On March 18, just moments before the Golden State Warriors were to play the Houston Rockets at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the Warriors announced over the public address system that they had suspended John Lucas for the remaining eight games of the season. Lucas was the team's only real point guard, and at the time Golden State was still battling for a playoff berth (which eventually eluded them by a single game). But the Houston game was the sixth of the season that Lucas had failed to show up for, and he had also been AWOL from more than a dozen practices and three flights. The Warriors had simply run out of patience and so, quite clearly, had their fans. When the announcement on the P.A. system ended, most of the 13,237 spectators stood and cheered.
Listening to the radio in his condominium in nearby Emeryville, Lucas heard the announcement and he heard the cheers, a demonstration that would have been incomprehensible one year before. In his first four years in the NBA, Lucas had established himself as one of pro basketball's best point guards, a superior athlete—he had played professional tennis during two NBA off-seasons—whose effervescent personality had made him popular with teammates, fans and media. But in this, his fifth season, John Lucas hadn't been himself. As he sat in his condo that evening, he knew that his coach, Al Attles, didn't understand why he wasn't at the Coliseum. He knew that his parents back in Durham, N.C. didn't understand why he wasn't there. Certainly the fans didn't understand, nor did the Bay Area media, which had chronicled what it perceived to be his weak excuses and his high-income arrogance while hinting, as many NBA people were at that time, at a cocaine problem. But the saddest thing was that Lucas didn't really understand why he wasn't there, either.
More than two months have now passed since that bleak night. Last week John Lucas could have been seen briskly entering the 12th-floor offices of his Washington, D.C. lawyers, Dell, Craig-hill, Fentress and Benton. Secretaries abandoned their typewriters to embrace him. Lawyers, clerks and public relations men left their desks to shake his hand. Lucas had a word and a smile for all of them. Within minutes he had invited half a dozen people to lunch, answered several phone calls, pressed a lot of flesh, pilfered a couple of his attorneys' tennis rackets, and thrown around enough jive and good humor to energize the law offices for the rest of the day.
Once out on the street, Lucas walked with a this-is-my-city stride that seemed in part justified by the passersby who recognized him and by the people who shouted "Hey, John!" from cars. It was a beautiful spring day and Lucas, who had spent much of the past year "out of my rhythm," was back in it now. At Mel Krupin's, a sort of D.C. Toots Shor's, Lucas had only to signal and Mel himself scouted out a table. "Mr. Lucas," Mel said with mock formality, "you're back!" "That's right, Mel," Lucas said sincerely, "I'm back."
June 7, 1981
Back from where? Where had John Lucas gone in that lost season and how did he find his way back? Lucas and his attorneys think they have the answers to those questions in a recent report from Dr. Robert Strange, a Falls Church, Va. psychiatrist whom Lucas has been seeing over the last two months. "In my evaluation I found no evidence [that Lucas'] problems were caused by drug abuse," Strange states, "and it is my professional opinion that he does not have any chemical dependency on alcohol, cocaine or other drugs." Instead, Strange saw the root of Lucas' difficulties as a "depressive illness associated with stressful personal, family and career issues."
The Lucas story is about many things and many people. But most of all it speaks to this point: that athletes are less than the superhuman creatures we so often perceive them to be and that they are subject to the same demons of grief, despair and loneliness that ravage us all.
When Lucas started missing games last season, dependence on or overuse of cocaine became the most popular explanation. Almost overnight he was transformed from "solid citizen" (Attles) and "Boy Scout" (Lucas himself) into an unreliable shadow of himself who continually let down his teammates and Attles. Reports of Lucas' erratic behavior and reports that cocaine use in the NBA was as high or higher than 80% caused even Donald Dell, the high-powered former Davis Cup captain and present attorney/ agent for many athletes, who has known Lucas since he was a high school tennis phenom in Durham, N.C., to have doubts about his client. "We heard from many players around the league that John was starting to have drug problems, principally with cocaine," says Dell. "John always said it wasn't true. Finally I said, 'John, whether or not it's true, 99% of the people in basketball believe you're on drugs. That's what I have to deal with. Not whether it's true, but with what they all think."
