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THE BEST DEFENSE Once a Maryland hoop star, once a cocaine abuser, John Lucas now gets his high helping others fight drugs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There was a time, perhaps less than a decade ago, when John Lucas did not want to be in Washington. He did not want to be in a city in which he had gained more notice in the early 1980s for his cocaine use than for being a member of the Washington Bullets basketball team.

It was a city that knew him well, from his days as an all-America point guard in basketball and top-notch tennis player at the University of Maryland from 1972 to 1976. He was perhaps the most fabled athlete in the history of the University of Maryland at College Park, but in the NBA years to follow he had become better known for missing practices and games, and running around with a questionable crowd.

But on this day in September 1994, John Lucas was back in Washington in triumph. He was promoting his newly published autobiography, "Winning a Day at a Time," which laid open a remarkable tale: of extraordinary achievement as an athlete, of a harrowing descent into a decade of alcohol and drug abuse, of recovery and redemption.

"I'm a grateful addict/alcoholic," he writes in his book. "My primary purpose in life is to try to help other recovering addicts."

For nearly a decade, John Lucas' primary purpose had been to get high. He started using drugs casually while at Maryland, then the abuse steadily advanced when he played in the National Basketball Association. Houston, Golden State, Washington, San Antonio -- it didn't matter where he played. John Lucas missed practices and games; he became known more for being the most conspicuous drug abuser in the league than one of its top point guards.

But after hitting bottom in Houston in 1986, he cleaned up. The fighter and visionary in him then took over: He began his own rehabilitation clinic in Houston for abusers. He not only came back to play a couple more seasons in the NBA, but he also became a coach, leading the San Antonio Spurs to two successful seasons.

This past summer, he moved on to the Philadelphia 76ers to become coach and general manager. And he moved on in another way: He was becoming known for his work in the recovery movement. The sports world had known for years about his remarkable rebirth; now, with the publication of his autobiography, the rest of America would know his life story as well.

On this September day, Mr. Lucas had started off the first of a dozen media appearances in Washington with a spot on "Good Morning America." Now, for the last interview, he was in a hotel restaurant. It was well into evening, and John Lucas was starting to unwind.

"I used to be very embarrassed about coming back to Washington," he said. "But the last five or six years, it's been with a sense of pride. Everybody in the city knows me. It's like I was back at Maryland."

At one point, talking about how he is perceived now, he said, wryly, "You know, people introduce me at banquets as the first addict/alcoholic to coach a major sports team -- it's not even a black coach anymore." He let out a throaty laugh.

He talked about the unfailing support of his parents, John Sr. and Blondola, about whom he says, "I love them more than I ever did, even though I see them less than I ever have."

He talked about the fierce love his wife, Debbie, showed him during his drug abuse period -- how, when he would be trying to score drugs on the street, she would drive up with the kids in the car, trying to shame him.

"I knew the type of person he really was -- very soft and caring -- and I knew that this wasn't him," Debbie, a homemaker, says in one of several passages she contributed to "Winning a Day at a Time." "He was like a little lost child. I just kept being patient and praying, and got a lot of help from my family to keep me going."

John Lucas also talked at this time about his three children -- Tarvia, 15, John Jr., 11, and Jai, 5. During the bad days, how John Jr., then 3 or 4, would put his arms around his father, who would be deep in a drug stupor, and reassure him. "He'd just get into bed with me and say, 'Don't worry, Dad, I'll take care of you.' " Asked if he would be overcome by guilt by such a touching display, Mr. Lucas shrugged and said, "Two hours later, I would be out trying to score again."

John Lucas is 41, but he has lived enough for a couple of lifetimes. It shows, too, in his face, which has the lines and gaunt look of someone who has known great sorrow.

His eyes show it as well. Even when he is talking in his usual manner, confident and personable, his body language suggesting immense energy, his eyes can say something else. They show glimmers of pain.

"When I tell people how [great] I was treated at the University of Maryland, it's hard for them to perceive," he continued. "When I tell people back in Texas how good I was at sports, they don't understand. I can't go into this area [Washington] without people recognizing me. They're always stopping me or blowing their horns as they drive by."

Did he feel that, with his drug abuse, he had let others down -- was that the reason for feeling so uneasy about being back in the Washington-Baltimore area?

