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John Lucas has become sports whisperer for stars, projects alike

It would be a perfect setting for a basketball-based reality show, one that brings together a deliberately diverse assortment of players: different ages, different genders, different levels of talent, different strengths and -- weaknesses -- both physical and psychic. Sharing little besides a passion for basketball, 22 players file onto the court of the Met Athletic Club in downtown Houston at 8:30 on a June morning. The bankers and lawyers pushing around weights barely look over; same for the well-preserved housewives on the treadmill. They're used to it by now.

The group of ballers includes Tristan Thompson, fresh out of the University of Texas, a lithe forward who was the fourth pick in the 2011 NBA draft. It also includes Lulu McKinney, a sophomore point guard on the girls' team at Houston's Bellaire High. And Thaddeus Young, a starting small forward for the 76ers. There was a rumor that Clippers center Blake Griffin was going to show up, as he has in previous years, but he delayed his pilgrimage to Houston until later in the summer.

They're all here for different reasons, but ultimately they're all here for the same reason: to spend some time in the orbit of John Lucas, the Sports Whisperer. For years Lucas was best known to the public for his drug treatment work with athletes, but in the sports underground he's become known for applying defib paddles to moribund careers -- for taking broken athletes and making them whole.

At nine sharp Lucas arrives. He walks in with casual grace, wearing a golf shirt, shorts and a generous smile. "Well," he says with a raspy I-eat-gravel-for-breakfast voice and a high-pitched cackle that innumerable pro athletes can mimic with precision. A pause for effect. "Let's get to work."

If the rest of us wore half as many hats as Lucas wears, milliners might still have a thriving profession. He was a first-team All-America in two sports in college, played 14 seasons in the NBA and coached three NBA teams. He mentored both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James when they were in high school. John and his wife, DeEdgra, have sent their two sons off to careers in professional basketball: John Jr. was a shooting guard on the Bulls' roster last season, and Jai, who just finished playing college ball at Texas, is in China. Lucas is a man who casually mentions that he introduced Michael Jordan to agent David Falk; that he shadowed Bill Parcells for a season when Parcells was coaching the Cowboys; that he once played mixed doubles in World Team Tennis with transsexual Renée Richards; that he now coaches the Nigerian national basketball team.

But Lucas, 58, has also settled into another, less formal role that is the sum of everything he has done in his life. He is part guru, part life coach, part father figure, part amateur shrink and part preacher to as many as 100 professional athletes. By the dozens -- most but not all of them basketball players -- they enlist his services.

It's simple, he says: Athletes may be more wealthy and celebrated than ever, but money and status exact a price. For one, since pro players have become commodified, there is little interest by teams in teaching and development. "So," Lucas says, "I'm teaching skill work, sometimes basic stuff, to guys in the NBA." And the ever-increasing stakes create ever-increasing pressure. Few athletes are comfortable exposing their flaws and fears to their teams. So they flock to Houston, seeking the Tao of Luke.

*****

Athletes struggle to explain what it is Lucas actually says or does that's so restorative. "It's like a health spa," says Cavaliers guard Baron Davis, a Lucas disciple who makes an annual pilgrimage. "You come to him and get better. Your mind. Your body. Your soul. Your game ... It's hard to say what it is specifically." Pressed, Davis comes up with this: "He's a wise man. He understands today's athletes better than they understand themselves."

In keeping with Davis's spa analogy, Lucas's operation (official title: John Lucas Basketball Resources) offers a wide array of restorative services, from full-body cleansing (drug and alcohol counseling through his relationship with The Right Step, a network of rehab clinics throughout Texas) to smaller health and wellness treatments. Lucas is designing a physical rehab program for Jonny Flynn so the point guard, recently traded to the Rockets, can overcome a nagging hip injury. (Lucas has contracted with the rehab division of a Houston hospital, where he will supervise Flynn's therapy.)

Pacers guard T.J. Ford, another apostle, credits Lucas with helping him return to the NBA after a nasty back injury: "He treats you with respect, but he's tough, take-no-prisoners, at the same time. He just has the answers. So you know, you got something wrong, you go to Coach Lucas."

Meanwhile, Lucas is helping Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler develop new post moves. Same for Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. And Lucas is doing what he calls "general mentoring work" for another Nugget, guard J.R. Smith -- that is, when he's not advising Seth Mannon, a former LSU placekicker who was born without a left arm, with his conditioning so he can transfer to another Division I school.

Every athlete is different. Some need to be pushed, others need to be pulled. Some need to be talked down from the ledge -- literally, in the case of a female tennis player who recently reached out to Lucas as she contemplated suicide. Others need to have their shaken confidence built back up. Some need a swift kick in the ass; others need an ego massage. Sometimes the communication between Lucas and his clients is deeply personal. Sometimes he says explicitly, This is my coaching character attacking your basketball character. "Maybe that's my specialty," Lucas says. "I try to say the right thing, but -- this can be just as important -- say it in the right way."