No one except John Lucas truly knows whether drugs were a factor in his disappearing acts. He denies that he used cocaine last season, indeed, ever.
"Ever since it came out that 80% of the guys in the league are on cocaine and I acted a little out of character, I'm supposed to be going over the deep end on drugs," he says. "As soon as there are problems [with NBA players] that's the first thing people say. I'm not going to let people tear apart a character that has taken me 27 years to build." The point, as far as Lucas is concerned, is that a psychiatrist, Strange, who was chosen by Dell's firm specifically because of his experience as a drug counselor, has said cocaine wasn't the problem.
What was? Actually, Lucas' dilemma stemmed from problems heaped upon one another—a big rotting submarine sandwich of problems. For the first 26 years of his life he had been a child of good fortune and good timing. He entered the University of Maryland the year (1972) when freshman eligibility went into effect and became one of the country's first-year darlings. Coming out of college four years later as the nation's No. 1 pick, Lucas was signed by the Houston Rockets five days before the NBA and the old ABA merged. He took advantage of the leagues' competitive situation to obtain a five-year contract worth about $1.6 million. In 1978 he joined the Warriors as compensation for the Rockets' signing of Rick Barry. This season a sudden confluence of difficulties evidently produced what Strange describes as "uncharacteristic, impulsive behavior and episodes of poor judgment of a potentially self-destructive type."
And in fact, if ever a player self-destructed, Lucas did. He shattered the very foundation upon which his career had been built—reliability. "I never missed a game in my life before this year," says Lucas. "I never missed any practices. I never missed anything! Look at my streak [317 consecutive games from his rookie year to March 9 of the 1979-80 season, when the flu forced him out of a game in San Diego]. That's the kind of player I was." That Lucas would suddenly start missing basketball games without reason is viewed by Strange as a result of a depressive illness. "In psychiatry, we call them 'depressive equivalents,' " he says.
The first of Lucas' setbacks occurred last summer. A paternity suit brought against him in Durham had been dismissed three different times in the past six years. But now those rulings were overturned by the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the case was remanded for trial. The court's action came as a surprise to Lucas and his attorneys. So far there had been no publicity; to contest the charge would have resulted in a public trial in a town in which Lucas' parents are leading citizens. (His father, John Sr., is principal of Hillside High School, from which Lucas graduated in 1972; his mother, Blondola, is assistant principal at Shepard Junior High.) "I wanted my mother and father to be protected at all costs," says Lucas. "I was calling home every five minutes to find out what was going on." When the story finally did make the papers, Lucas decided to settle out of court. It cost him about $120,000.
Then, in August, the Warriors acquired Lloyd (All World) Free from the San Diego Clippers for Phil Smith and future considerations. At first Lucas reacted favorably. To this day he calls Free "the most talented guard I ever played with." But Free needs the ball, and at Golden State the ball had belonged to Lucas, who had averaged 8.4 assists as well as 14.3 points in his first two seasons with the Warriors. "Let's face it, when Lloyd came over and I was asked to make some adjustments, it hurt my game," says Lucas. "It took the ball out of my hands."
Free's arrival also deprived Lucas of a possible team captaincy. Center Clifford Ray was named player assistant coach in the off-season, and Lucas and Free shared Ray's captaincy in the preseason. Then Attles gave the honor to Free alone. To the coach, it was merely a gesture to the Warrior with the most NBA experience. Free had five years in the league, Lucas four.
Lucas admits he never told Attles it bothered him. But it did. "I was looking forward to it," says Lucas. "I have my master's degree in education [from the University of San Francisco]. To a playmaker who doesn't score or shoot that much, that status of captaincy is important." That's particularly true of a person like Lucas, who has always been a leader. Says David Falk, the attorney in Dell's firm who spends the most time with Lucas, "For some of the reasons Lloyd likes to be called World, John likes to be called Captain."
On Nov. 7 Lucas didn't show up for a team trip to Portland, his first unexcused absence. In a prepared statement the Warriors said, "The club and the player have come to a resolution on the matter and there will be no further comment on the subject from either the player or the club." Then, on Dec. 8, Lucas walked into his condo, turned on the answering machine and heard the following message: "John, this is your father. Coach Easterling has passed away. Please call as soon as possible."
