Inside John Lucas’s 45-Year NBA Journey

An elder of the league's family, Lucas has been a constant presence and mentor in the NBA for more than 40 years.

John Lucas’s routine on the floor before each Rockets game is similar to that of any assistant across the league. Houston’s director of player development will warm up with John Wall, Eric Gordon or whomever else is on the floor, dishing passes as tip-off approaches at the Toyota Center. But there is one element of Lucas’s pregame preparation that’s anything but routine. Each night features a flood of greetings and conversations with opposing players and coaches, with a frequency likely unmatched throughout the NBA. If it seems as though nearly every player in the league has at least some relationship with Lucas, well, that’s because it’s the truth.

“I consider myself an elder of the NBA family,” Lucas tells The Crossover. “I like to think I’m one of the gatekeepers of the game.”

It’s no coincidence Lucas is one of the most popular assistants around the league. His life in the NBA began more than 40 years ago, dating back to when the Rockets selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 1976 draft. Lucas played for nine teams across 14 seasons before retiring in 1990. He became San Antonio’s head coach in 1992, and he then logged a two-year stint in Philadelphia from ’94 to ’96. Lucas’s last season as a head coach came with the Cavaliers in 2002–03, yet he remained active in the game, both as an assistant and as a constant presence in youth basketball across the country. Lucas’s relationship with various players often dates back to their high school days, or in some cases, even earlier.

“Because of my ties with basketball from youth development all the way up, I usually know the guys before they come into the league,” Lucas says. “John Wall is from my hometown area. I gave DeMarcus Cousins his first high school award. I gave him an award and cussed him out about 20 minutes apart.”

Lucas compares his playing style to Chris Paul’s, though he admits to a lack of scoring punch compared with the 10-time All-Star. Lucas’s NBA career began with an All-Rookie campaign in 1976–77 as Houston returned to the playoffs. He was dealt to Golden State two seasons later. Lucas returned to Houston in 1984, pairing with high-profile centers Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson to form a sudden contender in the Western Conference. But Lucas wasn’t on the roster as the Rockets reached the Finals one season later.

Lucas notes March 14, 1986, as the defining moment of his career. He failed a drug test and entered a treatment program shortly after missing Houston’s home victory over the Blazers the previous night, and he was released from the Rockets shortly thereafter. Lucas doesn’t cite the day to detail a low point in his life. March 14 served as a push toward sobriety, one that was desperately needed. "It was," as Lucas puts it, “the greatest gift basketball gave me.”

“March 14, 1986, is likely the important day of my life,” Lucas said. “That night I screwed up, and Bill Fitch told me I was done. It made me face my fears of getting sober. . . . It wasn’t the accolades of playing. It was that night in 1986 that changed my life.”

Lucas returned to the floor with Milwaukee in the fall of 1986, logging four more seasons before retirement. The time between exiting Houston and joining Milwaukee set Lucas on a path for a new life in basketball. He effectively created the NBA’s policies regarding drugs, alcohol and mental health issues, using his story to become a trusted ally and advocate for players across the league. Lucas is a skilled tactician for sure. He still sees the game with his “point guard eyes.” But that’s not what draws such appreciation across the NBA. Lucas’s ability to connect and empathize with players is what sparks a deep connection.

“God gave me a real gift when I got sober, and that’s the ability to see me in other people,” Lucas says. “Maybe somebody who is smoking too much, who may be drinking too much. Don’t understand why they aren’t playing as much as they would like. I intuitively learned how to handle situations that used to baffle me, used to frustrate me.”

“I’m so transparent about my own life. I know I can then help others with whatever is plaguing them in their life.”

Lucas was a bit of a traveling band for much of his basketball life. He never played in one city for more than three seasons, and he’s added six stops as a coach. Lucas has now been with the Rockets for five straight years. He interviewed for Houston’s head-coaching vacancy before the 2020–21 season, and other organizations approached Lucas about joining their team as an assistant. Though as Lucas tells it, the decision wasn’t all that difficult in the end. Houston is his home.

“When I was interviewing for the head coach job, one of the things I knew was, it was going to be very hard to leave Houston,” Lucas says. “This city, back in 1986, the year I screwed up, this city loved me back so I could learn to love myself. So I owe this city so much.”

John Lucas holds a basketball

There’s been little stability in Houston aside from Lucas in recent months. Mike D’Antoni left the organization after four seasons in September. Daryl Morey followed suit one month later. Those departures were relative blips compared with what came next. James Harden’s trade request became public in November, and the subsequent weeks were, to put it charitably, awkward. Harden skipped the first days of preseason practice as he flew around the country. He looked disengaged for much of the season's first two weeks, and his frustration came to a head following a blowout loss to the Lakers on Jan. 12. Harden was traded to Brooklyn one day later, ending one of the greatest eras in Rockets history.

