Lucas told USA Today. “I am one.” Lucas, a former pro basketball player turned coach, has received the chance of a lifetime—the opportunity to prove that someone with a serious drug and alcohol problem can overcome it and achieve greatness again. A top point guard in the National Basketball Association (NBA) from 1976 until the late 1980s, Lucas found his playing career hampered by his dependencies on cocaine and alcohol.
He entered recovery in 1986 and has since dedicated his life to dual goals: helping his team advance to the NBA championships and helping other addicts to regain control of their lives. USA Today contributor Rachel Shuster called Lucas’s 1992 appointment as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs “a basketball experiment … that challenges the rules of how the game is played—the game, that is; of recovering addicts trying to return to their sport.”
Lucas was one of the first NBA players to gain public attention for his drug and alcohol problems. As early as 1982 he admitted in Sports Illustrated that his absence from team practices and occasional games was a result of drug abuse. Repeatedly suspended by NBA officials between 1982 and 1986, Lucas finally hit bottom in Houston, Texas, and began the long, painful recovery process that would eventually restore his reputation and his abilities. “It’s taken a lot of work to find out who I am,” Lucas told the Washington Post. “And even now all I can tell people is that I am a grateful recovering addict and alcoholic. I’m grateful I didn’t get what I deserved.”
John Lucas was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, the younger of two children of John and Blondola Lucas. His father was the principal of Hillside High School in Durham and a leader in the school desegregation movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Lucas’s mother, too, was a school administrator, serving as an assistant principal at a local junior high. As a youngster, Lucas nearly worshipped his poised and successful father. Young John drove himself to achieve not only academically, but athletically as well. He excelled at two sports: basketball and tennis.
At a Glance…
Born October 31, 1953, in Durham, NC; son of John (a teacher and school administrator) and Blondola (a school administrator) Lucas; married; wife’s name, Debbie; children: Tarvia, John, Jai Education; University of Maryland, B.A., 1976; received M.A. in education from University of San Francisco.
World Team Tennis player, 1976-79; professional basketball player, 1976-90. Played for Houston Rockets, 1976-78; Golden State Warriors, 1978-81; Washington Bullets, 1981-83; San Antonio Spurs, 1983-84; Houston Rockets, 1984-86; Milwaukee Bucks, 1987-88; Seattle Supersonics, 1988-89; and Houston Rockets, 1989-90. Founder and president of John Lucas Enterprises, Houston, TX, a network of drug-treatment programs aimed especially at athletes, 1990—; owner of Miami Tropics basketball team, 1992—. Named head coach of San Antonio Spurs, December 18, 1992; signed four year contract as vice-president of basketball operations, general manager, and coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, June 1994.
Selected awards: Various tennis awards; Sports Pioneer Award and Award for Courage from National Black Journalists Association; National Black Leadership Roundtable Award; USBL Man of the Year, 1992.
Addresses: Office—Philadelphia 76ers, The Spectrum, P.O. Box 25040, Philadelphia, PA 19147-0240; or, John Lucas Enterprises, P.O. Box 273023, Houston, TX 77277-3023.
“Everything in my life was ’winner, ’ ’runner-up’ and ’consolation, ’” Lucas told Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t know how to have fun. I never had a childhood. I still can’t swim, and I didn’t ride a bike. The skills I was sharpest on were competition, drive and sportsmanship.” Lucas added that he followed this regimen because he wanted to please his parents. At any rate, he became a sports prodigy by his teen years, competing in major national tennis tournaments and breaking the North Carolina high school career scoring record in basketball. At seventeen he was named to the Junior Davis Cup tennis team. Lucas told the Chicago Tribune: “By the time I was 13, I’d played in Madison Square Garden in front of 15,000 people and had about 1,000 trophies. I played in the U.S. [tennis] Open when I was 13. I was valedictorian of my senior class. All my time was spent on courts. I never had a chance to grow up. Probably one of the best gifts Michael Jordan ever got was being cut from that high school team. Nobody ever heard of him. But I had the governor calling me about where to go to school.”
