Image Of Hope

John Lucas, the new coach of the San Antonio Spurs, sees himself as an example for recovering addicts
January 11, 1993

John Lucas is not about to let people forget that he was one of the best point guards ever. As the new coach of the San Antonio Spurs, he's playing without the ball these days, but he's just as animated and intense as he ever was during his 14 seasons in the NBA. Inside the redbrick gym at San Antonio's Incarnate Word College, the Spurs' practice site, Lucas traipses up and down the floor, barking out instructions in a raspy, high-pitched North Carolina accent and waving his arms like a traffic cop. "Push the ball up the court!" he hollers. "Take a picture of the floor! Know what everybody does! You've got to start thinking!"

Fueled by raw energy and an endless stream of Diet Coke, Lucas is in constant overdrive. Because his hiring on Dec. 18 came with hardly any warning, Lucas was forced to dash to the Houston airport from the offices of his company, John H. Lucas Enterprises, without packing any clothes. The next morning, as he led his new troops, he wore multicolored boxers under his Spur sweatpants. Right now, he's wearing The Look, a scowl that forecasts trouble. "Offense!" Lucas bellows. "Somebody's got to know the shot clock!"

And if Lucas doesn't think the San Antonio players are catching his drift, he'll grab a basketball and take himself out of retirement, exploding into a game of five-on-five. At 39 he's still able to throw the best alley-oop pass in the business. "I'm not afraid to be down 12-4," Lucas chirps, as he launches the ball toward the rim. "I've come back from the dead."

There is an eerie truth to those words. Seven years ago, Lucas was his own worst nightmare—trapped in the powerful stranglehold of alcohol and cocaine addiction. He had bounced between five pro teams in 10 years, had been waived twice for drug use and had drifted in and out of drug treatment centers four times. Away from the court he lived in varying states of paranoia, desperation and shame. He would tiptoe around his Houston home and peek out the windows from behind drawn curtains. Scared to take a shower because someone might walk in on him, he gave up bathing and instead doused himself in cologne. On nights when he sweated profusely from doing cocaine, Lucas slept on the cool tile floor in his bathroom. One morning in 1984 when he was playing for the Houston Rockets, he awoke to discover his son, John, then two, standing on his shoulders, trying to use the toilet. A year later, his daughter, Tarvia, then a mature six-year-old, caught him using cocaine and scolded him, saying, "Daddy, I am a gift from God, and you should be held accountable."

On March 11, 1986, Lucas, then averaging 15.5 points and 8.8 assists per game for the Rockets, bottomed out following a game against the Boston Celtics. At home he noticed that his wife, Debbie, who locked him inside the house each night to keep him off the streets, had inadvertently left the key in the front door. Without even putting on his shoes Lucas dashed out of the house and sped away in his car, with his wife and two children chasing him. At seven the next morning in downtown Houston, Lucas emerged from a cocaine blackout. He was wearing a designer suit, sunglasses and five pairs of sweat socks, and hoping not to be recognized. His clothes were soaked with his own urine. Rather than try to make it to practice, Lucas took more cocaine. Twelve hours later he stumbled back to his family; he was gaunt, with grayish skin and dull eyes, and hunched over in a disheveled heap.

On March 13 the Rockets ordered Lucas to take a drug test. When the result came back positive, they released him. Within days Lucas checked into the Van Nuys (Calif.) Community Hospital for rehabilitation. Upon his arrival, his counselor asked him to look into a mirror and describe what he saw. "I see a good-looking black man, the Number One pick in the NBA draft and one of the best point guards ever," Lucas said.

The counselor, shaking his head in disbelief, replied sternly, "I see a man who has lost his job for the third time and can't stay sober."

Lucas's hiring by the Spurs represents the latest stop on his long journey of self-discovery. Sober since March 14, 1986, Lucas is the most prominent figure to coach a major pro sport while in recovery. The opportunity to be a symbol of sobriety is one of the reasons Lucas accepted the San Antonio job, and he has already connected with others in recovery. During his first three weeks with the Spurs, dozens of NBA fans who are recovering addicts approached him on the bench before games to shake hands or to simply pat him on the back, and during the playing of the national anthem he has seen nods, winks and waves from anonymous faces in the crowd. Those gestures give him hope. "Whether I fail or make it as a coach." he says, "I will let other people like me know that I believe in miracles, because I am one."