Carl Easterling, who was 74 when he died, had been Lucas' second father since he started high school. Easterling taught Lucas his funny one-hand set shot. He introduced Lucas to tennis and coached him as John became one of the top-rated juniors in the world. Easterling took time away from his restaurant business in Durham to drive John to tournaments around the country. Easterling was with John at a tournament in Tennessee during which Lucas, the only black player there, was called continually and mysteriously for foot faults. "I remember Coach Easterling telling me, 'You just got your first taste of what life's all about,' " says Lucas.
Lucas played in the game against Seattle on Dec. 10, then flew to Durham for the Easterling funeral on the 12th, receiving permission to miss practices on the 11th and 12th. But Lucas also failed to appear for games against Houston at home on the 13th and at Los Angeles on the 14th. He said he caught the flu and was "sick as a dog." But the real problem was the death of Easterling, which sent him into the tailspin from which he wouldn't recover until after the season.
"People just couldn't understand that this wasn't a typical coach-athlete relationship," says Lucas' father. "John felt put upon that people wouldn't consider Carl's death important to him. They were saying, 'Are you going to go home for your Sunday school teacher's funeral the next time?' "
At Easterling's funeral, Lucas told his mother, "Mama, I don't know what I'm going to do if Grandma dies." On Jan. 4, Alice Dunn Powell, 96, Lucas' maternal grandmother, died in Charlotte. She had taken care of John and his sister, Cheryl, during summers when their parents were studying at New York University. She was an avid sports fan who followed Lucas' career closely, even at her advanced age. The Warriors were again understanding about Lucas' flying back to attend the funeral and missing a practice. He didn't have to miss a game this time, but he returned from Durham with a few more emotional pieces out of place.
"The problem was that I never had the time to stop and think about the deaths until I was alone and by myself," says Lucas. "Those were the first two people close to me who had ever died. I didn't cope with the deaths as well as somebody else might because I had always had somebody with me since I was 10. My parents. Coach Easterling. But this time I was out in California alone, nobody to check up on me, and it made a big difference. Yes, there was Al [Attles]. I felt I could talk to Al. Al is one of the finest men I've ever worked for. But he was my coach. He really wasn't the man to go to in this instance."
The depth of Lucas' dilemma was perhaps impressed upon Attles for the first time when John missed a home game against the Knicks on Jan. 24, the fourth game from which he had been AWOL. Just the night before Lucas had assured Attles there would be no more trouble. Attles, who had been taking heat in the press for being overly patient with Lucas, agreed with the subsequent decision to punish Lucas by leaving him behind when the team made a three-game trip to Chicago, Indiana and Detroit. That was the first official action the Warriors had taken.
Lucas' contract was another problem. The Warriors had the right to pick up the option on his contract by Jan. 15. By that date Lucas had missed three games and several practices and hadn't shown himself to be a good risk, so they didn't exercise the option—and at present Lucas is a free agent.
Woven into the fabric of Lucas' woes was what Dell calls the "bad crowd" theory. "The biggest problem in pro basketball today in my opinion-and Fm not an expert on drugs so I wouldn't know about that-is what I would call the 'hanger-on' environment in every NBA city," he says. "Not just the drug situation that can result but also the bad advice. People saying, 'John, look. Golden State doesn't appreciate you but somebody else will. You don't need them.' "
Falk agrees. "I think some of the people around John, the floaters, told him, 'Don't worry about what you do. No matter what, they're going to pick up the option,' " he says. "We kept telling him, 'John, it's not going to happen. They're not going to pick it up.' But the floaters were saying, 'Yes they are, John, yes they are.' "
Tom Nissalke, who was Lucas' first pro coach, at Houston, agrees that Lucas' main weakness is playing follow the leader off the court. "On the court he's got charisma, leadership, whatever you want to call it," says Nissalke, now the head coach of the Utah Jazz. "But off the court he will let himself be led." Nissalke agrees with Dell about the hangers-on; he calls them the "nitwit element."
