John Lucas: Basketball’s Go-to Guru

 Photograph by Jack Thompson

Five elite athletes are helping themselves to powdered eggs and sausage patties as dawn breaks over Houston’s Drury Inn and Suites. They are dressed and taped for the day’s first workout, wearing the T-shirts or shorts of their Division I college teams, and their perfect postures and single-digit-body-fat physiques are out of place among the pantsuited sales teams and budget tourists filling their plates at the steam table. But it’s not just their NCAA sweats that give them away; it’s a look – half wounded pride, half desperation – that sets them apart.

This is what bottom looks like for many college athletes. If you’re at the Drury Inn – with its 14-hour days of 12-step meetings, detox clinics, therapy, prayer groups, and heavy, twice-a-day workouts – this is probably your last shot at redemption. And John Lucas is your potential savior. The former NBA No. 1 pick turned three-time NBA coach turned recovery guru is the reason why these five are here, and why hundreds of athletes, former athletes, and coaches who’ve explored every other option to get sober come to Houston, often fresh out of a night in jail or a dreaded “final conversation” with the coach. He understands a player’s weaknesses and can penetrate their defenses better than anyone else.

“Athletes are the most insecure people on the planet,” Lucas says. “It amazes me how we can be in front of 20,000, then be terrified to be by ourselves an hour later.”

Lucas knows those insecurities as well as any. Now 28 years sober, with what might have been a Hall of Fame career in his rearview mirror, the 60-year-old Lucas has that same look of pride and desperation. “If you’re here,” he says, “it’s not because you have an addiction, or because you’re in crisis. You’re here because you have a life problem.”

A former two-sport teen phenom, mentored by Arthur Ashe in tennis while breaking Pete Maravich’s high school scoring records in Durham, North Carolina, then back-to-back All-American in both sports at the University of Maryland, Lucas lost the prime of his career to six years of cocaine and alcohol abuse. He discovered his true calling after retiring from the NBA, in 1990: teaching athletes how to live and compete without self-medicating – one day at a time.

His first client seemed a lost cause: New York school yard legend Lloyd “Swee’ Pea” Daniels, whose crack addiction led to his ruination at age 20, in 1987. Daniels spent five years after that bouncing from minor-league teams to Europe, in and out of rehab until he took three bullets to the chest in 1992 during a New York drug buy. A year later, at 25, he “graduated” from Lucas’ program in Houston and went on to enjoy a 14-year pro career.

The program is simple. Athletes surrender keys, cellphone, and cash to Lucas, check in to a local rehab center for a 30-day “intake” (detox), and then go to the Drury Inn for the real work: relentless tête-à-têtes with Lucas and heavy workouts. After his own attempts at traditional rehab faltered, Lucas decided to stress the physical along with the behavioral. “For athletes, it’s about competitiveness,” he explains. “That adrenaline rush kicking in is the ‘drug’ they’ve known their whole lives.”

That accent on conditioning has enabled Lucas to wear many more hats than just recovery guru. Athletes come to Lucas, regardless of their status, gender, or sport. Some are in their prime. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, and Baron Davis have all come, looking to keep that All-Pro edge in the off-season, as have football players and even tennis pros. Some need to shed weight, others to work on skills, recover from injury, or just to prepare themselves to fight for one last season as an aging pro. NBA journeyman point guard Mike James, for example, is here to keep fresh between 10-day contracts, as he has done regularly since hitting his peak 10 years ago.

“You come to him and get better,” as perennial All-Star Baron Davis put it. “Your mind. Your body. Your soul . . . . He understands today’s athletes better than they understand themselves.”

Star point guard Rod Strickland credits Lucas’ communication skills. “Whether it’s him listening and really getting what you’re saying, or him up in your face, there’s no judgment, because wherever you’re at, he’s been there.”

Which may explain Lucas’ second job: teaching kids. After losing his third and final NBA head-coach job at Cleveland in 2003, Lucas began coaching kids, fourth grade and up. “A way of getting my voice into their heads long before problems can arise,” he explains. It’s the part of his 80-hour workweek that Lucas prefers to talk about, if only because his success rate is so extraordinary. At some point, Lucas worked with almost every high school star at the 2013 NBA Top-100 Camp, including Kentucky’s freshmen backcourt, the twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison. “Compare that to me being, what, maybe 50–50 with the guys here in crisis?” he says. “Like all athletes, I’m ridiculously competitive.”

So far, 2014 has been a tough one. The week I arrive in Houston is the second week in a row that’s begun with what he calls an emergency, including a flight out of town to advocate for a recent client and a football player who was running into problems just weeks after graduating from Lucas’ program.

