John Lucas has become sports whisperer for stars, projects alike (cont.)
"I know me when I see me," he says. "Guys would come in, and I knew what was true, what was an excuse, what was pain talking, because I'd been there!" Even when he coached the Spurs (1992-94), Sixers (1994-96) and Cavaliers (2001-03), he worked closely with the NBA to create treatment programs and counsel players with drug issues. People magazine once claimed that Lucas's program "[has] become for jocks what the Betty Ford center is for show folks."
Counseling athletes who struggled with addiction reinforced what Lucas knew from his own experience: Powerful bodies can have fragile souls. "With athletes it's all about stats and games and practices; it's hardly ever [about] digging past that," says Lucas. "They fear success. They fear failure. They have family issues. You forget these are human beings. And they can forget it too, because everyone is depending on them. First thing I figure out: Where are you in your life? Not your basketball life. Your life life."
He came to realize that a lot of addiction counseling overlapped with coaching. "It's motivating, it's mentoring, it's counseling, it's what I call 'positive confrontation,'" he says. Informally, he started working with athletes suffering not from addictions but from crises of confidence or a lack of motivation or other mysteries of the mind. There wasn't much difference in how he discharged his duties. "The concepts are built on a recovery basis," he says. "How are you going to make you better?"
Lucas customizes his message for each athlete, but it doesn't take long to catch on to his basic M.O. Mostly he fills a void. Players lacking a father? He addresses them as a parent, telling them to speak louder or pull up their pants. Players with wavering energy levels? He addresses them as a motivational speaker ("You have the power, Renardo! Use it!"). Players unhappy with their coaches? He spends extra time teaching them the nuances of basketball.
The skeptics will wonder whether Lucas is simply dispensing Dr. Phil-style bromides masked as wisdom. Lucas is quick to admit that he is not a trained professional. He doesn't do see-the-ball-be-the-ball Zen aphorisms. He doesn't traffic in classic sports psychology or visualization. Nor does he use words like actualize and enable. He traffics instead in good-natured grief. Upset by play he determined to be soft, Lucas bestowed on DeAndre Jordan the nickname Lingerie. For more severe cases Lucas practices what he calls his Eminem Theory: "You know Eminem has that song Cleanin' out My Closet? I can get inside your closet. I'm gonna get past the living room -- the superficial -- and get to the real issues, see what you're really about. Family-related, heredity, financial. You ain't gonna fool me, because I was there."
For all the success, there have been some disappointments. Players whom Lucas counseled through addictions have relapsed. One former NBA point guard visited Houston multiple times to kick an alcohol addiction; he still isn't sober. Lucas briefly made news in the spring when he stopped serving as life coach to chronically troubled quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Lucas shakes his head wistfully as he drives. "JaMarcus had weight issues, sleep apnea, he had to get off that Ambien." Lucas says he pushed Russell. And Russell sometimes pushed back. But Lucas is adamant that he did not fire the player, as was widely reported. "I wish this weren't true, but it is: You're not going to win every time in this business," says Lucas. A moment passes. "I hope he'll be back again," he says of Russell. "I hope he says, 'I want to fix this.'"
Overall, though, the testimonials to Lucas are glowing. Barbara Turner, a former UConn and WNBA star now playing overseas, keeps an offseason base in Houston just to be near Lucas. Why? Lucas helps her "get my drive back," she says. "He literally saved my career. Every day you learn something different from him: about basketball, about yourself, about life."
A few years ago Lucas called Larry Eustachy, the former Iowa State basketball coach, then in the early stages of rehab. Soon Lucas was accompanying Eustachy to 12-step meetings. "Ever since I had my issues, he's been a big factor in my recovery," says Eustachy, now the coach at Southern Miss. "He's brutally honest, but he communicates like no one I've ever been around. He. Does. Not. Miss."
Fulfilling as it may be, this business of saving souls is not easy work. It's already dark when Lucas eases the Kia into the driveway of his home on Houston's east side. He wolfs down a chicken-and-dumplings dinner, jokes and tells his wife about his day. He watches some sports on the couch but closes his eyes and is out for the night.
Saving souls isn't a lucrative business, either. Lucas offers an a la carte menu, and players pay him different fees for different services. He's vague on the details but says he has a sliding scale based on ability to pay; NBA players are charged more than college players (reportedly $8,500 a month), who are charged more than high school kids. That Lucas is tooling around Houston in a Kia says plenty.
Earlier this summer the Rockets were looking for a head coach. Apart from being the local team, this was the franchise that had employed Lucas at the beginning and end of his playing career. With some doubts about coaches' authority in the league, he interviewed for the job. A seven-figure salary would be nice, and he admits that he misses the competition. But when Kevin McHale was hired, Lucas wasn't distraught. "The NBA coach has become an employee," he said. "He doesn't have power. And you need that power to get the players' respect."
The last of 12 Steps to Serenity can be distilled to this: Help others. "That's the drug I can't do without!" Lucas had said earlier, looking over from the driving and, yes, cackling as though he'd stumbled upon this epiphany. "I like people. I like helping people. I like seeing them get better places. People say, 'It's good of you to sacrifice.' That's nice, but truthfully, it doesn't feel like that. Sacrifice hurts. I enjoy what I do."
So it is that Lucas continues working with guys like Sidney, players on the fulcrum of success and failure. When Sidney came to Houston in early May, Lucas was a hard-ass. First he declined to let Sidney stay in an apartment, instead demanding that he lodge at the Drury Inn off the West Loop beltway. Next he told Sidney that he wasn't interested in being his friend. "Half the problem is he's been treated like an NBA player since eighth grade," Lucas explained. "I'm not gonna tell you what you want to hear; I'm gonna tell you what you need to hear. Too many people in your life want something from you. You're not gonna make me rich or famous. I want only one thing from you: hard work."
Lucas recounted this but then, fearful that he sounded too harsh, quickly added that Sidney has done everything that's been asked of him. He's lost weight. He's listened. When not cramping, he's worked hard.
Lucas wakes early the next morning and heads to his daily AA meeting. Then he drives to Houston's Memorial Park to meet Sidney and Mannon for running exercises. It makes for a hell of a scene: a one-armed white kid with a thatch of slacker hair and a burly black kid standing nearly 7 feet tall, both running laps in the heat. They couldn't have looked more different. But Lucas knew better. They were the same age, at similar precarious points in their lives, seeking guidance.
The sun was barely squirting out, but the air was so hot it was as though the atmosphere had a fever. Still Lucas hectored them to go faster, to really push themselves. He whipped out one of his favorite lines ("You're all demands, no supply!"), threw in a few expletives, made references to "lipstick and rouge" and "bogus excuses."
When they finished running three miles, Lucas's smile was broad. "I had my doubts, but you're getting there," he said, cackling as ever. "You guys are gonna get to where you want to be. I know it. Just know it."
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