Mr. Lucas pondered the question for a moment, then sighed.

"No," he answered slowly. "I felt like I had let myself down and people were talking about me."

Nobody could understand why I was using drugs so much, why I was addicted to alcohol and cocaine. People would say, "Now, wait a minute, he doesn't have the characteristics of a drug addict." They saw a guy from a loving family, a guy with a good education, a guy who was one of the best in not just one sport but two, a guy who had money, fame, a loving wife and kids.

1% -- From "Winning a Day at a Time." A month after his visit to Washington, John Lucas was on the job again in Philadelphia. The book tour had gone well. More than 55,000 copies of "Winning a Day at a Time" had been sold, and Mr. Lucas said that because of the book, and the attendant publicity, he had been able to help several people find treatment for substance abuse. But the NBA season would be opening in a few weeks, and the 76ers needed him.

"This is my world now," he said shortly after team practice at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "I loved being on tour and talking about the book, but now I have to make this the best basketball team I can."

That would take some doing. The 76ers were one of the worst teams in the league in 1993-1994, winning only 25 games and losing 57. They were looking woeful during the preseason, and their two young big men, Sharone Wright and Shawn Bradley, had missed games with injuries.

At practice, Lucas moved easily among his players, making his points in clear but nonthreatening tones. In NBA parlance, he's known as a "player's coach," which means he relates well to players and doesn't adopt the stern persona of an authority figure.

Lucas' ability to get along with his players is seen both as his greatest strength and his major weakness as a coach. In two years with the San Antonio Spurs, the team won 94 games and lost 49, and Lucas was decidedly unorthodox in his approach: He spoke of "empowering" his players, such as letting them make decisions on such matters as team discipline and how the offense should be run.

These were concepts he had learned through his own recovery, he told reporters. As he writes in his book, "All coaching is, is

working with people, and I try to communicate through laughter and through love. It's like being a father or a mother. Really, I think I'm more of a counselor than a coach."

That approach struck some NBA observers as laissez faire, and some questioned if Mr. Lucas had ceded too much control to his players -- particularly Dennis Rodman, the flamboyant forward who dyed his hair a variety of colors and showed up for practice when he felt like it. When the Spurs lost in the first round of the playoffs, the criticism grew louder.

But most of the league was impressed with John Lucas. Few in the 1980s thought he would play again, let alone coach. But he had, and had helped the league form an after-care program for players who abused drugs.

He even became owner of a minor-league team, the Miami Tropics, which won two championships using mainly players in recovery. One of them, Lloyd Daniels, was a cocaine addict who seemingly had squandered his great talent. But he sobered up, and went on to play for Mr. Lucas in San Antonio and now Philadelphia. He remarks in "Winning a Day at a Time": "John Lucas helped me see that what I needed to do was change those beliefs of mine that were creating emotional and financial and physical problems for me."

"I have a great deal of admiration for John," said Pat Williams, general manager of the Orlando Magic. "He was a great player who had some problems that really marred his career, but through his doggedness, he persevered. I think everybody in the league's rooting for him."

Like nearly everyone who is around John Lucas, Mr. Williams is impressed by his "high energy and enthusiasm." For John Lucas is perpetually in motion.

On the sideline, when he is coaching, he reacts to nearly every play with unrestrained emotion. His joy, frustration and disappointment pour out.

He will be the first to admit he is driven -- and has been, ever since he was small. Mostly that drive has meant success for him, has allowed him to achieve far more than one could expect. John Lucas' workload is incredibly heavy -- coach and general manager of a professional basketball team, head of a drug-treatment facility in Houston, husband and father.

But, he'll also tell you, there is another side -- one that has also brought him many of the problems he has faced.

"I was driven by success as an athlete," he said. "I took the same attitude that I had as an athlete and tried to apply it to living, and I couldn't do it: Get the biggest house, get the nicest car and the biggest contract. I was on a mission to be the best at everything. So when drugs came along, I wasn't going to be just a drug addict, but the best drug addict in the world.

"I was meant to be addictive. It's like I don't have one iced tea -- I have nine iced teas. I don't buy just one suit -- I buy 11. And I don't want to help just one person -- I want everyone to get it together."