Late that afternoon, I catch a whiff – literally – of why 2014 is proving so hard for Lucas. A cloud of smoke hovers above the Drury Inn’s postage-stamp-size swimming pool, smelling like very bad pot or cheap pipe tobacco. Stevie Clark’s head emerges from behind a retaining wall. An Oklahoma State freshman point guard until a second marijuana arrest, Clark is one of the great new talents: among the best point-guard recruits, his path to the pros seemingly cut in hardwood. The smell is just a Black & Mild cigar, which players are increasingly using to catch a light buzz, or to kill the pot smell. “Coach Luc don’t like it,” Clark says, grinning, “but it takes the edge off.”

Marijuana is the athlete’s current drug of choice – 37 percent estimated usage among male student athletes – prompting the NCAA to spend $5 million this year for 13,500 random tests. Though the NCAA still classifies its use as “an addiction,” marijuana doesn’t carry the stigma of harder drugs, and many consider it recreational. That’s causing an unintended consequence that has Lucas stumped.

“This current crop is the most unmotivated I’ve seen,” he tells me. “I was talking to a 21-year-old kid this morning. ‘Don’t worry about me, Coach. When I’ve made my millions, that’s when I get high.’ What the f – ? In 20-plus years, I’ve never heard that one.”

Lucas is on the 14th hour of his workday, and still our conversation is interrupted every five minutes by a phone call. “I’m on call all the time,” he explains – racking up to 6,000 mobile minutes a month. Most are at the wheel of his “office,” the 2011 Escalade he drives, currently on its third engine. John Lucas Enterprises has a staff of 10, but no dedicated facility, office, schedule, or admission policy. Anyone can walk in off the street – if they can find him.

“I’m actually turning kids away now if it seems to me like it’s other people who are interested in their recovery, and not them. Like all that’s wanted is to burnish up their image.” The problem illustrates itself later when Clark reels off the schools expressing interest in him as a transfer student. Three are Top-25 D-I teams. That represents a sea change that Lucas hasn’t yet figured out: With an athlete’s addiction recognized as a curable disease, a trip to Houston no longer carries the stigma it once did. Rather, it can be a way to “create a whiff of recovery,” as Lucas puts it, rather than true sobriety. After 25 years of being “the last house on the block,” he’s beginning to feel like a pawn in the multibillion-dollar industry of college sports.

“And these kids know all the tricks,” Lucas says, giving Clark a sniff. “Wrapping your hair up. Or changing clothes to get high. It’s like they don’t have it yet.”

“Have what?”

“The gift of desperation,” he says. “That’s what I learned from finally hitting the bottom. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, long after the addiction and recovery. I have four friends who’ve just gone back.” One of them is Lloyd Daniels, the original poster boy for his recovery program.

“You either walk the fear, the anger, and the pride of life sober, or you medicate. These kids aren’t fighting for their lives yet.”“Pro Day!” Lucas screams as he walks on the court for the next day’s “lab,” his word for a workout. The pro is Mike James, who has fully internalized Lucas’ methods over the decade of Lucas-training. “We’re here,” he barks at the kids any time energy sags. “So make it count!”

Lab begins at full intensity – a 90-minute workout with no breaks between sprints and skill drills, followed by one-on-one matchups, on a 10-second clock – and gets personal immediately. Lucas’ weapon of choice is the searing remark, a quick jab that cuts right to the chase. Athletes respond to that immediacy. However deeply Lucas cuts, they know it’s not personal: “This is my coach personality talking to your player personality.” He calls it “positive confrontation.”

And he knows that an athlete is never more vulnerable than in his pride. James, a former 20-point scorer already waived twice this year, is just hoping to find a decent team where he can get some regular minutes off the bench. He makes a stunning move to the basket, then heads up court with swagger. Lucas sees an opening: “Not exactly 18 minutes on a contender, is it now, Mike?” It gets to James, who turns on Clark: “Freshman point at OSU?” the pro hectors Clark. “What’s that? C’mon, man. Next McDonald’s All-American’s already waiting for your spot.”

Clark is unrattled. After all, he has the skills. In high school, he scored 103 points over five consecutive periods, including as many as a dozen three-pointers.

But something happens on the fourth drill, one-on-one, 10 seconds from half-court to the rim. Clark keeps pulling up short for jumpers, eight, nine lazy seconds in. The more adamantly Lucas yells – “This drill’s not about your three-ball; it’s about penetration” – the farther off shots land. Clark airs out two more before collapsing on the bleachers. He checks his phone, throws a towel over his head, then says, “I’m done.”

And he means it, too: He’s only a few days from graduation and a sure ticket back to Division I, but Clark’s done. He’ll be back in Oklahoma City in a week.

Everyone in the gym seems baffled except for Lucas. “His choice,” he shrugs.

After lab is over, we pass Clark in the lobby, all cleaned up, pack on his back, dialing a number repeatedly. Lucas gives me a smile that looks a thousand years old, over-enunciating the word: denial. “They always think there’s someone on the end of the line. This is the last house on the block. They just don’t know what that looks like yet.”