Kevin Armstrong
Wednesday February 14th, 2007

For Jai Lucas, serving a McDonald's happy meal with a smile was the most unpleasant option to stomach.

As an eighth grader enjoying the spoils of his father's employment in the basketball industry, Lucas was lounging comfortably around his Houston home. Workouts could wait. One day during the summer of 2003, though, John Lucas gave his son an ultimatum.

"I told him that he can either come to the gym for five to six hours or he can work at McDonald's," says John Lucas, the former NBA player and coach. "Basketball is our family business. It's what we do. If I were an accountant I would have had him doing numbers."

Having left Cleveland that January when his father was fired as the Cavaliers' head coach, the youngest Lucas son returned with his family to their native Houston. Already accustomed to moving since he lived in Philadelphia for three years while his father coached the 76ers, the Lucas family had returned to Jai's birthplace once before while Jai was in the fourth grade. Now rooted in his native city for good, the youngest Lucas was again amongst familiar faces to finish the eighth grade and then to enroll in Houston's Bellaire High.

"His father came up to me that May and asked if I thought Jai was good enough to play varsity next year as a freshman, and I said no at the time," Bellaire coach James Glover says. "Then in August he had Jai work out again, and he was ready."

Four years later, Jai Lucas, 18, is the prince of Bellaire. John Lucas III, Jai's older brother who was the starting point guard on Oklahoma State's 2004 Final Four team, is a reserve with the Houston Rockets. But it is the younger brother's game that is under the microscope these days. Having made a name for himself beyond his surname, the 5-foot-10, 155-pound floor general has outgrown the questions about his height and stature.

"People always say I'm small," Lucas says. "But I've found ways to counter that and silence them."

Going up against the local talent currently playing in the NBA and those who are retired or rehabilitating with his father, Jai Lucas has been running with the nation's best, from Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley to Daniel Ewing and T.J. Ford, at the legendary Fonde Recreation Center in downtown Houston.

"I take a lot of my game from T.J. Ford since he's a smaller guy but he's so fast," Lucas says. "That's how I figure I have to play."

It's not enough for his son to carry the family name in these workouts, though. Instead, the father has his son bear the extra burden of wearing a 40-pound vest while completing shooting and ball handling drills as well as playing in the five-on-five games as well.

"I used to hate it," Jai Lucas says. "Not only going up against the pros, but to also add that was tough. The NBA guys are always joking with me that I'm gonna retire by the time I'm 27."

Still, his father has seen how the professionals work, and he sees an opportunity for his youngest child to continue the family name. "I'm looking around in our own gym down here and seeing T.J., Damon Stoudamire, Daniel Ewing, Tywon Lawson," says John Lucas. "All these guys aren't big, but they're doing well for themselves. He's 5-10, and wears baggy uniforms. He's gotta prove that he can play bigger."

A weighted vest isn't the only part of the system. There are still 500 jump shots to make before school and 250 more when he returns home. Jai's improvement throughout his four years has been worth the weight. Lucas has made his name as a scorer for Bellaire where the points are more of a necessity, and as a playmaker on the Houston Hoops AAU team on the summer circuit, where the talent level is more complementary to his game.

"His brother John was more of a 'me' guy, but Jai is a natural point man with my favorite poem of 'We and Me'," John Lucas says. "He went out to the Big Time tournament in Vegas and his team won. He went to the Nike camp, and his team won won. He went to the NBA team camp and won that championship. He's a kid that scores but his calling is running a team."

While at the NBA camp at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond last summer, Lucas teamed up with Huntington (W.Va.) forward Patrick Patterson, another top senior who Lucas befriended along the recruiting trails of summer.

"We've talked about going to school together, but we keep that to the side," says Lucas, who took his visits to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Maryland, his father's alma mater. "Everyone would want a big [forward] to show up with them as a guard.

"I liked all the places that I looked at," says the younger Lucas, whose cell phone vibrates every 10 minutes with college coaches text messaging him. "I saw Kentucky on Midnight Madness so that atmosphere was different than the others since they were all in practice mode and what not. Time is coming soon when I'll make my choice."

Playing with a sore left shoulder against Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday night, Lucas scored 25 points to lead Bellaire to their third consecutive District 20-5A regular season title. That was old hat for the Cardinals, though. It's getting past Kingwood (Texas) in the regional semifinal round that has tripped up Bellaire the last two years.

"We're trying to get past that this year," Lucas says.

Already selected to play in the Jordan Brand All American game at Madison Square Garden in April, Lucas knows the possibility of being named a McDonald's All American would be both an honor and a touch of irony.

"I don't even know what I would say to my dad, but the fact it is that it would be full circle," Jai says with a laugh.

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