At Maryland there had never been a bigger star than me. I don't mean that in a boastful way; that's the way it was. In my senior yearbook, I wrote that my ambition was to be the first black president of the United States. What a goal! I always wanted to be the best -- to go right to the top.

--From "Winning a Day at a Time"

John Lucas might have worried about people talking about him in Washington, but in truth, people have always noticed him, ever since he was growing up in Durham, N.C. His father was principal of a high school; his mother was an assistant principal a junior high school. He grew up in a solid, middle-class family that encouraged and supported him.

He gravitated to sports early. By the time he was 14, John Lucas was already an outstanding tennis and basketball player.

At Maryland, he was the point guard on some of the best Terrapins teams ever. On teams loaded with other future NBA players -- Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Brad Davis -- Mr. Lucas stood out.

He was the point guard, the player who orchestrated the offense. He told the other players where to be on the court, and then he would get them the ball. He was tall for a guard, about 6 feet 4, but wasn't particularly fast and didn't jump especially high. He didn't even have a jump shot, really -- it was a line-drive, one-handed set shot that seemed a throwback to an earlier era.

But John Lucas was smart. To run an offense, a point guard has to be smart, to get his teammates to believe in themselves and the team. By necessity, they have to believe in the point guard as well, and that is where John Lucas excelled as few others have.

Mr. McMillen and Mr. Elmore, the highly regarded big men on Maryland's teams, were two years older. But there was no question who would be running the team when Mr. Lucas started the 1972 season as an 18-year-old freshman.

"What I remember of John stems from the first day," said Len Elmore, the center on those Maryland teams, which ended the 1973 season ranked eighth and the 1974 fourth, nationally. "He was gregarious and a charismatic kind of guy. McMillen and I were pretty well established, but he had extraordinary confidence, one that in almost anyone else would have annoyed other people, but didn't bother you with John."

"Those were some of the greatest years of my life," Mr. Lucas said with evident fondness. "Basketball was so big then -- we were always on television, and we played before big crowds everywhere."

It was a show, and nobody enjoyed it more than John Lucas.

Neil Isaacs, a professor of English at Maryland and the author of several books on athletics, remembers with affection the time Mr. Lucas took a class of his, Jock Culture U.S.A. It was the spring of 1975 and Mr. Lucas, who by then had been named an all-American basketball player and all-Atlantic Coast Conference tennis player, relished his role as a big man on campus.

"Just as class started, John would make this grand entrance in which he would come in through the front and proceed to his seat," Dr. Isaacs said. "It's funny -- I've taught a lot of athletes over the years, and most of them tend to recede from attention in class. But John Lucas was different -- he always seemed to attract attention."

Like all students in the Jock Culture U.S.A. class, John Lucas kept a journal, recording his reactions to the readings in the class, and to the frequent guest speakers from the sports world. Nineteen years later, it's instructive to rediscover the words that Mr. Lucas wrote as a college junior.

On his reactions to John Updike's "Rabbit, Run" and Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which dealt with the concept of the failure of a sports hero, the young Lucas wrote, in an eerily prophetic passage: "I think a hero is a person who has done a superior job in his field, his community life, and as a person. But you must keep this in the proper perspective, in that no one is a hero or a god. Just a person with great talents."

But even though he bathed in the warmth of the spotlight, all the attention in the world couldn't counter an emptiness he felt -- and he didn't know what to do about it.

Now, Mr. Lucas said, he understands what was going wrong in his last years at Maryland and his first years in the NBA. "I grew up as an adult athlete, but I didn't grow up as an adult. So when it became time to make choices, I didn't know how to make them."

He was the first pick in the NBA draft in 1976, as the choice of the Houston Rockets. It was the greatest affirmation of one's achievement as a player that anyone could ask for -- and it wasn't enough.

Mr. Lucas had started using drugs occasionally at Maryland. But in the NBA, he began using them more -- first alcohol and marijuana, then cocaine.

Mr. Lucas writes about those times in his book with almost clinical detachment. By now, as part of his recovery, he's examined himself hundreds of times. Writing his autobiography, with all its graphic descriptions of drug use and brutally honest admissions of betraying his wife and others, was easy: "I have to remember on a daily basis where I've come from in order to keep my recovery."

He recalls in his book a time when he was playing for the Bullets and his parents had come up to see him play.