The devolution of Harden’s relationship with the Rockets was relatively sudden compared to other recent superstar exits. Yet it’s likely for the best that Houston found a trade partner sooner than later. The Rockets recouped a haul of picks from Brooklyn, and, with Harden out of the building, the franchise has formed a new identity. This is far from the high-octane Rockets teams of recent years. Rather, this Houston squad is built on the foundation of a sturdy defense, armed with players who sport a palpable chip on their shoulders. Wall and Victor Oladipo were viewed as franchise anchors in previous locations. Christian Wood has been cut too many times to count. The current Rockets are an underdog story that’s easy to root for, and in that sense, Lucas fits right in.

“John has been invaluable. His relatability with players, his experience, you can’t replace it,” Rockets head coach Stephen Silas says. “When you see young guys and new guys come on the floor ready to play, that’s John. I’m so thankful and grateful that he’s here. I rely on him immensely as a first-year coach, but even if I were here 10 years I’d need John on my staff. He’s that valuable.”

Lucas was an integral piece in massaging the relationship between Harden and Russell Westbrook last season. He sports instant credibility with the league’s stars as a former top pick, able to understand the burden that comes with being a franchise player. But it’s the less-established players who really lean on Lucas for support. Clint Capela grew from a late first-round pick to a $90 million man after countless hours of work with Lucas. Isaiah Hartenstein, Gary Clark and Danuel House went from unknowns to NBA rotation players in recent years under Lucas’s tutelage. The Rockets rose to prominence over the last decade behind Harden’s brilliance. But their ability to mine diamonds in the rough consistently buttressed D’Antoni’s rotation. Lucas’s ability to mold young talent is one of his lasting legacies in Houston.

There’s a real joy Lucas takes in launching a player’s career. There is, of course, the benefit to the Rockets on the floor; but moreover, Lucas says there’s a general boost to his own psyche and soul. Coaching and teaching are more than a job to Lucas. It’s something of a spiritual pursuit. Helping develop young athletes as both players and as men serves as his life’s calling.

Lucas sports a certain earnestness in conversation. There’s no ulterior agenda, no career ladder in mind. His ribbing comes from a place of love. So does his advice. So when Lucas addressed a crowded room of players in the NBA bubble, he quickly had a captivate audience.

Tensions ran high in the hotel ballroom in Orlando on Wednesday, Aug. 26. A trio of playoff games were postponed hours prior, the result of a players’ strike spearheaded by the Bucks in response to the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wis. Some expressed displeasure with Milwaukee’s decision. Players for the Lakers and Clippers voted to end the season. There was little agreement from the hundreds of players on how to proceed, sending one of the strangest periods in league history into further upheaval. As the night dragged near morning, Lucas stood up. His words refocused the conversation, pushing players to use their platform as an avenue toward social justice. The boycott and subsequent meetings marked a historic moment. Lucas ensured it wouldn’t be forgotten.

“Sometimes we don’t know how to be honest with ourselves. And when we stopped playing, I wanted to ask the guys, ‘Are we not playing because we’re tired of this environment? What’s our real motivation here?’ ” Lucas says. “I could tell guys were tired, they were frustrated, they didn’t know how to handle each and every day. I knew we could make change and raise money and work with lawmakers, but leaving after Adam Silver and a lot of people stuck their necks out for us. That didn’t sit right with me.”

How exactly was Lucas’s speech received by the league’s players? Their reaction was anything but surprising.

“I got a standing ovation,” Lucas says. “Although I’m older I do talk their language. I told them ‘there’s no cap’ and they loved that. . . . The main thing I wanted them to understand is that you can both influence change and keep doing what you do.”

The NBA bubble is now a thing of the past. The pandemic is far from the rearview mirror. The virus and subsequent league protocols have changed life for Lucas to a degree. His interactions with opposing players are often relegated to faraway waves. He’s subject to rigorous COVID-19 testing, and his work with the Rockets is limited to strictly on-court affairs. But the NBA’s new normal hasn’t dampened Lucas’s spirit. He has no plans to retire, and, judging by his relentless energy, it’s a question whether he ever will.

Lucas has too much to teach at age 67. More than four decades of NBA memories to pass down. The questions of life that used to vex Lucas have largely been answered, bringing an inner peace he wishes to share with players across the league. As Lucas’s catalog of pupils grows, one phrase serves as his guiding light.

“This is a simple game for complicated people, not a complicated game for simple people,” Lucas says. “When you learn that, the rest is easy.”