Eventually that level of fame led Lucas to disappointments and bad habits. He chose to attend the University of Maryland, where he became a star point guard and an All-American in both basketball and tennis. He had begun drinking at fifteen, and he now admits that he began using drugs during his senior year at Maryland. “The disease that got me, the disease that almost killed me was the disease that creates the drug and alcohol problem,” Lucas told the Washington Post. “And that is not the drink or the drugs. They were the solution. My problem was I found out I wasn’t perfect. I freaked out. I’m a failure. One of the things I set my sights on to be the best at I found a guy better. I always saw the negative in me instead of the positive. I could go 19 for 20 and be mad about the one I missed. And if I went 17 for 20 the next game, I’d say: ’Oh, man, I’m getting worse.’”
His negative attitude and nascent drug problems notwithstanding, Lucas was still an excellent athlete. In 1976 he was the top NBA draft pick by the Houston Rockets. He joined Houston in time for the 1976–77 season. Remarkably, he also continued to compete in tennis tournaments, playing World Team Tennis from 1976 to 1979. Lucas showed high promise during his rookie year with Houston, averaging 11.1 points and 5.6 assists per game. Some observers have noted that he might have become almost as well-known at point guard as Magic Johnson had he not been plagued with the drug and alcohol problems.
Lucas’s jumping-jack career in the NBA serves as testimony to his difficulties. Only once in his 14-year stint with the league did he play for the same team three straight seasons. More typically he bounced from franchise to franchise, moving from Houston to Golden State to the Washington Bullets to the San Antonio Spurs, back to Houston, on to the Milwaukee Bucks and the Seattle Supersonics, and finally to a retirement season with the Rockets. Between 1982 and 1986 he was waived twice when he failed drug tests—the last time in 1986 when the Rockets were favored to win a championship but lost a bitter playoff to Boston. “Lucas was his own worst nightmare—trapped in the powerful strangle-hold of alcohol and cocaine addiction,” wrote Sports Illustrated correspondent Jill Lieber. “Away from the court he lived in varying states of paranoia, desperation and shame. He would tiptoe around his Houston home and peek out the windows from behind drawn curtains. Scared to take a shower because someone might walk in on him, he gave up bathing and instead doused himself in cologne.”
Lucas’s moment of reckoning came on March 11, 1986. He was still a force in the NBA, averaging 15.5 points and 8.8 assists per game, but he began missing practices again and showed other signs of escalating drug use. Following a game against the Boston Celtics, Lucas spent the night in downtown Houston wearing a designer suit, five pairs of sweat socks, and a pair of sunglasses. After drinking and taking cocaine all night he blacked out and missed a team practice. Finally, after twelve hours on the street, he returned to his worried family. The following day he was released from the Rockets after a drug test they ordered came back positive for cocaine.
Within days of his release by the Rockets, Lucas checked into a rehabilitation clinic in California. There, for the first time, he was challenged by therapists to admit that he had lost control of his life. Gradually he became willing to admit that he had a problem for which he was sincerely seeking help. Alcoholism and drug abuse, he told the Washington Post, “centers where an athlete lives—in his ego. ’You mean I can drink only one of them beers? No way. I can drink as many as you can.’ It became a game of beating the game. People look at me like I was nuts, but I wanted to be the best drug addict. If you had a little bit, I had to have more. If yours was good, I had to have better. If you were gonna be up until 4 a.m., I was gonna be up till 5.”
Lucas spent several weeks in an in-patient program in California and then many months thereafter seeking outpatient therapy in Houston. He began to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a practice he continues today. He also had to face skeptics who had witnessed his earlier attempts at rehabilitation and his uncanny ability to perform on court despite his problems. In March of 1987 Lucas returned to the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, vowing this time to stay straight. “Whenever people talked about John Lucas the basketball player, it was always in the context of the way I had left,” he explained in Sports Illustrated. “I loved the game so much it almost killed me, and I decided that when I finished playing basketball I wanted to go out the front door.”
Lucas earned his right to exit the NBA by the “front door.” After two seasons with the Bucks and one in Seattle, he proudly went back to Houston for one last year. He retired in 1990.
