John Lucas has become sports whisperer for stars, projects alike
Former NBA player, coach John Lucas helps athletes find their way
Lucas works players out in Houston and provides the tough love they need
A former addict, Lucas can spot trouble, helps people overcome substance abuse
It would be a perfect setting for a basketball-based reality show, one that brings together a deliberately diverse assortment of players: different ages, different genders, different levels of talent, different strengths and -- weaknesses -- both physical and psychic. Sharing little besides a passion for basketball, 22 players file onto the court of the Met Athletic Club in downtown Houston at 8:30 on a June morning. The bankers and lawyers pushing around weights barely look over; same for the well-preserved housewives on the treadmill. They're used to it by now.
The group of ballers includes Tristan Thompson, fresh out of the University of Texas, a lithe forward who was the fourth pick in the 2011 NBA draft. It also includes Lulu McKinney, a sophomore point guard on the girls' team at Houston's Bellaire High. And Thaddeus Young, a starting small forward for the 76ers. There was a rumor that Clippers center Blake Griffin was going to show up, as he has in previous years, but he delayed his pilgrimage to Houston until later in the summer.
They're all here for different reasons, but ultimately they're all here for the same reason: to spend some time in the orbit of John Lucas, the Sports Whisperer. For years Lucas was best known to the public for his drug treatment work with athletes, but in the sports underground he's become known for applying defib paddles to moribund careers -- for taking broken athletes and making them whole.
At nine sharp Lucas arrives. He walks in with casual grace, wearing a golf shirt, shorts and a generous smile. "Well," he says with a raspy I-eat-gravel-for-breakfast voice and a high-pitched cackle that innumerable pro athletes can mimic with precision. A pause for effect. "Let's get to work."
If the rest of us wore half as many hats as Lucas wears, milliners might still have a thriving profession. He was a first-team All-America in two sports in college, played 14 seasons in the NBA and coached three NBA teams. He mentored both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James when they were in high school. John and his wife, DeEdgra, have sent their two sons off to careers in professional basketball: John Jr. was a shooting guard on the Bulls' roster last season, and Jai, who just finished playing college ball at Texas, is in China. Lucas is a man who casually mentions that he introduced Michael Jordan to agent David Falk; that he shadowed Bill Parcells for a season when Parcells was coaching the Cowboys; that he once played mixed doubles in World Team Tennis with transsexual Renée Richards; that he now coaches the Nigerian national basketball team.
But Lucas, 58, has also settled into another, less formal role that is the sum of everything he has done in his life. He is part guru, part life coach, part father figure, part amateur shrink and part preacher to as many as 100 professional athletes. By the dozens -- most but not all of them basketball players -- they enlist his services.
It's simple, he says: Athletes may be more wealthy and celebrated than ever, but money and status exact a price. For one, since pro players have become commodified, there is little interest by teams in teaching and development. "So," Lucas says, "I'm teaching skill work, sometimes basic stuff, to guys in the NBA." And the ever-increasing stakes create ever-increasing pressure. Few athletes are comfortable exposing their flaws and fears to their teams. So they flock to Houston, seeking the Tao of Luke.
Athletes struggle to explain what it is Lucas actually says or does that's so restorative. "It's like a health spa," says Cavaliers guard Baron Davis, a Lucas disciple who makes an annual pilgrimage. "You come to him and get better. Your mind. Your body. Your soul. Your game ... It's hard to say what it is specifically." Pressed, Davis comes up with this: "He's a wise man. He understands today's athletes better than they understand themselves."
In keeping with Davis's spa analogy, Lucas's operation (official title: John Lucas Basketball Resources) offers a wide array of restorative services, from full-body cleansing (drug and alcohol counseling through his relationship with The Right Step, a network of rehab clinics throughout Texas) to smaller health and wellness treatments. Lucas is designing a physical rehab program for Jonny Flynn so the point guard, recently traded to the Rockets, can overcome a nagging hip injury. (Lucas has contracted with the rehab division of a Houston hospital, where he will supervise Flynn's therapy.)
Pacers guard T.J. Ford, another apostle, credits Lucas with helping him return to the NBA after a nasty back injury: "He treats you with respect, but he's tough, take-no-prisoners, at the same time. He just has the answers. So you know, you got something wrong, you go to Coach Lucas."
Meanwhile, Lucas is helping Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler develop new post moves. Same for Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. And Lucas is doing what he calls "general mentoring work" for another Nugget, guard J.R. Smith -- that is, when he's not advising Seth Mannon, a former LSU placekicker who was born without a left arm, with his conditioning so he can transfer to another Division I school.
Every athlete is different. Some need to be pushed, others need to be pulled. Some need to be talked down from the ledge -- literally, in the case of a female tennis player who recently reached out to Lucas as she contemplated suicide. Others need to have their shaken confidence built back up. Some need a swift kick in the ass; others need an ego massage. Sometimes the communication between Lucas and his clients is deeply personal. Sometimes he says explicitly, This is my coaching character attacking your basketball character. "Maybe that's my specialty," Lucas says. "I try to say the right thing, but -- this can be just as important -- say it in the right way."
Unlike a spa, though, Lucas has an appointment policy that's informal in the extreme. Walk-ins are welcome; it's never quite clear which clients will show up when. And Lucas's surroundings will never be mistaken for Canyon Ranch. Actually he has no real surroundings. His summer basketball clinics are held at various Houston gyms. Sometimes he leases the courts; sometimes he gets them for free. Some courts, including the Met, are nice; most are shabby.