After a Mighty Fall, A Basketball Player Has Steadily Risen

Once a pariah, John Lucas is now a paragon

JOHN LUCAS, the coach of pro basketball's Philadelphia 76ers, is one of the most fascinating studies on the American sports scene, one not easily encapsulated in some halftime feature. In fact, plans are afoot to turn his story into a movie.

A high school valedictorian and an all-American basketball and tennis player at the University of Maryland, Lucas veered far off course as a pro, only to rebuild his life from the ashes.

In at least one respect, Lucas is the top role model in the National Basketball Association, which took the lead among professional sports leagues in the 1980s to combat drug abuse.

The top draft choice of the Houston Rockets in 1976, Lucas hit the skids midway through a 14-year NBA career, but has made an exemplary comeback. Following drug-related suspensions, he returned to play, then to coach San Antonio and now Philadelphia.

Lucas had experimented with cocaine at the University of Maryland, where his yearbook ambition was to be the first black president of the United States. As a pro, he turned increasingly to drugs and alcohol. He missed practices and showed up late for games. He totaled three cars in one month. ``I ran out of goals and challenges,'' he says today. ``I suddenly realized I didn't have an identity outside of sports.''

In 1986, with a new NBA policy in place, Lucas tested positive for drugs and found himself out of work. While in treatment, he developed a fitness program for recovering addicts. When Len Bias, a fellow University of Maryland basketball star, died of a cocaine overdose, Lucas emerged as a national antidrug spokesman.

A `marathon AA meeting'

Only days before National Basketball Association (NBA) training camps opened this season, Lucas arrived on the Monitor's doorstep nattily attired in a dark suit. His visit was part of a taxing whirlwind cross-country tour to promote his book, ``Winning a Day at a Time'' and a children's version, ``Luke's Way.''

Like many who have broken drug and alcohol habits, Lucas views each day as a new challenge. ``Recovery is my life,'' he says, but indicates the book tour has exceeded his desire to talk about it. ``It's like a marathon AA meeting,'' he says, the trademark Lucas energy surging back once he's engaged in a free-flowing conversation peppered with references to character, love, God, spirituality, and recovery.

Lucas says he doesn't worry about exhausting himself because active public life feeds ``another addiction I have - helping people. That's a healthy addiction for me. I love people, and I like sharing my experience, strength, and hope with them,'' he adds.

But he doesn't just talk the talk. Lucas has developed his own treatment and fitness center in Houston, where he completed his playing career in 1990. He also owns a minor-league basketball team, the Miami Tropics, that acts as a halfway house for recovering players.

Lucas doesn't let his Good Samaritan instincts get in the way of his team-building duties, however: ``If you're about to take a drink or use drugs, I'm available for you,'' he says, ``but I'm not going to play you just because you're in recovery unless you've earned an opportunity to play. It's not fair to do that. It's a form of prejudice.''

One of Lucas's first acts as the Sixers' coach shows his ability to separate heart and head when facing tough personnel decisions. He cut his old friend Moses Malone, a 20-year veteran who led Philadelphia to its last NBA championship in 1983. ``That was hard,'' Lucas says. ``We've been longtime friends.''

Doug Collins, a former NBA player and coach who now works as a TV analyst, has said there's never been a smarter player or better leader than Lucas.

In 1992, Lucas posted a .639 winning percentage with San Antonio after inheriting a team that got off to a disappointing 8-11 start. Last year the percentage rose to .671, but the Spurs lost in the first round of the playoffs.

After the season, the franchise was sold, and before the new owners could offer Lucas a contract, he accepted an offer as coach and general manager of the struggling 76ers. Lucas says he especially wanted the general-manager title. ``I didn't want to get in another situation where I couldn't control my destiny,'' he says. ``I now get to put together the players I want and do the things I want to do.''

Happily, he doesn't negotiate player contracts, leaving them to owner Harold Katz. ``I don't even know what my players make,'' he says, adding that a knowledge of performance bonuses can lead to player resentment over the allocation of playing time.

Brother, father, coach

Lucas can be a tough taskmaster. In Philadelphia, where interest in the 76ers has waned after three straight losing seasons, Lucas insists players be tireless ambassadors for the team and accept all public-appearance requests. ``We haven't given back to the community,'' he says. ``We've lost our fan base.... The players have to invest in this thing and get it turned around.''

Orchestrating an on-court reversal may be Lucas's biggest challenge. From coaching the Spurs, who won 55 games last season with all-star center David Robinson, Lucas now assumes the reins of a 25-game winner with a young center, 7 ft. 6 in. Shawn Bradley, whose potential far exceeds his current ability.

Lucas says he doesn't view his job as narrowly defined by his two-headed title. ``I consider myself a manager of people,'' he says. ``I don't believe the players think of me as their coach. I think they think of me as a big brother at times, a father at times, and then a coach at game time.''

``The hardest thing is to make sure your players know when you're in what particular role,'' he says, ``whether you're one of the fellows, a coach, or a father.''

``I get on all my children,'' he adds. ``On the court, it isn't them I'm attacking, it's their basketball character I'm attacking.... But I always daily challenge their character, because if they have good character, we'll win games.''

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