Unlike a spa, though, Lucas has an appointment policy that's informal in the extreme. Walk-ins are welcome; it's never quite clear which clients will show up when. And Lucas's surroundings will never be mistaken for Canyon Ranch. Actually he has no real surroundings. His summer basketball clinics are held at various Houston gyms. Sometimes he leases the courts; sometimes he gets them for free. Some courts, including the Met, are nice; most are shabby.

Players and friends have encouraged Lucas to build his own complex, with basketball courts and rehab facilities to address the physical and with counseling rooms to address the emotional. He won't consider it. He likes being untethered. There's something that appeals to him about his millionaire clients having to sweep aside empty fried-chicken boxes and Gatorade bottles so they can scrimmage.

"I want you to feel like you should be fighting to get out of somewhere," he explains. "And for the guys who made it [to the NBA], it doesn't hurt for them to remember how good they have it."

*****

Where the f--- is Renardo?"

There's no response, so John Lucas asks again, that gravelly voice echoing off the walls in the gym at Lutheran High, on the north side of Houston. This is the afternoon session, and inside this sweatbox the basketball drills stop and the manhunt begins. Lucas unleashes his signature laugh, a smile turning up his caterpillar of a mustache. "Come on out, Renardo!"

It's not easy to lose a 21-year-old who stands 6-foot-11 and weighs 300 pounds. Sure enough, soon there is movement under a folding chair at courtside. First an arm. Then a leg. Finally Renardo rises, his shirt soaked in sweat, a pained look welded to his face, eyes narrowed to slits. He grips his side and mutters a single word: cramps.

Lucas's smile has hardened into a scowl. Scattering six balls around the court, he sets the scoreboard clock to 1:00 and orders Renardo to dunk each ball, taking a maximum of one dribble, before the horn sounds. Otherwise, Lucas warns, there will be real hell to pay.

With a mix of amusement and curiosity, the other players -- college stars, NBA veteran Mike James, 2012 Kansas recruit Zach Peters -- look on. Renardo obliges. He goes through the drill and, thoroughly gassed, barely beats the buzzer. The audience cheers. Lucas pats the kid on the back and then, as always, delivers hard-ass remarks leavened by unmistakable warmth: "You can't let cramps stop you. When your mama asks me how you doing and I say, 'He's working hard until he gets a bellyache,' what she gonna say?"

The Renardo in question is Renardo Sidney, whose name will ring a faint bell with hoops fans. Four years ago Sidney was among the most highly regarded high school players in the country, a big man in the mold of Lamar Odom, blessed with skills to match his physical gifts. Then he took a hard turn. His college recruitment became hugely controversial, a numbingly familiar tale of shady youth coaches, suspicious relocations and improper benefits. Sidney signed with Mississippi State but missed his first year when questions arose over his eligibility. A sophomore last season, he fought with a teammate during a tournament in Hawaii and was suspended for two games. His weight rose, his stock fell and he became that player, the guy whose talent is shrouded in concertina wire. In other words, the ideal reclamation project for Lucas.

Last summer, with his career on the precipice, Sidney did what he calls "the thing that made the most sense." He ventured to Houston to work with Lucas. He spent his days at various gyms and running tracks around Houston, while also taking time to meet regularly with an anger -- management counselor. An insecure novice adult, with a baby face and soft voice at odds with his towering physique, Sidney shrugs when asked why he's working with Lucas: "He makes things right." Later, he explains. "I've never had a coach who gets on me like he does," says Sidney, who was in Houston for three months. "You know what? I think I found my game when I came down here."

With the help of a few assistants, Lucas runs the basketball sessions, stomping around, stopping games to instruct and -- a favorite ploy -- making erroneous calls to test how players respond to being wronged by the officials. But he's also on the clock as he pilots his blue Kia around the sprawling beltways of Houston, stopping at the rehab facility, arranging for a visiting Kansas player to stay at a local motel, swinging by his house to pick up a fresh shirt. Lucas estimates that he racks up 6,000 minutes a month on his iPhone. For much of the late afternoon he demonstrates how this is possible. He is weaving through Houston traffic when Oklahoma big man Kendrick Perkins calls to discuss physical-therapy options for his injured leg. Then comes a call from Gary Johnson, who played with Jai Lucas at Texas and just worked out for the Golden State Warriors.

"How did it go?""What does 'all right' mean?""Then say it with more enthusiasm.""Did you feel like you were prepared?""If you were making an investment, wouldn't you want as much information?""All right, then. Let's get ready for the next one."