During his years as a recovering addict in the NBA, Lucas determined that much more could be done for athletes with drug and alcohol problems. Even before he retired from basketball, he initiated some rehabilitation programs based on his own needs—exercises, counseling, and such. After he left the NBA, Lucas made this project his full-time job as founder and president of the Houston-based John Lucas Enterprises. He created a wide-ranging variety of programs to help addicted athletes and others achieve sobriety and remain drug-free. These programs include Lucas Fitness Systems, a John Lucas Treatment and Recovery Center, the John Lucas Athletes’ Aftercare Program, S.T.A.N.D. (Students Taking Action Not Drugs), and Basketball Congress International, a series of leagues and tournaments for Houston youths.
Lucas even went so far as to purchase his own basketball team, the Miami Tropics in the U.S. Basketball League (USBL), in order to give players suspended for drugs an opportunity to retain their skills while they recovered. He hadn’t planned to coach the Tropics when he bought the franchise, but after interviewing a few prospective coaches he decided to do the job himself. From the outset his team was almost evenly divided between young players who wanted to break into the NBA and older professionals, some of whom were recovering addicts. Chief among the latter were Roy Tarpley and Richard Dumas, both of whom hoped to return to the NBA. Under Lucas, the Tropics earned back-to-back USBL Championships in 1992 and 1993, and Lucas was named USBL Man of the Year in 1992.
These achievements brought Lucas to the attention of San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs. When the Spurs opened the 1992–93 basketball season with a dismal sub-.500 record under coach Jerry Tarkanian, McCombs offered Lucas the head coaching job. The offer took Lucas by surprise: hardly anyone, even veteran players, ever became a head NBA coach without first serving as an assistant coach at the NBA level. Busy as he was with his rehab programs and the Tropics, Lucas agreed to take the job with the Spurs. He recognized the opportunity as not only a chance to prove that recovered addicts can contribute at top levels, but also an opportunity to return full force to the sport he loved. “This is a step that I hope will open doors for other people,” Lucas told USA Today during the public announcement of his hiring.
The new Spurs coach took over the team with the vitality that had been evident in his other enterprises. Behind team superstar David Robinson, San Antonio began to blossom. They finished the 1993 season with a 49–33 record (40–22 under Lucas) and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals, where they lost to the Phoenix Suns. In 1994, led by Robinson and newly acquired badboy Dennis Rodman, the team ended up with an impressive 55–27 record and clinched a spot in the playoffs (but were eliminated in the first round by Utah). Later that year, Lucas resigned as coach of the Spurs to take on the tasks of vice president of basketball operations, general manager, and coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Lucas has had his share of critics, some of whom feel he has almost been rewarded for having been a drug user. “I know people say my coaching can be a bad message. That you can use drugs, get straight and have what you want,” Lucas told the Chicago Tribune. “Well, I say I’m one of 10 to make it back. I’m not doing this for publicity or money. I just want to help people, to share the gift, to show people how to live on a daily basis without medicating yourself.”
Lucas told Sports Illustrated that he is doubly grateful for his success in light of what it has meant to his family. Where once his three children were teased about their “druggie” father, they can now point to his accomplishments with pride. Lucas added that sobriety is still a daily struggle for him, but it is his top priority. “I like me today,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I am by no means perfect, but I’m making progress.” He added: “Basketball and tennis are what I did; this is who I am. My name is John, and I’m a grateful addict-alcoholic. Coach is just a title. I have more today than I ever had. I have unconditional love from my family, and I have learned to love myself, shortcomings and all. What I thought was the worst possible deal in life turned out to be the best gift I’ve been given. My addiction carried me past my sports life. It gave me my best trophy. It gave me John Lucas. It gave me life.”
Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1993, p. Sports-1.
Essence, November 1993, p. 60.
Newsweek, March 1, 1993, pp. 65-66.
Sports Illustrated, February 1, 1982, p. 10; March 2, 1987, p. 18; January 11, 1993, p. 46; March 7, 1994, pp. 58-65.
USA Today, May 14, 1992, p. C-1; December 22, 1992, p. C-1.
Washington Post, November 24, 1990, p. A-l; January 20, 1993, p. C-l.
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