John Lucas has become sports whisperer for stars, projects alike (cont.)
Players and friends have encouraged Lucas to build his own complex, with basketball courts and rehab facilities to address the physical and with counseling rooms to address the emotional. He won't consider it. He likes being untethered. There's something that appeals to him about his millionaire clients having to sweep aside empty fried-chicken boxes and Gatorade bottles so they can scrimmage.
"I want you to feel like you should be fighting to get out of somewhere," he explains. "And for the guys who made it [to the NBA], it doesn't hurt for them to remember how good they have it."
Where the f--- is Renardo?"
There's no response, so John Lucas asks again, that gravelly voice echoing off the walls in the gym at Lutheran High, on the north side of Houston. This is the afternoon session, and inside this sweatbox the basketball drills stop and the manhunt begins. Lucas unleashes his signature laugh, a smile turning up his caterpillar of a mustache. "Come on out, Renardo!"
It's not easy to lose a 21-year-old who stands 6-foot-11 and weighs 300 pounds. Sure enough, soon there is movement under a folding chair at courtside. First an arm. Then a leg. Finally Renardo rises, his shirt soaked in sweat, a pained look welded to his face, eyes narrowed to slits. He grips his side and mutters a single word: cramps.
Lucas's smile has hardened into a scowl. Scattering six balls around the court, he sets the scoreboard clock to 1:00 and orders Renardo to dunk each ball, taking a maximum of one dribble, before the horn sounds. Otherwise, Lucas warns, there will be real hell to pay.
With a mix of amusement and curiosity, the other players -- college stars, NBA veteran Mike James, 2012 Kansas recruit Zach Peters -- look on. Renardo obliges. He goes through the drill and, thoroughly gassed, barely beats the buzzer. The audience cheers. Lucas pats the kid on the back and then, as always, delivers hard-ass remarks leavened by unmistakable warmth: "You can't let cramps stop you. When your mama asks me how you doing and I say, 'He's working hard until he gets a bellyache,' what she gonna say?"
The Renardo in question is Renardo Sidney, whose name will ring a faint bell with hoops fans. Four years ago Sidney was among the most highly regarded high school players in the country, a big man in the mold of Lamar Odom, blessed with skills to match his physical gifts. Then he took a hard turn. His college recruitment became hugely controversial, a numbingly familiar tale of shady youth coaches, suspicious relocations and improper benefits. Sidney signed with Mississippi State but missed his first year when questions arose over his eligibility. A sophomore last season, he fought with a teammate during a tournament in Hawaii and was suspended for two games. His weight rose, his stock fell and he became that player, the guy whose talent is shrouded in concertina wire. In other words, the ideal reclamation project for Lucas.
Last summer, with his career on the precipice, Sidney did what he calls "the thing that made the most sense." He ventured to Houston to work with Lucas. He spent his days at various gyms and running tracks around Houston, while also taking time to meet regularly with an anger -- management counselor. An insecure novice adult, with a baby face and soft voice at odds with his towering physique, Sidney shrugs when asked why he's working with Lucas: "He makes things right." Later, he explains. "I've never had a coach who gets on me like he does," says Sidney, who was in Houston for three months. "You know what? I think I found my game when I came down here."
With the help of a few assistants, Lucas runs the basketball sessions, stomping around, stopping games to instruct and -- a favorite ploy -- making erroneous calls to test how players respond to being wronged by the officials. But he's also on the clock as he pilots his blue Kia around the sprawling beltways of Houston, stopping at the rehab facility, arranging for a visiting Kansas player to stay at a local motel, swinging by his house to pick up a fresh shirt. Lucas estimates that he racks up 6,000 minutes a month on his iPhone. For much of the late afternoon he demonstrates how this is possible. He is weaving through Houston traffic when Oklahoma big man Kendrick Perkins calls to discuss physical-therapy options for his injured leg. Then comes a call from Gary Johnson, who played with Jai Lucas at Texas and just worked out for the Golden State Warriors.
"How did it go?"
"What does 'all right' mean?"
"Then say it with more enthusiasm."
"Did you feel like you were prepared?"
"If you were making an investment, wouldn't you want as much information?"
"All right, then. Let's get ready for the next one."
Lucas hangs up, and the phone chirps again. He stares at the caller ID. "I think that's Big Baby [Celtics big man Glen Davis]. I'll hit him later. He needs a hug." Next Lucas puts in a call to Johnny Jolly, a Packers lineman who pleaded guilty to a drug charge in April and was recently sentenced to six years in prison. As part of the sentencing, a Houston judge ordered Jolly to undergo inpatient drug treatment for 90 days. Jolly chose the facility operated by Lucas, who was at the sentencing. "Call me back, Jolly," says Lucas, "or I ain't gonna be Jolly."
When Lucas was the valedictorian of his high school in Durham, N.C., in the early '70s, he spoke about the virtues of accumulating different experiences. He had credibility on the topic. The son of two high school administrators, Lucas was almost supernaturally outgoing. He was the star of the basketball team but was maybe even more skilled at tennis. His future was sufficiently promising for Arthur Ashe to become one of his mentors and occasional practice partners. At Maryland, Lucas was an All-America in both sports. After graduation he chose basketball for a career -- "In the NBA, the money's guaranteed; in tennis you gotta earn it!" he says, cackling -- and was the first pick of the 1976 draft.
A deft point guard and born leader, Lucas averaged more than 10 points and seven assists for his career. But Lord knows how good he could have been had he not developed a fondness for cocaine and alcohol. For many years he denied having an addiction. But on a March night in 1986 he woke up in a sketchy Houston neighborhood wearing a urine-soaked suit, sunglasses, five pairs of socks and no shoes. Figuring it was time to get help, he entered the NBA's rehab program.
Lucas says he recently reached the milestone of 25 years of sobriety. But the addiction was a life-altering experience, one that still haunts and defines him, compelling him to start each day with a 6:30 a.m. AA meeting. "That meeting is a gift I give myself," he says. "I was a cucumber who turned into a pickle. And once you're a pickle, you can't go back." He lets the thought hang and then continues, talking mostly to himself. "You're worried all your life about defenses stopping you or injuries. Then you let a powder and a liquid kick your ass? How can that be?"
Lucas returned from the NBA rehab program and finished a respectable career. As soon as he retired, in 1990 -- ranked 10th at the time on the league's alltime assists list -- he founded a network of drug treatment programs that targeted athletes, working with The Right Step as a consultant and adviser. Troubled Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley, an erstwhile All-Pro, was among his first patients; same for Kevin Mackey, a promising college coach who took little Cleveland State to the Sweet 16 of the 1986 NCAA tournament, then developed a crack addiction. That year Lucas also bought the Miami Tropics of the now-defunct USBL and stocked its roster with "second-chance guys" (his words) who had run afoul of the NBA's drug policy. Whatever Lucas lacks in formal training, he figures it's more than offset by his intense firsthand experience.