The perils of taking NBA cocaine users at their word
January 26, 1987

Burned again. That was my reaction when I learned that Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins of the Houston Rockets had been brought down by the NBA's drug policy. Burned again.

Not them. Me. The day before the NBA banished the Rocket guards for testing positive for cocaine use, a story of mine had gone to press (SI, Jan. 19) concluding that both were back on track after slow starts. In fact, I wrote that Lloyd could be "the resurrection story of the season." Even a good, rich bèarnaise wouldn't help those words go down.

I had made a similarly poor prophecy in a story ("Picking Up The Pieces," SI, June 8, 1981) about John Lucas, who was then going through his first drug episodes with the Golden State Warriors. I suggested that Lucas's problems might be behind him. He was traded to the Washington Bullets on Oct. 19 and less than a month later confessed openly to teammates that he had a cocaine habit. In January of 1982 the story broke in the press. "How's your man Luke?" one writer would ask me with a smirk after that. "Still picking up the pieces?"

"My man Luke" notwithstanding, the larger question is this: How does anyone know if an athlete is on drugs? A Ferris wheel of rumor goes round and round in the NBA, and Lloyd and Wiggins, particularly the former, had been riders. But who belongs on it and who doesn't? I consider myself a good observer, and like many journalists, I'm quite willing to believe the worst about anyone. But I still find it almost impossible to tell if an athlete has drug problems.

Lucas or Micheal Ray Richardson or Quintin Dailey or Lloyd or Wiggins didn't bay at the moon or trip over the foul line. (At least I never saw them.) In most cases it's not performance that betrays the drug-using athlete but a propensity for missing practices and team buses, long a specialty of Lucas. That's when the alarms go off. It's difficult to discern variances in the play of an athlete who uses coke, primarily because a chemically dependent pro still performs at several levels above the mere mortal.

"They say that cocaine brings on lapses and changes, but Mitch and Lew were playing very well at the time," said Rocket forward Jim Petersen. Both seemed in good spirits off the court, too. Following a Houston shootaround on the afternoon of Jan. 8, I kidded Wiggins that the Rockets should arrange a match race between him and his wife, Marita Payne, a world-class 400-meter runner. Wiggins claimed he could beat her. He's a greyhound, a superbly conditioned athlete who never tires of playing his drop-cloth man-to-man defense. And Lloyd's offensive moves in the open court, where he is at his best, were as dazzling as ever.

That's one reason the disease is so insidious. Athletes can deny their drug problem for a long time because their finely tuned bodies keep them humming. Even Rocket coach Bill Fitch, who watched Lloyd and Wiggins day after day, week after week, month after month, didn't know if he should believe the rumors or not.

"This taught me a lot about lying," said Fitch. "They'll look you straight in the eye every time and deny it."

Denial. On the evening before the 1984-85 season opener I had dinner with Lucas, who had played his way back into the league to become Houston's starting point guard. Lucas wasn't going to burn me again. "You seem a little fidgety," I told him, broaching the subject gently. He laughed and joked and talked of writing a book about his victory over drug dependency. "Nah, I'm fine," he insisted. "Just fine." His play was fine, too...right up until Dec. 10 when he was released after testing positive for cocaine.

The Rockets re-signed him on Feb. 19, 1985; against all logic, his superb athletic skills had kept him a viable commodity. We had lunch about a year ago in Sacramento before a game. "Things O.K. off the court?" I asked. He looked more serious this time. "I've learned I can't dip and dab with that stuff," Lucas said. "It's just the hand I've been dealt." On the court, though, he was the same old cocky Cool Hand Luke, the eternal quarterback. Less than two months later, he tested positive again and was dropped.

Incredibly, Lucas is back again; he signed with the Milwaukee Bucks last week and helped them beat the Hawks on Sunday. (Is this guy a point guard or Rasputin the Monk?) Lucas is still eligible because his two failed drug tests since the NBA adopted its current drug program in 1984 were considered voluntary. Under the provisions of that program, one more flunked test and he's gone, this time almost surely for good.

Are his drug problems behind him, as he claims? Or will he crash and burn one more time?

By now you know better than to ask me. But once again, I want to believe him.


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