Lucas hangs up, and the phone chirps again. He stares at the caller ID. "I think that's Big Baby [Celtics big man Glen Davis]. I'll hit him later. He needs a hug." Next Lucas puts in a call to Johnny Jolly, a Packers lineman who pleaded guilty to a drug charge in April and was recently sentenced to six years in prison. As part of the sentencing, a Houston judge ordered Jolly to undergo inpatient drug treatment for 90 days. Jolly chose the facility operated by Lucas, who was at the sentencing. "Call me back, Jolly," says Lucas, "or I ain't gonna be Jolly."

*****

When Lucas was the valedictorian of his high school in Durham, N.C., in the early '70s, he spoke about the virtues of accumulating different experiences. He had credibility on the topic. The son of two high school administrators, Lucas was almost supernaturally outgoing. He was the star of the basketball team but was maybe even more skilled at tennis. His future was sufficiently promising for Arthur Ashe to become one of his mentors and occasional practice partners. At Maryland, Lucas was an All-America in both sports. After graduation he chose basketball for a career -- "In the NBA, the money's guaranteed; in tennis you gotta earn it!" he says, cackling -- and was the first pick of the 1976 draft.

A deft point guard and born leader, Lucas averaged more than 10 points and seven assists for his career. But Lord knows how good he could have been had he not developed a fondness for cocaine and alcohol. For many years he denied having an addiction. But on a March night in 1986 he woke up in a sketchy Houston neighborhood wearing a urine-soaked suit, sunglasses, five pairs of socks and no shoes. Figuring it was time to get help, he entered the NBA's rehab program.

Lucas says he recently reached the milestone of 25 years of sobriety. But the addiction was a life-altering experience, one that still haunts and defines him, compelling him to start each day with a 6:30 a.m. AA meeting. "That meeting is a gift I give myself," he says. "I was a cucumber who turned into a pickle. And once you're a pickle, you can't go back." He lets the thought hang and then continues, talking mostly to himself. "You're worried all your life about defenses stopping you or injuries. Then you let a powder and a liquid kick your ass? How can that be?"

Lucas returned from the NBA rehab program and finished a respectable career. As soon as he retired, in 1990 -- ranked 10th at the time on the league's alltime assists list -- he founded a network of drug treatment programs that targeted athletes, working with The Right Step as a consultant and adviser. Troubled Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley, an erstwhile All-Pro, was among his first patients; same for Kevin Mackey, a promising college coach who took little Cleveland State to the Sweet 16 of the 1986 NCAA tournament, then developed a crack addiction. That year Lucas also bought the Miami Tropics of the now-defunct USBL and stocked its roster with "second-chance guys" (his words) who had run afoul of the NBA's drug policy. Whatever Lucas lacks in formal training, he figures it's more than offset by his intense firsthand experience.

"I know me when I see me," he says. "Guys would come in, and I knew what was true, what was an excuse, what was pain talking, because I'd been there!" Even when he coached the Spurs (1992-94), Sixers (1994-96) and Cavaliers (2001-03), he worked closely with the NBA to create treatment programs and counsel players with drug issues. People magazine once claimed that Lucas's program "[has] become for jocks what the Betty Ford center is for show folks."

Counseling athletes who struggled with addiction reinforced what Lucas knew from his own experience: Powerful bodies can have fragile souls. "With athletes it's all about stats and games and practices; it's hardly ever [about] digging past that," says Lucas. "They fear success. They fear failure. They have family issues. You forget these are human beings. And they can forget it too, because everyone is depending on them. First thing I figure out: Where are you in your life? Not your basketball life. Your life life."

He came to realize that a lot of addiction counseling overlapped with coaching. "It's motivating, it's mentoring, it's counseling, it's what I call 'positive confrontation,'" he says. Informally, he started working with athletes suffering not from addictions but from crises of confidence or a lack of motivation or other mysteries of the mind. There wasn't much difference in how he discharged his duties. "The concepts are built on a recovery basis," he says. "How are you going to make you better?"

Lucas customizes his message for each athlete, but it doesn't take long to catch on to his basic M.O. Mostly he fills a void. Players lacking a father? He addresses them as a parent, telling them to speak louder or pull up their pants. Players with wavering energy levels? He addresses them as a motivational speaker ("You have the power, Renardo! Use it!"). Players unhappy with their coaches? He spends extra time teaching them the nuances of basketball.

The skeptics will wonder whether Lucas is simply dispensing Dr. Phil-style bromides masked as wisdom. Lucas is quick to admit that he is not a trained professional. He doesn't do see-the-ball-be-the-ball Zen aphorisms. He doesn't traffic in classic sports psychology or visualization. Nor does he use words like actualize and enable. He traffics instead in good-natured grief. Upset by play he determined to be soft, Lucas bestowed on DeAndre Jordan the nickname Lingerie. For more severe cases Lucas practices what he calls his Eminem Theory: "You know Eminem has that song Cleanin' out My Closet? I can get inside your closet. I'm gonna get past the living room -- the superficial -- and get to the real issues, see what you're really about. Family-related, heredity, financial. You ain't gonna fool me, because I was there."