"When we got to the arena," he writes, "a guy I bought drugs from was waiting for me. He saw that I had my parents with me, but he didn't care at all. He just came up to me and demanded to know about his money. I told him I would get him his money. My father kept asking me who these people were that I was hanging out with. Of course I lied to him. My addiction had me lying and covering it up all the time."

His cocaine use was so bad with the Bullets, the rumors of his drug abuse so prevalent throughout the league, that John Lucas finally acknowledged in a newspaper interview that he had a problem.

Then he went to Bullets coach Gene Shue and his teammates and asked for help. They were sympathetic, but Mr. Lucas acknowledges he didn't really want help. He sought treatment at a Virginia clinic, but would leave sessions and get drunk.

Halfway through his second season with the Bullets, in 1982-1983, he failed a drug test and was cut. It was not until he failed another drug test, three years later, that Mr. Lucas found it within himself to get sober.

"We knew that John had a problem prior to his coming to us," said Mr. Shue, who, as coincidence would have it, now is head of player personnel with Mr. Lucas' current team, the 76ers. "It was common knowledge that he had been struggling with drugs with the Golden State Warriors [from 1979 to 1981], but we were looking for a talented player who could play point guard, and he was definitely that."

John Lucas could play point guard, all right. He could run a basketball offense with the best of them. But he just couldn't run his own life. He could tell and show everyone else what to do -- except himself.

He didn't get sober until the middle of 1986, after he had been dropped from the Houston Rockets for failing a drug test. It was an especially shameful indignity that drove him to seek treatment: After an all-night drug binge, he woke up in downtown Houston. He writes:

"I'm looking for my car, but I can't even remember if I had driven it. I'm trying not to be recognized, but here I am, with shades on, filthy, in my suit, urine all over my pants, no shoes, five pairs of socks on my feet, and I don't remember nothing about the night before."

Mr. Lucas likes to speak of his addictions as a gift, which can give a listener pause. For, if addictions are so bad for a person, how can they be so good?

He has a ready answer. "Drugs and alcohol appear to have made me fall from grace, but they really gave me grace," Mr. Lucas said. "I got a sense of who I am, that there are some things bigger than me -- whatever they may be.

"You know, my mother and father did a great job of raising me, but I learned how to grow through a lot of people whose last names I don't even know. I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting a couple of days ago. A woman was talking about her gay lover. Ten years ago, I would have left that meeting. This time, I stayed and listened."

Every day, John Lucas places a call to Houston. There he speaks with Joyce Bossett, his mentor in his recovery. She was administrator of a Houston hospital when an ex-Rockets basketball player walked in, seeking help. "He wasn't desperate," she recalled, "but he seemed lost -- like a little fawn."

Eight and a half years later, he stays in close contact with her -- of necessity, for John Lucas will need all the support he can get to stay sober.

"He shares how he is and how he feels," said Ms. Bossett. "I have a pulse on him. That's why I don't worry about him."

Ms. Bossett says that after all her years of knowing Mr. Lucas, "I still marvel at his energy and his generosity. He always tells me, 'You've got to give it away to keep it.' I think he truly enjoys being in the recovery movement."

Mr. Elmore said that, to some NBA players with drug problems, Mr. Lucas "could be seen as the redeemer because he took the weight. His problems were so publicized. Through him, a lot of people have gotten help. John, more than anybody else in my mind, recognizes his ability and his resources."

Ms. Bossett says she worries that Mr. Lucas "might burn out. He does not have enough time to rest. No one can continue at that pace."

And clearly John Lucas, for all his energy and drive, looks a tired 41. Perhaps it is more a weariness, but after being around him you cannot help but feel that this is a person with a load at least as great as his considerable gifts.

But when asked if he has taken on too much, he shook his head. "I need it, I don't need to be idle. I like to see things that are seemingly hopeless and see them come back together. I'm willing to jump through hoops, and also find other people who will jump through hoops, so we can create a win-win situation."

Basketball still appeals to him, he said, but he doesn't need it the way he used to. He sees himself becoming more involved in the recovery movement in the coming years.

So do others. There's his son, Jai, for instance.

"When he sees a guy having a drink on a plane, my son tells him, 'You need to see my dad,' " Mr. Lucas said, laughing.

"I feel blessed. I really do."

TIM WARREN is a copy editor for The Sun.

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