By hiring Lucas, Spur owner Red McCombs realized he would be opening himself to criticism. First of all, Lucas, who retired as a player just before the 1990-91 season, had no NBA coaching experience. Beyond that, he had been one of the NBA's most notorious alcohol and cocaine abusers. Lucas had since become an acclaimed evangelist in the recovery field, with a reputation for holding the perhaps misguided belief that he never met an addict he couldn't save. His still-growing company, which employs 19 people, specializes in drug and alcohol education, treatment and rehabilitation.

But none of the negatives mattered to McCombs, who himself has been a recovering alcoholic since Nov. 12, 1977. Moreover, McCombs knew firsthand that Lucas had a special way with people and an uncanny ability to cut straight to the heart of an athlete, because he had witnessed the rehabilitation magic Lucas worked with former NBA All-Star George (the Iceman) Gervin, the most celebrated player in Spur history.

Lucas wasn't sure he wanted to become an NBA coach until last summer when he coached the Miami Tropics to the United States Basketball League Championship. Lucas had purchased the Tropics as a unique addition to his athletes' aftercare program and then appointed himself to run the club. Six of the 10 men on the roster were in recovery, including former NBA players Ken Bannister, Grant Gondrezick, Roy Tarpley and Duane Washington. The Tropics presented the players with a small-scale version of the day-today temptations that face big league athletes. For eight weeks, Lucas led daily therapy sessions, administered drug tests and chauffeured the guys on road trips, driving a van as many as 750 miles at a clip, "it was the closest team I've ever been on," Lucas says.

Coaching the Tropics broadened Lucas's perspective on the ways he could inspire others in recovery. "It taught me that basketball is an extension of what I do," he says.

Some of his former NBA coaches believe Lucas may be a natural in his latest job. At week's end, the Spurs, who were 9-11 under Lucas's predecessor, Jerry Tarkanian, had stormed to an impressive 5-1 record under his leadership, including a thrilling 114-113 overtime triumph over red-hot Phoenix on Sunday night that ended the Suns' 14-game winning streak. "John won't just be a good coach, he'll be a great one," says the Golden State Warriors' Don Nelson, who coached Lucas on the Milwaukee Bucks in 1987. "He relates to players as well or better than anybody I've been around. He coaches like a point guard. He knows exactly what should and shouldn't be asked of players."

With all the new responsibilities now on his shoulders, Lucas maintains his balance by relying on the Alcoholics Anonymous principles. He carries three silver desire chips, given to him at AA meetings long ago as "an outward sign of an inward commitment to stop drinking," and three brass sobriety chips, marking his third, fourth and sixth years of sobriety. (He has given the chips representing his first, second and fifth years to others in recovery.) To calm his nerves on game days Lucas reads the AA bible—recovering addicts call it the Big Book—before going to the arena. Before the team leaves the locker room, he instructs one of the Spurs to lead the team in prayer; after that, he goes alone to a quiet corner, closes his eyes and recites the Serenity Prayer. He whispers. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

After hitting rockbottom in March 1986, Lucas couldn't find the strength or courage to change his life until he was able to be brutally honest with himself. A driven overachiever who was a tennis prodigy and a high school basketball sensation, Lucas had always defined himself through sports, and his self-esteem depended solely on his athletic feats. At 17, he made the Junior Davis Cup team. In basketball, he broke the North Carolina high school career scoring record held by the late Pete Maravich. In '76 he was an All-America at Maryland in basketball and tennis. That June he was chosen by the Rockets as the first pick overall in the NBA draft—an unlikely feat for a small (6'3") guard—and for six years Lucas played both professional basketball and tennis. In his spare time he earned a master's degree in secondary education. "Everything in my life was 'winner,' 'runner-up' and 'consolation,' " Lucas says. "I didn't know how to have fun. I never had a childhood. I still can't swim, and I didn't ride a bike. The skills I was sharpest on were competition, drive and sportsmanship."

Pleasing his parents was Lucas's primary motivation. As the younger of Blondola and John Lucas Sr.'s two children, he grew up idolizing his father, who was the principal of Hillside High in Durham, N.C., and a leader in the desegregation of schools in the South. Blondola was the assistant principal at Durham's Shepard Junior High.

It was during a therapy session at the Van Nuys treatment center that Lucas made his most important breakthrough. Sitting in a circle with his parents and wife, he blurted out through tears, "Daddy, I have looked upon you as God, and you can't be that anymore."

John Sr. started to cry. He threw his arms around his son and hugged him tightly. "I too have looked up to you as a god," John Sr. said. "And I can no longer do that."