And Lucas now admits that he got some bad advice. "I guess I was getting in with some wrong people," he says. "Really, I don't know what the wrong crowd is. I like everybody. But it's a big problem. I've lent more money out than I should have ever lent out. [Dell estimates Lucas has made a dozen loans of between $500 and $800.] I'll never get it back. Yes, I have to admit I do have people who were my friends six months ago who aren't now."
And so, for all these reasons, and maybe others that only he knows about, John Lucas stopped behaving like a professional. "It just got so that nothing mattered," he says. "I'd go in to Al and say, 'Al, it's as if I lost my desire.' But I knew that wasn't it, either. Maybe at 3 o'clock I'd feel like going to the game. At 4 o'clock, no. At 5 o'clock, yes. At 6 o'clock, no. I tell you, I wish I had a recording going on in my mind because I couldn't explain it myself." And Lucas was constantly called on to do exactly that-to explain, to his parents, his attorneys, to old friends like Renee Richards (his former mixed doubles partner in World Team Tennis).
Lucas, however, didn't do much explaining to the Bay Area media, and the inevitable bad press exacerbated his situation. All the factors leading up to his depression were probably mentioned at one time or another in the newspapers, but the whole package just didn't add up. The drug theory seemed to be the most plausible, so drug innuendos began to creep into stories about Lucas; gradually, it became widely accepted that cocaine was bringing him down.
Except for one radio call-in show in late February, Lucas stopped doing interviews. "The thing was, what could I say if I did try to answer the questions?" says Lucas. "I didn't know why I was acting like I was."
Ultimately, Lucas came to realize that he needed some answers. "I felt like everything around me was dying, everything was falling down," he says. A week after his suspension, he married his longtime sweetheart, Debbie Fozard, with whom he had a 2-year-old daughter, Tarvia. He then decided to spend the off-season in Durham with his parents, wife and daughter, away from the Bay Area (which he nevertheless still refers to as "heaven"). He went to his lawyers and said, "Anything, I'll do anything you want me to do to clear this thing up." Dell and Falk spoke to Dr. Stanford La-vine, the Washington Bullets' team physician, and he recommended Strange, who, in addition to practicing psychiatry, is a consultant to the Commonwealth Counseling Corporation a drug and alcohol rehabilitation service in Alexandria. Lucas entered a hospital in Fairfax, Va. under an assumed name and went through a battery of physical tests. Then he began once-a-week sessions with Strange.
As to Lucas' present condition, Strange has concluded, "[He] no longer manifests symptoms of depression. He has no psychiatric impairment. He is emotionally and physiologically fit to continue his profession."
Whether Lucas will be back in a professional basketball uniform next season is still uncertain. But he is back to being himself. "I look at it like this," Lucas says. "It's just an unfortunate accident that happened to a good guy. I'm not a bad guy. I'm nobody's problem child. Never have been, never will be."
Says Falk, "To negotiate with a team owner and convince him the John Lucas we're talking about is the Lucas of the first four years and not the fifth year, we've got to really substantiate what the problems were and why he no longer suffers from them."
Lucas and his attorneys believe they have that substantiation, and their Exhibit No. 1 is Strange's report. Lucas is willing that it be shown around, although, like many people, he's sensitive about public reaction to his visits to the psychiatrist.
After all, an athlete's world is supposed to revolve around broken bones, not broken psyches. "You have to realize how hard it was for me, how hard it still is, to open up my life to people," he says. "But I'm willing to do it. I've got to do it to show people what was wrong with me. I'll pay that price."
A good possibility is that Lucas will end up with Utah, where Nissalke has a hand in personnel decisions. "I'm a John Lucas fan," says Nissalke. "I wouldn't go so far as to say I'd bet my life on John Lucas. But I would say that I'd stake as much of my basketball career on him now as I did when I was back at Houston and picked him No. 1."
"You know," says Lucas, "I always said I'd like to do anything once in life just to try it. I wanted to be a pimp or a basketball player or a woman or whatever. Just to see what it felt like. But what I went through this year-that kind of person? No, thank you. Once was too much for that."