For all the success, there have been some disappointments. Players whom Lucas counseled through addictions have relapsed. One former NBA point guard visited Houston multiple times to kick an alcohol addiction; he still isn't sober. Lucas briefly made news in the spring when he stopped serving as life coach to chronically troubled quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Lucas shakes his head wistfully as he drives. "JaMarcus had weight issues, sleep apnea, he had to get off that Ambien." Lucas says he pushed Russell. And Russell sometimes pushed back. But Lucas is adamant that he did not fire the player, as was widely reported. "I wish this weren't true, but it is: You're not going to win every time in this business," says Lucas. A moment passes. "I hope he'll be back again," he says of Russell. "I hope he says, 'I want to fix this.'"

Overall, though, the testimonials to Lucas are glowing. Barbara Turner, a former UConn and WNBA star now playing overseas, keeps an offseason base in Houston just to be near Lucas. Why? Lucas helps her "get my drive back," she says. "He literally saved my career. Every day you learn something different from him: about basketball, about yourself, about life."

A few years ago Lucas called Larry Eustachy, the former Iowa State basketball coach, then in the early stages of rehab. Soon Lucas was accompanying Eustachy to 12-step meetings. "Ever since I had my issues, he's been a big factor in my recovery," says Eustachy, now the coach at Southern Miss. "He's brutally honest, but he communicates like no one I've ever been around. He. Does. Not. Miss."

*****

Fulfilling as it may be, this business of saving souls is not easy work. It's already dark when Lucas eases the Kia into the driveway of his home on Houston's east side. He wolfs down a chicken-and-dumplings dinner, jokes and tells his wife about his day. He watches some sports on the couch but closes his eyes and is out for the night.

Saving souls isn't a lucrative business, either. Lucas offers an a la carte menu, and players pay him different fees for different services. He's vague on the details but says he has a sliding scale based on ability to pay; NBA players are charged more than college players (reportedly $8,500 a month), who are charged more than high school kids. That Lucas is tooling around Houston in a Kia says plenty.

Earlier this summer the Rockets were looking for a head coach. Apart from being the local team, this was the franchise that had employed Lucas at the beginning and end of his playing career. With some doubts about coaches' authority in the league, he interviewed for the job. A seven-figure salary would be nice, and he admits that he misses the competition. But when Kevin McHale was hired, Lucas wasn't distraught. "The NBA coach has become an employee," he said. "He doesn't have power. And you need that power to get the players' respect."

The last of 12 Steps to Serenity can be distilled to this: Help others. "That's the drug I can't do without!" Lucas had said earlier, looking over from the driving and, yes, cackling as though he'd stumbled upon this epiphany. "I like people. I like helping people. I like seeing them get better places. People say, 'It's good of you to sacrifice.' That's nice, but truthfully, it doesn't feel like that. Sacrifice hurts. I enjoy what I do."

So it is that Lucas continues working with guys like Sidney, players on the fulcrum of success and failure. When Sidney came to Houston in early May, Lucas was a hard-ass. First he declined to let Sidney stay in an apartment, instead demanding that he lodge at the Drury Inn off the West Loop beltway. Next he told Sidney that he wasn't interested in being his friend. "Half the problem is he's been treated like an NBA player since eighth grade," Lucas explained. "I'm not gonna tell you what you want to hear; I'm gonna tell you what you need to hear. Too many people in your life want something from you. You're not gonna make me rich or famous. I want only one thing from you: hard work."

Lucas recounted this but then, fearful that he sounded too harsh, quickly added that Sidney has done everything that's been asked of him. He's lost weight. He's listened. When not cramping, he's worked hard.

Lucas wakes early the next morning and heads to his daily AA meeting. Then he drives to Houston's Memorial Park to meet Sidney and Mannon for running exercises. It makes for a hell of a scene: a one-armed white kid with a thatch of slacker hair and a burly black kid standing nearly 7 feet tall, both running laps in the heat. They couldn't have looked more different. But Lucas knew better. They were the same age, at similar precarious points in their lives, seeking guidance.

The sun was barely squirting out, but the air was so hot it was as though the atmosphere had a fever. Still Lucas hectored them to go faster, to really push themselves. He whipped out one of his favorite lines ("You're all demands, no supply!"), threw in a few expletives, made references to "lipstick and rouge" and "bogus excuses."

When they finished running three miles, Lucas's smile was broad. "I had my doubts, but you're getting there," he said, cackling as ever. "You guys are gonna get to where you want to be. I know it. Just know it."

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