Explains John Jr.: "I couldn't be in competition with him anymore. I had to stop trying to make him proud of me. I had to stop trying to live my life for others and just live for me."

With that revelation Lucas set off to find out who he really was. In July 1986, two months after finishing inpatient therapy, he launched the first phase of his company, a hospital fitness program for drug patients. He rejoined the NBA in January of the next year, playing for the Bucks, and hopscotched around the league until his retirement in 1990. With the help of Joyce Bossett, an administrator at Houston International Hospital and his mentor in his fledgling drug rehabilitation business, Lucas mapped out a network of counselors connected to the Hospital Corporation of America chain, so he could continue his aftercare as he traveled to each NBA city. No matter where he was, Lucas always attended an AA meeting at 6:30 a.m.

Lucas's regimen became the model for the NBA's current aftercare program and helped propel him toward his true calling—helping people in recovery. That mission consumed him from the moment he stopped playing basketball. He began fielding phone calls around the clock from athletes and their families, as well as from ordinary folks who were in crisis. He ran from schools to churches to hospitals to treatment centers, spreading the good word about recovery.

Here's a turn on the merry-go-round that was Lucas's life before he joined the Spurs: It's a Friday morning in early December and Lucas is in an older section of Houston, leading a therapy session in the living room of the three-story house that he has transformed into a residential treatment home. With 10 men he has nurtured through rehabilitation, he's sharing his frustrations about being an aging ex-jock—what hair Lucas still has is graying, much to his dismay, and he has taken to dying it—and laughing out loud at himself. "I've had this divine intervention about getting a hair weave," Lucas says. "I drove around town for a week listening to hair-replacement tapes. I sit in the back room of a beauty parlor with a Glad bag on my head, reading Cosmopolitan with old ladies. You know, it's always been difficult for me to accept life on life's terms."

Later that afternoon Lucas is trying to help the adolescents at the Houston Recovery Center find light at the end of their tunnel. "I see hope in your eyes," he says, sincerely.

To emphasize the importance of awareness, Lucas introduces the youngsters to a tricky word game called Going to Hawaii. Each person has to state his full name and then tell Lucas two things he would take on a trip to Hawaii. The catch? The items must begin with the first letters of the kid's first and last names. "I'm John Lucas, and I'm going to Hawaii," he begins. "I'm taking jelly beans and love." It's 15 wild and crazy minutes before anyone catches on. Amid all the laughter, Lucas surprises the kids by announcing he's going to treat everyone to pizza.

On Sunday night at an open AA meeting in Houston, Lucas is talking about the years he spent in cocaine hell. "You're only as sick as your secrets," he says. "A man called Sobriety Jack once asked me for the one secret I'd carried all my life. I told him I didn't have any. Then he said, 'I had sex with a chicken.' So I asked him, 'Did your chicken die, too?' Remember: The only person you really have to be honest with is yourself."

So, how could Lucas take the job with the Spurs and walk away from all those people? Well, he decided it was finally time to give himself a gift. You see, whenever Lucas looks into a mirror, he's reminded of his drug abuse. He agonizes that he looks so much older than his years, and he believes cocaine is the culprit. In the past, when his children—Tarvia, 13, John, 10, and four-year-old Jai—were teased about their father's being a druggie, he felt their pain. And when he watched an NBA game, he'd think about how he had betrayed his athletic talent. Coaching the Spurs is Lucas's chance to right the old wrongs and to move into the next phase of his life. "This is something I did for me," he says.

Ask Lucas to look into the mirror these days and once he finishes complaining about finding still more gray hair, he'll say, "I like me today. I am by no means perfect, but I'm making progress."

Being a man in recovery could turn out to be his greatest asset as an NBA coach.

"Basketball and tennis are what I did; this is who I am," Lucas says. "My name is John, and I'm a grateful addict-alcoholic. Coach is just a title. I have more today than I ever had. I have unconditional love from my family, and I have learned to love myself, shortcomings and all.

"What I thought was the worst possible deal in life has turned out to be the best gift I've been given. My addiction carried me past my sports life. It gave me my best trophy. It gave me John Lucas. It gave me life."

PHOTOJOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA-LIAISONLucas believes he looks much older than his 39 years because of prolonged drug abuse. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTA two-sport star at Maryland, Lucas measured self-esteem solely by athletic feats. PHOTOJOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA-LIAISONAt his Houston treatment home, Lucas prays with a group that includes Bannister (right). PHOTOJOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA-LIAISONJust before his dad's NBA coaching debut, young John introduced himself to the Spurs.

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Eagle (-2)
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