HOUSTON -- It has become a regular game-day routine for Vernon Maxwell. He showers and dresses quickly after a late-morning practice because he has a date to keep. For a change, he has no time for his normal, locker-room high jinks.
Maxwell, a starting guard for the Houston Rockets, has something more important on his mind.
Lunch with John Lucas.
In a roundabout way, lunch with Lucas may be his basketball salvation. It may be the last chance for the most talented but troubled basketball player ever from the University of Florida.
"We just talk about a lot of things over lunch," Maxwell said last week before the Houston Rockets-Orlando Magic game in Houston. "It's not so much basketball as it is about people, about maturing, about concentrating. I know you've heard this before from me, but I think maybe someone has gotten through to me."
Lucas is the former NBA player whose 14-year career was interrupted by substance abuse, yet now he runs various alcohol and drug-treatment recovery programs that are well respected nationally.
He has become an anti-drug symbol around the league, lending a hand to anyone who asks. Living in Houston, he also has become a father figure for Maxwell.
Although Maxwell never has entered Lucas' program, they have discussed informally many of the same topics over lunch that Lucas uses at his clinic.
"I've been down that dark road [addiction] before, and if I can catch someone on the edge before he travels it, then it makes my time worthwhile," Lucas said. "Vernon has a chance to be a great player in this league. I'd just like to make sure he gets there."
Maxwell, in his third NBA season, started his 24th consecutive game for the Rockets on Wednesday night against the Orlando Magic. His eyes were clear and his body strong, and for a change, trouble was not lurking.
He was happy and healthy, averaging 14.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Though Maxwell scored 20 points Wednesday, the best part of his game has been his tenacious defense and his overall aggressiveness. He is averaging 1.9 steals and has provided a contagious enthusiasm.
"He has an on-court presence that you have to love: that all-out hustle and aggressiveness," Houston coach Don Chaney said. "He's found a team that fits his style of play. But like with a lot of guys off the court, you still find yourself holding your breath, waiting to see what might happen."
The Rockets, late last season, obtained Maxwell from the San Antonio Spurs for a meager $50,000. The Spurs were about to release him, even though he had played reasonably well. After his second off-court incident in a year, a disturbance outside a nightclub in San Antonio, Maxwell was no longer welcome with the Spurs.
Yet if he maintains his current state of mind, he might become known as the steal and bargain of the season in the NBA. His base salary, set when he signed his original four-year contract with San Antonio, is only $200,000.
"Sometimes the past will follow you and sometimes not," Chaney said. "We didn't consider it a risk in obtaining him, because for what we gave up [virtually nothing], he was worth the chance. So far, he has been fantastic."
According to Chaney, Maxwell was the late-season catalyst that enabled the Rockets to reach the playoffs last season. They were six games below .500 when Maxwell was obtained. They finished 41-41 and made the playoffs on the season's final day. Maxwell started the final 10 games of the regular season, and the Rockets were 6-4.
He excelled in the first-round playoff loss to the Lakers, averaging 19.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.0 rebounds. It was the highest scoring playoff average for a Houston guard since Calvin Murphy in 1981. Maxwell also guarded Magic Johnson and gave him fits.
"The playoffs really earned me a lot of respect," Maxwell said. "I never doubted my ability, never. But when people saw me do well against a great player like Magic, they knew I could do it against anyone."
Because of the playoffs, Maxwell asked the Rockets to renegotiate the final two years of his contract. When they refused, he held out and missed preseason camp and the season opener, but he returned in good shape. He has been promised a renegotiation late this season.
"Coming to Houston was the best thing that ever happened to me, and not just this team but this city," he said. "It's so big, I can get lost in it. No one knows me, and no one pries into my business. When I lived in Florida, I was like 007. Everyone was spying on me. San Antonio, where there is only one professional team, was the same way."
Maxwell, with his wife and two children, rents a home from Lucas, who not surprisingly plays a big role in his everyday life.
"Believe it or not, I've matured. I used to go to the nightclubs every night, looking for fun and adventure, but I hardly do that anymore. I carry the image for my whole family, and I don't want my son reading in the paper where his father screwed up again," Maxwell said. "I've made so many mistakes you can't count them all. But I've finally come to realize that I can't do the dumb, stupid things I used to do."
Although Maxwell left the University of Florida in 1988 as the all-time-leading scorer (2,450 points), leading the school to its first Southeastern Conference title, he may be remembered more for the mess he left behind.
He admitted that he failed a drug test at the NCAA Tournament in 1988. He admitted accepting money from a sports agent while still in school. He was questioned by the Drug Enforcement Administration during a lengthy probe of drug dealers in Gainesville.
To top it off, athletic director Bill Arnsparger recently invalidated Maxwell's scoring record, saying he was an ineligible player.
"The only thing that bothers me about taking my record away is that if they do that, they should take away all the victories we had, all the victories on Norm Sloan's record, and give back all the money I helped bring in for the school," he said.
"I'm not bitter about it, though, because I've turned things around. Houston is my home now. And it's time for me to go to lunch."